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Fighting Nakba denial

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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.

Photo from Haifa, May 12, 1948, showing Hagana soldiers forcing Palestinians to leave the city with their belongings.

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?

Joseph Levine

Joseph Levine is Professor of Philosophy at UMass Amherst, member of the Academic Council of JVP, and member of Western Mass chapter of JVP.

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9 Responses

  1. pabelmont on May 15, 2018, 10:13 am

    Today is the 70th anniversary of the beginning of Israel, roughly the beginning of the Nakba (1947-present). today I called my NY senators (Schumer, a whole-hearted supporter of everything Israel does) (Gillibrand, probably a bit less whole-hearted) and my Representative (Velasquez) and told their staff persons how I felt — I unloaded on them. Iran war, Gaza killings, long-continuing land-seizures, refugees, etc. I told them I was Jewish but that almost my only locus of Jewish feeling was my horror, my revulsion, my anger, at what Israel has done for 70 years and how the USA has aided and abetted.

    Now you have given me a idea — to phone them again and tell them to stop with Nakba-denial.

  2. DaveS on May 15, 2018, 10:46 am

    Great article, Professor. Denial of the Nakba is worse than Holocaust denial. Holocaust deniers are rightfully marginalized and powerless.
    None of the 535 members of Congress deny the Holocaust and if anyone did so, he or she would quickly be out of a job. By contrast, those who deny that Israel’s founding and its acquisition of territory through military force in 1967 had catastrophic consequences on the indigenous Palestinian population are welcomed in the mainstream. The prevailing narrative is of Israel as blameless victim of relentless attacks and Palestinians as suffering solely from self-inflicted (or other Arab-inflicted) wounds. Those who dare to challenge that narrative are often more vulnerable to consequences than those who mindlessly repeat it. As Levine notes here, the Holocaust ended more than 70 years ago, the good guys won, and the bad guys remembered accurately as the worst of the worst. The Nakba is ongoing with no end in sight.

    The forcible expulsion in July, 1948 of tens of thousands of inhabitants of Lydda and Ramle was described by Yitzhak Rabin in his 1979 memoir. Rabin had already served a term as Israeli PM and years later would serve another and win the Nobel Peace Prize. He wrote that he, Ben‐Gurion, and Yigal Allon were discussing the situation:

    “[Allon] repeated his question: ‘What is to be done with the population?’ B.G. waved his hand in a gesture which said, ‘Drive them out!’

    “Allon and I held a consultation. I agreed that it was essential to drive the inhabitants out. . .

    “Psychologically, this was one of the most difficult actions we undertook. The population of Lod [Lydda] did not leave willingly. There was no way of avoiding the use of force and warning shots in order to make the inhabitants march the 10 to 15 miles to the point where they met up with the legion.

    “The inhabitants of Ramie watched and learned the lesson. Their leaders agreed to be evacuated voluntarily. . .

    “Great suffering was inflicted upon the men taking part in the eviction action. Soldiers of the Yiftach Brigade included youth‐movement graduates, who had been inculcated with values such as international brotherhood and humaneness. The eviction action went beyond the concepts they were used to.

    “There were some fellows who refused to take part in the expulsion action. Prolonged propaganda activities were required after the action, to remove the bitterness of these youth‐movement groups, and explain why we were obliged to undertake such a harsh and cruel action.”

    While Rabin’s account focused on the psychological trauma to the noble IDF soldiers and only hinted at the suffering and death of the victims, it proved too nasty for the Israeli censors, who ordered its removal from the book. Israel had carefully cultivated the nonsense that “we begged them to stay but they followed the orders of their leaders and voluntarily fled,” and they weren’t going to allow Rabin to even mildly question the official story. However, his English translator leaked the excised passage to the Times.

  3. Boomer on May 15, 2018, 2:12 pm

    Thank you, Prof. Levine. “Holocaust denial” is, indeed, not a problem in Western society. Anyone who actually attempted it would merely demonstrate their irrationality, and prove that they were unfit for any position of public trust. “Nakba denial,” on the other hand, is everywhere evident in the halls of power in the United States. What’s worse, the Nakba continues, and the U.S. is complicit in perpetuating it. I’ve no idea how I or any U.S. citizen can effectively fight this, but I commend your efforts. I have long thought that, since Israel won’t give Palestinians a land of their own, nor equal rights in Israel, the next best action for the U.S. would be to invite the Palestinians to come here and become American citizens. Having done so much to help Israel take their homes and homeland, surely we owe them air fare here and the right to become citizens. To be stateless is to be “without the right to have rights,” as a Supreme Court Justice once said. Of course, I realize that as long as Mr. Trump is President that won’t happen. The U.S. will remain complicit. If the Palestinians are to receive help now, it must come from some other source.

    PS: the link to NYT is most interesting. I’ve long had the perception that the NYT (and other media too) is more biased in a Zionist direction that it used to be. I’m not sure that’s true. I’ve never gone to the archives to attempt a comparison, and memory is unreliable, but your link certainly doesn’t contradict my impression.

  4. Jett Rucker on May 15, 2018, 4:03 pm

    The relegation of “Holocaust denial” to a “fringe movement” is handmaiden to the overwhelming dominance of the Nakba denial so (correctly) bewailed in this article.

    Aside from the obvious error of (truly rare) actual denial of the Holocaust, there is a huge literature ( ) of Holocaust study (sometimes labeled “revisionism”) that is made fringe by such crimes as forcing to expunge over 155 such titles on March 6, 2017, including some titles they had been carrying since their founding in keeping with Jeff Bezos’s early (1998) declaration of his intention to carry “all books.” Part of the crime lies in we hapless readers thinking this ideal is still being honored and, when finding nothing on Amazon of such nature (not EVEN the usual “stubs” that Amazon keeps for books that are out of print and unavailable), conclude that the matter truly has “died out.”

    Nothing of the sort. The difference between a natural death and murder is all the difference in the world. The revisionist canon is truly “down the memory hole.” Whither the Nakba…

  5. RoHa on May 15, 2018, 7:14 pm

    There is an important difference between the Holocaust and the Nakba.

    The Holocaust is over.

    The Nakba is still going on.

    The Zionists are still driving Palestinians from their homes, still destroying farms and villages, still killing, still stealing land.

    • eljay on May 16, 2018, 1:12 pm

      || RoHa: There is an important difference between the Holocaust and the Nakba.

      The Holocaust is over.

      The Nakba is still going on. … ||

      Another important difference is that the Holocaust was done by others unto Jews, while Palestinians are making supremacist Jews (Zionists) do the Nakba unto others.

      || … The Zionists are still driving Palestinians from their homes, still destroying farms and villages, still killing, still stealing land. ||

      Isn’t it shameful what Palestinians are making those poor Zionists do?!

  6. Citizen on May 16, 2018, 8:59 am

    Take any eighth grade American class room, get a show of hands on recognition of the name “Anne Frank.” Do the same with the name “Rachel Corrie.” Or try “Ahed Tamimi.”

  7. fishbiol on May 16, 2018, 10:10 am

    The best text in this story that we can all use in future posts with those who deny the existence of the Nakba is this:

    “Descendants of Nakba survivors – many of them among the protestors in Gaza – remain the longest continually dispossessed people in the world.”

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