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On the Nakba, Jewish identity and memory

On Monday, the eve of Nakba Day, I attended a book launch for the memoirs of five elderly Holocaust survivors who emigrated from Europe to Canada after the Second World War. The event took place in the main sanctuary of a large, well-established Conservative synagogue in a prosperous area of Toronto, very much like the one I attended as a child in Vancouver. Canadian and Israeli flags hung from flagpoles at either side of the pulpit. The director of the non-profit foundation that edits, publishes and distributes the memoirs gave an eloquent speech; this was followed by a series of short documentary films that featured interviews with each of the authors, all of whom were in the audience.

These elderly Jews recounted disparate experiences of surviving the Holocaust. A Czech woman and a Hungarian woman survived as children because their parents sent them away to live as Christians – one in a convent, the other with a non-Jewish family in a different town. Another woman survived because she escaped from Poland to the Soviet Union and was sent at age 16 to a forced labour camp in Siberia. A man escaped occupied France as a 16 year-old by swimming a freezing river and climbing the Pyrenees, only to be arrested by Spanish police and interned in a labor camp under extremely harsh conditions. And another was shipped from Lodz to Auschwitz-Birkenau when he was 15, but survived the death camp due to remarkable good fortune. They told their stories with unusual candor and a notable lack of sentimentality. One of the men, Max Bornstein, said the extreme loneliness of being the only survivor of his family precipitated a nervous breakdown after the war, and that he had never really recovered emotionally.

But these five survivors were unanimous about one thing: The experience of writing their memoirs and seeing them published was immensely cathartic and meaningful. Their history was recorded now; it would not be forgotten after they died.

While I watched the films about these amateur authors who had survived, as one of them put it, due to a combination of sheer luck and the willingness of total strangers to risk their lives for them, a little part of my mind was busy worrying about the post I had promised to write about the Nakba – the Palestinian dispersal and dispossession of 1948.

Like so many conventionally educated Jewish children, I knew a lot about the Holocaust from a very young age – too much, perhaps. It is probably the most thoroughly documented historical event of all time, and I grew up at a time when there were middle-aged survivors everywhere – like the woman who taught me religion and Bible when I was 7 years old, or the woman with the camp tattoo on her arm who ran the snack concession at the Jewish Community Center, where I took my swimming lessons, or the distant cousin who had been a Mengele twin. Most of them are dead now, of course. It’s been nearly 70 years since the war ended.

Over and over, our teachers emphasized that the Holocaust was a unique event – that comparing it to any other crime was an insult to the memories of our dead. Genocide is not, unfortunately, a unique crime, although the Nazis did manage to add the unprecedented element of industrialized slaughter. It is important to record and remember one’s own history; we Jews understand that well, and have recorded our history carefully. The people who instigated the genocide of the Jews have acknowledged their crimes, asked forgiveness, made restitution payments, outlawed Nazism and made Holocaust studies part of their school curriculum. One can never really apologize for committing genocide, but acknowledgment and accepting responsibility are essential. Otherwise it’s not possible to move on.

Very few Israelis and / or Jews are willing to accept and acknowledge the pain caused the Palestinian people by the Nakba. We deny, deflect, turn away, ignore. We get angry. We accuse those amongst us who wish to remember and record, like Zochrot, of undermining the state of Israel or denying Jews their right to self-determination. Or of being traitors. How can the act of remembering be a betrayal?

We compare forced exile and dispossession to Auschwitz and Babi Yar and say the Palestinians couldn’t possibly know about real suffering. We claim that 800,000 Jews from Arab countries became refugees after 1948, as if that were the fault of the Palestinians or as if that justified the exile of the equivalent number of Palestinians from their homes. We ask what’s the matter with the Arab states, why don’t they take care of their fellow Arabs instead of leaving them to rot in refugee camps.

We praise MK Ahmed Tibi for addressing the Knesset with a moving, empathetic speech about the trauma caused by the Holocaust, but we jeer or ignore him when he points out that the Arab towns in Israel lack basic services and infrastructure, or that not a single new Arab town has been built since 1948, while new Jewish settlements are built constantly, both inside the 1948 borders of Israel and in the West Bank.

In 1950, the American journalist Dorothy Thompson narrated a 30-minute newsreel-style documentary about the Palestinian refugees, with footage and facts that I saw and heard for the first time when I watched it a few months ago. The film is called The Sands of Sorrow and I’ve embedded it below. It includes some odd orientalist commentary here and there, but the overall effect is powerful; it really brings home the meaning of the word ‘nakba,’ or catastrophe. I am sure that most Palestinians my age grew up listening to their parents and grandparents talk about this time in their history, just as I heard stories about Cossacks and pogroms and death camps. But no-one ever told me it didn’t happen or it was my fault or it wasn’t that bad compared to the suffering of other peoples. That kind of revisionism was considered socially unacceptable and ethically reprehensible. And rightly so.

Some of the more shocking statements in The Sands of Sorrow:

  • Two years after 1948, 750,000 people were still living in tents or caves in the desert
  • They were subsisting on 1,400 calories a day – 300 less than the necessary minimum
  • Many of the camps had only one well to provide water for 10,000 people
  • There was only one doctor and three nurses for every 20,000 people
  •  Only one baby out of five survived past the age of six months


As a very good friend of mine, who grew up in a national-religious Zionist home, once said to me, “It’s not good for the Jewish soul to ignore these things.”


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    1. dana

      Did you run out of energy to finish coming to a conclusion — perhaps something like inflicting human suffering on others is morally wrong?

      Reply to Comment
    2. caden

      I’m really mystified has to what you people want to heppen here. Ok, the “nakba” or what I call losing a war that you started and then complaining about it for 64 years was the worst atrocity ever commited. Babi Yar was nothing compared to the nakba. ( btw how is that their numbers keep increasing every year ) The nefarious Jews came upon the noble Arabs in their marble houses and genocided them. All part of the elders plan. I’ll stipulate to that. Lisa, what would make you happy and elleviate your Jewish angst. Tell us, please.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Don P study…. Nakba & Holocaust :
      No one has ze ownership of ze word Disaster…
      We are All One

      Reply to Comment
    4. Ohad

      it is simply not true I acknowledge the pain, but the Palestinian Nakba is the Israelis self determination and independence in Israel .
      to accept that Israelis will have to give up their basic right to be free and equal among the nations given to them by law.

      once the Nakba will be about… fine our grandparents did wrong, lets move on accept compensation , sorry , forgiveness and so on , and live side by side in peace I will have no problem with the Nakba.
      as long is the Nakba is the existence of Israel, and Tel Aviv and Haifa and Ako then sorry we have a conflict

      Reply to Comment
    5. holocaust,,holocaust ,, so what ?
      it’s not the Palestinian who killed jews in holocaust . European People who did so . so why jews did take Palestinian’s lands . it’s not wise to solve the problem by another problem which is much bigger 🙁 one day Palestinian will return ,,i’m sure they won’t forget their right of returning 😀

      Reply to Comment
    6. aristeides

      Ohad drivelled – “to accept that Israelis will have to give up their basic right to be free and equal among the nations”

      What a load of bull!

      Reply to Comment
    7. Cortez

      Ohad and Caden:

      You can’t be joking right?

      Reply to Comment
    8. Caden,
      I suspect Nakba serves two present functions: to deny the opponent control over memory; and to provide a recurrent symbol for a semblance of social institution. You can say the West Bank should “simply agree to peace,” but the present measures suggest that peace will mean complete Israeli control over the Bank, proxy or direct. You knights ascendant are creating a servile population without citizenship. If you want a workable, albeit with much struggle, relief from angst–how about full civil rights for Arab/Palestinian Israelis, for those born in the Israel of 67, just to make it easier. I assure you: someday you will have to face this question throughout the Bank. I think your hopes will win in Gaza, but not the Bank.
      But, all you have to do presently is deny that anything needs to be done–in Israel proper. That is all your social economy requires of you right now. I do wonder what you would have been like in Jim Crow America.

      Reply to Comment
    9. Shlomo Krol

      I think it is obvious why the Nakba is not easy for Jews to recognize. There are three reasons. One is that the events themselves, their historical background and their understanding are disputed. There are some who try to claim that the Nakba renders Israel itself less “legitimate”. Second – the Nakba is ongoing. Hundreds of thousands still live in refugee camp. There is still no country which Palestinians could call theirs. The whole nation are either refugees or oppressed or both.
      It’s like Turkey which denies the genocide of Armenians and Assyrians (I don’t compare these two historical events, of course) stems probably from the fear that Armenia could claim territory, occupied and annexed by Turkey.
      As long as the conflict is not solved and the problem is not solved, it would be difficult for Jews to admit Nakba.

      Reply to Comment
    10. excellent piece!

      Reply to Comment
    11. Zvi

      This piece is truly thought provoking. I agree with PETER NORDEVANG – “No one has ze ownership of ze word Disaster”.
      In the same manner of thought we should begin to commemorate the Nazi German Nakba. How many poor Nazis lost their lives and homes due to the Allied force’s atrocities? It is about time the world recognized the sorrow and suffering of the Germans who were transferred out of their homes in what is now called Poland (really just occupied German territory). Maybe after this evil is rectified, Israel will come around to rectifying the evils brought upon the poor Palestinians.

      Reply to Comment
    12. Mikesailor

      ZVI: Truly pathetic. “Maybe after this evil is rectified Israel ‘will come around’ to rectifying the evils brought upon the poor Palestinians’. When pigs fly in other words. Israeli Jews have no such intention and continually deny their victimization of the Palestinians which is why they cannot discuss the Nakba but instead attempt to deny its existence. Grow up. Israel committed crimes, that is nothing new. Yet, the curious aspect of this is the Israeli intransigence and non-recognition of the fact that the criminal activity is ongoing. That is really the crux of the ‘Nakba’ debate. It would be one thing to accept history and learn from it, change and create a better paradigm. It is quite another to hold on to a fantasy of the victimizers displaying themselves as victims and avoiding responsibility for not only the past but the present as well.

      Reply to Comment
    13. Bronxman

      Mother Courage and Her Children (1939)
      Bertolt Brecht

      “War is like love, it always finds a way.”
      The Chaplain, in Scene 6, p. 76
      Evolution has a long way to go to eliminate man’s moral failings. In the meantime we have nascent human institutions such as the International Court of Justice and the World Criminal Court to establish Justice. But, unfortunately they are limited to handling “after the fact” not prevention.

      Reply to Comment
    14. rogez

      Comment deleted because it was too long. Reader is welcome to re-submit a short comment that includes a hyperlink to the source he quotes. Do not copy and paste in long texts taken from other sources. Lisa

      Reply to Comment
    15. rogez@gmail.com

      Edited for excessively rude language.

      Cablegram to the United Nations of the then Secretary of the Arab League setting out their intention to invade the UN-mandated partition territory of the State of Israel and establish as a member of the Arab League a State of Palestine over the entire territory of the Mandate.


      Reply to Comment
    16. This article is not about comparing tragedies; in fact, there are no comparisons in the article. It is about acknowledging suffering.

      Reply to Comment
    17. dickerson3870

      RE: “Very few Israelis and / or Jews are willing to accept and acknowledge the pain caused the Palestinian people by the Nakba. We deny, deflect, turn away, ignore.” ~ Lisa Goldman

      FROM GEORGE ORWELL: “…All nationalists have the power of not seeing resemblances between similar sets of facts. A British Tory will defend self-determination in Europe and oppose it in India with no feeling of inconsistency. Actions are held to be good or bad, not on their own merits, but according to who does them, and there is almost no kind of outrage — torture, the use of hostages, forced labour, mass deportations, imprisonment without trial, forgery, assassination, the bombing of civilians — which does not change its moral colour when it is committed by ‘our’ side. . .
      . . . The nationalist not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, but he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them. . .” ~ George Orwell, “Notes on Nationalism” (1945)

      Reply to Comment
    18. Rana

      “Only one baby out of five survived past the age of six months”

      wow. that itself is a Holocaust.

      Reply to Comment
    19. Tomer

      What about the Jewish Nakba?
      The ethnic cleansing of 800,000 Sefardi Jews?
      Is it worthy of being remembered?

      Reply to Comment
    20. The dispersal of the Jews from Arab countries is remembered. There are many books on the subject.

      The Jews from Arab countries were not, for the most part, refugees. Their dispersal is not called a nakba. They moved to Israel, France, Canada, the United States and other countries and they became citizens of those countries.

      They did not all leave their home countries in 1948. They left in waves, mostly from the mid-1950s on, due to the policies of their governments – eg, Nasser nationalized private businesses and expelled all ‘foreigners’ – Greeks, Italians, etc. Moroccan, Algerian and Tunisian Jews were never expelled. They left for a variety of reasons, largely having to do with their alignment with the French during the colonial era. Qadhafi expelled the Jews in the 1960s. There was a functioning, organized Jewish community in Syria until the 1980s. The Lebanese Jewish community actually grew larger after 1948, with its number declining in the late 1960s and 1970s. The Iraqi Jews were expelled mostly during the 1950s.

      The Jews from Arab countries were not dispersed by the Palestinians.

      Reply to Comment
      • Gil Franco

        I agree that 1948 was a tragedy for Palestinian Arabs but your treatment of the subject is so characteristic of the Israeli left and part of the reason it never seems to convince a majority of Israelis. You are only capable of empathy for one side.

        It was tragic for Palestinian Jews too, who lost a full one percent of their population in the attack by the Arab League. Many of those who died and of those who survived on the Jewish side had already suffered grievous losses in the previous decade.

        Why do you have to treat the experience of Jews who left the Arab world in the aftermath of 1948 with same denial, derision and deflection that you complain about with regard to the Nakba. Sorry if it isn’t convenient for your political views but it sucked to get thrown out of Egypt and Iraq and have your property taken away from you, to live under the threat of arrest and arbitrary violence. There may be books on the subject but it doesn’t seem like you have read any of them. Some of the people that experienced this persecution are in Canada, you can ask them what it was like. The distinctions you make are frivolous and are designed to subordinate the suffering of Jews to your political views. So the Jews left the Arab countries in waves, the Arabs left Jerusalem, Haifa, and Jaffa on different dates too. And why does that make a difference to the personal suffering of the people involved?

        Really, attempting to excuse the persecution of Jews because they were allegedly “aligned with colonialism” is merely apologizing for racism. The Jews of Aleppo and Tripoli didn’t disperse the Palestinians either.

        You need to hold both sides of the conflict to higher standards

        Reply to Comment
    21. max

      Compassion is one thing, replacing reason with sentimentalism something else.
      For Arabs (yes, a generalization), the Nakba doesn’t only mean the catastrophe, it also means the rejection of the Jewish state.
      So for an Israeli Jew, the reasoning would be simple: the war was just, wars have casualties that include people who didn’t choose to fight, and the war is still ongoing insofar as the existence of the Jewish state is still fragile. How compassionate can one be towards a perceived mortal enemy?
      This perception is the issue, not its logical implication.
      I read the shocking statements and think: this is by far the costliest world support per refugee, ever. How did it come to still be in the situation it is in?

      Reply to Comment
    22. Tomer

      Dear Lisa:
      The Sefardi Jews were kicked out at gunpoint of their homes by their Arab neighbors. Their houses, lands, bank accounts and everything was systemically confiscated. They were thrown out on to the streets in many cases with only their clothes on their backs. In many cases, ethnic cleansing was accompanied by genocide.

      Now, if that is not a Nakba, I do not know what is.

      So please STOP EXCUSING the Jewish Nakba

      Reply to Comment
    23. TOMER

      I personally am willing to IDENTIFY and ACKNOWLEDGE the Arab Nakba, if Arabs are mutaully willing to IDENTIFY and ACKNOWlEDGE the Jewish Nakba.

      One cannot say that kicking out 0.8 Million of these people is a Nakba but kicking out 0.8 Million of the othe people is NOT a Nakba

      Reply to Comment
    24. Tomer: I am not hosting an argumentative, historically inaccurate series of comments on this thread. Your blanket statement ‘Sephardic Jews’ is inaccurate. It is untrue that all the Jews from Arab countries were violently dispossessed. It is also untrue that all the Jews from Arab countries were Sepharadim. There was certainly no genocide (look up the term in the dictionary). No-one uses the term ‘nakba’ to describe the dispersal of the Jews from Arab countries.

      This is not to deny that many Jews from Arab countries did experience tragedies after 1948. In Iraq there was the farhoud. Nearly all the Egyptian Jews were either expelled or chose to leave because their money and businesses were confiscated.

      Leaving all your inaccuracies aside, the point of my post is this: ALL people deserve the right to tell the stories of their tragedies, and to have those tragedies acknowledged. This post is about the Jews’ inability and unwillingness to grant that right to the Palestinians – to acknowledge their tragedy. In fact, I specifically mention in my article – did you read it? – that the dispersion of the Jews from Arab lands is used as an excuse to avoid acknowledging the Palestinian tragedy of 1947-8. Can you say ‘yes, the Palestinians experienced a great tragedy in 1948’ WITHOUT needing to add ‘yes, but’? Because there is a very long list of tragedies all over the world, all the time.

      So please do not leave another comment about the subject here. It’s closed.

      Reply to Comment
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