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Israel is still unable to deal with the catastrophe of 1948

The fact that Israel is unable to swallow or get rid of the territories it occupied in 1967, makes it far more difficult for the state to recognize the catastrophe that befell the Palestinians during the 1948 War. 

By Oren Barak

Palestinians put a sign marking the destroyed village of Lajjun in northern Israel, Nakba Day, May 15, 2015. (Photo by Omar Sameer/Activestills.org)

Palestinians put a sign marking the destroyed village of Lajjun in northern Israel, Nakba Day, May 15, 2015. (Photo by Omar Sameer/Activestills.org)

Why does the State of Israel, which just celebrated 69 years of independence, struggle to deal with the unpleasant events in its distant past, especially not the Nakba, the Palestinian catastrophe in the 1948 War?

Professor Avraham Sela and Professor Alon Kadish, two top scholars of the 1948 War from Hebrew University, recently published a book titled “The War of 1948: Representations of Israeli and Palestinian Memories and Narratives.” The book looks at a number of realms in which the memory of the war, as well as how it is forgotten, are expressed — among both the Jewish public in Israel, as well as Palestinian citizens. These realms include television shows, museums, hasbara, art, literature, physical space, and more.

The final chapter, was written by Sela and Professor Neil Kaplan, a Canadian researcher who focuses on the Israeli-Arab conflict, suggests an important insight: memory and historical narratives are the product of a particular political and social reality — not the other way around. The question is, then, what is the political and social reality that influences what is remembered and what is forgotten about the war, as well as on the historical narratives by both the Israeli and Palestinian sides. I will focus on the Israeli side.

Although the physical, organizational, and theoretical infrastructure of the state was laid during the era of the “Yishuv” before 1948, Israel was a new state that was undergoing an accelerated process of nation building and integration. Thus, the leaders of the state, and especially its first prime minister, David Ben Gurion, used the tools and institutions at their disposal. This included the education system, hasbara, the media, memorial sites, museums, and the army. Moreover, they encouraged the writing of a national history that would serve the needs of the nascent state.

Israeli soldiers in battle with the Arab village of Sassa in the upper Galilee, October 1, 1948. (GPO)

Israeli soldiers in battle with the Arab village of Sassa in the upper Galilee, October 1, 1948. (GPO)

Furthermore, several of the chapters in the book focus on the results of this process, which include a number of key events in the 1948 War, alongside the forgetting of less pleasant events, which “erased from space and consciousness,” as Noga Kadman put it in her book on the widespread destruction of the remains of Palestinian villages inside Israel following 1948. This behavior stemmed from practical considerations, such as thwarting legal claims and international pressure to allow the return of refugees. But the most important motivation was Israel’s raison d’État.

One could have predicted that the importance of these considerations would have decreased over time, as Israel became consolidated into the Jewish nation-state with a solid Jewish majority and a relatively small Palestinian minority. And yet, in 1966 the government put an end to “military law” over Israel’s Palestinian citizens. A year later, following the 1967 War and Israel’s expansion across the territory west of Jordan, came about a new political entity: “Israel/Palestine.” One of the results of this process was the shrinking of the Jewish majority in the new entity, creating a severe problem of legitimacy for the state and its leaders.

This dramatic change in political and societal circumstances in Israel/Palestine has also influenced the memory and historical narratives of 1948. This is due to the fact that the expanding state is currently facing a much more severe crisis of legitimacy, which is expressed in the severing of diplomatic ties between Israel and a great number of countries, in anti-Israel UN resolutions that have caused Israelis to feel international isolation, and in the military and political challenges posed by Palestinian organizations, which have taken the initiative in the Arab-Israeli conflict, following the failure of the Arab armies in the 1967 War (but not in the 1973 Yom Kippur War).

In light of this “overall attack,” it is clear why the Israeli state has a difficult time recognizing its responsibility for the Palestinian catastrophe of 1948, especially now that some additional aspects have come to light, such as the expulsion of Palestinians from the Latrun area in 1967. Meanwhile, there are actors inside the Jewish Israeli public in Israel/Palestine, for whom the victory in 1967 provided an opportunity to resume the struggle from 1948. Sela and Kadish’s book provides an example: the way in which the Jewish village of Kfar Etzion, which was conquered by the Jordanians in 1948, has been mythologized by part of the national-religious public brought about its rebuilding after 1967. Thus, instead of the 1948 War becoming a historic issue, it turned into an inseparable part of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Palestinian artists paint artwork during a rally marking the Nakba anniversary in the West Bank city of Hebron, May 15, 2016. (Wisam Hashlamoun/Flash90)

Palestinian artists paint artwork during a rally marking the Nakba anniversary in the West Bank city of Hebron, May 15, 2016. (Wisam Hashlamoun/Flash90)

It was these political and social circumstances that brought about changes in the following decades, changes that influenced both the memory and historical narrative of 1948. Thus, for instance, following the First Intifada in 1987, and during the peace process of the 90s, Israeli scholars — known as the “New Historians” — began researching the 1948 War, and the causes for the creation of the Palestinian refugee problem, from various perspectives. The most blatant expression of the change in the Israeli narrative and memory vis-a-vis the war were Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s speech to the Knesset on October 5, 1995, exactly one month before he was murdered, in which he said that “we did not return to an empty country.”

When the Israeli-Palestinian conflict escalated once again, especially from 2000 onward, the memory and historical narrative of 1948 changed once again. In 2015, for example, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon said that the “War of Independence has not ended.” The attempts to silence every public mention of the Palestinian Nakba, including on the part of the current government, are further proof of this tendency.

In other words, the State of Israel, which is unable to swallow or get rid of the territories it occupied in 1967, has no willingness — or perhaps even ability — to recognize the pain of the Palestinian side in 1948, not least due to the connection between the two events.


A Palestinian man watches a school in a refugee camp, 1948 (photo via wikimedia. license CC)

However, it is the silence — and attempts at silencing — on the part of the state of the less than pleasant aspects of the 1948 War that may cause certain segments of Israeli civil society to “mention the war.”

This happened in Lebanon following the civil war (1975-1990) due to the state and its leaders’ defining silence vis-a-vis the conflict, pushing civil society groups to deal with the war and even force the state to recognize it. That struggle made several important gains, including opening a new museum commemorating the war, built in a house that was used as a sniping position during the conflict.

From this perspective, one can view Sela and Kadish’s new book as a call to action. This is not only because the book does not only turn memory (and forgetfulness) and the historical narrative of the 1948 War into a topic of research — on both the Israeli and Palestinian side — but because it encourages both academic and public discussion on topics that the state prefers to remain silent on, and sometimes even silence those who raise them.

Oren Barak is an associate professor in political science and international relations at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a research fellow at The Forum for Regional Thinking where ths article was first published in Hebrew.

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    1. i_like_ike52i

      Actually, Israel has dealt with it very well. The Arabs proclaimed a genocidal jihad against the Jewish yishuv, and fortunately it was defeated and the Palestinians paid the price, just like the Germans did after their aggression of the Second World War.

      It’s the Arabs who have not been able to absorb the message of their defeat.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Itshak Gordin Halevy

      Why don’t you write that Benny Morris has later totally changed his mind and admitted that he had mistaken.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Tony Riley

      Israel captured more territory in 1973 than 1967

      Reply to Comment
    4. Bernie X

      Jews fleeing Arab countries after the War of Independence were similarly housed in tents in refugee camps, but the sons and daughters of the Jewish refugees are living in high rises and single family homes in a free and democratic State.

      Reply to Comment
    5. i_like_ike52

      It’s the Arab side that has a serious problem coping with so-called “Nakba”. Other nations have suffered worse setbacks but that didn’t prevent them from moving on and building a better life for their people. The problem the “progressives” don’t understand is that the Arabs do not view the refugees as a “humanitarian” problem, they are seen as a political weapon, which is why the other Arab countries, with the possible exception of Jordan, don’t care in the least about the condition of the refugees. Thus, the refugees themselves have no right to give up their personal claims and demands of the “right of return”. For them to accept it merely as a humanitarian problem and then to accept compensation and go live elsewhere would be treason to the Arab/Muslim umma of the highest order. Essentially, they are nothing more than cannon fodder. Thus, the nakba is not a problem for the refugees, or even just the Palestinians, it is shame and humiliation of the highest order for the whole Arab/Muslim world, which according to their faith, is destined to rule the entire world. How can a dhimmi people suddenly rise up and defeat the Arabs/Muslims?

      By having “progressives” continually feed the grievances of the Palestinians and egging them on to demand vengeance instead of compromise, they are not working for “peace” as they claim, but are deliberately keeping the conflict going by making the Palestinians think that “progressive” Jews and non-Jews are going to do their work for them.

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        But it’s obvious it’s the Palestinians who want to compromise and it is the Israelis who do not.

        Reply to Comment
      • Mark

        Sadly I am forced to agree with you. While there’s massive objection to 500K Israeli settlers in the WB their presence simply demonstrates the failure of the Jordan to settle their own people on the land, leaving them instead in camps.

        Reply to Comment
      • Bernie X


        I completely agree with you.

        Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        The presence of Israeli settlers in the West Bank demonstrates the failure of Jordan to settle their own people on the land? Makes no sense.

        Reply to Comment
    6. Lewis from Afula

      Was the American War of Independence a British Nakba?
      Was WW2 a German Nakba?
      The more you think about it, the more you realize that the Arabs deserved their Nakba !

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        Bogus analogies. Try these:

        Was WWII a Jewish Nakba?
        Was the German invasion of Poland a Polish Nakba?
        Was the Japanese occupation of Nanking a Chinese Nakba?
        Was the colonization of the Americas by European colonialists an American First Nations Nakba?

        Reply to Comment
        • Lewis from Afula

          Well, the best analogy is the expulsion of Mizrachi Jews from Arab States. That is the JEWISH NAKBA.

          Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            Simply untrue. Not so simple. Not actually. Israel saw it as a major Zionist achievement to ingather the exiles. A core aspect of “the Zionist vision.” It was, far from being a nakba, a major strategic victory, born of both necessity and opportunity. Yes it involved many injustices and personal tragedies. But from a right wing pov why was this ingathering a “Jewish nakba?” The right talks all the time about “the demographic threat.” Where would you be without these Mizrachi? Israel could on behalf of these people seek compensation in international courts. But of course you will make scant headway in the international legal arena while you refuse to acknowledge and come to terms with the Palestinian nakba. (It disturbs me that implicitly you are demoting the Holocaust to something less than a nakba and something less than the expulsion of the Mizrachi Jews. You probably did this inadvertently but it’s where your reasoning leads.)

            Reply to Comment
          • Lewis from Afula

            No, that is simply NOT TRUE. The Bastard Arab State confiscation of Jewish homes, lands, properties and bank accounts represents the JEWISH NAKBA. Let’s add up the confiscated assets and determines WHO OWES MONEY TO WHO?

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            Why don’t you get together and have a conference on it? A true accounting. Wouldn’t that be something? Ya’ll fess up and give back what ya’ll took and settle damages and start over. Maybe in total dollars you’ll come out ahead. What have you got to lose? If you’re feeling so angry and cheated about it. Sensitive guy that you are.

            Reply to Comment
          • Lewis from Afula

            Typical Ben-like comment upon losing the argument:
            Why don’t you organize a conference, start a blog, set up an organization to fight this issue?

            Reply to Comment

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