The Trauma of the Nakba Is Here to Stay

Contrary to the prevailing view, the Palestinians have never forgotten the trauma of Israel's creation in 1948 – a fact that has been brought home again recently. A trenchant critical discussion by both sides is urgent

Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Arab prisoners in Ramle, 1948.
Arab prisoners in Ramle, 1948.Credit: David Eldan/GPO
Michael Milshtein
Michael Milshtein

May 15, 1965, was not just another day in Amman. At noon, life in the Jordanian capital came to an abrupt halt for five minutes. Traffic stopped, radio stations went off the air, and a plane that was about to land at the airport was instructed to wait. Black flags flew above the buildings in the kingdom that day – especially in the West Bank – as everyone was primed to hear King Hussein’s traditional May 15 speech. Hotels in the city also stopped serving their guests for those five minutes. Foreign tourists who asked what was going on were told, simply, that it was the day on which the “Nakba of Palestine” is commemorated. The five minutes of silence, it was explained, were intended to demonstrate the solidarity of the kingdom’s inhabitants, on both banks of the Jordan, with those who suffered the trauma of 1948.

In light of that account, it’s somewhat difficult to understand the dominant narrative among Arabs, Palestinians, Israelis and most scholars in the West in recent decades to the effect that during the first half-century after 1948, the memory of the Nakba (or “catastrophe,” in Arabic, when more than 700,000 Arabs fled or were expelled during the founding of the State of Israel) was wrapped in forgetting, silence and suppression. According to that narrative, those who experienced the trauma were unable to process it, and that, along with a deliberate effort by Israel and the Arab states to erase the Palestinians’ identity, resulted in the years-long repression of their collective memory.

The era of silence and the silencing of memory ostensibly ended in 1998, the 50th anniversary of the Nakba, when recollection of the past surged powerfully into the Palestinian consciousness. There were several reasons for this: a round-numbered anniversary, which can often bring historical memories to the fore again; a growing apprehension among many of the Nakba’s first generation that they would pass away before their story was documented and imparted to younger generations; the fear that gripped many Palestinians about a looming final-status agreement with Israel that would necessitate a painful forgoing of the idea of returning; and the Palestinians’ desire to posit a counter-narrative to Israel’s own jubilee celebrations that year.

The notion that there had been a period of forgetting and oblivion dominated the entire spectrum of discourse among Palestinians, and also gained traction in Israel and the West, to the point that it acquired the status of a full-fledged “historical fact.” However, a thorough perusal of documents in archives, a survey of the Arab and Palestinian press since 1948, and conversations with Palestinians who have lived through the past seven decades reveal a different picture: The memory of the Nakba among the Palestinians was never subjected to silencing or suppression, and this seminal historical event still remains present in a number of spheres of discourse and activity.

For decades, the memory of the past was mobilized to advance political goals. The Palestine Liberation Organization, which spearheaded the community’s national struggle beginning in the mid-1960s, aimed to bolster Palestinians’ self-identity and promote their goals, and the memory of 1948 served them to that end. The trauma of the past was evoked to reinforce collective determination to achieve the goal of return and to cultivate a desire for revenge in the young generation. To underscore this point, on posters and in paintings, in literature and poetry, images of the defeated, tent-dwelling refugees were juxtaposed with those of young people imbued with the spirit of battle and fired with the aspiration to turn back the wheels of history by liberating all of Palestine through an armed struggle.

Palestinians in Nahr el-Bared, a refugee camp established in Lebanon, in 1952.Credit: S. Madver, UNRWA Photo Archives/AP

Though personal memories and feelings associated with the Nakba were not commonly evoked in Palestinian political discourse prior to 1998, they came to the fore elsewhere: in private households; refugee communities (in which the social structures of the destroyed villages were preserved); academic research, which was sometimes related to efforts to commemorate vanished villages; and the creative arts. Evocations of the “lost paradise,” the displacement, the squalid life in the refugee camps and the longing for return were linchpins, for example, in the poetry of Mahmoud Darwish (including works he published in the 1960s, when he was still an Israeli citizen), the fictional writings of Ghassan Kanafani and the paintings of Ismail Shammout.

‘Big bang’

What happened in 1998 was akin to a “big bang” in regard to the memory of the Nakba. The official memory “from above” and the popular memory “from below,” which until then had operated in parallel, came together to create a powerful collective memory that became the pillar of Palestinian national consciousness. Simultaneously conjuring up the Palestinians’ past and portraying their present, that memory also has focused them on the goals that it was considered incumbent on them to achieve in the future.

The narrative of the lengthy silence and silencing of the memory of the Nakba is given expression within Israel’s Arab society and is intimately connected with the way it defines its association with the state and its own self-identity. The discourse about the silencing of memory is consciously intended to reflect the decades-long fear of the government among Israel’s Palestinian citizens, the establishment’s efforts to erase those same citizens’ memory of their national past, but also to glorify the singularity and boldness of the young generation that has revived that memory.

For Israel’s Arab community, the effort to commemorate was more difficult than it was in the other centers of Palestinian life, though here, too, the acts of forgetting and/or suppressing memories were not absolute. On the one hand, many individuals from the first generation of the Nakba were apprehensive about public discussion of the events of 1948 – the Shin Bet security service supervised the educational curriculum in their locales and many of the physical remnants of the past had been erased. And yet at the same time, a widespread, ongoing discourse was being conducted about the destroyed villages, the refugees and the idea of return. That colloquy took place from the Knesset rostrum and also within families, in the press and in the arts. Many famous literary works since 1948 dealt trenchantly with the Nakba, among them Nathan Alterman’s poem “On This,” S. Yizhar’s novella “Khirbet Khizeh” and A.B. Yehoshua’s short story “Facing the Forests.”

The Nakba represents the national nadir of the Palestinians, but also the moment of their creation as a collective, and it constitutes a pivotal point in the development of the Palestinian collective consciousness. At the same time, it’s a memory that foments deep disruption in the Palestinian dimension of time. For the Nakba is not a one-time historical event that has ended; it is a continuing trauma that began before 1948 and persists in the Palestinians’ consciousness to this day. As such it entwines in a common fate and destiny all Palestinians from all religions, parties and social classes, including those born after 1948 and those whose families were not actually uprooted from their homes. The Nakba is perceived as an experience that is embodied in different forms and weaves the Palestinians’ past and present together. It is a memory that only intensifies as the distance from the concrete historical event increases – a phenomenon depicted by Israeli Palestinian author Emile Habibi in his 1974 novel “The Pessoptimist,” where he describes how the shadows of a mother and her son grow longer the farther they go from the Galilee village from which they were expelled.

A demonstration marking Nakba Day at Tel Aviv University in 2016.

Crux of the conflict

Israel, of course, plays a major role in this story. It is perceived by the Palestinians as causing and being exclusively responsible for their national trauma. It is the heart of the conflict between the two peoples and the crux of the elemental conflict between their narratives. The rebirth of Israel is the destruction of the other, or in the words of a slogan that is common among Israel’s Arab society: “Their Independence Day is the day of our catastrophe.”

The memory of the Nakba is present at every juncture in the Palestinian universe. May 15 is the most important memorial day in the national calendar – far more than the anniversary of the founding of any organization, the commemoration of military campaigns or the death of a political leader. The remembrance takes place simultaneously in Ramallah, the Gaza Strip, Beirut and Umm al-Fahm (this year, too, it coincided with Israel’s military operation in Gaza, which was accompanied by a severe crisis between Jews and Arabs in Israel). It has a central place in the textbooks of the Palestinian Authority, in which much space is devoted to the villages destroyed in the wake of the 1948 war and to the longing to return; and it is present in the public domain in the form of monuments marking the events of 1948 (on most of which the image of the symbolic key of the return appears), and streets and institutions named for villages that were razed. The same phenomena, particularly the monuments and street names associated with the Nakba, have become increasingly discernible as well in Arab locales within Israel in recent years.

The manner in which the memory of the Nakba is developing raises a serious question – not only about what communities decide to remember or to forget, but also about what they define as a memory that has been forgotten or preserved. The very act of defining a collective memory as having been forgotten usually serves the interests of political or social forces in the present, particularly those that wish to present themselves as the standard-bearers of a new message, bold and revolutionary, and to set themselves apart from all their predecessors, who are generally painted in shades of darkness and passivity.

The complex discussion about periods of forgetting and of memory suppression is not unique to the Palestinians. A similar phenomenon existed in the context of memory of the Holocaust, a formative trauma whose intensity and nature are entirely different, of course. Israeli discourse tends to look at the first two decades after 1948 as a period in which the memory of the Holocaust was shunted to the margins of public discourse, amid intensive occupation with consolidating the state and because remembrance of the trauma was perceived as a manifestation of weakness. Within this context, it was claimed that the founding fathers of the Jewish state had tried to erase the memory of the Holocaust due to their efforts to cultivate the ethos of Israeli heroism. However, a deeper investigation shows that the memory of the Holocaust was never repressed or silenced. It was commemorated – as early as the 1950s – by various means, such as the establishment of the Yad Vashem center in Jerusalem; the planting of memorial forests; the establishment of locales, streets and schools named for events and persons connected to the Holocaust; and of course the designation of a national day of commemoration.

As in the case of the Nakba, the difference between the periods is discernible in the intensity of the commemoration and the forms it takes. During Israel’s first two decades, the memory of the Holocaust was characterized by formality and a national orientation and was mobilized for state-building. Relatively limited time and space were allotted to personal voices and private memories. A change began, however, in the wake of the Eichmann trial, which symbolized the “discovery” of the Holocaust by sabras, not least because they encountered its personal dimensions through the testimony of survivors.

The year 1948 is not relaxing its grip on both peoples; indeed, it remains a constant presence in their consciousness and life experiences. When we talk about it, we are not discussing the past alone, but rather participating in a dialogue about the present and the future. This has been powerfully manifested in the events of recent weeks. What stood out was the furor that erupted in the wake of an article by Haaretz editor Aluf Benn, calling on Jewish Israelis to “stop being afraid of the Nakba” and to establish it as a subject for discussion and study. The criticism that was leveled at him once again raised the question of the Palestinians’ responsibility for the events of 1948, along with musing as to why to this day no truly penetrating criticism along the lines of Israel’s so-called new historians has developed in their community.

Police in Jaffa, during the Gaza flare-up last month.

Even more troubling evidence of the ongoing presence of 1948 in our day was evident in the serious crisis that broke out (and has not yet ended) between Jews and Arabs in Israel against the backdrop of the recent hostilities in Gaza, which has constituted one of the lowest points in relations between the two communities since 1948. For Israel’s Arabs, these incidents served as evidence of the continuation of the Nakba experience, focusing on efforts to uproot them from their homes. For their part, many Jews described the disturbances as an eruption of deep enmity that lurks within the Arabs, which are reawakening existential anxieties among the Jews.

The Palestinians are not the only people who have endured the loss of their homeland and mass dispossession, but they are among the few who continue to exist in a state of prolonged rootlessness and instability. The primary cause of that aberration is a lack of sovereignty. For other displaced and defeated peoples, an independent state – though it sometimes constitutes only a small part of the larger homeland that was lost – has been a source of consolation, a home in which the displaced rebuilt their lives, and on which they focused their national aspirations. They could continue to dream of the realms of the past with a nostalgia tempered by the awareness that a return to them was impossible. This was the case, for example, with the Armenians, the Greeks who were dislodged from Asia Minor or Northern Cyprus, and millions of Germans who were expelled from Eastern Europe during and after World War II.

National sovereignty could be of immense importance both for the Palestinians and for Israel. For the Palestinians, it would be a first step on the road to reshaping the past, enabling the creation of a more normal present in which national dreams and energies would be focused on the goal of cultivating the state, with unrealistic aims – particularly of a full return – being abandoned. It’s also possible that they would develop a critical approach to the past, accompanied among other things by contemplation of their degree of responsibility for the historical events, among them rejection of the 1947 United Nations partition resolution. For Israelis, such a turn of events would embody understanding of the strategic need for a separation between the two peoples and of the importance of Palestinian sovereignty – albeit a limited one – for Israel’s national security.

If this does not become the reality, the two peoples will continue to find themselves in a trap that’s characterized by profound asymmetry. The Jews act from a position of strength, which has allowed them to develop a new and penetrating view of their past. On the other side, the Palestinians – who are failing to realize their national goals and are caught in the grip of a perpetual crisis – cling to a monolithic collective narrative, accompanied by limited self-criticism, while presenting a sharp dichotomy between a just side that is weak and victimized, and a strong, guilty side. That is a recipe for a sterile dialogue between the one side that alleges the existence of a historic wrong that must be righted, and the opposing side, which is called on to bear full blame and responsibility for historical events. Until they attain sovereignty of some sort, the Palestinians will not be able to develop a critical discourse about their past – and without such discourse it will be difficult to get the Israeli public to pay heed to the Palestinian narrative.

For the sake of a more stable existence, therefore, the two peoples must make painful but essential historical decisions, and their practical decisions must be accompanied by an effort to reshape collective consciousness and memory. A compromise does not obligate mutual forgetting of the past, but it does make possible its reframing: from the aspiration to turn back the wheel of history, toward the memory that, it is agreed, will not return. That will obligate both sides to consolidate a collective memory, in the framework of which realms of the historical homeland that are no longer in their possession will be bound up with longing in memory, without subordinating everyday life to working concretely for their return – or imbuing future generations with a militant commitment to achieve that aim.

Dr. Michael Milshtein is head of the Palestinian Studies Forum at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, Tel Aviv University, and a senior analyst at the Institute for Policy and Strategy, Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya.

Click the alert icon to follow topics:



Automatic approval of subscriber comments.

$1 for the first month

Already signed up? LOG IN

A family grieves outside the SSGT Willie de Leon Civic Center following the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas on Wednesday.

Israeli PM Offers Condolences After Texas Gunman Kills 21 at Elementary School

U.S. President Joe Biden, this week.

Biden Decides to Keep Iran's Revolutionary Guards on Terror List, Says Report

ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt.

Progressive Jews Urge ADL Chief to Apologize for Calling Out Democratic Activist

Democratic Sen. Bernie Sanders with Jessica Cisneros in San Antonio last week.

It’s AIPAC vs. Bernie Sanders in Too-close-to-call Texas Democratic Runoff

U.S. President Joe Biden. Making a historic pivot to Asia.

Biden Does What His Three Predecessors Talked About Yet Failed to Do

Meir Kahane addressing his followers during a demonstration in Jerusalem, in 1984.

Why the U.S. Removed Kahane Chai From Terrorist Blacklist