68 Years of Fearing the Nakba

With every annual commemoration of the Palestinian Nakba, which took place this week, another opportunity is missed to begin the process of reconciliation of the Zionist memory with itself.

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A mural in the Khan Yunis refugee camp in the southern Gaza Strip, May 15, 2016, on the 68th anniversary of the 'Nakba.'
A mural in the Khan Yunis refugee camp in the southern Gaza Strip, May 15, 2016, on the 68th anniversary of the 'Nakba.'Credit: Said Khatib, AFP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

The good news is that the State of Israel has recognized the Nakba. It understands that something happened to the Palestinians who lived in the area where the state was established during the War of Independence, even something tragic. Not a Holocaust, but a catastrophe. Israel recognizes the Nakba, because it even calls it by that name in Arabic.

But please, hold your applause. There is no expression in Hebrew for Nakba, just as there is no Hebrew name for intifada, tahadiya, hudna or Muqata’a, all terms packed with emotional baggage and contexts that belong to the Palestinians, and that for the Jews serve only as technical terms.

The use of the original language, abandoning translation, or the non-invention of a parallel term in Hebrew is intended to ramp up the threat and the fear. The word “intifada” is more threatening than hitna’arut (“uprising”) tahadiya sounds more deceptive than hafsakat esh (“cease-fire”), Nakba – the Arabic name for Israel’s War of Independence, when more than 700,000 Arabs fled or were expelled from their homes, is waiting in the corner to ambush Israeli identity.

But if Israel really wanted to make the Palestinians forget the Nakba, it should ban even the use of the word. A few years ago an Arab doctoral candidate told me she was asked by her adviser to remove the term “Nakba” from the title of her Ph.D. thesis. It is doubtful whether the authorities in Israel would allow a street to be named after the Nakba, but as a rule the term has been preserved, also because it is perceived as a “foreign catastrophe,” the responsibility of some force majeur; as, for example, an earthquake in Chile.

In fact, the comparison to natural disasters is not a good one. These usually arouse an empathetic tsk-tsk, sometimes a grand effort to assist the survivors. Even the disaster that has befallen the Syrian refugees is perceived as closer. But how many times over the past year, or the past five years, or the past 20, have newspapers reported on the situation of the Palestinian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon or the Arab villages in Israel? We have to keep our distance from the Nakba as if from a plague. But paradoxically, the ceaseless efforts to proscribe the Nakba from public discourse are what is keeping its memory alive.

Culture Minister Miri Regev’s “loyalty” bill and the 2011 Nakba Law specifically state that marking the Nakba is akin to undermining the state: “Anyone who marks Independence Day or the establishment of the state as a day of mourning” cannot receive public funding, or government funding it receives will be reduced.

Originally the Knesset intended to impose a three-year prison term on those “celebrating” the Nakba. The tempest that this raised has calmed down by now, but thanks to it, Israel cannot be accused of denying the Nakba; the law itself concedes its existence, it only bans mention of it. That is, dear Palestinians, you were responsible for the catastrophe but we are responsible for remembering it, or rather for forgetting it. In any case, Israeli lawmakers believe, without memory, there is no Nakba.

The Israeli government is not trying to expunge the events themselves from history. It does not even really fight the Arabs’ individual and collective memory. Its efforts are directed mainly at erasing the Nakba from Jewish memory. It has determined that anyone who remembers the Nakba cannot be Jewish, not to mention Zionist.

If nation-building usually relies on gathering positive events from history into a collective memory, Israeli nationhood is built on the obligation to collectively forget. That is because every Arab village that was destroyed and every Palestinian refugee is a blot on the snow-white national cloak.

Thus with every annual commemoration of the Nakba, which took place this week, another opportunity is missed to begin the process of reconciliation of the Zionist memory with itself, which could lead to reconciliation with the Palestinian memory. It seems that many more decades will pass before fear of the collective Palestinian memory will disappear from the hearts of the people, who have still not made peace with their past.

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