One family’s independence is another family’s Nakba

by Yaniv Reich on May 15, 2010

Today is the anniversary of the establishment of Israel on May 15th, 1948. It is also the day that Palestinians commemorate as the Nakba (“the catastrophe”).

Here are two excellent documentaries on the establishment of Israel and the birth of the Palestinian refugee problem. Spend some time today thinking about the history conveyed in these videos. In the final analysis, there is no escaping what we did to the Palestinians.

The first is a historical overview of early Zionism from 1878, the establishment of Israel, and the expulsion of the Palestinians.

The second video is a 1950 documentary narrated by the famous Dorothy Thompson, a woman who Time Magazine once called the second most influential woman in the US after Eleanor Roosevelt. This video depicts the life of the refugees in the immediate aftermath of the Israel’s creation, which provides essential detail on it was that dispossession of Palestinians resulted in the situation you see today.

Israelis and Jews have a very difficult time talking about the Nakba. There is even a movement in Israel, led by the current extreme right-wing Foreign Minister, to make it illegal to observe publicly any Nakba remembrance activities. As Jews in the post-Holocaust era, FM Lieberman and his co-conspirators know very well the importance of remembrance, which is driven into our young pliable brains to help ensure, among other things, that the Holocaust never happens again. Yet many modern Jews have no problem denying this same right—indeed, this human need—to Palestinians on whose backs and land Israel was founded as a supposedly democratic state.

Outline of a human catastrophe

Extremely briefly, what the Nakba means to Palestinians is the following. The Nakba refers not only to the creation of Israel but to the entire process of violent dispossession—an academic euphemism for ethnic cleansing–that Palestinians experienced in 1947/48. Nakba Day itself is observed on May 15th for symbolic purposes but the “catastrophe” was longer than that, the initial phases lasting nearly one year and continuing to today.

The historical reality is that by May 15th, 1948, 175,000 Palestinians from over 30 villages had either been expelled or fled from fear of Jewish violence. Another 300 Palestinian villages’ inhabitants were forcibly expelled in the course of Israel’s War of Independence, which began when neighboring Arab countries attacked Israel after May 15th. In total, at least 726,000 Palestinians were forcibly driven off their land with gun barrels at their backs and in their minds. They have never been allowed to return.

According to the Israeli historian Benny Morris, the leading Israeli authority on Palestinian refugees whose research is based entirely on Israeli government archives, summarizes his long and very detailed book, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem:

“Above all, let me reiterate, the refugee problem was caused by attacks by Jewish forces on Arab villages and towns and by the inhabitants’ fear of such attacks, compounded by expulsions, atrocities, and rumors of atrocities—and by the crucial Israeli cabinet decision in June 1948 to bar a refugee return.”

The Erasure of Palestine

Most people in the Western world, including and especially Israelis, do not conceive of nor assign these refugees the same inalienable rights held by all refugees in Kosovo, Darfur, Sri Lanka, Congo, etc., as provided by international law. The Palestinian right to return to homes and land stolen from them is “non-negotiable,” we are told. Moreover, most of the non-Arab world has simply chosen to forget the tragedy, an act facilitated by deliberate Israeli actions intended to erase historical Palestine from collective memory.

Israel’s famous, one-eyed, former Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, elaborates:

“You don’t even know the names of these Arab villages, and I don’t blame you, because these geography books no longer exist. Not only do the books not exist, the Arab villages are not there either. . . . There is not a single place built in this country that did not have a former Arab population.”

What does he mean the books no longer exist? Well, many tens of thousands of Palestinian books were plundered and destroyed by Israel because they were seen to be a security threat. They were largely sold to paper mills, who dutifully ground them up and produced new, blank paper on which a new history could be written.

How did the village names disappear? Immediately after the War of Independence, Ben-Gurion, the first prime minister of Israel, established the Negev Names Committee and the Jewish National Fund’s Names Committee. Together they assign over 200 new Hebrew names to formerly Palestinian towns because, as Ben-Gurion explained: “Israel was obliged for reasons for state to remove Arabic names.” Palestinian villages were razed to the ground and turned into agricultural fields, nature parks, or new Jewish settlements. Together with the renaming exercise, a new Judaicized map of Israel could be produced without a significant trace of the Palestinian civilization that existed prior to Israel’s establishment.

In this sense, one cannot fault too heavily first generation Israelis ignorance of the Nakba—it was erased from their history by their own government. But this pardon only goes so far. Today, detailed historical information, much of which is based on declassified official Israeli documents, is widely available. Burying one’s head in the sand and pretending not to know is no longer an excuse. It is instead deliberate and damaging cowardice.

National and individual histories forever intertwined

This is how and why Israeli “independence” can never be independent of the tragedy it bestowed upon the Palestinians. Our fates as nations and humans are forever bound together.

Many mainstream Israelis and Jews worldwide consider the price paid by Palestinians to be worth it. This belief takes the following form articulated quite clearly by Benny Morris: “Ben-Gurion was right. . . . Without the uprooting of the Palestinians, a Jewish state would not have arisen here.” With this sweeping judgment, these Jews attempt to wash their bloodstained hands.

I personally find this statement, like many other humane people around the world, to be ethically impoverished and revolting.

But no matter what your opinions on the desirability or necessity of the Nakba for Jews (again, I cringe even to suggest this commonplace view) one must grapple with the depths of suffering and alienation generated by the establishment of Israel, both to better understand your own place in history and to help understand what future peace and justice require.

Never forget.

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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

1 ruti May 16, 2010 at 2:09 pm

I was waiting to see, watching the “historical overview”, if any of the reasons for the Nachba will be mentioned or how the 1948 attack by the Arab countries will be described. The 1948 war was mentioned as “some of the arab armies finally intervened..” .

2 Yaniv Reich May 16, 2010 at 4:04 pm

There are no reasons possible for the forced expulsion of 726,000 people from their homes, whether or not neighboring countries got involved. Nothing can justify these acts of ethnic cleansing committed by mid-20th century Zionists and the first Israelis.

If you are so concerned about the Arab armies, perhaps you can explain how the entrance of those forces into conflict with a new Israel in May 1948 “caused” the Nakba–the expulsions–that had began 7 months earlier.

3 ruti May 16, 2010 at 6:15 pm

this is from 2004, but please read it

4 Yaniv Reich May 16, 2010 at 6:51 pm

I have not only read this famous interview, as should be clear by my reference above to Morris’ justification for ethnic cleansing. Indeed, I have studied it as one of the most disturbing examples of Israeli thought of which I am aware.

For your information, at the core of Morris’ argument is the assertion that expulsion is in some circumstances not a war crime. He is wrong on this: the forcible expulsion of civilians and the forcible prevention of their return are both war crimes, and possibly crimes against humanity.

But that is just a technical detail. The larger point is this; you should spend a long time thinking about it.

To 99% of the world’s population, the sentiments that Morris expresses are ethically revolting. “You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs,” when human beings are the eggs being broken, is the moral framework of genocidal tyrants. It is not welcome in the vast majority of spaces and minds on this planet earth, and the world will only be better if such ideas are debated, thoroughly and easily discredited for the garbage they are, and then expunged from human thought. It is a pity that my co-religionists, countrypeople, and family give such hateful–and hated–ideas more weight than the paper they were published on.

There is no modern debate that can be won with the argument “Sure, atrocities and ethnic cleansing were needed, but there was no other way.”

5 Kim N.I. Bell March 8, 2011 at 1:13 pm

Thank you, Yaniv Reich, for these direct and clear articles. I remember as a child the difficulties my parents faced long ago for opposing, even relatively quietly, Apartheid in South Africa; so I know your position may be even more difficult than theirs was, so you have my respect.

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