Independence and Nakba: Intertwined and Inseparable

The Israeliness I believe in and aspire to encompasses 
all Israelis and all their histories together.

Avraham Burg
Avraham Burg
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Tel Aviv University students mark Nakba Day, 2013. No one is trying to listen to the feelings, the hurt, the outcry of the other.
Tel Aviv University students mark Nakba Day, 2013. No one is trying to listen to the feelings, the hurt, the outcry of the other. Credit: Daniel Bar-On
Avraham Burg
Avraham Burg

Israel’s Independence Day is also Nakba Day. This is inescapable. The reality of Israeliness can’t help but incorporate not only the Jewish story but the Palestinian story as well (Nakba, or “the catastrophe,” is the Palestinians’ term for what happened to them when the state was founded in 1948.)

Space limitations prevent a full consideration here of the complex interrelations between Independence and Nakba. But the pivotal question today is not, “Who’s to blame?” or “Who started it?” or “Who didn’t do enough?” The pivotal question is a thoroughly practical one: Can the Nakba and Independence coexist in the same space?

If the answer of the Jewish-Israeli public is that the two are mutually exclusive, it follows that we should revoke the clauses in Israel’s Declaration of Independence that mandate equality for all: “The State of Israel … will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants … will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the holy places of all religions …”

If the answer to the question is that the two cannot coexist, Israel becomes the state of all its Jews, with all that this implies. Jewish, yes, but a lot less democratic; much more ethnic, far less civic.

But perhaps, despite everything, a positive answer is possible – one that allows for a joint, mutually respectful existence, which esteems and accommodates both narratives, the one happy, the other sorrowful, side by side. It’s clear that Israel and the Israeli way are in dire need of a completely different path from the one that has been staked out here for nearly seven decades. The Nakba must be absorbed into the Israeli mainstream consciousness.

For a considerable time I have thought that the crux of the problem between us and the Palestinians is not politics but psycho-politics. Each side tries to trump the other in the “trauma competition.” “Nakba,” they hurl at us, and we respond with “Holocaust.” No one – until the dramatic remarks by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas last week about the crime of the Holocaust – is truly trying to listen to the feelings, the hurt, the wounds, the fears and the outcry of the other.

It’s a binary reality: My trauma or nothing. So the result, naturally, is nothing. No deep existential and meaningful peace settlement will ever be undertaken genuinely before an authentic dialogue is fomented between the memories, the traumas and the histories. Not a discourse of rejection and denial, but of sensitivity and accommodation.

There are many ways to intertwine past history with the contemporary. Some are symbolic. Thus, the sidewalks in many German cities are studded with “stumbling blocks” (Stolpersteine), created and installed by the German artist Gunter Demnig. They are quiet statements, not provocative, that take note, at the entrances to houses, of those who left them never to return. Similarly, sections of the old route of the Berlin Wall have been preserved in the city’s streets. In Warsaw, there are small signs in several languages that recall the events that occurred in each place during the Holocaust. Not large, alienated monuments, but a mute presence that forms part of the everyday routine of each passerby.

In Israel, a country addicted to history and archaeology, such things are easily done. Nothing bad will befall anyone if history takes in not only the Jews but also the Palestinians of this country. What will be gained is a feeling of partnership with and respect for the place of Israel’s Palestinian citizens. Nothing untoward will occur if at every locale we take note of the whole of Israeli history – one people alongside the other.

I don’t believe that the wheels of history can be turned back. Yesterday’s wrong cannot be amended by creating a new wrong today. But where amends can be made, why not? Ever since Israel’s inception, the condition of the Palestinian refugees has been utilized as one of the state’s most powerful arguments for its case.

“Look at the difference,” Israeli propagandists have maintained. “Whereas we took in our millions of refugees from the Arab countries, housed and rehabilitated them for the greater glory of the State of Israel, they – the Arabs – never lifted a finger in aid of their refugees. To this day they dwell in wretched camps, eternal clients of UNRWA, incessantly multiplying, downtrodden and neglected.”

But that is a hollow argument. Because Jewish Israel did nothing for the Palestinian refugees within the country. It is our obligation to remember that, according to Zionist rhetoric, olim – Jewish immigrants to Israel – are, by definition, not refugees. Aliyah – “ascent” to Israel – is a positive ideological decision, while refugee status is a negative result of expulsion, flight and defeat. In contrast to the Zionist olim, large numbers of the Israeli Palestinians are refugees in every respect.

More than a quarter of a million 1948 refugees and their offspring live today within Israel proper. Not in Lebanon and not in the West Bank and not in the Gaza Strip. In Israel. At the end of the War of Independence, about 160,000 Palestinians remained in this country, who had not been driven out by the policy of cleansing. Of these, about 40,000 local DPs were expelled from their homes and compelled to move “temporarily” into neighboring towns and villages inside the borders of nascent Israel.

For those internally uprooted people, Israel did absolutely nothing. The opposite, in fact. Innumerable court rulings and public and governmental commissions did their best to repeatedly circumvent the simple promises made by the authorities to the inhabitants when they left. What they were promised is that when the fighting ended, they would be able to return to their lands.

The best known of these stories, though not necessarily the most crass and shameful, is that of Ikrit and Kafr Bir’im, in Upper Galilee. But all around the country, cemeteries were desecrated, holy places were turned into storerooms and animal pens, entire villages were wiped off the face of their tilled earth, and one person’s place of mourning and devastation became another’s place of leisure and holiday-making.

That process continues, unabated. This is the behavior of an insensitive state and society, which denies the history of some of its citizens – denies, in fact, part of its own history.

It doesn’t have to be like this. Israel could make a vast gesture toward itself, its citizens and the entire region by placing the issue of the internal refugees at the top of its order of priorities. As an example of the proper way to implement the right of return; wherever possible and practicable. As this is an internal Israeli matter, it will not alter the demographic balance that is sanctified by the fear-mongering establishments.

After room was made here for the whole spectrum of the world’s Jewish communities, the time has come to make room for the remaining one-fifth of the country’s citizens, too.

I have been following with astonishment the bizarre efforts of the leaders of Israel’s right wing to draft young Christian Arabs into the Israel Defense Forces. This is yet another ill-advised notion concocted by people who haven’t understood modern Israeli nationhood, and, guided by that misunderstanding, are now trying to unravel Arab nationhood. It is a senseless idea. But from the perspective of its advocates – they should be the first to show signs of taking in and at least immediately bringing back to their land the Christians among the local refugees, such as those from Ikrit and Bir’im, wherever they may have been dispersed.

But Ikrit and Bir’im are no different from the sad human story of Al-Ghabisiyya, a village north of Acre that was depopulated by the IDF in 1951 and demolished in 1955, despite a ruling to the contrary by the High Court of Justice. Many of the residents were scattered in other locales in Israel. (For the details, in Hebrew, see Joseph Algazy’s “Defeatist Diary” on the Web.) As I perceive Israeliness, wherever possible, they should be allowed to return, or compensated accordingly. For there were not only synagogues from earlier periods in many of these all these places; there were also churches and mosques and explicit High Court rulings.

All of them have a place in the Israeliness I believe in and aspire to. It encompasses all the Israelis and all their histories together. Even when it hurts. Especially when it hurts. Without it, there will never be true independence here. Only ongoing enslavement to fears, rejections, enmity and never-sated war. There is no Independence without conciliation and no Nakba without forgiveness. Is it any wonder that on Independence Day 2014, we still have more Nakba and a lot less Independence?

The writer is a former MK, speaker of the Knesset and chairman of the Jewish Agency.

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