Event Overview by Alexandra Zaremba
On November 10th, 2018, American University’s Center for Israel Studies in conjunction with the Humanities Lab, hosted a talk with Dr. Avinoam Shalem. During his talk, which attracted a group of roughly forty AU undergraduates, graduates, faculty, and staff, Dr. Shalem shared his most recent work on the deserted village of Lifta outside of Jerusalem. His paper demonstrated how the deserted village has become a container of memory for Palestinian suffering and trauma. Examining the many silences of Lift, and its ghost like, eerie atmosphere, Dr. Shalem also showed how this space (and others like it) has become a contested spaces of competing memories subjected to contemporary Israeli and Palestinian memory politics.
Dr. Shalem is the Riggio Professor of the History of the Arts of Islam for Columbia University’s Department of Art History and Archaeology. He has a Ph.D from Edinburgh University and has held several other professorships and fellowships around the world. His scholarship typically focuses on medieval Islamic Art and he is the author of Facing the Wall: The Palestinian-Israeli Barriers and Constructing the Image of Muhammad in Europe. Dr. Shalem’s project on the village of Lifta is a small departure from the work he has traditionally engaged in. He came to this study in 1995 through a personal experience when traveling in Israel for a family affair. After experiencing the ghostly feelings of Lifta he became interested in understanding how the landscape of Palestine brings difficult memory to the surface. Dr. Shalem examines how to identify, articulate, and contextualize Palestinian memory within the state of Israel.
As Dr. Shalem described, Lifta was a Palestinian village located outside of the Old City of Jerusalem. Described as a “ghostly city,” it is comprised of stone homes and paths that lead to a large pool of water. Because it has been abandoned, we see nature struggle against the structures that remain in the village today. Overtaken by flora and fauna, Dr. Shalem described Lifta as space where time has stopped and human life has frozen. Silence hovers over deserted homes and the “smell of death” recalls the aura of Pompeii to this space.
Providing some historical context, Dr. Shalem also shared Lifta’s long history and biblical roots. The Palestinian village underwent rapid industrialization during the 18th and 19th centuries. It had a population of roughly three thousand before it was evacuated after the 1948 war. After the creation of the state of Israel, Palestinians were not allowed to return to their villages, and Lifta like many others, was left damaged and deserted. Between 1948 and 1953 the Israeli government attempted to move Mizrahi Jews into Lifta, but due to the building boom and urbanization of Jerusalem, this was unsuccessful. From the 1960s onward, the space was again “empty,” but was increasingly reframed by the urban development of Jerusalem and the needs of the new state of Israel.
Dr. Shalem’s discussion of old versus new and the image of Jerusalem’s modernity was a particularly interesting aspect of his talk. While he acknowledged that the 1960s were not the only moment that constituted a rupture between Lifta and Jerusalem, he does argue that this era represents a rupture between past and present. In the post 1960s era, the Israeli government, in an effort to embody the ideals of the West and a new future for the Jewish people, embraced urban architecture that departs from emotional whims. These new spaces were intended to “flow with reason” and secularize Jerusalem.
Reading the relationship between an urbanizing Jerusalem and a Lifta that is quite literally stuck in the past, we see how the image of Lifta (“the old”) infringes on the making of modernity in Jerusalem (“the new”). In this manner, Lifta is at odds with Jerusalem and represents its antithesis. Shalem too suggested that as Jerusalem was transformed by modernity it lost its sacredness. The spirit of Jerusalem was then transferred to Lifta where it arguably remains to this day.
From the 1970s onward, government and grassroots discussions of what to do and how to treat Lifta have been proposed, but no work or official plan has been adopted. During this period, Lifta became a space of crime and squatting which the state attempted to diminish with regulatory measures. Within the last 15 years, public engagement with Lifta has shifted and questions of what to do with the space and who can claim ownership to it remain. In 2008 the government proposed preserving the village as a pseudo museum that shares with visitors the experience of Palestinian rural life. Dr. Shalem aptly noted how removing Lifta from its immediate historical context would not only make it a monument of universal cultural heritage, but strip the space of its traumatic circumstance, directly influencing conversations regarding the Palestinian right of return.
This aspect of Dr. Shalem’s lecture was perhaps the most intriguing. As we consider contemporary relations between Israelis and Palestinians, villages like Lifta, that were once Arab homes and now remain in Israel are physical reminders of conflict and the state’s difficult and contentious past. Lifta is representative of many Palestinian villages that have been evacuated, destroyed, or literally paved over in Israel today. While questions of what to do with former Palestinian villages appear to be of practical necessity for the Israeli government, Dr. Shalem’s lecture suggests that repurposing, modifying, or literally removing these villages from the landscape of Israel is an attempt to shape the contemporary narrative of Israel and its relations to the Palestinian people who once lived and continue to exist within the state.
This becomes particularly evident as Dr. Shalem shows how the push and pull between past and present takes place in Lifta today. There is an Israeli attempt to push Lifta into the distant past by using it as a space to host a medieval village and celebrate the Crusades. At the same time, Palestinian communities continue to go to Lifta to try and return life to the space by holding public prayers where the old mosque in the village once stood. Simultaneously, Orthodox Jews attempt to reclaim the space biblically by holding mikveh every Friday. The many interactions between various Jewish and Palestinians groups at Lifta demonstrate how the space might exist in a third space where it simultaneously inflicted by past and present. Only through a concrete plan that decides what to do with Lifta will this space be contextualized within the greater narrative of Israeli and the historic consciousness of its people.
Dr. Shalem closed his interesting talk by returning to the idea of Lifta as a container of ideologies. The space contains contentious ideas that are activated when acted upon by the public. Many members of the audience had questions for Dr. Shalem and were particularly interested in the status of other Palestinian villages and their treatment as historic or natural spaces within Israel. A documentary video and several images aided Dr. Shalem in his talk and allowed the audience to understand the spatial relationship between Lifta and Jerusalem.
This lecture was a particularly productive conversation that touched on critical ideas related to place, space, memory, history, and trauma. Studying these ideas in relation to societies that have sustained trauma and continue to be engulfed in conflict like Israel and Palestine produce useful insights necessary to understanding these regions as they progress.
Alexandra is a first year doctoral student in AU’s History Department. She has a BA in History from the University of South Florida and a MA in Public History from Duquesne University. Her research interests center on contemporary memory politics in the former Yugoslavia. She is particularly interested in questions of commemoration, memorialization, public memory, oral history, mass violence, and displacement.