Understanding the Holocaust, and the Nakba, in the Jewish narrative

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“After the Holocaust, Jews are allowed to do anything”. In these chilling words Golda Meir, former prime minister of Israel, not only set the bar for iron lady’esque leadership, but captured that which has come to most potently define the Jewish narrative over the past century. The Holocaust, a narrative that at its source holds Jewish fear, has yielded a survivalist-at-all-costs mentality, the ‘never again’ might that has come to define political Zionism. But Meir wasn’t only evoking one of the darkest periods in Jewish history, she was also alluding to – boasting even – about the new found political power of Jews. In fact the “anything” she refers to is the consequence of this power, the ‘original sin’ in the creation of the state of Israel – the Nakba.  

The Holocaust has become an almost unquestioned characteristic of Jewish identity – imprinted onto our Jewish DNA.  This has manifested into a type of collective post traumatic stress disorder. Even those of us born into a life of unmitigated privilege, who have never experienced antisemitism, carry it. As absurd as it sounds, it is almost as if we await our persecution. As a child, I was terrified of blonde, blue-eyed men, and was guiltily grateful for my fair hair and green eyes that would potentially save me. Yes, the irony of this angst taking place in South Africa in the 1980s is not lost on me.

It is also critical however, to understand the centrality of the Holocaust on the Jewish psyche in the construction of a Jewish-Zionist identity and recognise how the evocation of historical memory has been purposefully cultivated to foster a sense of victimhood – and survival – at any cost.

Throughout the world, Jewish communities hold and maintain strong links to Israel. We are brought up and nurtured on the narrative of the Holocaust and Zionism, which many Jews have now come to understand to be the pillars of our faith. Yom Haatzmaut, or Israel’s Independence Day, is celebrated as a quasi-Jewish holiday. Yet we are not taught that this celebration rests on the dispossession and oppression of the Palestinian people. Nor that by the time the armistice lines were drawn in 1949, 750,000 indigenous Palestinians had been expelled from their homeland and around 150,000 left internally displaced. Most of us have never even heard the term ‘Nakba’.

The Nakba however is the epicentre of this conflict, not the occupation of 1967. As Israel was borne from one tragedy; the Holocaust, its foundations were built on the rubble and suffering of its indigenous inhabitants. Even Meir drew a comparison between the Jewish experience in Europe in the 1930s and 40s and the Nakba when she said: “next to the port I found children, women, the old, waiting for a way to leave. I entered the houses, there were houses where the coffee and pita bread were left on the table, and I could not avoid [thinking] that this, indeed, had been the picture in many Jewish towns.”

The sixty-fifth anniversary of the Nakba was commemorated internationally on May 15th; the day on the Gregorian calendar that the State of Israel came into being. The Nakba, however, is ongoing. Millions of Palestinians, survivors and descendants of 1947-49, live as refugees. In the West Bank, millions live under a military occupation and a siege in the Gaza Strip. A plethora of discriminatory laws consolidate dispossession and ensure that Palestinian citizens of Israel live as second class citizens. These include the 2011 amendment to the ‘Budgets Foundations Law’, also known as the Nakba Law. This law allows the Finance Minister to deny funding to organisations or institutions that reject Israel as a ‘Jewish and democratic state’, or commemorate the Nakba. There is also something deeply disturbing that historical memory – a concept that is near sacrosanct in the Jewish psyche – is denied to Palestinians.

As Jews, we have, understandably, focused on persecutions committed against us. Yet at the same time, we have abdicated collective responsibility for our role in human rights abuses committed against another. In the same way the Holocaust is part of Germany’s shared history with European Jews, the Nakba is part of our shared history with the Palestinian people as long as Israel claims to act on behalf of all Jews. Of course, as the oppressors, where we stand in this history is very different to the Palestinians.

Acknowledging our role in human suffering does not undermine the uniqueness and sheer horror of the Holocaust. It is becoming increasingly problematic however to talk about our suffering and persecution during the Holocaust without acknowledging our culpability in the ongoing oppression of the Palestinian people. This is not only about disrupting Jewish consciousness by acknowledging the Nakba, but working to ensure Palestinian people are granted full rights and justice, including their right of return. Still, acknowledging the Nakba as part of our history is not only about justice for the Palestinian people. The core values of dignity, respect for all, and speaking out against injustice that many Jews hold dear are being corroded by Zionism.  Ultimately, Palestinian liberation, and the rights and reparations it would entail, is intrinsically tied to Jewish liberation as well.

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