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Educating Israel About the Nakba

Haaretz Editorial
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A Palestinian woman holds up a key symbolizing their demand to return to homes they fled or were expelled from in the war that led to the founding of Israel in 1948, Sunday.
A Palestinian woman holds up a key symbolizing their demand to return to homes they fled or were expelled from in the war that led to the founding of Israel in 1948, Sunday.Credit: REUTERS/Mohammed Salem
Haaretz Editorial

Sunday, May 15, was Nakba Day. For Israeli defense officials and political leaders, it’s just another “hazardous day” on their twisted calendar, like Land Day, Eid al-Fitr and the entire month of Ramadan; the “events of October 2000,” in which 12 Israeli Arabs were killed; and memorial days for prominent Palestinian leaders.

In preparation for these days, the security forces go on high alert; commanders and politicians meet with leaders of the Arab community, either to reassure or to warn them; and Israeli media outlets try to predict where and how “riots” will erupt. When one of these days passes quietly, as Nakba Day did Sunday (apart from the arrests of three Arab students at Tel Aviv University), sighs of relief are heard, as if Israel were saved from ruin at the last minute.

Nakba Day has never been a threat to the existence of the state, but Israel has always viewed any mention of the term – “nakba” means "catastrophe" in Arabic – as a trip wire meant to undermine its legitimacy as an independent state by holding it responsible for the disaster and the suffering of the Arabs in the War of Independence.

For decades the state labored tirelessly to make the term “nakba” disappear and prevent any study of the Palestinian narrative. The word’s use in textbooks was prohibited.

Although the government eventually allowed the Palestinian narrative to be taught as well, in 2011 the Knesset passed legislation, dubbed the “Nakba Law,” that reduces state funding or support to an institution if it observes Israel’s Independence Day or the day on which the state was established as a day of mourning. Israel, which fears to this day for the purity of its narrative, determined that it cannot accept a historical narrative that could, in its view, stain its birth.

But for more than 20 percent of the country’s citizens, the memory of the Nakba, the suffering, the refugeeism, and a deep sense of injustice are an integral part of their national and cultural identity. Their grief does not depend on permission from the government to use the term “nakba.” These citizens, who are partners in building the state, want the state to recognize their catastrophe and to grant them appropriate space in the shared history and memory of both peoples.

Recognition of the Nakba and recognition of the Palestinian narrative are not only gestures of human sensitivity toward people who were affected by the war; they are vital to a full understanding of Israel’s complex history. The equal rights about which Israel likes to boast cannot be reflected only in government funding or in political cooperation. It also requires respect and recognition of the history and the memory of the minority. That is the test of the national maturity of the State of Israel.

The above article is Haaretz's lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.

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