Thank You, Russian Immigrant to Israel, for Nakba Day

Alex Miller will go down in history as the Israeli politician who tried his damnedest to erase the memory of the Nakba - and, in doing so, made the Nakba an indelible part of our lives.

Bradley Burston
Bradley Burston
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Bradley Burston
Bradley Burston

It is customary for our people to honor fast days, memorial days and festivals by studying commentaries on their origins, the symbols and rituals of their observance, and the ways in which they connect to our own lives.

Therefore, this week, to mark Nakba Day, I've been learning about the events of 1948, and the heritage and the sorrows of Palestinians – thanks in no small part to a Russian Jewish immigrant to Israel, Alex Miller.

If for nothing else, Miller will go down in history as the Israeli who tried his damnedest to erase the memory of the Nakba - and in so doing, more than anyone, made the Nakba an indelible part of our lives.

In 2009, Miller introduced a Knesset bill which would have made taking part in a Nakba Day event punishable by arrest and up to three years in prison. The prison sentence was later struck from the bill in order to pave way for its becoming law in 2011.

But Miller's Nakba Law still casts a shadow over events marking the day. Legal experts have noted that if schools or other state-supported institutions merely read the names of Palestinians killed or forced to leave their homes in 1948, they could be fined at the discretion of the Finance Minister.

Is it relevant that Miller, a resident of the settlement city of Ariel and a senior member of Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu party, was born and raised in Leonid Brezhnev's Moscow?

It is relevant because for decades, the Jews of Soviet Russia were forbidden to commemorate their heritage. They were barred - with artfully worded and intensively enforced official repression - from gathering to study their true history, reconstruct their shattered culture, and mark the memories of their people.

It is relevant because the Soviet system tried for decades to legislate feelings and creeds and beliefs and the sense of peoplehood, and because the Soviet system, partially as a result, failed.

In the end, though, I have to thank Alex Miller. Had he not sought to make a name for himself with a law to help obliterate the names of others, I might not have spent time this week studying the history of the place I first lived in Israel, and studying about the people who had lived there before.

When I and a group of friends moved to Israel, we came to Gezer, a kibbutz originally founded three years before the state of Israel. The kibbutz movement had tried and failed to persuade us to move over the Green Line, into the territories. Settling within the 1949 armistice lines seemed the clearly moral thing to do. But if this week, this anniversary of the Palestinian catastrophe, underscores anything, it is the extent to which nothing here is clearly moral.

At Gezer, it seemed, we had found a place that would exempt us from the moral dilemmas of occupation and displacement.

And now I learn, from studying the terrible events of a terrible war, that Abu Shusha, the village that had once stood on the slopes of Tel Gezer, overlooking the kibbutz, had been the site of a massacre.

And that, in the way of catastrophe and of true history, the massacre of the Arabs of the village of Abu Shusha was followed by killings and expulsion of the Jews of Kibbutz Gezer.

On the 13th of May, 1948, Abu Shusha was stormed by the pre-state Haganah militia. Accounts differ as to how many villagers were killed in the attack, and how many were subsequently lined up against a wall and executed. There were reports of rape. There were reports that only women were left to bury the dead. Several days later, every villager who remained was expelled.

The next month, just before a UN-imposed truce was scheduled to take effect, a battalion of Arab Legionaires and irregulars, backed by a dozen armored cars, attacked and captured Gezer, shouting "Deir Yassin, Abu Shusha." Here, also, there were executions. Irregulars and neighboring villagers looted the kibbutz. Defenders, who were still alive, were taken prisoner and driven off.

This is where the story diverges, and the Nakba begins. Gezer was rebuilt, and remains a kibbutz to this day. The people of Abu Shusha lost their village, and were never allowed to return and rebuild.

The sense that both stories need to be told, informs a remarkable Open Zion essay by Jerusalem-born physician Ziad J. Asali, founder of the American Task Force on Palestine, on the fundamental lessons of Nakba Day.

Sixty-four years, Dr. Asali writes, "after I lost my home and suddenly found myself a refugee at age six, the task before us is to make sure that no further nakbas, no more pogroms or unspeakable horrors, ever occur again."

In order that this may happen, "Palestinians must recognize and accept Israel, which is a legitimate member state of the United Nations. The Palestinians must have one place on earth, the territories occupied in 1967, where they can live freely as first class citizens in their own independent state. There is no other way to end the cycle of bloodshed, pain and hatred has that lasted for so long."

"The only way to honor our tragic histories is to create a future for our children free of manmade tragedy. This means making peace fully, completely and without reservation, between Israel and a State of Palestine."

If I had Alex Miller's ear - as he, for better or worse, has mine - I would suggest that on this Nakba Day, there is a Jerusalem physician in exile in America, who has something that Miller needs to hear.

Alex Miller, left, with Yulia Shamalov Berkovich (Kadima) in a Knesset committe in February, 2012.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

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