This text describes the discourse on the Nakba — mostly the concept but also the historical event — in Israel. When did it appear? When did it decline and was repressed? What caused these changes? The attempt here is to describe historical moments, a periodization, from the founding of the state until today, in order to describe the relation to the term in each period and the changes it went through. This text deals with the attitude towards the Nakba in Hebrew almost exclusively and does not attempt to describe the attitudes and changes it went through in Arabic and in the Arab world.
1948-1952: Early Naiveté
As surprising as it may sound, the first to use the term “Nakba” in reference to the Palestinian’s disaster was the Israeli military. In July 1948, IDF addressed with leaflets to the Arab inhabitants of Tirat Haifa who resisted the occupation. In excellent Arabic, they called on them to surrender: “If you want to be ready for the Nakba, to avoid a disaster and save yourselves from an unavoidable catastrophe, you must surrender”.
A little afterwards, in August 1948, the Syrian intellectual Constantin Zureiq published his essay The Meaning of Disaster. In it he writes, among other things, “the defeat of the Arabs in Palestine is not simply a setback or a temporary atrocity. It is a Nakba in the fullest sense of the word”. Zureiq addresses the Arabs of the Middle East and implores them to respond to the terrible disaster that hit them. For him, then, the Nakba affects the entire Arab world and is not restricted to Palestinians alone.
Towards the end of the same year, in 11.19.1948, Nathan Alterman published his poem Al Zot (“On This”) in the Davar newspaper and Ben Gurion instructed that it be distributed among all of the IDF’s soldiers. The poem describes the massacre of defenseless Palestinians by IDF soldiers, and it is thought to be referring to the war crimes committed in Lod (Lydda). Hannan Hever and Yitzhak Laor claim that Alterman’s criticism of the event is not as clear-cut as might seem at first. Even if they are correct, and despite the poem ending with a clear call to “not fear also ‘Tell it not in Gath’…”, it describes events that, were they publicized today, would have created a huge turmoil among the Israeli public and its leaders, as we can safely assert based on the 2016 Breaking the Silence uproar.
In 1948, S. Yizhar, one of Israel’s leading authors, wrote his book “HaShavuy” (“The Captive”), in which he described the cruel behaviour of the IDF soldiers towards the defeated Palestinians. Several of his other books from those years, “Yemey Ziklag” (“Days of Ziklag”) and “Hkirbet Khizeh”, openly discussed the atrocities committed by IDF soldiers during the Nakba. “Khirbet Khizeh” became part of the official educational curriculum and was read by thousands of students.
In 1948 and in the first years there was a kind of naiveté in the discourse surrounding the Nakba. Even though the term itself wasn’t mentioned, the events, including the atrocities committed by the Zionist soldiers against Palestinians, were delivered in simplicity, taken for granted, without narrative filters or sublimation. This approach matched also Yizhar’s stream of consciousness literary style. The text supposedly is liberated from an author-subject as the author becomes an instrument to deliver experiences without processing them. This is also the way the Nakba events were delivered directly and in plain Hebrew.
The first book on “The Conquest of Jaffa” was thus titled by its author, Haim Lazar in 1951. Years later, the “conquest” would be replaced by “liberation”. Lazar also uses the term “cleansing” to describe what Zionists militia did in Jaffa. Years later, when the same term was used by Meron Benvenisti and later Ilan Pappé, it was perceived as a provocation.
The Palestinians who became Israeli citizens were in shock and trauma and under a military regime which would not allow any expression of protest. The Palestinian refugees waited for justice to come in the form of help from Arab nations and the international community but no such significant help came.
In 1951 the supreme court famously ruled that the displaced residents of the villages of Iqrit and Bir’im were allowed to go back to their villages, as was promised to them on the day they were expelled by the Israeli military. Less known are two other similar supreme court decisions. Also in 1951, it allowed the refugees from Ghabisiyya, not far from Nahariya, to return to their village. And in 1952 the supreme court accepted the appeal of the uprooted residents of Jalame to return there. But the kibbutz members in Lehavot Haviva, who settled on that village’s grounds, demolished its houses with explosives, thus preventing the return. In fact in all four cases the return of refugees was prevented because the stance of the military prevailed the judicial decisions. Since then, no other such court decisions were made.
1952-1967: Decline and Forgetting
As the events became more distant history, and while intensely working towards building the newly formed state, settling newcomers, and preventing the return of Palestinian refugees, the naive attitude addressing the Nakba openly was abandoned. The clear identifier of this change was the fact that the refugees trying to return were suddenly dubbed “infiltrators” (Mistanenim). In Israeli discourse they stopped being indigenous people who were expelled and are trying to return to their homes, but foreign infiltrators: illegal and illegitimate. There is a discursive abyss standing between the figure of the refugee and that of an infiltrator. The former is uprooted from their place, is a victim, defeated, traumatized. The latter is not from here, intending evil, a thief, crossing a geographic boundary. This contradiction was well articulated by Marko Rosio, one of the first settlers in Kerem Ben-Zimra, established in the homes of the refugees of Ras al-Ahmar. He defended his village against Palestinians with weapons, as he told us: “They tried to come back to steal what belonged to them. So we shot them”. Later the “infiltrator” Palestinian became a “Fedayeen”, thus completing a full transformation from a refugee to and illegal immigrant to a terrorist.
The exposure to novels that openly describe what took place in 1948 forced the establishment to create a super-narrative that justified the atrocities committed by “our guys”. It is hard for the new state to continue and describe the wrong-doing by Israelis towards Palestinians without the mediation of a narrative that supports “our side”. The Nakba becomes a “disaster from their perspective” only, and so two stories are created: one ours and one theirs, “which are the result of the same apparatuses of the Jewish state that operated systematically to create a definite separation between Jews and Arabs and set that separation as an objective truth that cannot be questioned”.
The Nakba becomes part of the narrative that attempts to justify the establishment of the Jewish state following the Jewish holocaust. The first “no choice” in the history of the state appears: we had no choice but to do what we did in 1948. And alongside this “no choice”, the idea of “Cleanness of Weapons” (Tohar ha’Neshek), according to which during 1948 our soldiers did not commit atrocities, and if they did, those were the exception. The term was coined already in the 40’s, in reference to battles of the pre-state settlers, and when the State was established it was recirculated to justify its establishment which involved dispossessing the majority of Palestinians.
In physical space many Palestinian villages still stood, abandoned but not destroyed.
The claim that villages were destroyed during the 1948 war is not true. In fact, hundreds were destroyed in a planned and intensive campaign executed by the state between 1965-1969, as exposed by Shai Aharon in his astounding article. In the 50’s, the empty villages received a rare acknowledgment in a series of maps produced by the Israel Mapping Centre. These were maps that Israel inherited from the British Mandate, in English, and that’s why all the villages that existed until 1948 are on it. To make clear that they were now empty, the Israeli mappers added the word “destroyed” in Hebrew (Harus), in purple, under every village whose inhabitants were expelled and not allowed to return. This is the last testimony in Israeli mapping of the Nakba villages. The project of their destruction in the 60’s can be understood in retrospect as an act that erases the gap between the still-existing representation of the villages on the maps, and they’re emptiness in physical space. Their destruction rendered that representation unnecessary: from now on they appear in tracking maps only as “Khirbe” (“ruins”).
1967-1985: Disappearance through Expansion
The pressure inside Israel for a “second round” by Moshe Dayan and others ripened in the ’67 War that brought about the largest expansion of Zionism in the Middle East, making Israel four times its pre-war size. The West Bank and Gaza, the Golan Heights and Sinai peninsula were conquered. The Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza now lived under military regime and a quarter of a million more became refugees, some for the second time (following ’48). They are mainly busy trying to maintain a life under a military occupation.
In Israel, along an economic boom, arrogance, and euphoria following the big military victory over the Arab legions within six days, a debate emerged on whether to control and remain in the occupied territories. From our perspective today it can be claimed that this debate was never a substantial one, and that in fact there was no real chance for withdrawal from the occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. But in those days there was a sense the debate between the proponents of settlement and its objectors was real. In any case, it made the discussion of the Nakba irrelevant or even inappropriate.
With this in mind, one can understand the objection to the screening of the film Khirbet Khizeh, produced in the 70’s by Israeli television. Towards its airing in 1978, a dispute erupted culminating in the Minister of Education instructing to ban it from being screened. Eventually it was screened once, as decided by the Israeli Broadcasting Authority, and then shelved for twenty years. Showing a film describing the expulsion of Palestinians from their village in 1948, in the single television channel that existed then, was something Israel has a difficult time handling in those years.
With the vast colonial expansion the Nakba disappeared completely in Israel. The geographical expansion created new geopolitical fronts, and the Nakba and refugees awaiting their return have no place in them. The occupation and expulsions of 1948 have been effaced from public memory since the new conquests. “The Occupation”, becomes a term and concept associated only with the 1967 expansion, an approach that the Israeli left, in its entirety almost, accepts still today. The Zionist left still marks 48 — soon 50 — years of occupation, although the actual number of years is higher by almost twenty. The military expansion and Israeli settlement of the West Bank that began in the 70’s create new conflicts that repress the Nakba away from Israeli consciousness.
1985-1993: A New History
Towards the end of the 80’s historian Benny Morris coined the term “The New Historians”, describing himself and his colleagues who have largely revised Israeli historiography of 1948. His book titled “The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem” is an important milestone in this excavation of the Israeli narrative. It is important to also mention the work of Simha Flapan, Avi Shlaim, Tom Segev as well as others. Their work exposed that which was silenced in Israel with regards to 1948: the “Palestinian narrative”. In a nutshell, Morris’s approach is that there was no choice but to establish a Jewish state in 1948, the unavoidable price for which Palestinians had to pay and that yes, immoral atrocities were also committed by the Zionist forces.
The new historian’s revisions created a lively debate within Israeli academia (and world wide), with critical responses as well as a continuation of their project. But outside of academia this discussion found a place almost exclusively within the daily newspaper Ha’aretz and did not make it into the Israeli mainstream. In civil society and Israeli culture the Nakba had only a minor presence.
1993-2000: The Return of the (Palestinian Refugee) Repressed
The Oslo Accords were a low point for Palestinian refugees. The peace agreement signed by Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat stated that two states will be established along the “green line”. The discussion of a solution for the refugee issue was postponed until after this stage.
These were unacceptable terms for the refugees, and several organizations were established in response. BADIL in Bethlehem and ADRID in Israel are important examples. ADRID politicized the question of the internally displaced Palestinians. Until that time, the internally displaced commemorated the Nakba in their communities and families in relative privacy. Family visits to destroyed villages, especially during the Israeli Independence Day, were their main activities.
In 1997 ADRID organized the first “Return Parade” at the Israeli Independence Day. This event became a tradition and the most important and visible acknowledgement of the Nakba within Israel. Every year during that day, thousands of Israel’s Palestinian citizens marched in the large parade, waving Palestinian flags, claiming their right to return. The parade takes place every year in one of the villages Israel destroyed in 1948. Under the military regime, Independence Day was the only time during which Palestinians in Israel could freely move with no need for permission from the military governor. They used this limited freedom to visit their destroyed villages, and that solidified the tradition of commemorating the Nakba during the Israeli Independence day. The charged meaning of “Independence for them, and Nakba for us” was added only later.
This parade grew from year to year, making it difficult for Israeli media to ignore. Commemorating the Nakba during Independence Day reinforced the polarized discourse around it. In mainstream Israeli discourse, the Nakba is a Palestinian disaster, a Palestinian narrative, a Palestinian history. We Israelis on the other hand, have Independence. Even within most of the Israeli left today, the Nakba is understood as a disaster for only a fifth of the Israeli population.
The Anthology 50 was published by Van Leer Institute. Along side many moments that are silenced in this thick book, the Nakba is represented in an unprecedented way for Israeli non-fiction writing: as a main event in the “zero hour” of the establishment of the
The same period sees a proliferation of political and academic conferences — mostly abroad but also in Israel — tackling the issue of the right of return of Palestinian refugees. In Israel the stance denying that right is not destabilized, but the voices from outside are heard loudly and clearly.
2000-2011: The Nakba Rears Its Head
October 2000, the eruption of the second Intifada, was a low point in the relationship of Jews and Arabs in Israel. 13 Palestinian citizens of the state were killed by security forces while protesting in solidarity with the Palestinians killed in the Temple Mount and the West Bank. Most Israeli Jews (including the Israeli left) adopted the regime’s version of the events, according to which shooting the protesters was the result of an immanent life threat to the security forces. Most Israelis, including many who live neighboring Arabs, were deeply disappointed from the demonstrations that blocked roads and disrupted their lives. The denial by Palestinians, as well as the official government investigation (“Or”) that concluded there was no case of immanent life threat three years later, did not alter that general impression.
With these events in the background, thousands of Israeli Jews understood the essence of the Jewish state: Arabs, by definition, cannot be full citizens in it. These Jews removed themselves to an extent from the Zionist ideology that was ingrained in them from childhood as a matter of fact. Since then, quite a few Israeli Jews declared publicly and unashamedly that they are non/anti-Zionists.
For the first time an organization is set to challenge the basic premises of the Jewish state, with the intention of promoting the awareness of the Nakba among the Hebrew speaking civil society in Israel. Zochrot (“Remembering”) promotes the acknowledgment of the Nakba by Israelis and support for the Palestinian refugee’s right of return. It is the first organization that is founded by Israelis who came from within the privileged milieu of society — former kibbutz members, IDF soldiers — who went through a deep identity transformation. During that time, in 2002, searching google for the word Nakba (in Hebrew) would have given very few results.
At first, Zochrot was disregarded. For example, when the organization addressed the Jewish National Fund in 2004, demanding that a sign will be placed in the Canada Park to mark the villages that were occupied in 1967, it got a negative response very quickly. That is because it was then still unknown, and there was no way of assessing its potential to change anything in Israeli discourse. After the organization won the supreme court case on the same question, this and other correspondences became much more difficult because the potential for change this organization had, became clear.
Alongside Zochrot hundreds of Israelis joined the Return Parade and a Hebrew speaker was included among the speakers each year. The organization changed the discourse surrounding the Nakba in Israel. Its effectiveness was acknowledged even by those who are opposing it. The tours Zochrot held to the Palestinian villages that Israel destroyed during the Nakba affected the perception of those spaces to such a degree that it was impossible to erase those villages, or leave them as mere landscape exotica. In 2008 it held the first conference in Tel Aviv on the right of return. Professor Adi Ophir, a veteran of the Israeli left and prominent philosopher, wrote that “it is hard to exaggerate the part Zochrot had in changing the discourse and consciousness surrounding the Nakba”.
There are more and more references to the Nakba in Hebrew, while best selling novels dealing openly with the Nakba and the Israeli responsibility for it are written with Zochrot’s help (“The House of Dajani” and “Four Houses and Yearning”, for example). In addition, Andalus Publishing published in 2002 an important novel about the Nakba by Elias Khoury. Even if “Bab al-Shams” did not become a bestseller in the Hebrew language it was widely acknowledged and discussed in writing.
2011-2016: Taking Center Stage, Courtesy of the Government
Upon seeing that discussions of the Nakba were spinning out of control, the regime decided to use legislation to take care of this new state of affairs. The first draft of the “Nakba Law” was so draconian that members of the ruling party such as Benny Begin joined the protest against it. In March 2011 the law passed in a more moderate version, but clearly its purpose is to prevent the study and acknowledgment of the Nakba in Israel. Its vocabulary was greatly reduced. It threatened organizations that are supported by the state that they will lose some of that funding, should they commemorate the Nakba during Independence Day. Still, its chilling effect is clear. It becomes even more clear when ministers of the government led by Miri Regev expand the reading of the law to threaten a complete denial of funding from any institution that supports or hosts an event marking the Nakba in Israel.
At the same time, and in coordination with the legislative efforts, Im Tirzu starts a campaign to restore the Israeli complete denial of the Nakba. The organization wrote a pamphlet titled “Nakba Kharta” (“Nakba Bullshit”), reconstructing all of the Israeli arguments regarding the “lie” of the Nakba: it didn’t take place but was a result of a war in which all Arabs wanted to expel us in 1948, and that’s why they have to pay the price. In addition, the writers made an effort to dispel the new, revised historiography. Paradoxically, Im Tirzu members sang the catchy anthem “We Brought Nakba Upon You”, thus publicly acknowledging Israeli responsibility for the disaster.
The law and campaign put a spotlight on the issue. In Hebrew media the word Nakba became commonly used. Politicians and others use it to describe different disasters or conflictual events. Somewhat amusingly, it is also used in sports. A fan of Hapoel Tel Aviv said on the day of demolition of Ussishkin Hall that “today is the Nakba day for Hapoel Tel Aviv fans”. On a different sports show on the radio one commentator described the grievances of a particular group’s players as a “Nakba in the locker room”.
Traces of the Nakba appear also in the struggles of the Israeli Mizrahim, many of whom were sent to live in the homes of Palestinians in the early days to prevent their return. Decades later, their descendants acknowledge that. Yoni Yochanan in Lifta and Menashe Halif in Givat Amal (established on top of al-Jammasin al-Gharbi) are fighting against their own dispossession by the state and the capital, and in that context they remind everyone why they live where they do.
As is evident from the following graph, the year 2011 saw a leap in googling the word “Nakba” in Hebrew. Between 1999-2010 the searches constantly increased and in 2011 there was a leap in the absolute number of results, as well as in comparison to 2010. It seems like every searchable word increases over the years because of the expansion of usage of the internet, but exactly for that reason it is interesting to compare the continuous growth in the number of appearances of searches for the word Nakba between 2011 and 2015 in comparison with the decline in the searches for “Nakba+Zochrot” in Hebrew. This combination continuously rises from the year 2000, and in 2011 more than doubles. But the decline since 2011 until 2015 in the combination of Nakba and Zochrot reinforces the claim that rise of the Nakba in Hebrew is stable, even after a decline in the prominence of the main agent in Israeli society of Nakba acknowledgment.
Together with the proliferation of tackling the Nakba in Israel, it is important also to mention that the Nakba Law did create fear. Teachers are afraid their careers may be jeopardized if they participate in doing so.
A survey conducted by De-Colonizer among 500 Jews found that the majority knew the Nakba is a term tied to something negative, a conflict with Palestinians. This state of affairs would have been unimaginable fifteen years ago. And yet, most Israelis do not know exactly what the term means.
Today the term Nakba represents the polarization in Israeli society and discourse. In the non-zionist left there is a full understanding of its centrality in the construction of the conflict and its possible solution. In addition, information about the Nakba exists and it manifests itself increasingly.
On the other hand, there exists a raging battle led by the Israeli regime to repress these discussions as much as possible. Paradoxically these attempts to silence the discourse leaves the Nakba as a burning question that demands answers, an open wound constantly oozing pus.
Israeli Jews who wish to promote the Nakba discourse in Israel are facing two tests: alongside the continued actions to acknowledge the Nakba, the first is planning for the refugees’ return so that this issue is not relegated to the Palestinians alone, and educating Israelis about what took place during the Nakba and what it means today for them. In both points not much has been done yet, save the preliminary first steps.
Translation: Amit Gilutz
Many thanks to Eleonore Merza Bronstein, Norma Musih, Yehuda Shenhav, Ariella Azoulay who read the text and helped to improve it.