The violent confrontation in Gaza doesn’t threaten Israel as much as the idea behind the demonstrations. The response to mentioning Nakba Day, marking the flight or expulsion of 700,000 Arabs from their homes during the War of Independence, is similar to the response in Turkey when someone refers to the Armenian genocide. In both cases, “it never happened.” And to prevent any misunderstanding, in Israel – as in Turkey – a special law was passed aimed at eliminating the very existence of the event, to erase the Nakba from the collective Jewish memory and to punish anyone who attributes to Israel any responsibility.
Teachers are not permitted to teach from textbooks that explain the nature of the Nakba, and anyone who does risks a reprimand or worse. Students can’t distinguish between Nakba and intifada, and they often believe that the term means Palestinian independence day.
The “success” of the Israeli campaign to obliterate the Nakba is particularly impressive when it emerges that even Arab youths aren’t familiar with the historic, diplomatic and military circumstances that led to the Nakba. “It’s our day, on which we mark our opposition to the Israeli occupation since 1967,” one Arab student told me. “It’s the day that Israel seized control of Arab lands in the Galilee,” said another, mixing up the Nakba with Land Day.
Among Jewish students the ignorance isn’t just greater, it’s also perceived as a badge of honor and a sign of loyalty to the homeland. It seems as if even pronouncing the forbidden term will make their stomachs turn, as if they’d swallowed some poison pill.
Israel is not yet ready to deal with its past. The country that’s prepared for any scenario in the confrontation with Iran, Hezbollah or demonstrators in Gaza views the Nakba as a much more threatening foe. Demonstrators can be killed, but one can’t fight the Nakba with planes and tanks; snipers cannot neutralize it, and it is not an enemy state against which sanctions can be imposed. The Nakba, like a dragon that comes out once a year to catch its prey, is indeed marked on a fixed date, but it is the past and ongoing present of Israel and the Palestinians, making it impossible to just rip its page off the calendar or check it off when it’s over.
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What makes Israelis tremble every year as they brace for Nakba Day? It’s certainly not their consciences. Israelis have long become numb to the killing of Palestinians in the territories, let alone Arabs who “fled” 70 years ago. Is it the mild discomfort caused by the fact that Palestinians in Israel and the territories are suddenly preoccupied with their national identity and for a moment dare to challenge the supremacy of Israel’s Jewish, moral narrative? It’s not that, either. One of the foundations of Israeli nationalism is the perception of the Israeli Arab as an enemy; the concepts “loyal to the state” and “Arabs” cannot be linked in the mind of the Israeli patriot.
It seems the fear of the Nakba lies in the inability to reconcile the ideological conflict between the yearning for a pure Jewish nation-state that is not tainted by other nations, especially Arabs, and the realization that such a state does not exist and can never exist.
There are those who want to settle this contradiction with an ax. Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman dreams of cutting Arab areas out of Israel and throwing them into the Palestinian Authority territories. The Education Ministry is building a massive protective wall of textbooks in an attempt to prevent the penetration of Arab history into Israeli consciousness. The Knesset legislates nation-state, loyalty and the various Nakba laws that aspire to seal off the Jewish national ghetto.
But the Nakba raises its head every time anew. The recent events in Gaza make it possible to finally turn it into something tangible, alive, with a face and a body that can be shot and killed. The Nakba has “soldiers” willing to die for it, and Israel has a target that does not require explanations and justifications. That’s how the Nakba is eliminated.