‘The Nakba was our doing’

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Several years ago, I introduced the idea of a Nakba commemoration to my progressive synagogue in Philadelphia. The response was a stunning barometer of the work ahead. “It’s too bad the Nakba has to fall on Israel Independence Day. That’s The Day for celebrating the Jewish state. It’s not a day to talk about Palestinians.” Fast forward six years: an orange flier neatly tucked inside this month’s synagogue newsletter is headlined “Yom Ha’Atzma-ut al Naqba Commemoration” on April 16, 2010.

The winds are shifting, but the sailing is by no means smooth. Just yesterday attending a congregational bat mitzvah, I inadvertently seated myself among the pro-Israel camp. Greetings were strained. I like these people. Prior to my coming-out as an anti-Zionist, they liked me too. Now I am seen as one of “those people” who insists on bringing up the “N” word each year as we plan for Yom Ha’Atzmuut (Israel Independence Day).

Like many Jews, even within the progressive community, my co-congregants may know but refuse to talk about the “N” word. The Nakba, or “catastrophe,” names the Palestinian experience in 1948. Expulsion and transfer from their homes in historic Palestine allowed for the creation of Israel as a Jewish state. Simply put, the Nakba was and is the dark side of Jewish statehood. 

Nakbaphobia – Jewish fear of acknowledging and taking responsibility for the irrefutable historical record of the Palestinian experience in 1948 – must be confronted. As victims of historic injustice, Jews resist seeing ourselves as perpetrators and oppressors. Our post-holocaust mantra “Never again,” has emboldened Israeli militarism while numbing our senses, blinding much of the Jewish community to the ethical tradition of Judaism as well as the humanity of Palestinians.

The systematic plan to depopulate the land of Arabs in order to secure a Jewish national homeland has over time morphed into an effective apartheid state in the territory between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River, and the continuing exile of Palestinians in Diaspora who now number in the millions. Technologically as well as culturally rich, Israel holds itself out as a homeland for Jews worldwide. Third generation Palestinians grow up in refugee camps or live under a brutal military occupation. And Palestinians within Israel are governed by separate but unequal laws, schools, and social services. In broad daylight the whole world watches an ongoing Nakba in 2010 – Israeli confiscation of Palestinian land, resources and culture. 

The success of the Zionist project has been accomplished and is maintained by U.S. tax dollars and at the expense of the Palestinian people. An Orwellian reframing of reality defines as necessary for its security the very ‘facts on the ground’ that make Israelis unsafe. The routine mistreatment and collective punishment of Palestinians is immoral, illegal, and unjustifiable. Further, to not see the humanity of an entire people is blatant racism. 

The concern for Jewish survival which catalyzed the early Zionist movement is a concern in 2010, but for very different reasons. The big lies embedded in the foundational myths of 1948 have been passed down as historical truth. In addition to causing irreparable harm to Palestinians, this denial of historical truths and perpetration of current injustice corrode the integrity of Judaism and imperil Jewish survival. Zionism is not Judaism, never was, and becomes less so every day. By conflating Zionism and Judaism, the deck is stacked against truth-telling as well as justice. And both Zionism and Judaism each suffer from having lost its moral compass. 

Jewish statehood was achieved through the ethnic cleansing of another people. To celebrate Israel without regard for its impact on the indigenous people of Palestine is un-Jewish. It is indeed challenging for our psyche to accommodate both the Nakba and Israel Independence Day. Yes, of course Jews who commemorate the Nakba spark cognitive dissonance that likely diminishes the celebratory spirit of Israel Independence Day. As well it should. 

“I’m sorry!” is bedrock in Jewish tradition. Taking responsibility for Israeli actions in 1948 is an al chet moment. Naming what we are sorry for, the wrongs we have committed, and turning toward healing is what Jews have done on Yom Kippur for millennia. Doing so in this instance would not diminish Israel. Rather, by claiming our collective humanity, we increase the likelihood of a just peace with our neighbors.

What I want to say to my Jewish friends is this: What was done to the Palestinian people in 1948 was not okay. The Nakba was our doing. Failure to name it, to take responsibility for it, to apologize, and to find a different path, may yet be our undoing.

And as for the Nakba remembrance that I mentioned at the start: It is a Kabbalat Shabbat Service at Congregation Mishkan Shalom in Roxborough, PA, entitled "The Power of Memory." The title has caused a LOT of reactions as you might guess. It remains to be seen what the program will be like, who will come, etc. But this is a huge step!

The flier reads "Were you present on the day in 1948 when the State of Israel was declared an independent state? Do you have family stories about the day? 5 Iyar, 5708 (May 14 1948) was experienced by many Jews as a day of overwhelming joy, by some as a day like any other, and by some as a worrisome moment in our history. By many Palestinians, it was seen as al-Naqba,a day of catastrophe, of being forced to leave their homes and communities. Each year we try to honor the experiences that diverse people had as we reach this day on our calendar. On Friday, April 16, we will open the floor to those who want to share their own memories, the memories of others they know or have learned. Join us to share your stories and to honor the memories of others."

About Susan Landau

Susan Landau is a BDS activist who organizes and educates about justice in Palestine in secular and faith-based communities.

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