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The Palestinian Nakba: Are Israelis starting to get it?

Israelis are more willing to discuss and accept their country’s role in the Palestinian Nakba – until the historical events are portrayed as the story of the founding of a rival nation, and acknowledging those facts means legitimizing the other side’s fundamental beliefs.

Nakba Day protest May 15, 2012 (Activestills)

In 2008, a fascinating, little-known study asked 500 Israeli Jews about Israel’s behavior throughout the history of the conflict.  The study was conducted by Rafi Nets-Zehngut, at the Teachers College of Columbia University and Daniel Bar-Tal of Tel Aviv University’s School of Education. Bar-Tal is an internationally regarded expert in political psychology. Some of the findings were striking:

• More than six-in-ten said that prior to the arrival of the “Jewish pioneers” in the late 19th century, Palestinians were a majority in the region (“majority,” “vast majority,” or “exclusive inhabitants”).

• A majority, albeit very slim (50.2 percent), said that Jews and Arabs share the blame equally (46 percent) or primarily Jews (4.2 percent) are to blame for the outbreak and continuation of the Israeli-Arab conflict, while 43 percent blamed primarily Palestinians and Arabs.

• Most important for Nakba Day, when asked who was responsible for the “departure” of Palestinian refugees during the 1948 War of Independence, 41 percent chose the traditional Zionist narrative that they left due to fear and exhortations of Arab leaders; but 39 percent chose a response that cited fear and calls of Arab leaders, but also due to expulsion by Jews. Another eight percent cited only expulsion by Jews. That means that nearly half – a 47 percent plurality – accepted the Jewish role in creating Palestinian refugees.

Further, by using the terms “Palestinian” to refer to the pre-state days through 1948, the questions themselves implicitly tested people’s acceptance of the terms of the debate. The fairly standard rate of “don’t knows” indicates that people had little problem with the assumptions in the text of the questions. Also, fewer than one-fifth of Jewish Israelis describe themselves as left wing these days, so a significant portion of those respondents are either center or right wing.

The findings imply a potentially significant shift in Israeli attitudes compared to the past, when the Palestinian refugees were the greatest obstacle of all. During the Camp David negotiations of 2000, when I was working with American pollster Stanley Greenberg supplying public opinion data to then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak almost nightly, the refugee issue tended to be the toughest problem, even as the Jewish public advanced significantly toward unprecedented compromises on Jerusalem (documented in Greenberg’s 2009 book). Just after the talks collapsed, a Hebrew University survey in late July, 2000 asked Israelis (and Palestinians) whether they thought their respective leader’s compromises on each item had been appropriate, too much or too little. Among Israelis, the perception of Barak’s proposed compromises on Palestinian refugees gathered the highest “too much of a compromise” response of all (64 percent gave this answer, compared to 57 percent for Jerusalem).

Twelve years later, in a December, 2012 survey by the same authors (Jacob Shamir and Khalil Shikaki), the Palestinian refugee question no longer holds the most-rejected-clause spot. That distinction now goes to the proposals on Jerusalem, based on the old Clinton framework (59 percent rejected them, 38 percent supported them). Respondents were asked about a refugee compromise which reflects the Clinton, Geneva Plan and Arab Peace Initiative approach:

Both sides agree that the solution will be based on UN resolutions 194 and 242. The refugees would be given five choices for permanent residency. These are: the Palestinian state and the Israeli areas transferred to the Palestinian state in the territorial exchange mentioned above; no restrictions would be imposed on refugee return to these two areas. Residency in the other three areas (in host countries, third countries, and Israel) would be subject to the decision of these states. As a base for its decision Israel will consider the average number of refugees admitted to third countries like Australia, Canada, Europe, and others. All refugees would be entitled to compensation for their “refugeehood” and loss of property.

Among the 600-person sample, which included Arabs, 42 percent accepted this and 49 percent rejected it – a significant decline from nearly two-thirds who felt it was “too much of a compromise” in 2000.

Behind the numbers lies a potential drama. First, they confirm what Noam Sheizaf elegantly argued, that the anti-Nakba onslaught under the previous government has failed to erase the Nakba from the public sphere, while general usage and awareness of the term has only increased. Bar-Tal also noted in a more recent study that the Israeli education system is increasingly open about exploring critical versions of history – findings that were met with a wall of resistance by the Israeli government, for the crime of comparing Israel and the Palestinians’ education system.

But the data shown here hints at something both deeper and more pragmatic. They suggest a growing realization among the Israeli people that the Nakba is not only a feature of history but alive in the present-lived reality of Palestinians and that it must be addressed in the negotiations.

Indeed, for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, the Nakba lives on in the form of daily occupation. Symbolically, Israel’s denial and until recently the world’s general dismissal of their historical and present symbolic narrative is a fresh death each day for the Palestinian collective psyche.

Despite the positive shifts, half of Israelis still reject the refugee compromise in the December 2012 poll; tempers rage around public debate on the topic, and a 2009 survey for the peace movement One Voice found that 60 percent of Israeli Jews totally rejected a compromise that included “recognition of the suffering” of Palestinian refugees.

Yet I cannot agree with a guest post here today that the rejection is due to “arrogance.”

In a phone interview with Daniel Bar-Tal for this article, he explained that the ongoing Jewish resistance to dealing with the Nakba is simply a reflection of the fact that the Jewish people as a nation are no more or less immune to the human characteristics of collective identity than any other people:

On the most universal level: why is it hard for any nation [to acknowledge the damage it has caused in the past]? It’s very, very universal [to resist this]. All nations do it.

He cited the very recent British acknowledgment of responsibility for its actions in Kenya, and former French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s difficulty acknowledging France’s behavior in Algiers. “Nations have a hard time opening their Pandora’s box,” he said. “We’re no different.”

Bar-Tal believes that the story of the Nakba, a symbolic narrative of the Palestinian nation, clashes with the Zionist national narrative.

This reason is more psychological, but critical: identity. The Nakba … is viewed as the identity of the whole nation in the eyes of its people. And accepting the narrative of the other cancels my identity. If you have to accept that 1.3 million Palestinians were here, all the Zionist rationale begins to be thrown into doubt.

Bar-Tal then explained that when Netanyahu introduced the demand that Palestinians recognize Israel as the Jewish State, the negotiations were now about symbolic and identity dimensions, rather than, by implication, just technical and pragmatic solutions.

He brought that into the conflict – up to then we could have solved the problem without narratives. The moment you ask them to recognize that this land is and belongs to Jews, they can’t accept that.

Perhaps it was at this point that the Nakba was increasingly embraced among Palestinian activists. And by contrast to Bar-Tal’s implication, I believe that the symbolic, narrative element of conflict would inevitably enter resolution efforts regardless of Netanyahu’s particular condition.

In other words, when Israelis or any people are asked to acknowledge historical facts and their own role in creating traumas, they are less defensive. But when dry history doubles as the mythical story of the founding of a rival nation, acknowledging those facts means legitimizing the other side’s fundamental beliefs. Since the Israeli image of the Palestinian national vision includes the certainty that Palestinians seek destruction of the Jews, the national narratives – like in most conflicts – are mutually exclusive. Accepting this keystone of Palestinian symbolic national history is tantamount to self-destruction.

Surely, similar conflict psychology can be seen on the Palestinian side too. Even when a conflict is asymmetrical, psychological dynamics overlap. But that would be a separate article.

Both sides will need to exorcise their demons regarding the other, not to gloss over the present but in order to unlock the door to the future. Here are the fundamental questions for the Israel side: first, can the Right’s frenzied efforts to stifle consciousness of the Nakba succeed? The results seem to say no. Activism recalling the Nakba has only heightened and the data here implies that the Israeli public is ahead of its leaders in acknowledging not only history, but the implications of history on conflict resolution.

Secondly, how can the large swath of the Israeli public that is prepared to reconcile with its past in the present be expanded and leveraged? How can this political maturity be brought to bear on future negotiation efforts or any other effort to resolve the situation? Surely, beating a guilt-fatigued population with more historic guilt will backfire (if it hasn’t already). Is there a less threatening way to address and redress history that does not undercut Jewish identity in this land? This is one of the vital challenges of the day, that the Nakba (and perhaps the “Jewish state” definition, for Palestinians) symbolizes for all parties in the conflict: can each side acknowledge the most sensitive and frightening aspects of the other party’s identity without losing its own, and then lashing out violently to protect it?

Read more:
PHOTOS: Palestinians commemorate Nakba Day with rallies and protests
The Nakba: Addressing Israeli arrogance
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

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  • COMMENTS

    1. Kolumn9

      What Israelis are starting to get is that for the Palestinians the issue is a desire to end the existence of the state of Israel, not the desire to see a Palestinian state arise. Demands to address the nakba and refugees by the Palestinians and their supporters are counterproductive for any resolution to the conflict and certainly push more and more Israelis towards believing that there is no alternative to continuing the status quo.

      I, for one, am grateful to the Israeli extreme left and their European and Arab friends for pushing Israelis to the right and away from the lala land that the Israeli left has been trying to sell us in which the conflict is about the 1967 territories, not the continued existence of the Jewish state. Even people who might otherwise acknowledge a Jewish part in the expulsion of the Arabs would not be willing to commit national suicide because of it, especially when it is fundamentally so much easier to deem it either to have been good or necessary. Permanent hostility as displayed by the Arab obsession with reversing 1948 (nakba and refugees) and an almost pathological inability of Arabs to solve any problem without anarchy, war and massacre makes this argument trivial to make. (I mean of course before the Arab Spring proved me wrong by being a splendid display of the ability of Arab states and peoples to peacefully transition to liberal democracy)

      As to the argument that this is purely a symbolic stance on the part of the Palestinians, this is easily disproven by a brief glance at the articles written up by Palestinians themselves today. They are not, as claimed here and elsewhere, demands for a symbolic recognition of suffering within the context of seeking a solution. The nakba narrative is persistently and consistently used as an ideological basis for demanding the destruction of Israel in one way or another.

      Reply to Comment
      • David T.

        “What Israelis are starting to get is that for the Palestinians the issue is a desire to end the existence of the state of Israel, not the desire to see a Palestinian state arise.”

        One moment, I have to put this into my Kolumn9-Hasbara-Invers-O-Matic. Ah, there it is:

        -> What Palestinans are starting to get is that for the Israelis the issue is no end to control and recolonize Eretz Israel, not the desire to see a Palestinian state arise.

        “Permanent hostility as displayed by the Arab obsession with reversing 1948 (nakba and refugees) and an almost pathological inability of Arabs to solve any problem without anarchy, war and massacre makes this argument trivial to make.”

        -> Permanent hostility as displayed by the Jewish obsession with maintaining 1948 (nakba and refugees) and an almost pathological inability of Jews to solve a problem without oppression, war and massacre.

        [Oooh, see how utterly racist Kolumn9 propaganda can sound, when inversed?]

        “I, for one, am grateful to the Israeli extreme left and their European and Arab friends for pushing Israelis to the right and away from the lala land that the Israeli left has been trying to sell us in which the conflict is about the 1967 territories, not the continued existence of the Jewish state.”

        -> I, for one, am grateful to the Israeli right extreme and their US friends for pushing the rest of the world to the international left and away from the lala land that the Israeli right has been trying to sell us in which the conflict is not about the Jebotinsky/Begin/Netanyahu version of Eretz Israel, but about “security”.

        “The nakba narrative is persistently and consistently used as an ideological basis for demanding the destruction of Israel in one way or another.”

        -> The Holocaust narrative was persistently and consistently used as an ideological basis for destroying historic Palestine in one way or another.”

        [Wooow, inversed Kolumn9 propaganda sounds just like Achmadjenidad, ROFL]

        Reply to Comment
        • Kolumn9

          That would be cute, except for the fact that we actually made repeated offers to settle the conflict and have repeatedly withdrawn from land for that purpose including the removal of settlements. Sort of cuts the meat out of your reverse argument, doesn’t it?

          So, where is the Palestinian leader that is actually willing to say that they are willing to accept the continued acceptance of the Jewish state? Oh no? Couldn’t find one? Well, again, there is the problem with your attempt at reversal. It just doesn’t work…

          Reply to Comment
    2. aristeides

      Good. Since “continuing the status quo” is widely recognized as leading to the collapse of the Jewish state, all the Palestinians have to do is wait.

      Reply to Comment
      • Kolumn9

        Widely recognized. Hahaha. Ok. Let them keep waiting. Working great for them so far.

        Reply to Comment
        • aristeides

          It’s a common refrain among Israeli politicians. They’re the ones who profess to care if the Jewish state is destroyed.

          Reply to Comment
          • jjj

            I wonder, what would happen to the jews once their “state collapses”?

            Reply to Comment
          • Joe

            Looking forward to the day when a return to the 1967 borders is the only option available for the continuation of the Israeli state.

            Reply to Comment
          • Kolumn9

            Israeli politicians say whatever gets them attention. The bar for attention is relatively high in Israeli media. They either have to attack one another or talk about existential dangers. Some choose Iran. Others choose a binational state which in Israel-speak is code for Jews becoming an oppressed minority. Iran is at least plausible.

            Reply to Comment
    3. Aaron Gross

      These data support what I said in a comment at this site just a few days ago: Many Israelis on the right believe that Arabs were the victims of injustice by the Zionist movement – that both the Zionists and the Arabs had justice on their side.

      I don’t think this narrative stuff is useful at all for peace. It should be obvious to anyone that Palestinians and Zionists understand each other’s narrative very well, thank you. On the Israeli side at least, there’s fairly widespread acceptance of the Palestinian narrative, not just understanding; at least, acceptance to the degree that you can accept a people’s narrative without accepting that people’s claim of rights, in this case a claim to sovereignty over all of Palestine.

      As these data illustrate, understanding and acceptance of the Palestinian narrative do not lead many Israelis to accept the self-destructive or suicidal policies advocated at +972.

      Similarly, even if you could get Palestinians to accept the Zionist narrative of ancient Jewish ties to the land, a continuous presence, and a large-scale return home, Palestinians still would not accept the existence of a Jewish state inside of Palestine. “Narratives” are just the latest fad among Western sentimentalists.

      Reply to Comment
    4. Danny

      Want to continue the status quo? No problem. However, your idea of status quo is deeply flawed. Observe: This year it is Stephen Hawking who is turning his back on Israel. Who will it be next year, and the year after that? I guess we will have to wait and see. The status quo exercised in the occupied territories will be met with deep and profound change on the international front. Nothing stays the same, except for rightist thinking.

      Reply to Comment
      • Kolumn9

        Yes, the doom and gloom is always on the horizon and the only way to avoid it is to put our heads on the block and allow the Arabs to chop them off occasionally in the interests of peace and world sympathy. Yeah, it is the right that doesn’t change its thinking.

        Reply to Comment
        • Danny

          If you want to see what’s waiting for Israel in the coming years, just look back to 1994 – the year the South African apartheid regime finally gave up the fight after several excruciating years of swimming against the current.

          Reply to Comment
          • Kolumn9

            Go scare somebody else who believes in your absurd historical parallels.

            Reply to Comment
    5. Tom P.

      >>Yet I cannot agree with a guest post here today that the rejection is due to “arrogance.”

      Dahlia, my argument was actually the opposite – that the arrogance is a result of rejection and ignorance of the Nakba

      Reply to Comment
    6. Tom, it’s a fair clarification, but my point is that the ignorance is less than we might have thought (based on the data and social trends = greater awareness in recent years – see Noam’s piece too). I don’t think arrogance is the result for most – rather, fear of the Nakba’s national symbolism for Pals – and the resulting rejection.

      Reply to Comment
    7. JoelFA

      Great article. Reading thru the comments I wonder if it is possible for people to approach this subject with objectivity. It seems there is such a “winner takes all” mentality that any recognition of even the common humanity of people on the opposing side of the conflict is seen as the white flag of surrender. Can we not, on both sides of the spectrum, seek to recognize (1) our own past failures, and (2) the legitimacy of the hopes and dreams of those on the other side? Neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians hold exclusive claim to either the white hat OR the black one… until we can come to that understanding, as I believe this article attempts to do, will we have any hopes of reconciliation.

      Reply to Comment
      • Aaron Gross

        Joel, the message I got from the survey results is that Israelis do recognize (1) their own past failures, and (2) the legitimacy of the hopes and dreams of those on the other side – but only to the extent that those hopes and dreams accept the existence of a settler, Zionist state inside of their homeland of Palestine.

        Israelis do not view the conflict as “winner take all.” Most of them, including many on the right, want a two-state solution. Somehow, many on the left are unable to hear this, so I’ll say it again: Israelis want a two-state solution! I’m kind of tired of hearing the position described as “winner take all.”

        Reply to Comment
    8. Daniel Bar-Tal has done some excellent work on psychology and conflict, but I don’t agree with his emphasis on identity. It’s a factor, but it’s overplayed – not just in his research, but in the bulk of psychosocial literature on Israel/Palestine. The emphasis bothered me for a while, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on why until I read a study on ‘interpretations of the past and expectations for the future’ amongst Jewish and Palestinian high school kids in Israel (Adwan, Kaplan, and Sagy). The researchers chose ‘seven central events’, beginning with the Balfour Declaration and continuing to the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, and asked the students for their views on each. They hypothesised that ‘the level of readiness to accept the other’s narrative as legitimate’ would be positively correlated with their expectations for peace. Reading this study, I had two concerns. The researchers had not asked the high school kids how they see one another’s histories. They had asked them how they relate to two highly polarised and politicised national narratives, which are not necessarily the same things at all.

      The researchers had also accepted unquestioningly the idea that there are two stories for two sides, and that various events can be plopped neatly into one side’s bucket or the other. What if it doesn’t work that way? Palestinians and Israeli Jews may lead largely segregated lives, but the boundaries between histories are perhaps more porous than is commonly appreciated. This can be seen in Zochrot’s anthology ‘Tell it Not in Gath’, which looks at how awareness of the Nakba manifested itself in Israeli culture very early on. Then I was going through some Palestinian oral histories one day when I found references to the Holocaust and how these elderly people had come to know about it and relate to it, quite matter-of-fact, no trumpeting of ‘understanding the other narrative’ or anything like that. They talked about it simply because it had touched their lives indirectly. The idea that we have two distinct sharply delineated narratives, each the property of one particular group, may be doing more harm than good. It encourages the near-deification of identity, and ultimately may end up reinforcing divisions rather than anything.

      Reply to Comment
    9. “can each side acknowledge the most sensitive and frightening aspects of the other party’s identity without losing its own, and then lashing out violently to protect it?”

      Even without focusing on the question of identity, or narrative, as Vicky says, this remains the most vital question. How do we accept what is traumatic for each other? I don’t know if there is any way other than the slow, patient work of cultural dialogue.

      Reply to Comment
      • When working with traumatised teenagers who aren’t able to talk much about what happened to them and who would be made anxious by direct questioning, I often use stories. They address their own problems through the story of another person. It helps.

        This makes me wonder if it might be possible to shift our perception of traumatic histories so that they become gateways instead of threats – a challenging way of understanding your own history more completely and working out something productive to do with it.

        Reply to Comment
    10. Richard Witty

      The distinctions in answers are all around the question of blame and exclusivity (implied in blame).

      If asked, “did Palestinians suffer in the 1948 and since?”, nearly 100% would likely answer yes.

      If asked, “do you have sympathy for Palestinian suffering, that you acknowledged occurred”, probably 80% would say yes.

      If asked, “do you blame your grandparents and yourselves for Palestinian suffering?”, likely 10% would say yes.

      There is no way that I can forget what I’ve been told of my grandparents, parents, and my experience (and in-laws in that grouping), including war, interpersonal treatment by Palestinians (organized and individual).

      If a healing process of mutual sympathy were to transpire, that would realize justice and peace.

      If a blaming process of mutual antipathy were to transpire, including initiated by compassionate or ideological left, that would realize war and suppression.

      Healing and mutual sympathy.

      Reply to Comment
    11. Territorial war is zero sum. A right of return, beyond symbolic quota, is also zero sum, economically. You can talk about understanding one another’s narratives if resident in the State–but this shifts the State towards constitutional rather than national being, which the right resists as suicide. Within Israel, there is a path towards solution–rights of the moment, not past. Outside of Israel, well, it seems increasingly likely there will be no outside of Israel, for the State supports the settlers, and the settlers are zero sum territorial.

      So enforcing rights within Israel, such as implimenting the return to a Palesitinian village as ordered by the Court c 1951, can ultimately spill over into what seem to be Greater Israel in the making.

      Reply to Comment
      • directrob

        One of the elements contributing to the Dutch Golden Age was the massive influx of foreigners. ROR return is not a zero sum game, if played well it is on average a win win game.

        Reply to Comment
        • The Trespasser

          >One of the elements contributing to the Dutch Golden Age was the massive influx of foreigners. ROR return is not a zero sum game, if played well it is on average a win win game.

          As irrelevant as ever.

          Influx of tens of thousands of illiterate, uneducated and hostile population could not bring anything good to any country.

          Reply to Comment
          • directrob

            But trespasser, why let only the illiterate, uneducated and hostile in? Do not more than 25000 Palestinians work in Israeli already?

            Even the Peres institute thinks (a bit) more Palestinian labor is beneficial, creates jobs for Israeli and is good for the Israeli economy. ( If the were allowed to live in Israel it would probably create even more jobs … )

            http://www.upsite.co.il/uploaded/files/1339_4ae5fc1b7f6518aba449ecb8e9a44b75.pdf

            Reply to Comment
          • The Trespasser

            >But trespasser, why let only the illiterate, uneducated and hostile in?

            Because statistically that’s how Palestinian population looks.

            >Do not more than 25000 Palestinians work in Israeli already?

            20 years ago that figure was about 5 times higher.

            So what?

            >Even the Peres institute thinks (a bit) more Palestinian labor is beneficial, creates jobs for Israeli and is good for the Israeli economy.

            On the same token one might claim that illegal infiltrants from Arfica are good because they are creating some jobs. Nonsense, of course.

            >If the were allowed to live in Israel it would probably create even more jobs …

            Yeah, more police units and forensic experts.

            Palestinian employees in Israel were replaced by Chinese and others STRICTLY because Palestinians had carried out multiple attacks against Israeli employers. There is really no point in repeating failed experiment.

            Reply to Comment
          • directrob

            So my point was that more foreign workers (for example returning Palestinians) could be beneficial for the Israeli economy. Your reply confirmed that.

            Reply to Comment
          • The Trespasser

            >So my point was that more foreign workers (for example returning Palestinians) could be beneficial for the Israeli economy. Your reply confirmed that.

            I can’t see what in my reply confirmed that influx of unskilled and hostile population can be beneficial for Israeli economy.

            Reply to Comment
          • directrob

            “I can’t see what in my reply confirmed that influx of unskilled and hostile population can be beneficial for Israeli economy.”

            Eh, you replied to what I did not write and included a prejudicious and a derogative remark nice trick.

            Reply to Comment
      • Joe

        I’ve been wondering about this – could not Jews expelled from Europe in the 20C claim a right to return? Isn’t the point that they received compensation in leu of factual impossibility of actual return? I don’t understand why the same thing cannot happen with Palestinian refugees – return is not going to happen, so they’ll be compensated. But again, this is all linked to the situation on the ground – even if they were to return to the agreed Palestinian State rather than their old homes inside Israel, as it stands the lands of the West Bank and Gaza could not support them.

        Reply to Comment
        • Kolumn9

          People can claim anything they want. Israel isn’t going to accept the principle that the Palestinians have any right of return in the first place. Compensation itself wouldn’t be particularly controversial, but the Palestinians keep insisting that Israel recognize responsibility for their expulsion, recognize that Palestinians have a right of return and that Palestinians be given the opportunity to realize it. This will never happen.

          Reply to Comment
          • aristeides

            No, it probably won’t ever happen, more shame to Israel, which refuses to acknowledge the truth.

            Which is why it’s impossible to acknowledge any justice in Israel’s existence.

            Reply to Comment
          • Kolumn9

            Couldn’t give a rat’s ass about your acknowledgement of anything.

            Reply to Comment
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