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The Nakba: Addressing Israeli arrogance

For Israelis wishing to participate in a common struggle, relieving ourselves of our ignorance and arrogance should be the top priority. Not for the sake of Palestinians – for our own sake, to restore our own humanity.

By Tom Pessah

Palmach troops overseeing the displacement of Palestinians from the central city of Ramlah in July, 1948. (Photo: Palmach Archive)

About a decade ago, when I was studying for my first degree at Tel Aviv University, I went to a weekend retreat organized by Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam to meet Palestinian students from the West Bank. The retreat took place at a location near Bethlehem that was relatively accessible for the Palestinians, but they still had to pass through checkpoints, some getting beaten or humiliated in order to meet us.

Neve-Shalom/Wahat al-Salam’s workshops are structured very formally. During the inter-Jewish meetings I was the perfect leftist, constantly scolding other participants for views that weren’t progressive enough. And when we met the Palestinians, I tried hard to be accommodating and supportive, hanging out with them after the meetings and using my primitive spoken Arabic to listen to their experiences and questions about Israelis.

Near the end of the workshop we split into groups to “solve” different aspects of the conflict together: Jerusalem, borders, one state or two? As the progressive I thought I was, I confidently chose the group on possibly the most explosive topic – the Right of Return. We Israeli Jews convened first, and came up with a generous proposal: we would allow 100,000 Palestinians into our own country! This would be difficult for us to “sell” to our public, it was much to the left of the Israeli consensus at the time, but we were still willing to take what seemed like a brave and generous step.

When we offered the limited entry into our country to the Palestinian students, they weren’t as grateful as we had anticipated. In fact, they were profoundly insulted, deeply disappointed. In the closing meeting of the workshop, they spoke of how disillusioned they had become, how they felt that in the end, Zionist upbringing influences all of us Israelis, even the ones that initially seem reasonable and open-minded. I tried to argue with them, explain to them, but it was too late. I remember watching them leave, climbing over the fences of the compound to circumvent the Israeli soldiers in the area, in order to try and avoid being arrested. I was sobbing. I felt I had disappointed them and disappointed myself, despite my best intentions.

We don’t talk enough about Israeli arrogance as a huge barrier to any form of Israeli-Palestinian cooperation, even co-resisting the occupation. So we keep assuming that the land is simply ours, even if Palestinians were born there, even if their families lived there for generations. We’re sure our violence is better because we only hit civilians by accident. We try to teach them to be reasonable and to accommodate themselves to our higher moral standards if they want us to listen to them. Intended or not, the arrogance is there, and not just among right-wing extremists.

Where does this arrogance come from? Consider a quintessential example, Golda Meir’s notorious statement to the Sunday Times in 1969:

There were no such thing as Palestinians. When was there an independent Palestinian people with a Palestinian state? It was either southern Syria before the First World War, and then it was a Palestine including Jordan. It was not as though there was a Palestinian people in Palestine considering itself as a Palestinian people and we came and threw them out and took their country away from them. They did not exist.

“It is not as though… we came and threw them out and took their country away from them.” Meir felt confident proclaiming this in 1969, 20 years after over 750,000 people, about 80 percent of the Palestinian population of the area that became Israel, were either driven out by force or violently prevented from returning. Twenty years of impunity, when generals like Yigal Alon, who had systematically cleansed the areas they conquered of every single Palestinian village and town, served as government ministers alongside Meir.

But few of those who have heard of this statement know of Meir’s history during 1948 itself. Yaakov Lublini, the Israeli military ruler of Haifa, recalls an incident in April, when the city was conquered and most of its Palestinians left or were expelled:

We walked up some stairs. The apartments on the first two floors were abandoned. When we reached the third floor, an old Arab woman approached us, carrying some bundles. When she saw Golda she stopped and burst into tears. Golda stopped, looked at her, and tears streamed down her face. The two women stood there and cried.

Weeks later, Meir described her own experiences:

It’s a shocking thing to see the city dead […] near the port I found children, women and old men waiting to a way out. I went into the houses, there were houses where the coffee and the pita-bread were left on the table. I couldn’t but see with my eyes that this must have been the picture in many [East European] Jewish towns [ayarot yehudiyot]

I do not wish to idealize the Meir of 1948. Despite her tears, she never seriously challenged the massive expulsion and prevention of return orchestrated by her colleagues in the ruling Mapai party, led of course by Ben-Gurion. But these moments of humanity and identification across ethnic boundaries are a reminder of what could have been, before years of arrogance and denial hardened her heart.

Israelis born after the Nakba rarely cry about it. We rely on our formulas: “these things happen in wars”; “this wouldn’t have happened if they accepted the UN partition resolution”; “you cannot set the clock back.” All this in a country that grants Jewish immigrants significant financial benefits under the Law of Return – a law that aims to correct injustices caused 2,000 years ago by the Roman Empire. Persecution of Jews in Europe, and the Holocaust in particular, are an unavoidable part of every discussion of the occupation, or of Israel’s policy towards Iran. The destruction of over 400 villages and towns six decades ago is within living memory, but Israeli Jews treat it as an obscure historical detail that Palestinians just need to get over already.

History forms people’s identities, and Palestinians are no more likely to shed their history than Israelis. Both peoples are destined to live together and the only true alternative to remaining separate and unequal is a common struggle. For Israelis wishing to participate in such a struggle, relieving ourselves of our ignorance and arrogance should be the top priority. Not for the sake of Palestinians – for our own sake, to restore our own humanity.

Go and learn: if you want to educate yourself about this hidden history, watch Palestinian and Israeli testimonies here and here. Learn here about life in the largest pre-1948 Palestinian town. Go on a tour of former Palestinian villages guided by refugees. Attend ceremonies organized around the country on May 15th. Learning the details can be hard, it can be distressing, but the reward is sweet – liberating ourselves from our racism.

Read more:
PHOTOS: Palestinians commemorate Nakba Day with rallies and protests
Despite efforts to erase it, the Nakba’s memory is more present than ever in Israel
Report: Forced displacement on both sides of the Green Line
Remembering the Nakba, understanding this is a shared land
The Palestinian Nakba: Are Israelis starting to get it?

Tom Pessah is an Israeli graduate sociology student at the University of California, Berkeley.

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  • COMMENTS

    1. Richard Witty

      Tom,
      Thanks for that more balanced description of Meir than most on the left present.

      I’ve heard similarly of Ben Gurion, and most of the early Zionist pioneers and warriors.

      I think you might be misrepresenting Golda Meir’s statement that you consider offensive, callous, arrogant.

      It is equally possible, likely in fact, that she was not talking about Palestinians invisibility but about their personal choice of identification.

      I read a book by Rashid Khalidi in which he described that Palestinian consciousness as specifically nationally Palestinian is relatively new.

      He described (not his language), that most Palestinians prior to 67 even, had multiple primary identifications, family, clan, town, pan-Arab movement primarily.

      Meir might have been talking about that question specifically. ‘They used to say that they were of the Arab nation. “Palestine” is new’.

      It still is an open question, what is the basis of Palestinians identification among themselves, for the purposes of forming self-governance.

      And, it is often the case historically, that national or community identity forms as a result of what occurred to us, shared experience, not by our own intention.

      My answer to the question when right-wing Zionists site the quote as if 1967 were 2013, is that it doesn’t matter how or why Palestinians came to self-identify as Palestinian rather than other orientations.

      They do now. And, so deserve to self-govern.

      Democracy is in the present, not in the past, not as what might have been if…

      The same logic applies to the question of single-state or two-state. That is the question is ONLY determinable by what the super majority (to avoid civil war) consent to. Any other solution is an imposition, whether the imposing power is European colonial, or some other willingly coercive ideology.

      Consent of the governed.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Kolumn9

      Yes, what could have been. Jews could have laid down their arms in 1948 and been slaughtered by their innocent, friendly Arab neighbors. If only they had allowed the Jews in Jerusalem and remote settlements to starve rather than ensuring that supply lines were not harassed by local irregulars. If only they lost the war against the Arab armies because they were constantly being attacked and harassed from the rear by a large hostile population intent on destroying them. Oh, to dream of such a wonderful outcome. It would have rid us of all these problems with ignorance and arrogance. How good it truly would have been to have just lost and been massacred. That would have let us have a clean conscience, the ones that might have survived anyway.

      Reply to Comment
      • There is a difference between self-defence and what went on in 1948 (and even after that – Palestinians in the Asqalan/Ashkelon area were being shuttled into Gaza as late as 1950, after residing behind barbed wire in the intervening years). It was also never some stark choice between ethnic cleansing and a massacre. But to talk about what could have happened then and should have happened then is a secondary issue. It happened. The real question is how to deal with the present-day ramifications of what went on.

        Reply to Comment
        • Kolumn9

          Of course it was. Either the Jews would have won and survived or the Arabs would have won and massacred the Jews. No one on either side at the time had any doubt about this, nor in retrospect do I.

          Reply to Comment
          • aristeides

            Oh, the kind, benevolent Jews! They would have never considered massacring the Arabs if they won!

            Reply to Comment
          • Kolumn9

            Well the Jews did win and the Arabs seem to have survived just fine, including within the borders of the state of Israel. How many Jews pray tell continued to live in areas of Israel occupied by Jordan and Egypt between 1948 and 1967? I’ll give you a hint. It rhymes with hero.

            Reply to Comment
          • aristeides

            Yes, the Arabs survived, except for those who were massacred.

            And how many refugees did Israel allow to return to their homes after the massacring was over? Some number close to zero, was it?

            Reply to Comment
          • Richard Witty

            Jews have a right of self-determination in Israel, not in Palestine.

            Reply to Comment
        • The Trespasser

          >There is a difference between self-defence and what went on in 1948

          No difference at all. Arabs had openly claimed that Jews have no right of self-determination in Palestine, plus Arabs had declared war on Jewish state. I can understand that by leftist logic removal of hostile population is not cosidered self-defence, however in real life it certainly does.

          >(and even after that – Palestinians in the Asqalan/Ashkelon area were being shuttled into Gaza as late as 1950, after residing behind barbed wire in the intervening years).

          Yeah. You see, even after that Palestinian Arabs had refused to recognize the Jewish state, so no choice was left.

          >It was also never some stark choice between ethnic cleansing and a massacre.

          As a matter of fact, there was such choice – Arabs were to be cleansed, or Jews were to be massacred. I understand that for some people the choice is obvious.

          >The real question is how to deal with the present-day ramifications of what went on.

          How to deal? nothing can be simpler. Arabs have to accept the fact that Jews have a right to have homeland in Palestine. Ceising all attempts to kill Jews would help a little bit too. But I’m asking for too much, am I not?

          Reply to Comment
          • “You see, even after that Palestinian Arabs had refused to recognize the Jewish state, so no choice was left.”

            There is an interesting anecdote about this. Naim Giladi, an Iraqi Jew living in a transit camp near Asqalan, has described the tensions that developed between the Iraqis in the camp and new Romanian arrivals when the Romanians were given huts to live in. The Iraqis were given only tents, even in winter. Eventually some of them threw stones at the Romanians’ windows. This was the result:

            “Several important figures in the Jewish Agency came to calm us down. They said to us in substance: ‘Be patient, soon we shall drive the Arabs out of Majdal and you will be able to have their houses.’

            For us this was a shock. Majdal was a nearby little town, and we knew nothing of its inhabitants. One night, five or six of us crossed the barbed wire that surrounded Majdal to go and speak to the inhabitants, to see who they were, and why they
            wanted to drive them out. Talking to them, we discovered that they were very peaceful people, very hospitably disposed towards us, and ready to behave as loyal citizens to the state that had just been founded. And it was those people they wanted to drive out to settle us in their houses!”

            Looking at official documentation from the time confirms that these Majdal residents were not deported after two years in a ghetto for disloyalty to the state (as though that could have been a justification anyway – in a democracy, people supposedly have the political freedom to disagree with state policies, state character, and even the whole concept of the state). It makes no sense to suggest that rejection of the Jewish state was the reason for the deportation when you consider that the ethnic cleansing was not thorough – what, only the Majdal Palestinians were so ideologically dangerous? They were deported post-48 because their proximity to Gaza made their transfer very easy, and the government wanted to secure a Jewish majority in that area. It’s not easily defensible.

            Reply to Comment
          • aristeides

            Do Jews living in Israel have the right of self-determination in Iceland? Do Jews living in the US have the right of self-determination in Korea/

            So why should Jews from Europe have the right of self-determination in Palestine?

            Reply to Comment
          • David T.

            >Arabs had openly claimed that Jews have no right of self-determination in Palestine… plus Arabs had declared war on Jewish state.You see, even after that Palestinian Arabs had refused to recognize the Jewish state, so no choice was left.As a matter of fact, there was such choice – Arabs were to be cleansed, or Jews were to be massacred. I understand that for some people the choice is obvious.<

            But Arabs were expelled and massacred without even leaving their villages of which more than 400 were even destroyed. What are you trying to sell us?

            "Arabs have to accept the fact that Jews have a right to have homeland in Palestine."

            Well, a homeland has never been a state. But for the sake of the argument, do Arabs, Druze or Bedouins have a right to a "homeland" within Israel?

            Equal rights seem to be very important to you. Or do you ask for equal rights only if it suits Jews? That would be terribly racist, no?

            Reply to Comment
          • The Trespasser

            >But Arabs were expelled and massacred without even leaving their villages

            “expelled without even leaving their villages” makes no sense at all.

            >Well, a homeland has never been a state.

            Correct. The need for the Jewish state has become clear after Arabs denied Jews equal rights.

            >But for the sake of the argument, do Arabs, Druze or Bedouins

            Bedouins and Druze are not Arabs? That’s a new word.

            >have a right to a “homeland” within Israel?

            They have a “homeland” from Algeria to Iraq.

            >Equal rights seem to be very important to you.

            Yes.

            >Or do you ask for equal rights only if it suits Jews?

            No.

            >That would be terribly racist, no?

            Yes.

            Reply to Comment
    3. spring-cleaner

      tom-

      how can you be so obtuse?

      the displacement of the indigenous arabs was mainly the result of their ‘brethren’ telling them to leave while they drove the israelis into the sea. assuring them that after the quick war was over that they could return home.

      stop being such an apologist for crying out loud. it reeks of chomsky, finklestein, and falk for crying out loud!

      are seriously THAT left-leaning?!?!

      Reply to Comment
      • aristeides

        Or maybe Tom is actually informed and isn’t spouting half-century-old, long discredited Zionist propaganda.

        Reply to Comment
    4. Robert Werdine

      The state of Israel in its post-armistice configuration resulted from the war and the Israelis, understandably, I think, were not going to negate the results of the war in which they had just sacrificed 1% of their population and return to the vulnerable partition lines of 1947 which a) the Arabs had rejected anyway, and b) while the Arabs continued a state of hostilities and a policy of non-recognition.

      As far as the returning of the refugees are concerned, the full return of the refugees to Israel in 1949 with the surrounding states still in the midst of a state of hostilities would have put some 750,000 (or more) Palestinians along with some 160,000 remaining Palestinians alongside some 650,000 Jews, thus making the Jews a (41%) minority in their own state. This would seem to have blunted the Jewish people’s right to self-determination, and negated the entire reason for the creation of the Jewish state in the first place.

      The Arabs, in effect, were demanding that prior to any negotiations, the Israelis must take into their state over three quarter of a million refugees, created by the war of aggression waged by them, thus making the Jews a 41% minority in their own state. Then they would negotiate, and without any assurance that even this would impel them to make peace with Israel. The Israelis, in effect, would thus flood their war-ravaged state with hostile Arab refugees in order to obtain a seat at the table with the Arabs, and then hope for the best in the negotiations to follow. Really incredible.

      Reply to Comment
    5. Arab Israeli citizens born, say, after 1950 should at least be given full rights in Israel proper. One can not take back wars, but one can decide to become different now. A rights jurisprudence would be indifferent to the Independence or quasi-civil war. Reparations are impossible; a forward path from here, now is not. The question is not what you were, but what you can become.

      Reply to Comment
    6. aristeides

      The premise of this article is just another example of Israeli arrogance and self-centeredness. “We have to acknowledge the Nakba for our own good.”

      Why should the good of Israelis determine the fate of Palestinians? How about simply doing what’s right and just, because it’s right and just, not because we’ll benefit from it.

      Reply to Comment
      • The Trespasser

        >How about simply doing what’s right and just, because it’s right and just

        And what exactly is “right and just”?

        Denying Jews equal rights is right? Or maybe just?

        Reply to Comment
        • Palestinian

          Denying them the right to steal and massacre ? Yes

          Do Jews have the right of self-determination in Palestine? No
          Do Palestinians have the right of self-determination in Italy ? No

          Reply to Comment
          • The Trespasser

            Do Palestinian Arabs have a right of self-determination in Palestine? Yes.

            Do Palestinian Jews have a right of self-determination in Palestine? Yes.

            >Denying them the right to steal and massacre? Yes

            Yeah, I know that stealing and massacring is almost purely Arab business.

            Reply to Comment
        • aristeides

          Give you a hint, infiltrator. Right and Just don’t have Jew in their definition. Right and Just apply equally to everyone.

          Reply to Comment
    7. Rachamim Ben Ami

      First, either the author is ignorant about regional history or is engaging in outright deception when he infers that Golda Me’ir was a hypocrite for observing how quiet Hafia had become in 1948, and her oft quoted views about the non-existence of a Palestinian people and any role Israel may have played in dispossesing Palestinians. Hafia, a city that held 66,000 Palestinians in 1947, was nearly emptied of its Arab population because of Arabs themselves. Indeed, Me’ir had been deployed there by Ben Gurion in a bid to stop the flow of Arab refugees fleeing the city.

      Whether Leila Khaled, Sir Bagott Glubb, Time Magazine or The Economist, third party sources have been absolutely clear on the issue. The Arab Higher Executive believed it would cripple the Zionists if it denied them Arab labour in what was then Historical Palestine’s only real commercial port.

      Ergo, having been deployed to Hafia to try and stem the flow of Arab refugees out of the city, is it any wonder that upon realising that she had arrived too late, that Me’ir might have broken into tears?

      As for her comment in 1969, the author- a man who feels Israel is evil even when it inadvertantly incurs Collateral Damage- is livid that anyone should dare question the existence of a Palestinian people. Until 1964, a mere 5 years before Me’ir’s comment, local Arabs referred themselves only as “Southern Syrians.” Indeed, it wasn’t until 1967 and Israel’s capture of the so called “West Bank” that the label “Palestinian” became irrevocably tied to the local Arab population.

      As for the sum and substance of the comment, she was absolutely correct when she pointed out that there has never been a nation named “Palestine” and by and large was correct that Israel did not destroy a nation that never existed.

      Reply to Comment
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