Marching in the spirit of Nakba

(Screenshot: YouTube)

Editor’s Note: On June 19 an article appeared in the Times of Israel criticizing Dan Cohen and David Sheen’s recent video “‘Worship God By Nakba’: Jerusalem march celebrates Israeli occupation with messianic fervor”. The article claims that the moment in the film that the title is taken from, when a group of marchers chant “Worship God By Nakba”, was mistranslated to include the word “Nakba.” In the article below, Cohen and Sheen respond to the criticism and dispute, including why they have decided to remove the word “Nakba” from the video.

In recent years, we have often had strange, severe and slanderous insults hurled at us over social media. But still, it’s not everyday that the title of an article on a popular Israeli online news site compares us to fictional superheroes Batman and Robin. It’s also uncommon for the text of such an article to call us a propagandist for Hamas and an imitator of neo-Nazis – while not even bothering to make any arguments supporting these spurious accusations, and all within the first 75 words of the piece.

The article, titled “A Dynamic Duo of Duplicity Hits Jerusalem”, was published on 19 June 2016 on the Times of Israel English-language news site. The piece accuses us of having documented the “Jerusalem Day Flag March” on 5 June 2016 “in order to defame its participants”. Specifically, it charges us with adding erroneous English subtitles to our video of the event in order to purposefully mistranslate words spoken by the subjects of the film, so as to make them sound more racist than they really are.

From its first day of operation, the TOI has been a self-declared vehicle for improving the image of the State of Israel. It has even published screeds that call to genocide non-Jews in the land of Israel; some of these the site later removed, but some of these remain on its website to this day. Despite the fact that the accusation that our English subtitles were inaccurate came from a disreputable source who has tried and failed to whitewash Israeli “Death to Arabs!” rallies in the past – and despite the fact that this accusation was worded in incredibly insulting language – we decided to do our due diligence and look into the claims that our video contained subtitling errors.

What did marchers chant: “BaNakba” or “BaRabak”?

In our original video, we filmed groups of men chanting the religious verse “Ivdu Et HaShem B’Simcha! Bo’u L’Fanav Birnana!” [“Worship God with joy! Come to him with happiness!”]. This chant repeated itself several times throughout the march. The third time we filmed this chant, the chant leader and the crowd replace the word “joy” with another word, which we hear as “Nakba”. That substitution turned the chant into the phase “Worship God by Nakba”, and that is how we subtitled the film. “Nakba” is an Arabic word that literally means “catastrophe”, but is colloquially used to describe the Zionist dispossession of Palestinian people, especially the dispossession that occurred in the year 1948, when the modern State of Israel was declared. In this context, the chant would be an exhortation to worship Yahweh, the Jewish god, by committing additional ethnic cleansings of Palestinian people.

To be sure, it is a bit odd for Jewish Israelis to use the word “Nakba” in this manner. Many Jewish Israelis are extremely hostile to any use of the word “Nakba”, because it charges the State of Israel with the crime of ethnically cleansing non-Jews from the very outset – a Zionist original sin of sorts. Having said that, use and abuse of the word “Nakba” by Jewish Israeli nationalists is certainly not unheard of. Four years ago, as Palestinian and Jewish students at Tel Aviv University held a ceremony to commemorate the Nakba, other Jewish Israelis held a large counter-protest, in which they jovially sung “Heiveinu Nakba Aleichem!That phrase is a bastardization of the traditional Hebrew song “Heiveinu Shalom Aleicheim” (We brought peace upon you). When the word “Shalom” is swapped out for “Nakba”, the meaning of the chantis changed to: “We brought a Nakba upon you”.

The TOI article about our video adamantly asserts that the Jerusalem Day marchers that we filmed did not use the word “Nakba”, but instead actually chanted “Worship God BaRabak”. “Rabak” is also an Arabic word; its most common use in modern Israeli Hebrew is as an interjection, to appeal to a person’s conscience; it could be loosely translated into English as “Come on, man!” The TOI article argues that the marchers used the word “Rabak” (coupled with the prefix “B’”, meaning “by” or “with”) in another sense that is less commonly used, to mean “with great enthusiasm”. Therefore, the article contends, the chant was actually an exhortation to worship Yahweh with great enthusiasm, not with more ethnic cleansings.

Unlikely and illogical that marchers chanted “BaRabak”

We have considered the possibility that the marchers chanted the word “Rabak”. We have ruled out this possibility.

For one thing, neither of us hear the word “Rabak” in either of the two audio streams we recorded and have listened to dozens of times, at various speeds (hear for yourself here). It’s possible that some of marchers – who were mostly religious and mostly non-Arab Jewish Israelis – have a tendency to enunciate the word “Rabak” differently than either of us are used to hearing in the land. The people that we live amongst – Arab Palestinians, Arab Jews, non-Arab Jews, and others – enunciate the word “Rabak” with heavy emphases on both the first letter “R” and the last letter “K”; neither of these letters can be clearly heard in our recordings of the march.

Also, we think it is far-fetched that the marchers would have used the word “Rabak” in this context. If the marcher leading the chant meant to use the word “Rabak”, and intended it to mean “with enthusiasm”, then he would have had to say it clearly – and with enthusiasm – for it to be understood by the crowd. This is because the original text of the chant is very well known to religious Jews throughout Israel and throughout the world, and because the verse had already been chanted in its original form multiple times over the course of the march. The introduction of any other word, let alone an Arabic-language word, would have required emphasis, not de-emphasis.

Furthermore, the claim that the marchers would chant “Worship God BaRabak!” is even more preposterous when one considers its overall context. Religious Jews believe the Hebrew language to be holy in and of itself. Many religious Jews would consider it to be in bad taste, if not outright blasphemous, to swap a loan word from a language spoken by non-Jews (and non-Jews who assert rival territorial claims, no less) into a verse praising their god Yahweh. This would be especially true for the word “Rabak”, whose literal meaning in Arabic is: “Your god”.

No consensus among Hebrew-speaking experts

We are not the only people who do not hear the word “Rabak” in the video. Every Palestinian person we played the video for only heard the word “Nakba”, not “Rabak” – and this was well before we had even added any titles or subtitles to the film. Several modern-Israeli-Hebrew language professionals that we talked to also agreed with our assessment: They hear “Nakba”, they do not hear “Rabak”. But amongst these professionals that we conferred with, there was also disagreement. Just as some, like us, are certain that what’s being said in the video is “BaNakba”, others have been convinced by the TOI theory, that what’s being said in the video is in fact “BaRabak”. Still others aren’t sure which of these two options it is – and others yet believe it might be neither one of those, but instead something else entirely.

Perhaps an audio editing professional will be willing to take our original file and clean it up, to the point that the marchers’ words become sufficiently clear for everyone to agree on their intended meaning. But until that time, we feel we should not leave in circulation a document whose veracity is this contested. Therefore, although we still believe that the original video is a truthful testimony and an accurate reflection of what transpired on the ground, we have chosen to re-render that one specific scene and change that one specific subtitle from “Nakba” to “[unclear]”, in order to remove any cloud of suspicion. Since we have changed the subtitle, we have also altered the name of the video, from “Worship God By Nakba!” to “Conquerors of Jerusalem”, which is also fair and fitting.

The original decision to make the name of our video the same as the scandalous phrase that was chanted in the video was a correct journalistic decision. Now that our peers have weighed in on the controversy, revealing that there is no consensus over what was actually said there, it is the correct journalistic decision to swap our original film with a new version of the video with the disputed subtitle amended and the title altered.

A fair portrait of the event: the good, the bad, and the ugly

Although we have now removed the word “Nakba” from both the film’s subtitles and the title of the video itself, we could not possibly remove the spirit of “Nakba” from the video, because it is a theme that was present throughout the march.

The Israeli Supreme Court sanctioned a march by tens of thousands of Jews, primarily religious youths, through occupied East Jerusalem and the Muslim Quarter of the Old City under the protection of Israeli occupation forces. On the very eve of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, when the market might ordinarily have been busier that at any other time of the calendar year, police forced Palestinians to close their shops and evacuate the narrow streets to make way for the obnoxious march. Some of the marchers seemed to imagine themselves either reenacting the Israeli army’s conquering of the quarter 49 years previous, or prefiguring how they intend to conquer the holy al Aqsa Mosque Compound from the Muslim religious authorities in the future, or perhaps both. For many Palestinian residents of Jerusalem’s Old City, it certainly felt like they were being temporarily ethnically cleansed, or “Nakba”’d.

At prior iterations of the Jerusalem Day Flag March, the spirit of the Nakba definitely dominated. In this video of last year’s Flag March, Jewish marchers are seen viciously and violently attacking Palestinian civilians and reporters in the vicinity, and are heard chanting “Jews are darlings, Arabs are sons of whores!” among other choice curses.

In the months leading up to this year’s Flag March, the theme of ethnic cleansing returned to the headlines. In late March, Israeli Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef publicly advocated ethnically cleansing the country of Palestinian people. Yosef decreed that it is forbidden by Yahweh for non-Jewish people to reside in the Land of Israel. Responding to criticism of his incredibly racist remarks, Yosef noted that the divinely required expulsion of non-Jews would occur in the future, at the time of religious redemption – because at present Israel is not powerful enough to do so without incurring serious losses. Until that time, according to Yosef, the religious role accorded to non-Jews living in Israel is to be the servants of Jews.

While the spirit of Nakba pervaded at this year’s Flag March, we do not mean to claim or imply that every participant in the parade is an avowed Jewish supremacist who supports ethnically cleansing the country of non-Jews. Contrary to the claims made against us in TOI, we did not set out to create a video that would make Israel or Israelis look bad. Rather, we set out to take a fair portrait of the event and include it all: the good, the bad, and the ugly. We took the time and effort to create an honest document of the march, incorporating more moderate voices, as well. From the respondent who advocated outreach to Jerusalem’s Palestinian population, to the middle aged couple who welcomed our film crew, to the merry-making musical performances and enthusiastic dancers, to the toddler standing on his father’s shoulders, to the young men teasing each other and the young women flashing poses, to the adults taking selfies against the backdrop of the Western Wall, we endeavored to show the event for what it was.

Even with the word removed, the spirit of “Nakba” was ever-present

We noted in our original article that this year’s Flag March included fewer manifestations of unbridled racism than there had been in previous years, allowing organizers to market the march as more mainstream. But as we also thoroughly explained in that original article, the march also included an extensive list of examples of base racism, both coded and uncoded.

At a downtown street forum the night before the march debating the merits of permitting it to pass through the Muslim Quarter, some Jewish Jerusalemites clearly expressed the opinion that Palestinians should not have rights, and others openly called for their mass murder. As the march entered East Jerusalem, marchers chanted, “May your village burn!” As the march proceeded through the Muslim Quarter, participants adorned themselves with stickers calling for Palestinians to be ethnically cleansed, and paraded with the regalia of a violent anti-miscegenation gang whose members torched Jerusalem’s only joint Jewish-Arab primary school. A participant we interviewed volunteered that many marchers were “yelling bad things against the Arabs”.

The TOI article does not mention any of these examples of base racism that we thoroughly documented. And there is other evidence of base racism from the march, evidence which we did not include in either our video or our article.

A quick YouTube search turns up one video of the march through the heart of the Muslim Quarter in which the participants are clearly heard chanting about the biblical figure of Moses killing an Egyptian man; the chorus of their chant was, “Take revenge on the non-Jews!” On the day of the march itself, the liberal Israeli daily newspaper Ha’aretz published another video of marchers loudly chanting “Muhammad is dead” in front of Jerusalem City Hall. We ourselves also shot footage at City Hall, which we chose not to include in our original video, of marchers singing “Avenge one of my eyes!” and cursing Palestinians.

The song is an ethnic cleansing anthem that is popular on the Israeli far right. It made major national news half a year ago when settlers sang the song at a friend’s wedding, while dancing ecstatically and waving army rifles, handguns, and molotov cocktails, and repeatedly stabbing a photograph of Ali Dawabshe, a one-year-old Palestinian toddler that Israeli settlers firebombed to death, along with his parents.

The original video makes evident that the desire to ethnically-cleanse, or “Nakba”, Palestinians was present in the hearts and minds – and actions – of many of the marchers. Whether the actual word “Nakba” was chanted by the marchers or not, it was certainly present at the march in spirit.

Continuing to document the racism rife in Israeli society

Looking forward, we hope that other journalists will endeavor to increase their coverage of public events in Israel in which base racism is openly on display. The more documentation we will have of these events, the easier it will be to determine exactly what is happening on the ground. Only then will we be able to have an honest and open discussion about how best to respond to these frightening phenomena.

If our journalist colleagues and other interested parties want to work with us to help us improve our documentation of Israeli society, we are open to their perspectives and we welcome their insights. But Zionists who hope to protect Israel’s ethnocracy from criticism by trying to discredit us and our body of work are likely to end up being sorely disappointed. The hate for non-Jews that is sadly all too common in Israeli society, from the highest state officials down to lowly grassroots racists, will continue to be carefully chronicled by us and by others.

We will keep reporting on Israeli society, and on the corrosive racism that courses through it. Neither in-person attacks nor online libels will scare us off from this professional obligation and moral duty. Even as increasing numbers of Zionists incite violence against anyone who would expose Israeli wrongdoing, we will continue to shine lights on this country’s uncomfortable truths.