Rona Sela on exposing hidden Palestinian history

Rona Sela on exposing hidden Palestinian history
From Al Jazeera - August 11, 2017

Rona Sela, a researcher of visual history and a lecturer at Tel Aviv University, first began studying the history and culture of Zionist and Israeli photography more than 20 years ago.

Her goal was to uncover photographs that preceded the establishment of the state of Israel. In her research, she found visual archives of propagandist Zionist photography that shaped a specific and deliberate history of Israel.

Through her work, she realised that Palestinian history was intentionally missing from the formal narrative of Israel. She began researching and collecting Palestinian imagery to outline Palestine's history and culture.

Sela discovered that many records were looted by the Israeli army and hidden in Israeli archives. She published multiple books of Palestinian photographs in an effort to make all of her findings public.

In the past, activists and researchers have assertedthat Israel purposely hides vital records in order to avoid exposing Israeli war crimes, including wide-scale massacres of Palestinians, forced expulsions and home demolitions.

Sela's research uncovered a different kind of hidden history, one that tells of Palestinian existence long before the creation of Israel. Her new documentary Looted and Hidden: Palestinian Archives in Israel includes never-before-seen visual images of Palestinian history that the Israeli army looted from archives in Beirut.

Al Jazeera spoke to Sela about the motivations behind her research and her continued aim to make the hidden Palestinian archives available to the public.

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Al Jazeera: This was a long process that took many years of research. How did the project first start?

Rona Sela: Twenty years ago, as a young researcher, I looked for Zionist photographs in Israeli archives. The history of Zionist photography that prepared the ground for the establishment of the state of Israel had not yet been studied.

I researched Zionist photography that was part of larger Zionist propaganda departments in pre-state institutions and the visual sphere.

They were enlisted for national Zionist aims and were controlled by the establishment in a very deliberate and conscious way. One of their central features was showing the Jewish people arriving in an apparently barren and unpopulated land, waiting for the Jewish people to make it flourish. They constructed the image of the "New Jew" in the "New Land", bringing modernisation to a seemingly "empty and undeveloped place".

I sat four years in Zionist archives and charted the main characteristic of Zionist propagandist photography that served information and marketing systems. At the same time, I started researching Palestinian photography and looked for Palestinian archives - private and public, in Israel and outside Israel.

I wanted to expose Palestinian existence, culture and history to an Israeli audience. I was raised as a child in a Zionist education system, and my world view was shaped accordingly. Palestinian imagery was lacking from the official Israeli narrative, concealed or presented in a tendentious manner, and I decided to focus on this absent, erased narrative. I never imagined the journey I would have to go through.

Al Jazeera: Why was it important for you to uncover Palestinian history?

Sela: First, as a researcher of visual history, I understand the importance of visual images and archives in constructing self and national consciousness and identity, and the importance of culture and history to its society.


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