Accepting the Nakba as the foundation fact of Palestinian identity

May 27, 2014
Sarah Benton

An editorial by Haaretz, 2nd, says Israel’s school curriculum should teach the Nakba; Shlomo Avineri, 3rd, attacks the idea, and the notion that the Nakba was a catastrophe. First, Dr. Shmuel Amir applauds the fact of the editorial and deplores the quality of Avineri’s attack on it.

The King David Hotel, Jerusalem, on July 22, 1946 after it was blown up by Jewish terrorist gang, Irgun. The British were held responsible for  overseeing the large influx of Jews into Palestine (from before the war) to preventing the admission of all Jewish refugees and would-be immigrants after the war and ending the Palestinian/Jewish conflict of 1947-48. They withdrew all forces in 1948. 

A Zionist Intellectual and the Nakba

[The original article was printed in Hebrew on the Left Bank website to mark the 66th year of Israel’s independence. The free translation from the Hebrew is by R.K. with tweaks by JfJfP postings editor]

By Dr. Shmuel Amir, Haaretz,  Hebrew translated by Reuven Kaminer
Received by email, May 25, 2014

The editors of Ha’aretz did something quite exceptional in these parts by publishing a lead editorial discussing the Palestinian Nakba (Catastrophe) [see below] seriously and with deep sentiment. This was done directly after the declaration by Abu Mazen that “the murder of Jews during the Holocaust is the worst crime against humanity in modern times.”

The editorial states that the crime of the Holocaust should not be the cause for Israel to “ignore crimes whether committed by Armenians, by Palestinians or by tribes in Africa.” The editorial stresses: “Israel cannot be permitted to erase the Palestinian catastrophe from our own historical consciousness. On the other hand, the editorial adds carefully: “The dispute over the degree of Israel’s responsibility for the expulsion, exclusion and expropriation of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians during the war of independence is a subject for historians.”

Raising the subject of the Nakba by Ha’aretz (even if bypassing Israel’s central role) should be appreciated along with any effort to further the mutual recognition of each nation’s suffering by the other deserves special attention, especially since most of the Israeli media is blind to the suffering of the Palestinians.

But this is not the opinion of Professor Avineri, a prominent Zionist intellectual. The feelings of his nationalist soul must have been deeply hurt – since a step such as this involves “accepting the Palestinian narrative” [see below]

The accusation of accepting the Palestinian narrative is designed to frighten off any Israeli from identifying with the Palestinians on their day of mourning. It appears to Avineri that no Israeli, not to mention an important Israeli newspaper, can dare to accept any Palestinian argument and especially that on the Palestinian Nakba which contradicts the very essence of Zionist historiography. Fortunately, we do not believe Arabs and we have become accustomed by generations of establishment historians and propagandists (among them Avineri) to the fact that Arabs just simply lie and tell orientalist tales.

Avineri’s use of the phrase “Arab narrative” is far from being innocent. With one stroke of the pen he can convert a major historical event such as the expulsion of a people from their homeland to the level of “a story”.

Avineri is indignant. “Nakba” he asks? A disaster? he asks with no sense that a national and personal tragedy hit the Palestinians. “Was it an earthquake? A tornado? A tsunami?”

And he answers: The Nakba is not Israel’s fault, it was the fault of the Palestinians. He explains : It was the result of an Arab political decision to prevent the establishment of a Jewish state in a part of mandatory Palestinian. Thus, he shifts the responsibility for the Nakba on to the victims, the Palestinians.

Perhaps Avineri believes that by denial of the Nakba he has cleansed the conscience of establishment historiography which always sought to avoid dealing with the Nakba so as to keep sleeping the sleep of the just.

But may we be permitted to ask a few questions: In 1947, the UN decided on the partition of the mandate into two states, Jewish and the Palestinian. At the time there were in Palestine 900,000 Palestinians and 450,000 Jews. Only 7% of the land was in Jewish hands. And the UN resolution came and apportioned 55% of the Palestinian land to the Jews and 45% to the Palestinians. From the beginning of the century Palestine was part of the Ottoman empire and the majority of its population Palestinian. Up to the outbreak of the first World War, only some 40,000 Jews had come to Palestine. Only with the transfer of the area to the British (without, of course, asking the Palestinians) was a sizeable Jewish community created. continues below inset

Members of the Arab Liberation Army; made up of volunteers its numbers are estimated to have been between 3,500 and 10,000 men.

from wikipedia: The Arab Higher Committee was confident and decided to prevent the set-up of the UN-backed partition plan. In an announcement made to the Secretary-General on 6 February, they declared:

“The Palestinian Arabs consider any attempt by Jewish people or by whatever power or group of power to establish a Jewish state in an Arab territory to be an act of aggression that will be resisted by force […]

The prestige of the United Nations would be better served by abandoning this plan and by not imposing such an injustice […]The Palestinian Arabs make a grave declaration before the UN, before God and before history that they will never submit to any power that comes to Palestine to impose a partition. The only way to establish a partition is to get rid of them all: men, women, and children.”

continued from above inset

Does Avineri or anyone know of a people ready to forfeit being the majority in their own homeland to people who came from abroad? Naturally, the Palestinians opposed the UN Resolution. This might have been a political mistake but it is hard for me to name someone in their circumstances who would have acted differently. Perhaps the Palestinians already sensed what was going to happen to them with the establishment of a Jewish state – the expulsions and the expropriation began well before the UN resolution.

At any rate, Avineri hides the agreement of the Arabs to partition (but not to partition according to the unfair proposed division) usually hidden by Jewish propaganda which was, fully documented in statements by Ben Gurion. In any event, not only did the Palestinians want to scuttle the resolution, de facto the Jews also refused to honour the resolution. The Jews were not satisfied with the 55% of the mandate area awarded to them; they and went on to take over 77%. And even more important – in opposition to the UN resolution, they blocked the establishment of a Palestinian state and handed the territory designated for a Palestinian state, by a secret agreement with the British, to the Jordanian king, Abdullah.

Thus Israel, which rose after the UN resolution, in accordance to Zionist policies, acted from the very beginning. It was an undeviating policy designed to block any form of Palestinian independence – from Hertzl, Weitzman, Ben Gurion, up to Netanyahu today. It is worth reading how much Simha Plapin, a member of Hashomer Hatzair, in his excellent book, Birth of Israel – Myth and Reality , worshipped Haim Weitzman, like most members of Hashomer Ha’tsair (and your author among them) and how bitterly disappointed he was when in his research he learned how the “liberal” Weitzman was never ready to recognize the political rights of the Palestinians. And here we have Avineri telling us how it was the Palestinians who were not ready to recognize the establishment of a Jewish state.

And to this very day we have the refusal by Netanyahu.

Palestinian refugees making their way to Lebanon from Galilee in October / November 1948. There is no dispute that hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled their homes in this period. The dispute is over why, and why they did not return. Those who found new homes were largely the Palestinian middle class, leaving the poor stuck in refugee camps. Photo by Fred Csasznik.

The Nakba was no accident during the war. Today we know that the “L” plan to expel and transfer the Palestinians was planned before the UN Resolution. Here is an example of Ben Gurion’s intentions. On the 6th of April 1948 at a meeting of the MAPAI Secretariat, he replies to those who question the wisdom of attack on the fellahin (the peasants): “The fellahin are our enemies!” Here it is worth clarifying that the war in 1948 was not a war of liberation against the British as it is presented in Zionist historiography – the war was against the Palestinians – and initiated the by Ben Gurion immediately after the decision to stop Hagana activities against the British.

But according to Avineri it is the Arab High Command which is to blame for the Nakba (“The Nakba carnage …was the tragic result of a political decision of the Arab leadership to prevent the establishment of the Jewish state. ” And so, it is clear that it is the Arab leadership and not the IDF which expelled the Palestinians.

And if even, for the sake of argument, we agree that the Palestinians committed the Nakba against themselves, the question to be answered is why they were not permitted to return after the war? If the Arabs fled because of fear generated by the Dir Yassin attack and a long list of massacres, is it the Arab leadership or the government of Israel which prevented their return? Here is the relevant UN decision:

“The General Assembly…resolves that the refuges who wish to return to their homes and to live in peace with their neighbors shall be allowed to do so at the earliest possible date and compensation will be paid for the property of those who chose not to return …in accordance with the principles of justice .” UN Resolution 194 December 1948.

Did the government of Israel ever agree to implement this decision? There is also the question how we, who base our rights in the land on other UN Resolutions can ignore this decision?

All this is of no interest to Avineri – he explains that after the second world war, 12 million ethnic Germans were expelled from territories in Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary as a result of the Nazi attack against the Soviet Union. In both cases, he explains, people paid for the crimes of their leaders. Now we understand, the Palestinians are just like the Nazis. The opposition of the Palestinians during the war of independence to the IDF is the same, according to Avineri, as the attack by the Nazis during the second world war into areas in order to convert them into a Nazi colony.

Here, I am reminded that this disgusting comparison of the Palestinians with the Nazis is nothing new. It appeared in the midst of the war. Abba Kovner, who was an anti-nazi ghetto fighter, in his capacity as the chief cultural officer in the IDF adopted the slogan of the red army against the Nazis: “Death to the invaders – Eternal Glory for those who die in defense of the homeland.” But even back then, there were those who opposed the distorted slogan and to the best of my memory, the slogan was rejected. But this does not bother Aveniri from resurrecting it disguised as “history.”

A total lack of sensitivity for the suffering of another people, accusation of the Palestinians themselves as responsible for the Nakba and the indirect comparison with the Nazis is not only the arrogant propaganda of the conquerors, the loss of any humane feeling for those who lost the war but more importantly, an attempt to block the path, if any still exists, to any kind of understanding between the two peoples.

Negation of the rights of the refugees to return along with the refusal to return conquered territories was and is the very foundation of Israeli policy. Such propaganda and advocacy grants those involved all the advantages and privileges that a state can grant: prizes, honors and well padded arm chairs. Avineri’s commentary is not exceptional.

No one knows what could have happened if newly established Israel implemented UN Resolution 194 and accepted the borders of the partition and prevented the Nakba. We might be living in a smaller Israel, but perhaps we would not be so concerned as to the whereabouts of the border because we were living in peace with the Palestinians, in agreement with the Arab world and the entire world.

But the new state was unable to free itself from the legacy of short-sighted Zionist-nationalistic conceptions and to venture on a new path, just as today the State of Israel is unable to do so. Just as today, war and armed forces remain the main priorities.

Note by Reuven Kaminer: Dr. Amir performs in this article a vital intellectual and moral mission. One can argue that many of these facts are well known. However, it is vital to repeat the vital historical statistics today in the light of Israel’s obstinacy and its refusal to negotiate in good fate with the Palestinians. One may also question the sincerity of the “honest broker” who knowing the real Israeli position did everything to hide the truth that Israel has never been open and honest regarding its refusal to recognize Palestinian national rights.

As time goes on, the main arguments from the Israeli side about Arab intransigence wear thinner and thinner. Who can say today with any degree of honesty that Israel really wants peace? Who can condemn the Palestinians for acting like any other political entity? Who can deny the historical record of Israeli intransigence?

Recognize the Nakba

Israel must make the history of the Palestinians an integral part of every school curriculum.

Haaretz Editorial
April 29, 2014

In a special announcement, made in public and in both Arabic and English, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas declared that the murder of Jews in the Holocaust was “the most heinous crime to have occurred against humanity in the modern era,” and expressed sympathy for the victims and their families.

This statement, the first of its kind by a Palestinian president, received a chilly reception from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who said Abbas had made it “to placate international public opinion.” Netanyahu, who himself has turned the Holocaust into a political tool for harnessing public opinion against Iran and uses it to justify his policies in the West Bank, could not bring himself to welcome Abbas’ remarks, which could serve as an example for other Arab leaders. It seems as if the fear that Abbas will score some points with international public opinion and ruin the image of him that Netanyahu is trying to build has clouded the prime minister’s judgment.

The uniqueness of the Holocaust as the worst crime ever doesn’t mean Israel must ignore crimes committed against other nations, be they Armenians, Palestinians or African tribes. The State of Israel refuses to recognize these tragedies, lest such recognition eclipse the uniqueness of the Holocaust, undermine its foreign relations (in the case of the Armenian genocide) or impose responsibility upon it (in the case of the Palestinians). But Israel is not entitled to exclude the Palestinian tragedy from the historical consciousness of Israeli citizens. It is the flip side of Israel’s rebirth.

Commemorating the Nakba, May 2014, at Haifa university. The Democratic Front for Peace and Equality and the Sons of the Country Movement, banned from holding an event inside the university, persist with their action joined by a number of liberal Jews, confronted by Israeli students. From Memo.

The dispute over the degree of Israel’s responsibility for the emigration, expulsion and displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians during the War of Independence is a matter for historians. It does not negate the fact that a national and human disaster befell the Palestinians. This disaster must be studied and understood, not merely to fathom the political and diplomatic motives of the Palestinian leadership as they negotiate with us, but as a cultural and human obligation. All the more so when this disaster affects a fifth of the state’s population and millions of Palestinians with whom Israel seeks to end the historic conflict.

The Israeli government must, therefore, make the history of the Palestinians an integral part of every school curriculum. It must cease its systematic disregard of the Nakba (the Palestinian term for the “catastrophe” they suffered upon Israel’s founding), arrange a program for touring the ruins of villages that were destroyed, encourage exchange visits and instill in the curriculum the message of the historic partnership between the two nations. This is the road that will lead to understanding and mutual recognition.

People participating in the Nakba commemoration rally in the Galilee. May 6, 2014. The Nakba is a catastrophe that the Arabs brought upon themselves according to Avineri. Photo by Gil Eliyahu

The Nakba according to Haaretz

Reality is always complex, and we do need to teach it in Israel’s schools — but not the unilateral Palestinian narrative that was adopted in the Haaretz editorial from April 29.

By Shlomo Avineri, Haaretz
May 08, 2014

It’s been a long time since I read an editorial as confused as that of Haaretz from April 29 (“Recognize the Nakba”), with its blend of correct and just assertions together with half-truths and its stunning disregard of quite a few fundamental and indisputable historical facts.

On the one hand, the editorial, which on the surface seems insightful and sensitive, states: “The dispute over the degree of Israel’s responsibility for the emigration, expulsion and displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians during the War of Independence is a matter for historians.” What could be more fair than that? But one need not be a historian to know that there will continue to be more than one school of thought on this dispute, and that proposing that it be left to historians is actually an evasion — a refusal to deal, here and now, with indisputable historical truths. Even the cautious (not to say euphemistic) language of this sentence, which speaks of “emigration, expulsion and displacement” and avoids using the word “flee,” which was certainly part of the complex reality of Israel’s War of Independence, already demonstrates that the editorial does not exactly leave the decision to historians.

Some facts of history really ought not to be left to historians. The attempt to ignore them is morally flawed — and morality is, rightfully, the driving spirit behind the editorial. It is a fact — one that should not be “a matter for historians” — that in September 1939, Germany invaded Poland and not the other way around. It is a fact that on December 7, 1941, Japan attacked the United States and not vice versa. It is also true that what is called the Nakba is the result of a political decision by the Palestinian leadership and the Arab states to reject the United Nations partition resolution, to try to prevent its implementation by force and to attack the Jewish community in the Land of Israel before and after the state’s establishment. Of this, the editorial says nothing.

Thus, the context of the founding of the State of Israel is presented in the editorial exactly as it is presented in Palestinian and Arab political discourse — with total disregard of the political and historical reality in 1947 and 1948. Usually, Arab discourse simply never mentions the partition resolution, just as it never mentions the violent opposition to its implementation. Such denial from the Arab side might be understandable — but in Haaretz? In case anyone forgot or does not know, I suggest going to the newspaper’s archives and reading the headlines from November 30, 1947 and the daily news from the subsequent months. They are full of reports of Arab violence and the beginnings of armed Arab resistance to the establishment of the State of Israel, first by the Arab militias (the “gangs”) inside the country and later via the coordinated invasion by Arab armies when the British Mandate ended on May 15, 1948. The editorial says not a word about that, just as Arab discourse prefers simply to wipe those historical facts from memory.

After leaving the question of Israel’s responsibility to historians, the editorial goes on to state that the dispute over this responsibility “does not negate the fact that a national and human disaster befell the Palestinians.” A disaster? Was the Nakba an earthquake? A tornado? A tsunami? It was the tragic result of an Arab political decision to prevent the establishment of a Jewish state in the portion of the Land of Israel that had been under the British Mandate, just as the expulsion of 12 million ethnic Germans from Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary after 1945 was the tragic result of German aggression in 1939 and later in 1941, when it invaded the Soviet Union. In both cases, masses of innocent civilians paid the price of their leaders’ aggression. But if anyone today tried to describe the expulsion of millions of Germans from Eastern Europe as a “disaster” that had nothing to do with the Third Reich’s aggression, he would rightly be called a neo-Nazi.

To the credit of the Palestinian community, it should be said that the membership of the Palestinian Communist Party, which at the time numbered a few hundred, accepted the partition plan and opposed Arab aggression, in compliance with the position of the Soviet Union in those days. A few later joined the Israeli Communist Party. The members of the communist parties in Egypt and Iraq, most of whom were jailed by their countries’ regimes, did the same. But together these added up to a mere handful.

Ironically, the Haaretz editorial adopts the victimization narrative that is often typical of political discourse in Israel. Some groups in Israel and abroad are only too happy to depict the Jews and Israel only as victims. It seems that the writers of the editorial never liberated themselves from this traditional Jewish perception — only they chose to describe the Palestinians, not the Jews, as victims who bore no responsibility for their actions or those of their leaders.

One can certainly understand, but not justify, the general Palestinian and Arab opposition to the Zionist enterprise. That is the nature of national conflicts, although this opposition had more aspects of murder and terrorism than other national movements did. Palestinian terrorism against Jewish civilians is not the result of the post-1967 years of occupation. It was part of the 1929 riots and the Arab uprising of 1936. It is true that on the one hand, we cannot conclude from the grand mufti’s presence in Berlin during World War II that Arab opposition to Zionism was identical to Nazism. But on the other hand, to ignore this fact and leave it to historians is a distortion of history. It is part of the concrete historical consciousness of both Jews and Arabs.

Just as intelligent discussion of the Arab-Israeli conflict must free itself from the sense of self-righteousness that accompanies some of Zionist ideology, it must also free itself from the sense of victimization and of absolute rightness that accompanies Palestinian nationalism. Decisions and policies that had terrible ramifications in 1948 should not be left to historians either. S. Yizhar brought them to Israeli historical awareness — and into the Israeli school system — in his novel “Khirbet Khizeh” as far back as the War of Independence. Reality is always complex, and we do need to teach it in Israel’s schools — but not the unilateral Palestinian narrative that has been adopted by the editorial board of Haaretz.

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