As They Celebrate Independence, Israelis Should Remember the Nakba

Israelis should remember relative Palestinian powerlessness as they celebrate the achievement of their sovereign power.

Mira Sucharov.
Mira Sucharov
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A Palestinian boy shouts slogans as others wave flags after Friday prayers during a protest to mark Nakba day near the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem's Old City, May 15, 2015.Credit: Reuters
Mira Sucharov.
Mira Sucharov

The approach of Yom Haatzmaut, Israeli Independence Day, means that Nakba Day is also around the corner. 

Despite the Israeli government’s attempt to legislate into silence any Palestinian national mourning through the 2011 Nakba Law, in most ways it’s hard to think of one narrative without the other. Israel’s founding constituted a moment of elation for Zionists just as it violently dislocated the Palestinians. 

Yet in their understanding of cause, blame, motive and righteousness, Israelis and Palestinians are as far apart as ever. With the increasing importance that scholars and peace builders place on the concept of historical narratives, can and should a joint Israeli-Palestinian narrative be written?

Veteran peace activist Uri Avnery thinks so. In trying to shine a light on the discrimination against Palestinian citizens of Israel, Avnery has recently called for Arab and Jewish citizens of Israel to be at the forefront of farther-reaching peace efforts by crafting a joint narrative: “[O]ne that takes into account the motives of the Zionists and the Arab nationalists, the limitations of the leaders on both sides, the humiliation of the Arabs by Western imperialism, the Jewish trauma after the Holocaust, and yes, the Palestinian Nakba.” And when someone with the peace building credentials of Avnery and his group, Gush Shalom, suggests as much, we should listen. But the task may not be as necessary as it seems.

What we typically see when it comes to work on Israeli and Palestinian narratives are analyses that run in parallel, like Neil Caplan’s "The Israel-Palestine Conflict: Contested Histories," or Sami Adwan, Dan Bar-On and Eyal Naveh’s "Side by Side: Parallel Histories of Israel-Palestine," a text which presents the Israeli and Palestinian narratives literally alongside one another. That book made waves in Israel several years ago when a plucky group of high schoolers in the northern Negev went head to head with the Education Ministry to try to keep the book on their reading list after the Ministry banned it. 

Despite the constant mention of separate and dueling narratives, the careful work of historians of the early state period has now made the facts surrounding particular events less a matter of dispute than are claims about motives and morality. While there is now general scholarly agreement around subjects like the number of refugees, the details of particular atrocities, and the nature of the military balance between Israel and the Arab states, there is less consensus on what fueled each side’s actions at any given point in time. Was Palestinian resistance to early Zionist settlement primarily a function of anti-Semitism, or was it an understandable response to land encroachment? Was Israel’s attempt to maximize its Jewish population at the expense of Palestinian presence a result of base racism? Or was it, too, borne of a defensive impulse to advance and protect Jewish self-determination? 

The assessment of historical motives is a challenging undertaking, particularly when it is groups, not individuals, under the microscope. And it is made more vexed by the need to understand ideas and beliefs in their historical context. While these questions are intellectually important, they are less urgent for the task of political reckoning.

Instead, what Israelis and Palestinians require most of all is the opportunity to express the collective meanings around the effects of each others’ actions. Here is where narratives are most valuable. And this is where agreement around a joint narrative may be beside the point. While an actual peace agreement will entail compromises over a host of thorny issues, the stories each side tells about the effects of the other’s actions on the collective self should not have to be clipped and pruned to conform to a single perspective that never existed. 

However, there are two areas where Avnery’s suggestion has merit. One is that it might eliminate some crucial historical and contemporary blindspots, particularly among Israeli Jews, those who, in this case, wield relative power. Such power has manifested in state-run attempts to inculcate Palestinian citizens with Zionist ideas, while quashing articulation of the Palestinian experience, a process that extends from excluding Arab legislators from writing Arab sector curricula, to the new Israeli civics textbook unveiled this month

Scholarly treatments like Shira Robinson’s "Citizen Strangers: Palestinians and the Birth of Israel’s Liberal Settler State" recount this period in sober detail, showing that the structural effects continue to dog Israeli democracy. And documentary films like Ibtisam Mara’ana Menhim’s "Write Down, I am an Arab" provide a moving entree into this period for viewers who have been left unawares by the state’s hegemonic messaging. 

This is where Avnery is right to bring Palestinian citizens back into the foreground. 

The second advantage of Avnery’s suggestion is in enabling Palestinian citizens of Israel to become more visible to the Israeli Jewish establishment. MK Ayman Odeh, the head of the Joint List, underscored the importance of dialogue when he expressed some regret over how the Arab sector’s 2007 visioning document, known as the Haifa Declaration, was crafted. Following a process that began in 2002, the document was basically tossed out there, Odeh told me, without the important step of engaging Jewish citizens directly. “I’m in favor of dialogue with everyone,” Odeh added. 

Such a dialogue would enable Israeli Jews to better understand the effects of Israeli institutional power on the Palestinian minority, while enabling Jewish citizens to articulate what, at root — besides power for the sake of privilege — is dear to them about maintaining a Jewish state. The process of a dialogue — even without actually producing a single, agreed-upon narrative — might open new avenues for Israeli democratic reform. 

The season of Yom Haatzmaut and Nakba Day is as good a time as any to talk, to listen. And given the hegemonic power of the Zionist narrative within Israel and Palestine, Israelis might well remember relative Palestinian powerless as they celebrate the achievement of their sovereign power. Agreement on a joint narrative may be unnecessary, but the fate of both peoples is intertwined. Israel may be sovereign, but true freedom means both freedom from oppression — and freedom from oppressing.

Mira Sucharov is associate professor of political science at Carleton University in Ottawa. 

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