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Israel's n**** word: efforts to teach it, and attempts to erase it

My thoughts about Nakba, Nakba Day, and the so-called Nakba law are simple. Silencing another’s narrative does not make that narrative go away. And in a similar vein, giving a voice to another’s narrative does not invalidate one’s own.

Silencing Nakba: efforts to erase the Nakba narrative from Israeli discourse risk backfiring. (image: CJ)

Silencing Nakba: efforts to erase the Nakba narrative from Israeli discourse risk backfiring. (image: CJ)

I commissioned the image above to convey visually what I fear currently risks haunting Israelis forever. That is, despite efforts to shun discussions about the “Nakba” – an Arabic term meaning “catastrophe” often used to reference Israel’s process of independence – the narrative simply will not go away. It will continue to creep into Israeli consciousness through the shadows and cracks. Israelis, therefore, should try to understand the perspective as seen by those who commemorate the event, rather than rejecting such narratives wholeheartedly. At the same time, Israelis should feel comfortable enough in their own history to not feel threatened by such declarations.

In general, a diversity of narratives is a good thing. And in all likeliness, the truth lies waiting to be discovered somewhere in the middle. Geographically, if a tree falls somewhere between person A and person B, there is a very good chance that the eyewitness testimony of both individuals will differ. Person A may go so far as to call Person B a liar. B may spend his entire life refuting A’s testimony. Still, each will stand his ground, insisting on sharing his words and memories. That’s okay, and it’s nothing to fear. An honest discussion that includes both individuals may reveal there to be some truth in each’s versions.

Winston Churchill once noted, “History is written by the victors.”  That does not mean those who did not get to claim victory do not have a history to tell. It means theirs has been less told, but not necessarily less valid. One of the most fascinating courses I ever took during my years as an undergraduate student at UCLA was a sociology lecture entitled something like “Re-writing history from the perspective of the minority.” I am sure the actual title was more academic, but essentially that was the point. The course itself was eye-opening, the stories shared by students were engaging. And I am reminded of those lessons today. It is clear that the Arab inhabitants of what is now known as the modern State of Israel witnessed the developments of May 1948 in a way that was different to the Jews. Israelis should now hear them. Continuing to reject their testimonies only hinders Israel and Israelis.

Israeli leaders are managing the present, their public is hoping for a future. But together, the country and its people need to address the past. And in as honest a way as possible, through engagement, interaction and conversation. And respect. And respect! As Israeli sociology student Tom Pessah writes on +972, these truths can be inconvenient. But Israelis should reject attempts to drown out a people’s narrative for the sake of convenience. And by extension, supporters of Palestinian rights (including other Arabs and some media) need to give greater consideration to the Israeli narrative. I will use the 2006 Israeli-Hezbollah war as an example, which I cited on a number of occasions during my years as a producer at Al Jazeera English. It is true that images of an elderly woman walking through the rubble of her home after it has been shelled by Israeli fighter jets can be compelling. And her story of anguish is a valid one. But so too is that of a young teenage boy in northern Israel who spent his entire summer dodging rockets in a bomb shelter. The pictures may be less exciting, the story less inciting, but the narrative is just as valid. And the long-term impact on both must be considered. Telling the elderly woman’s story does not invalidate the boy’s story. And telling the boy’s story, repeatedly, does not make the elderly woman’s story disappear.

Israel should recognize the diverse narratives, and should protect the rights of people to share them. Freedom of speech does not mean my freedom to say whatever I want; it means my obligation to let you say whatever you want.

And so, I am reminded of a great segment from the 1995 film “The American President,” where actor Michael Douglas defends and defines nationalism by reminding voters what that freedom is really all about. In his case, Douglas’ character – an incumbent president facing a series of mud-slinging from his rival- speaks of America. But the analogy is relevant:

You want free speech? Let’s see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who’s standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours. You want to claim this land as the land of the free? Then the symbol of your country can’t just be a flag; the symbol also has to be one of its citizens exercising his right to burn that flag in protest. Show me that, defend that, celebrate that in your classrooms. Then, you can stand up and sing about the “land of the free”.

Read also:
For Palestinians, the Nakba is not history
Rightists disrupt Nakba ceremony at Tel Aviv University
Why the inconvenient truths of the Nakba must be recognized

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    1. Rehmat

      Personally, I tends to agree with Dr. Norman Finkelstein mother’s interpretation of Holocaust: “Jews or anyone else doesn’t has the monopoly over Holocaust. Korean had it, American Indians had it – and now Palestinians are going through it”.

      ”The old will die and the young will forget (Nakba).” David Ben Gurion, first Zionist prime minister said in 1948. However, like the European Jews, Native Palestinian Muslims and Christians refuse to forget their Holocaust after 64 years.


      Reply to Comment
    2. A note on real American flag burning. The US Supreme Court faced the issue twice, first over a Texas law criminalizing flag burning, then over a Federal law doing the same. In both cases, about a year apart, the Court voided the laws, 5-4. Strange however, are two of the votes: Newly appointed Justice Scalia, soon to be the champion of conservatism on the Court, voted to nullify; now retired Justice Stevens, most liberal of all Justices for most of his time on the bench, voted with the minority. In both cases Stevens wrote an impassioned dissent. His reasoning was core emotional: having served in WW II, he recognized the pain of those having lost people in military service, or who might have people in military service. He said it was an afront to being American.
      When we face death, principles change. In the case of Nakba, all sides know the death is probably not over, in some form. It is one thing to pity the Native American; another to see your potential opponent in mirror. As often, in Israel these deep emotions seem ever present.
      I’m on the young Justice Scalia’s side of those votes; he could have completely changed the frame of flag burning, as you use it today, with his single vote, but didn’t. Funny thing, he did it for the sake of originalism. Sometimes the divides we want or need aren’t there. Maybe that is our long term way out. One reason why we “should recognize their diverse narratives, and should protect the rights of people to share them.” (Piece, above)

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    3. XYZ

      It is certainly high time that the Arab/Muslim world recognize its role in the Jewish Nakba of the 1940’s and 1950’s when 800,000 Jews were either outright expelled or simply persecuted leading to emigration from the Arab countries.
      We are told over and over and over how “tolerant” Islam is yet Baghdad, which had 40% of its population being Jews now has none or virtually none, how Egypt has no Jews after having a population of tens of thousands of Jews, same with Syria, same with Algeria, same with Morocco, Libya, etc, etc. You are all going to have to explain this to me.
      But let’s go farther afield. (Formerly) Secular Turkey expelled its Greek Christian population and severly restricts the activities of the Orthodox Church there. How about India/Pakistan? When India was divided, a large Muslim minority remained in India, in fact, India is one of the largest Muslim countries in the world, but (tolerant) Pakistan forced virtually all its non-Muslim (Hindu, Sikh, Christian) population out.
      Yes, it is time the Arab/Muslim world confront the Nakba they created. You know, “feel the pain of the other”.

      Reply to Comment
    4. XYZ

      I forgot to add that the relevance of what I wrote regarding what Roee wrote is that since in the Left/Progressive world, the Muslim world is held up as a bastion of tolerance and progressive ideas while Israel is excoriated for being parochial, tribalist and narrow-minded, having the Arab/Muslim world own up to the Nakba they created will serve as a positive example to us Israelis as how to relate to the defeat we inflicted on the Arabs in our War for Independence. I am waiting.

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    5. danaa

      I think Israelis have a problem with commemoration of the palestinian Shoah for a very good reason. Because their own narrative will not withstand the horrible truth of what happened to the Palestinians. No matter how the “founding” of israel is couched, zionism was based – at its very core – on causing the misery of others. Worse yet, Israel’s so-called glory persists as long as it continues to inflict that misery. This is a country founded on inflicting pain, existing in that pain, and glorying in it (check out xyz above for a good example of the golem soul). Ultimately, the zionist enterprise – which has now culminated in a country dependent on inflicting pain on others and administering pain killers to itself, has a deep rot at its core – a true heart of darkness.

      Sure the heart breaks for the traumatized teenager who had to seek shelter – god forbid – in a well equipped shelter. But no, that does not remotely compare with pictures of incinerated children caused by Israeli aircraft – – as part of their punitive action against Gaza. Or the daily torture and terror inflicted on ordinary people who must navigate through check points like cattle. Checkpoints guarded by the same teenagers, now slightly older, and a bit more sadistic. That traumatized israeli kid in the shelter in the Gallilei? why – that would not be necessary if israel did not figure that several 1000 dead lebanese was a fun thing to do – or could there have been another reason?.

      The Nakba is kept under wraps in israel because the truth shall not set people free as Roee hopes. The truth is, unfortunately, too horrible and there is no way around the fact that the country’s founders were deeply soiled and compromised humans and that people’s own parents/grandparents lived off the expoiitation of the natives, even as they justified it to themselves as once victims. Israel is the story of the Native Indians brought into the 20th century. It is a tragic tale. But not one that can be told to the country’s young without causing the kind of deep trauma that would undermine their nationalist identity. it certainly wasn’t as simple as two “narratives”. It was as complicated as colonialism based on ethnic exclusion ever was. It Israel has more in common with the conquistadors than can be told comfortable. Possibly more in common with any number of marauders from time immemorial. Human history is full of hideous events of conquest and extermination of one people by another. The story of Joshua’s conquest of a land is that kind of a stroy, though that’s not how it is taught to israeli school children.

      The anger many Israelis feel is because they suspect that the victory of their colonization enterprise is not complete because they failed to do what Joshua did. Or what the Americans did to the Indians. In other words, they left too many survivors. That’s what Benny Morris believes. And he sure isn’t alone. The sad thing is that there may be much truth in that. The early israelites were too nice and left too many Arabs in their villages. They then compounded the error and left most of the palestinians in the West bank. Isn’t that what people say constantly on the streets of israel?

      I strongly doubt Israel will ever be able to allow free Nakba commemoration. At least – unlike some – I don’t live in illusion of the “two opposing narratives”. There’s truth and there’s untruth and Israel’s soul depends on the latter. It really has no other choice because the truth of one narrative – if allowed into the daylight – can but destroy the make-believe truth.

      Reply to Comment
    6. What XYZ and Danna have done, above, is try and out-trump one another in monstrocity of the other. XYZ believes that Muslims are incapable of not destroying aliens (the Pakastani/India analogy breaks, for the Muslims there are not Arabs, as he emphasizes elsewhere). Danna believes the Israelis must kill, almost as a genetic program.
      Neither side will tolerate a third position.

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    7. Elisabeth

      Greg, you misrepresent what Danaa wrote. (Btw violence against Muslims in India is quite common. Hindus can be intolerant too.)

      Reply to Comment
    8. XYZ doesn’t put all these various expulsions and ethnic cleansings into their global context. Let’s take Indo-Pak for example: when the post-WW2 British Labour government accepted that they were going to have to give India its independence, they put an already thriving program of religious divide-and-rule into high gear. For the whole of the previous century, they had assiduously posed as guardians of equal rights as between Hindus and Muslims in India; now they precipitated the breakdown of relations between Jinnah’s Muslim League and the Indian Congress Party, and set the former to agitating for independence. Pakistan was intended to be, and became, a British puppet state to substitute for the loss of India itself, with an army entirely controlled by British ‘advisors’. Indians (and not only ‘Hindus’) correctly perceived this as a British plan to perpetuate colonial power on their doorstep. Relations between Turkey and Greece were manipulated by the British in a similar way and for similar reasons: the British were intent on retaining their Cyprus airbases, and were happy to play the Greek and Turkish inhabitants off against one another, thus retaining their bases in exchange for gracious ‘concessions’ to each ‘side’ in turn. This is what empires do.

      Reply to Comment
    9. Rehmat

      XYZ – I recommend you educate yourself “why Jews ran out of Arab world” by listening to former Iraqi Zionist terrorist Naeim Giladi.

      In his book, Ben Gurion’s Scandals: How the Haganah & the Mossad Eliminated Jews, Giladi discusses the crimes committed by Zionists in their frenzy to import raw Jewish labor. Newly-vacated farmlands had to be plowed to provide food for the immigrants and the military ranks had to be filled with conscripts to defend the stolen lands. Mr. Giladi couldn’t get his book published in Israel, and even in the U.S. he discovered he could do so only if he used his own money.


      Reply to Comment
    10. aristeides

      One method of silencing is deflection.

      Reply to Comment
    11. These are the real money quotes from Naeim Giladi’s memoir, which Rehmat gave the link for.
      Mar 19 1950: bomb at the American Cultural Center and Library in Baghdad, a favorite meeting place for young Jews.
      Apr 8 1950: grenade thrown from car at Baghdad’s El-Dar El-Bida Café, where Jews were celebrating Passover.
      May 10 1950: grenade thrown at display window of the Jewish-owned Beit-Lawi Automobile Company.
      Jun 3 1950: grenade thrown from car in El-Batawin area of Baghdad.
      Jun 5 1950: bomb exploded next to Jewish-owned Stanley Shashua building on El-Rashid street.
      Jan 14 1951: grenade thrown at a group of Jews outside the Masouda Shem-Tov Synagogue, struck a high-voltage cable, electrocuting three Jews.
      It has never been established who was behind these, as far as I know, but remembering the Lavon Affair, aka Operation Susannah, in Cairo in 1954, it cannot be ruled out that an Israeli-directed group was responsible.

      Reply to Comment
    12. Ronen Zahavi

      We must remind the World of the Jewish Nakba.
      800,000 Jewish were expelled
      A World that wants to forget must not be allowed to forget!

      Reply to Comment
    13. Kolumn9

      Roee, narrative shmarative. The call to ‘recognize the other narrative’ is the sensitive, liberal, post-modernist code for granting victimhood status to the other. Where the conflict is ongoing and the narratives clash it becomes a call for undermining the collective narrative of your own side. In this particular conflict it is used as a left-wing weapon to unilaterally disarm one side and put its own frame of reference at the mercy of the gatekeepers of the narrative of the other.

      When I see an article on 972mag or for that matter any other left-wing site calling for Palestinians to accept the narrative of the Jews, I might consider changing my mind. In the meantime I will continue to denounce all Nakba narrative related prattle as the calls for the delegitimization and elimination of Israel that they obviously are, even where the author doesn’t realize what they are doing and has only the best intentions at heart.

      Reply to Comment
    14. Jack

      Interesting that you base your reality not from facts but from ethnicity.
      No one would of course embrace the israeli gov. narrative, just like anyone dont buy the arguments based on myths and unlawful actions.

      Reply to Comment
    15. Rehmat

      British veteran journalist and author, Alan Hart, in his latest article, entitled Never ending Nakba has warned the Jews around the world to fight the evil of Zionism before it’s too late.

      “If the rising global tide of anti-Israelism is not to be transformed into anti-Semitism, making another great turning against Jews everywhere inevitable at some point, the Jews of the world must play their necessary part in containing and confronting Zionism. As I never tire of pointing out, silence is not the way to refute and demolish a charge of complicity in Zionism’s crimes,” wrote Alan.


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    16. XYZ

      Does Hart really think that we are that stupid? We have already experienced “a great turning against the Jews” during the great period when all the “progressive” anti-Zionist liberals had their dream situation of NO Jewish state. You know what happened then. Do you think we intend to go back to that situation when we were landless and helpless and defenseless and we depended on the “good will” of the liberal/Progessives to save us, which they didn’t do.
      So Hart thinks it may get bad for us if we DO have a state. Thanks, but no thanks, we will take our chances with our current situation and not go back to the old, suicidal situation.

      Reply to Comment
    17. XYZ

      First of all there was a recent article showing that the bomb in the synagogue was placed by Iraqis, not the Mossad.
      Be it as it may, no Jew in Iraq could forget the Farhud massacre of Jews in Baghdad in 1941.
      I have a friend who was born in Iraq and he and others have said that after that pogrom NO JEW FELT SAFE IN IRAQ. That is why the left. In the late 1940’s a prominent Jew who was close to the royal court was arrested, tortured and forced to confess to imaginary crimes in order to save his family. He was hanged. All the Jews saw this. Don’t forget Saddam Hussein’s public hanging of Jews in Baghdad in 1970. So please don’t give us this line that “everyone was wonderful for the Jews in Iraq and only a Zionist conspiracy made them flee their Edenic existence in friendly Arab Iraq”.
      These comments we see about how supposedly good the Jews had it in the Arab countries and they were brainwashed into fleeing by Zionist propaganda is RACIST. It assumes they are stupid and didn’t understand what they were experiencing and seeing.

      Reply to Comment
    18. Elizabeth,
      One of George Washington’s first acts as commander of the Continental Army was to attack and expell some Indians who might allign with the British, possibly for good reasons. cf Danaa on Israeis unwilling to accept the ugly truth of their founding. There are always ugly truths at State foundings. America is just gotten old, so it doesn’t matter. Consider also President Jefferson’s order to his Secretary of the Interior after the Louisiana Purchase: if the natives will not become farmers, as are we, they are to be pushed across the Mississippi.
      The only place to start to deal with the past is to stop similar process today. That does not mean expunging Tel Aviv. Since Kolumn9 likes to tell leftists what they are really doing, let me mirror join: you create a radical enemy and define all opponents to be as that, thereby allowing the present slow motion expulsion of areas in the Bank to continue apace, which is your goal. The idea that everyone at a Nakba ceremony thinks identically is inane. The notion that Arab Israeli citizens want to expunge Tel Aviv no matter what happens to the economy is inane. What is, then, the real reason for this ever race war analysis?

      Reply to Comment
    19. Kolumn9

      @Greg, the notion that many Arab Israeli citizens would prefer that Israel disappear to be replaced by something else is completely independent of any thoughts of the economy. What is this obsession with economics? It is like thinking that Israel was built by people who cared primarily about the economy.

      I don’t define people like Raed Salah or Haneen Zuabi or Azmi Bishara. They exist and seem to have quite a bit of support among Israeli Arabs. I didn’t classify them as radical, just that they have a vision of a future without Israel and I am not going to pretend that they are marginal. It is indeed inane to to pretend that everyone at a Nakba ceremony thinks identically, and yet it is equally absurd to believe that an event created by the PLO and organized by groups that reject Israel’s existence is not a political event with a distinct narrative and goal. Even if you point to Israeli Jewish organizations behind the gatherings like Zochrot you are pointing to an organization that was founded by someone who ‘wants to live as a minority in a democratic country’.

      Reply to Comment