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Israel's Nakba Law: Is it time for civil disobedience?

The discourse around the Nakba law–which tries to stop public institutions from marking the Palestinian disaster, through funding cuts–feeds Israel’s persecution complex. Trying to legislate history out of existence means losing touch with reality

Nakba

A Palestinian man and a girl in a refugee camp, 1948 (photo via Wikimedia, license CC)


Years ago, I commented to someone that after twenty years of occupation, Israel should not have been entirely surprised by the outbreak of the first Intifada in 1987. My interlocutor, an Israeli with a security and intelligence background, accused me of a broad spectrum of cognitive failings before I stood up and walked out.  Then just a few days ago, a senior Israeli government official said (I’m paraphrasing an unofficial conversation), “why are we always surprised when something dramatic happens? And then next time it happens – we’re surprised all over again.”

Perhaps we are surprised because the best minds of our generation are buried in minutia, and avoiding the big picture at all costs. Micro-policy in Israel is more popular than micro-chips. It’s the Goldstone report, not the Gaza policy that counts; it’s the two-month settlement freeze, not the two-state solution that counts. We have a great macro economy but no macro analysis. Failing to read the big picture leads to big failures.

When the Nakba Law passed , some argued that the actual, “softened” text is really not so bad – or even that it’s great. The law does not ban observation of the Nakba – the experience of the Palestinian people of Israel during the war of Independence. It merely allows (doesn’t require) fines (not full funding cuts) for public institutions (not private) that teach the Nakba. Anyone who wants to commemorate the Nakba privately on Independence Day is welcome to do so. How much will really change? (Note that the same argument is applied to the equally dangerous “admission committee” law, which – according to the letter – bars discrimination based on race and ethnicity, but in practice, legitimizes this very discrimination through legal protection.)

Sometimes the devil is not in the details.

In the big picture, Israel is laying the emotional groundwork for ethnic conflict.

Palestinian citizens of Israel feel every shot fired at them, literally and symbolically, by the state of Israel. With Jewish-Arab relations in a free fall, this bill communicates to them: “The state rejects you and will deny your history however possible.” If there was any doubt, the discourse from the hate-spewing Israel Beitenu surrounding the law, quoted in Ynet, makes it very clear:

Yisrael Beiteinu MK David Rotem explained in a speech before the plenum that “when we are at war against a harsh enemy, we will legislate laws that will prevent him from hurting us.”

It is heart-wrenching to know that our national representatives sat there and let Rotem describe 20% of the Israeli citizenry as a “harsh enemy.”

Likewise, when ultra-nationalist civil society group Im Tirtzu prints pamphlets that read as if they were written by frat jocks on steroids, writing that the entire aim of the Nakba is “a pack of lies…to justify the struggle to destroy Israel,” one simply has to doubt their intellectual sincerity (and faculties). The screaming, hysterical – but naked – text (apologies to Ginsberg, again) also informs us that the Nakba exists to destroy the international recognition of the State of Israel’s right to exist, and to convict Israel for crimes it didn’t commit. All this before launching into a long lamentation of Arab violence against Jews.  If Arabs in Israel hear, over and over, that they are seeking the final destruction of Israel, they might eventually begin to believe it – and no one should be surprised. However, I credit them that they will not be mindlessly manipulated.

In the big picture, the debate surrounding this law has spawned hate-mongering and low-intelligence provocation.

Such accusations have a tendency to go reciprocal, contributing to what Stuart Kaufman, a scholar of ethnic conflict calls a “security dilemma,” in which each side perceives the other as an existential threat and therefore each side’s security policy must cause insecurity to the other. In the 1980s, Serbian nationalist Dobrica Cosic’s writings about Albanian conspiracies against Serbs in the 1980s, ratcheted up Serb nationalism that stoked one of the bloodiest wars in post-war Europe. Former Balkan International Crisis Group director Christopher Bennett said that Cosic’s writings were:

Myth, fantasy, half-truths and brazen lies…The conspiracy theory dreamed up by frustrated nationalists… became the literal truth.

Every conceivable event from Serb history was dredged up and distorted to feed the persecution complex of ordinary people…The atmosphere was so heated and the campaign so all-encompassing that people lost touch with reality.

Im Tirzu’s rantings are of the same ilk. In the bigger picture, the discourse around the Nakba law feeds Israel’s persecution complex. Trying to legislate history out of existence means losing touch with reality. Israel already fantasizes that it can cling to the status quo regarding the conflict and do nothing. This law builds an internal national fantasy that we can excise the reality of one-fifth of our citizenry and the seminal events of our country. The precedent of legislating away history is awful: why not deny Dir Yassin or Kfar Kassem next? And if that happens, why not just strike the law of refusing illegal orders, a legislative symbol of combat morality, as well?

In the bigger picture of Israeli democracy, the Nakba law is one more limitation on free thought, speech, and action, as many have already observed. Instead of reading laws through blinders and then deciding they’re really not so anti-democratic, we should recall that the earlier version called for full criminalization of commemorating the Nakba, including a three-year prison sentence as punishment (Hebrew).

So if democratic values continue to erode, we shouldn’t be surprised.

And yet, none of this is inevitable. The cycle can still be stopped, and it’s upon us, the citizens, to put all our resources into shifting course, since the government is too blind to see the big picture. Here’s are some suggestions:

1. National Nakba Learning Day: All citizens, institutions and public or private schools who care to preserve both democracy and ethnic relations can undertake a day of learning our shared history. Jewish Israelis will benefit by acknowledging our history and letting it form part of their conscience. Palestinians will benefit by knowing that they have partners in Israeli society who seek mutual respect and understanding –and value the truth.

Democracy values whole truths, not half or one-sided. If the country undertakes a nationally organized Nakba teach-in, the material can be developed by experts from all communities, to produce the most comprehensive possible narrative in which neither Jews nor Palestinians have exclusive claim to the dubious privilege of being victims.

2. Civil Disobedience: National Nakba Learning Day can be observed on Independence Day, to protest a law that is totally inappropriate for a healthy democracy. Breaking such a law constitutes no clear and present threat to anyone – this is far less thorny disobedience than refusing a military order. Do it.

3. It is worth noting that democracy should celebrate painful truths, but not pain for its own sake. That’s why free speech does not cover incitement to violence, for example. On this point, the Nakba law legitimately seeks to curtail speech supporting terror activities, and incitement to racial or ethnic hatred. If these are stripped of national or ethnic connotations, applied equally to every single citizen, de-linked from the Nakba, and the name of the bill is changed – let the bill remain as a tribute to the value of free and civil discourse among all the people of Israel.

Otherwise, I fear, the Nakba (Law) will take its revenge.

Read more in +972 Magazine’s Remembering the Nakba project:

Eitan Bronstein: Nakba Law: Inside Pandora’s Box
Joseph Dana: Occupation & Nakba: Interview with Ariella Azoulay & Adi Ophir
Yossi Gurvitz: Rightwing group publishes Nakba denial booklet
Noam Sheizaf: Why Jews need to talk about the Nakba

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    COMMENTS

    1. Abban Aziz

      why should any government fund one-sided, propagandic narratives designed to divide a nation?

      the arabs were not a passive victim to israel’s independence. they lost a war and instead of fessing up to the decades of self-destruction they resort to half-truths like the “nakba.”

      it is the palestinians who peddle the victimhood, not israel.

      israel is a winner. all muslim states can do is bitch, moan, and complain. if israel is so terrible feel free to move.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Abban, Israel should be actively involved in studying and teaching its own history, both the glorious and the less glorious parts. The whole truth will tell that both sides made terrible mistakes, and both sides suffered for them. I wrote as much in the article, but I’m not sure you got that far. Further, this really has nothing to do with Muslim states, rather it’s about citizens of Israel and domestic political and national culture. Again, i think this point was lost on you – let me recommend a more careful read.

      Reply to Comment
    3. sh

      The unprecedented degree to which the Nakba has been discussed in the media today shows that Rotem’s law has been an overwhelming success. – For raising awareness of the Nakba, that is!

      Reply to Comment
    4. mg

      your first suggestion reminds me a fellow arab student who(at 21),sadly, didn’t know what decision 181 is.the narratives are 1-dimensioned and severely lacking in both sides.speaking of valuing the truth…

      Reply to Comment
    5. max

      From what I read the Nakba isn’t about history but about politics, including the right of return.
      Israelis need to learn history. In that context, I think that the level of knowledge Israelis have about the history of the Jews in Arab countries is much more appalling than their ignorance of the Arab “narrative” called Nakba.
      I also think that the Arab Palestinians may learn from the Jewish history that remembering olden days doesn’t create a Home; it’s the view of a better future that does.

      Reply to Comment
    6. max

      The so called Nakba has 2 aspects:
      1) The grief of the approx. 600,000 people who lost their home following a war their leaders insigated
      2) The unique historical development in which the Arab states decided to forbid the integration of these people into their countries, despite the fact that they created the problem and the UN’s management of this refugee problem in a way that ensured its perpetuation: a dedicated agency, higher pay, inheritance of the status.
      Obviously, their political agenda was / is more important than the lives of the refugees.

      Reply to Comment
    7. directrob

      @Max
      The Nakba has many aspects:
      1) The Israeli chasing away the Palestinians
      2) Denial of Palestinians ROR
      3) Denial of Palestinians civil rights in Israel
      4) Denial by Israeli
      5) Refusal of the world to force Israel to recognize Palestinian rights.
      6) Misery for 5 Million or so Palestinians (many did follow your advice and integrated somewhere else)
      .
      Israel is responsible for the first four, do not lay the blame with others.

      Reply to Comment
    8. Dannecker

      here is the macro picture
      1) Israelis exercise their right of return to Eurpoe
      2) Palestinians exercise their right of return to Palestine

      only then will there be peace. I hope that the 972 staff will be out to defend the Arab who is unjustly accused of a terrorist attack today

      Reply to Comment
    9. max

      Director, so we finally find points of disagreement!
      I have a simplistic view, in which I differentiate between people, leaders and nations and use historical parallels to assess relative culpability.
      You have a sophisticated view where the cause and effect are interchangeable and time is amorphous.
      BTW I didn’t understand your 4th point

      Reply to Comment
    10. Abban Aziz

      “1) Israelis exercise their right of return to Eurpoe
      2) Palestinians exercise their right of return to Palestine
      only then will there be peace.”

      Wow, aren’t you a bigot. Forget the fact that the majority of Israel’s population are decedents of Jewish expelled from Muslim states?

      Why don’t you go back to Europe you American settler. Seriously, leave.

      And the Arab world should leave the land they stole and go back to Arabia. The Russians should pull out and go back to the East. Whites should South Africa.

      Right right right?

      Reply to Comment
    11. directrob

      @max, Point four is not for you, but the Nakba law comes close to official state denial.
      .
      As for sophisticated, I am simple, villagers and town people chased (or that fled) from their houses should after 49 have been allowed to return. I am not interested in the process, that just complicates things.
      In the now Israel better starts working on a fair one or two state solution.

      Reply to Comment
    12. max

      Director,
      1) The law: it really comes down to the question of what the Nakba means… if it simply means “in parallel to your joy of independence, remember that 600,000 people lost their home to make your country bigger than expected”, then I agree; if the meaning is “you have no rights here” – why would a government pay for that?
      2) RoR: as if nothing happened, and please try again next time? As I challenged you on another post: any precedences?
      3) 2-state: all with you, it’s a f***g problem of trust / security that needs to be solved (a 1-state can’t be Jewish)

      Reply to Comment
    13. […] & Adi Ophir Yossi Gurvitz: Rightwing group publishes Nakba denial booklet Dahlia Scheindlin: Nakba Law: Is it time for civil disobedience? Noam Sheizaf: Why Jews need to talk about the Nakba Comments2|Tags  2 comments for […]

      Reply to Comment
    14. RichardNYC

      “Trying to legislate history out of existence means losing touch with reality”

      classic 972 straw man hyperbole: denying public money to an ideological agenda does not take anything away from the history, which is well documented, and studied at the highest level of Israeli academia. It would be nice if 972 could actually respond to the reality of what’s happening in Israel instead of writing about a fictional world that is created for straw man infotainment purposes

      Reply to Comment
    15. RichardNYC

      “In the big picture, Israel is laying the emotional groundwork for ethnic conflict”
      —>Actually its doing the opposite, by attempting to head-off the Palestinianization of Israeli Arabs. Ethnic conflict requires morale, which BDS and 972 are eager to provide to Israeli Arabs. For there to be a conflict, both sides need to believe they can win; letting Israeli Arabs use state money to campaign against Jewish self-determination and security would help to create that belief.
      “also informs us that the Nakba exists to destroy the international recognition of the State of Israel’s right to exist, and to convict Israel for crimes it didn’t commit”
      —>It does–> it serves a purpose corollary to the Nakba-denying Zionist version of history–>the “Nakba” is not the foundation of mutual tolerance and understanding, it is the ideological foundation of perpetual war
      “If Arabs in Israel hear, over and over, that they are seeking the final destruction of Israel, they might eventually begin to believe it – and no one should be surprised”
      —>A hypocritical inversion of reality, since the Israeli Arab leadership is the main culprit, and hysterical leftist activists like 972 are the ones sowing the seeds of panic about laws that would not raise an eyebrow in any other democracy, and which already exist in many
      “In the big picture, the debate surrounding this law has spawned hate-mongering and low-intelligence provocation.”
      —>coming dangerously close to acknowledging 972’s incitement here
      “Palestinians will benefit by knowing that they have partners in Israeli society who seek mutual respect and understanding –and value the truth.”
      —>hilarious. Actually, they’ll just thank you and ask when the Jews are going to be expelled from Safed and other places
      “So if democratic values continue to erode, we shouldn’t be surprised.”
      —>You’re right. As long as 972 and co. continues to incite Israeli Arabs into a nationalist confrontation with Israeli Jews, democratic values will erode.
      “Democracy values whole truths, not half or one-sided”
      —>you’re right, which is why the Nakba version of history, which is rendered non-history by omission of Arab crimes, is not the whole truth. Nothing is stopping education institutions from teaching 1948 accurately. Mourning is different activity. Its kind of hard to imagine anyone accusing the USA of being undemocratic because it does not use taxpayer money to lament wounded knee or the trail of tears. The events are taught in school, which is enough. 972 “democracy”=not Israel.
      “That’s why free speech does not cover incitement to violence, for example”
      —>Yes, I suppose today’s events were totally nonviolent. All the stone throwing want is for Israel to let Arabs use public money to lament the Nakba, then they’ll be satisfied that “free speech” exists and will calm down. Because mythologizing the “Nakba” doesn’t really tend to incite anyone to violence around here or anything…

      Reply to Comment
    16. Abban Aziz

      i bet this richard troll is richard silverstein. always prowling the net to spread his propaganda.

      Reply to Comment
    17. RichardNYC, please read our comments policy, which you have violated. Your next comment will be deleted – please keep them short, to the point, non-repetitive. You are welcome to open your own blog if you find you have more to say.

      Max, please avoid even suggestions of profanity on our site.

      Reply to Comment
    18. RichardNYC

      @Dahlia
      sorry my bad, twas a bit lot
      @Abban Aziz
      I’m confused. Based on your posts it looks like we agree. Why the hostility?

      Reply to Comment
    19. max

      Richard: sarcasm

      Reply to Comment

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