The Nakba Isn't History, It's Still Happening

Palestinian Israelis are showing, wittingly or not, that they have come to terms with their past disaster, but the government is keeping it alive.


The conventional wisdom is that the Jewish national revival involved the national destruction of the Palestinian people.

Moreover, just like the Jewish community in the Land of Israel became – almost miraculously, unexpectedly and certainly without intent - the dominant majority after the Holocaust, the Palestinian people did not expect to turn overnight from an absolute majority to a minority, refugees in their own homeland and outside of it. One could imagine that not many nations could overcome a trauma of such magnitude quickly, let alone come to terms with it.

Yet seven decades later, Israeli citizens of Palestinian origin are choosing to commemorate their national catastrophe – what they call "the Nakba" - in the Zionist nation's public sphere. Last week, some 400 students at Tel Aviv University marked the day, which coincides with the date on the Gregorian calendar in which Israel achieved statehood, in an approved on-campus demonstration. At the deepest level, this is a clear sign of accepting the consequences of the nakba. By choosing a place like a public Israeli university, the Tel Aviv University, as the venue for a Nakba Day ceremony, Arab students – even if unconsciously - are admitting they accept that the former Palestinian village of Sheikh Munis has turned into a north Tel Aviv suburb, Ramat Aviv.

What we are witnessing, therefore, is the emergence of a new public discourse, one completely different from the formerly dominant narrative of Palestinian right of return. The younger generation of Israel's Palestinian citizens may find this hard to admit, but by standing inside Israel, at Israel's public institutions, as they recall the destroyed Palestinian villages and uprooted Palestinian families of 1948, they are conceding that the expulsion is permanent.

That is how we should interpret, for example, Arab Knesset member Ahmad Tibi's analogy between the Nakba Day ceremony and other global observance days, like those commemorating the sufferings of the Aborigines in Australia and the Native Americansin Canada. These observances don't mean that the Aborigines want to make Australia an Aboriginal state or make Canada a Native American state. Rather, they are reminders that Australia and Canada were built on the ruins of an Aboriginal or Native American past.

We may wonder, therefore, why Israel's Minister of Education, Gideon Sa'ar, felt the need to object so vocally to Nakba Day ceremonies at Tel Aviv University. We may also wonder why a piece of legislation like the so-called"Nakba Law," which makes it illegal to allocate any state funding to Nakba Day commemoration events, was legislated in the first place. While one of the Israelis' worst nightmares is a mass influx of Palestinian refugees coming with keys in hand to claim their pre-1948 homes, the very institutionalization of Nakba Day may disarm it from its connotations, transforming the keys from symbol of threat to mere museum pieces.

However, in light of Israel's consistent policyon this matter, in past and present, we must admit that Sa'ar's attack on the ceremony's organizers shows remarkable logic and inner integrity. After all, throughout most of its years of existence and certainly in the days of the present government, the State of Israel has proved it will not stop at the destruction of the Palestinian nation in 1948. As private Palestinian land is stolen, settlement expands, and the refugee problem in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip is being perpetuated, the dimensions of the Nakba grow broader by the day. The upshot is that while Israeli Palestinians take tentative steps toward putting the Nakba behind them and transforming it into memory, Israel's leadership seems bent on maintaining the Nakba as a living experience. 

Nakba at TAU, May 2012
Alon Ron
Nakba May 2012
Alon Ron