On Thursday night, a group of twenty-five people walked back and forth in front of the Lincoln Square Synagogue in Manhattan. They held up signs reading “Palestine” and chanted “stop denying history.”
Invoking “history” does not usually rouse people to action. But it was history that brought them and many others out that night. They were protesting the Upper West Side synagogue’s cancellation of an event on the Nakba, the Arabic term for catastrophe that refers to Israel’s 1948 expulsion of some 750,000 Palestinians from their homes.
After the protest, the demonstrators, members of Jewish Voice for Peace NYC and Jews Say No!, joined about fifty others at an Upper West Side venue that did welcome the event–the Advent Lutheran Church.
It was the latest talk put on by the Nakba Education Project, a new initiative trying to bring the roots of the Israel/Palestine conflict to Americans around the country. Representatives from Zochrot and BADIL, two groups in Israel/Palestine working on Palestinian refugee rights, are touring the U.S. to educate audiences about the Nakba–and why Palestinians say it’s not just a historical event but an ongoing process in Israel/Palestine.
The New York talk, like a similar event at the Jewish Voice for Peace national membership meeting, saw Marilyn Kleinberg Neimark, a member of the Nakba Education Project, moderating the discussion with Basem Sbaih of BADIL and Liat Rosenberg of Zochrot, which means “remembering” in Hebrew. The tour has appeared in Baltimore, Washington, D.C. Philadelphia and now New York, and arrives in Boston this weekend.
“The importance of the tour is to raise awareness and to educate the public about the most critical issue of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which is the issue of right of return for Palestinian refugees,” said Rosenberg, the director of Zochrot, in an interview before the New York talk. “It’s of great importance, and as we know, now with the elections in Israel, the common discourse is about the two-state solution, and the issue of Palestinian refugees is cornered, it’s not even in the negotiations. So we want to put it on the table.”
But as the cancellation of the event by the Lincoln Square Synagogue showed, it’s an issue that many Israelis and American Jews don’t want put on the table. Kleinberg Neimark called it the “third rail” of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“I think they don’t want to listen to the truth–and the truth sometimes pains some people,” said Sbaih, who manages BADIL’s campaign for defending refugee rights, when I asked him why the issue is so threatening to people in Israel and the U.S. “The issue of refugees is the core issue of the conflict.” He added that talking about displacement and the Nakba threatens the Zionist narrative.
The Nakba talk brought the other narrative, of Palestinian displacement, to the fore. Sbaih and Rosenberg went through the history of Palestinian land loss, the state of Palestinian refugees today–including dismal conditions in Syria as the civil war there rages–and why Israelis fear the right of return.
“We don’t have a problem of room, space,” said Rosenberg, who asserted that there is plenty of land available for Palestinian refugees to return to. “The greatest fear of Israeli Jews is the fear to die,” a reference to fears that returning Palestinian refugees would massacre Israeli Jews. She said that the fear of discussing the Nakba can be seen in laws like one passed in 2011 that mandates the withdrawal of state funding from institutions that commemorate the Nakba. (The law has not been put into practice, though Israeli and Palestinian activists say it has a chilling effect.)
Sbaih emphasized that the logic of the Nakba–driving Palestinians out to appropriate their land for Israeli Jews–continues to live on today in policies that seek to expel Palestinians from their land and contain them in isolated islands among Israeli settlements.
Perhaps the most innovative work BADIL and Zochrot are doing is looking at how to implement the right of return today. In 2011, the groups released a co-authored report on “practical approaches to refugee return.” They called for recognition of refugee rights, acknowledgement of the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians and the implementation of the right of return. That message came through at the New York talk.
Rosenberg said her group is achieving some success in Israel, though she acknowledged the deep difficulties she encounters when trying to bring the Nakba and refugee rights up in Israel.
“The greatest success we can see in the last decade is the fact that we are able to bring the Nakba into the discourse and to sustain the discourse–to keep it on the table,” she said.
BADIL’s Sbaih added that “we are trying…to influence policymakers and change the discourse about the Nakba and the peace process itself.”