Twenty years ago I had an epiphany. It was May 1998. I was living in Raleigh, NC, and was participating in a demonstration outside the NC Museum of Art. Taking place inside was a state-sponsored official celebration of the 50th anniversary of Israel’s founding. We demonstrators — local Palestinians, Jews like myself, and other allies — were instead commemorating the 50th anniversary of the “Nakba.” The term means “ the catastrophe” and refers to the massive terror, land theft, and the ethnic cleansing of some three-quarters of a million Palestinians that was necessary for the birth of the state of Israel. Descendants of Nakba survivors – many of them among the protestors in Gaza – remain the longest continually dispossessed people in the world. We demonstrators all held onto the massive quilt that was constructed from squares that represented each of the over 500 hundred villages and towns that were destroyed by the Israeli forces.
I had known about the Nakba before, of course, which is why I was there with the demonstrators. But I had never met anyone before who had been among the expelled multitude of 1948. I had been asked to say a few words, but first, four survivors from the expulsion told their stories. One man, whose story I later recorded, was 13 when his family was expelled from Ramle/Lydda, and forced to walk miles across the desert to the area occupied by Jordanian forces on the West Bank, with no food or water. He saw people dropping dead around him, many pleading for water from the Israeli soldiers along the path, but the only reply was to shoot above their heads and shout in Arabic “Go to Abdullah!” (then King of Transjordan). One of the other men who spoke witnessed the cold-blooded execution of many of the adult men in his village – he was spared because he was only a child.
When it was my turn to speak, I was quite choked up. What do you say after hearing these stories? In fact, all I could think about was something that welled up from deep in my memory; my father once telling me how during that period he had hidden guns for the Haganah (the precursor to the Israel Defense Forces) in the basement of his liquor store. (At the time the US maintained an official arms embargo on both sides of the conflict.) I told the crowd how it pained me to think that any of those guns were used to inflict this horror on them and their families. But that wasn’t the epiphany. I started to think about how for Palestinians the Nakba played a social, cultural and psychological role similar to that of the Holocaust for European Jews. For both peoples, these events constituted collective traumas that seared deep into our souls. While of course there are many differences between the two cases (obviously, the number of murdered, for one thing), it was this particular similarity that caught my attention. And then came the epiphany. While Jews rightly condemn Holocaust denial whenever and wherever it rears its ugly head, I think it’s clear that Holocaust denial is (at least so far) a fringe phenomenon.
Contrast that situation with the Nakba. I saw through the eyes of these four survivors of Israeli ethnic cleansing – and of course, by extension, through the eyes of all Palestinians – what this official state-sponsored celebration of their misery must look like. I started to imagine how it might have been if Germany had not been defeated and instead came to a peace agreement with the Western powers. How I might have grown up learning of the Holocaust from my parents and other relatives, but finding glazed expressions of incredulity when I told non-Jews about it. It seemed unimaginable, yet a similar experience of “Nakba Denial” is what most Palestinians in their diaspora deal with all of their lives. How do they stand it?
Of course, another salient difference is that the Holocaust – as horrible as it was – ended in 1945. The Nakba, in one form or another, continues to this day. This is what the Gazan Great March of Return is all about. We are still here, they are saying, and we will not stand for another day of Nakba denial. Why should they?