This post is part of Marc H. Ellis’s “Exile and the Prophetic” feature for Mondoweiss. To read the entire series visit the archive page.
The United States Nakba Memorial Museum. It sounds a bit strange to Jewish ears. Non-Jewish Americans would be surprised to hear of such a museum, too. The first question would be: ‘Nakba’? What in the world does that mean?’
That’s our first clue to the disparity of Jewish and Palestinian presence in the American imagination.
Another clue is talking to Americans about Israel. Then try Palestine.
Does the disparity have something to do with who has a museum and who doesn’t? You bet it does. Museums are supposed to be about history. They’re really about power.
Despite this disparity, financing a Nakba museum shouldn’t be difficult. As with the Holocaust museum, the Nakba museum would have to raise its own funds to construct the museum building. The government pays the museum’s operating costs from then on. Since there’s plenty of money in the Palestinian community, I doubt funding the museum construction would be a problem.
There’s also plenty of Arab money floating around. There might be a few wealthy Jewish donors willing to lend a hand. Jews of Conscience would want to pitch in. Churches that have taken divestment actions could be approached. Would the Palestinian community want outsiders funding the museum?
I can see a struggle over whose money would be welcome and whose wouldn’t. Taking someone’s money means being vulnerable to their viewpoints. As with the Holocaust museum, there will be a scramble to be represented in the Nakba museum.
If anyone believes Palestinians won’t be caught up in many of the same civil war games Jews are in commemorating the Holocaust, they should think again. In many ways, Palestinians already contest the memory of their suffering and its meaning.
A complicating factor is that the Nakba, unlike the Holocaust, isn’t over. The Nakba continues right now. Given the opportunity, should Palestinians wait until the Nakba is over to construct their museum?
Think Jerusalem – how will the museum will narrate the history of Holy City? Archeology is a minefield. In the Nakba museum, will the layers of ancient history feature Jews as well as others? Or will the Nakba narrative minimize Jews as Palestinians and Muslims are minimized by Israeli archeology?
Narratives don’t appear out of thin air. To get to the Palestinian Nakba the historical table has to be set. Prior claims have to be made to make the present visible. If it’s your museum, you’re the star. Everything leads to you.
Obviously, the Nakba museum will be a difficult test of Palestinian narration. Every step of the way will be contested.
Palestinian universalism will undergo a severe test. For example, if the Nakba museum is set against the Holocaust museum as a case of universalism versus particularism, the narrative skews one way. If to the contrary the Nakba museum emphasizes Palestinian particularity, the narrative skews another way.
Through different universal/particular lenses, history is told differently. The present looks different. So does the future.
In the United States Nakba Memorial Museum will the past be Palestinian with a few interruptions? Or is the Palestinian past so diverse that a designation other than Palestinian needs to be found?
Religion will be contested as well. One way of looking at the Palestinians past is that it is primarily Muslim with some Christian and Jewish sightings. Another way of looking at the Palestinian past is recognize its diversity. If that path is chosen, Islam will be viewed as one religious sensibility among others.
Where will the Palestinians narrative end? One Palestine or Two-States, Israel and Palestine? Where do Jews fit in, if they do? Is the foundation of the state, secular or religious? A democratic secular state or an Islamic state?
Futuring Palestine. Museum narratives have a trajectory. Incredibly difficult – and controversial – choices have to be made. Who will make those choices? How will the narrators be chosen?
Once agreed upon, the museum narrative takes on a life of its own. It becomes a significant voice in the public realm. The Nakba museum’s power to define identity shouldn’t be underestimated.
In the Holocaust museum there are two divergent narrative streams. They remain unresolved. One is the definable, methodical extermination of Europe’s Jews. The other is a more mystical element that insists the Holocaust cannot be defined or analyzed as other events. Will the Nakba have these same diverse unresolved elements?
Here’s another challenge. Museums are built by the wealthy and the powerful. They serve up the narrative the wealthy and powerful want to represent them in society. Since the museum presents a community to the broader society, whether they like it or not, community members are therefore defined. The defined can struggle with parts or even with the entirety of the museum’s narrative definition. Nonetheless, the public presentation defines the terrain of struggle. It isn’t a matter of building an identity from scratch, the museum says it’s already there.
The Holocaust museum is the presentation of Jewishness that the wealthy and powerful elite of the American Jewish community deem to be the ‘Jewish story.’ Arrived at just twenty years ago, it will define Jews in America for next century and beyond. It matters little that the Holocaust no longer has the same level of intensity for young Jews today. The Holocaust remains defining of Jewishness – at least from the perspective of society at large.
Does the Holocaust slippage among young Jews matter to the wealthy and powerful of the Jewish community? Probably not. The Holocaust museum is a presentation of Jewish history – for others. It is there to make a permanent statement to the broader non-Jewish community about Jewish political power.
This will be true for the Nakba museum. Powerful and wealthy Palestinians – with non-Palestinians who have their own interests at heart – will present Palestinian history as they want it presented to society at large.
What statement does the Holocaust museum make? Jews have arrived politically. Jews are to be reckoned with. Everything to do with Jews, including Israel, is heightened.
A vote against Jewish interests carries consequences.
Like Congress exploring the creation of the United States Nakba Memorial Museum.
Until the idea of a United States Nakba Memorial Museum can be envisioned, the possibility of the United States as an honest broker will be a mirage.
Museums are about political power. Either you have one or you don’t.