The Conspiracy

Jewish Israelis Should Recognize the Nakba

Yesterday’s tragic events–a terrorist in Tel Aviv killed an innocent man and the IDF shot and killed several people trying to breach the Israeli-Syrian border–are the latest results, in part, of the battle between two competing historical narratives: one that commemorates the fifth of Iyyar as a miraculous Day of Independence and another that marks May 15 as a Day of Catastrophe.

Extremists have used those divergent historical narratives as excuses for perpetuating this conflict, and official policies in both Israel and the Palestinian Authority sustain that tactic. In Israel, commemorations of the Nakba are subject to a fine. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has refused to recognize Israel as a Jewish state.

While those two sentences are not analogous, they both speak to each of these governments’ recognizing only one national narrative as legitimate. Despite all of the “peace” talk during these past 20 years, it’s hard to see two nations living side by side if neither can recognize the legitimacy of the other’s founding story. Gideon Levy, making a similar point, writes in Haaretz that Israeli schools should commemorate Nakba Day:

It is possible and necessary to teach our pupils that this glory which is the establishment of Israel also has a dark side. This must be taught so that we can know our history, and so that we can understand the wishes of the Palestinians, even if there is no intention of realizing them. We can call this, “know your enemy,” but to know we must.

Free societies are able to teach even the “dark sides” of their national narratives, because that’s what it means to be a free society. Israeli students should learn about the Nakba just like American students learn about slavery or German students learn about the Holocaust–not because those events are comparable, but conversely because every free country must confront its unique historical demons.

I would add–and Levy implies–that teaching the Nakba would be the first step toward peace. Israelis should take note of the Nakba not to punish themselves but to recognize that there is another people in the land that has legitimate national aspirations. This works only if the Palestinian Authority reciprocates. Israeli recognition of the Nakba must come alongside Palestinian recognition of Jewish national claims to the land. The difference between the two narratives is far from the only reason for this violent conflict, but once each people openly recognizes the validity of the other’s hopes, coexistence becomes possible.

Mutual recognition of the other’s historical narrative involves some revision of the narrative itself. The (perhaps dominant) Nakba narrative that sees the founding of the Jewish state, rather than the Palestinian expulsion, as the catastrophe cannot accommodate Israel. By the same token, the Greater Israel narrative–which envisions a Jewish state in all of the territory from the river to the sea–cannot accommodate Palestine.

When Jewish leaders call on Abbas to recognize the Jewish state, they’re not asking him to recognize Greater Israel. And Israeli schools need not teach the Nakba that leaves no room for Israel. Two states and two peoples can and should exist side by side, each with its hopes, pains and imperfect past.

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5 Older Responses to “Jewish Israelis Should Recognize the Nakba”

  1. Jonah Newman
    May 16, 2011 at 3:03 pm #

    Well said. I couldn’t help but watch yesterday’s news with much sadness. Sadness that there are Arab people and governments who continue to try to use the Palestinian narrative for their own political gain. And sadness that Jewish Israelis have not been brought up to understand–much less, accept–the Palestinian narrative. Thanks for writing this!

  2. Jeremy
    May 16, 2011 at 4:18 pm #

    I would have agreed with you 100 % if not for the pesky fact that the Nakba Law has to do with PUBLICALLY funded institutions. No govt is going to use public monies to fund or promote the idea that the state they live in shouldn’t exist. Its unreal to even compare this to the PA’s/Hamas consistent refusal to acknowledge the present day reality of what Israel is and will continue to be. The govt of Israel has every right to fire people, fine people, or withhold money from groups/individuals who use public resources to promote these ideas. Free Speech is fine on your own watch, your own time. Don’t expect every Israeli through their taxes be forced to support groups that undermine their right to exist. Its silly. The Nabka is not a historically accurate narrative, as well. Israelies should not be forced in their educational system to adopt an even handed approach to history, even if it means exaggerating palestinians suffering and whitewashing palestinian arab actions prior/during the 1948 war, just to APPEAR fair. All in all…these Nabka day demonstrations are precisely the reason the Palestinians continue to suffer and mostly by their own leadership, or lack thereof.

  3. Joshua גדליה חיים Reback
    May 16, 2011 at 6:00 pm #

    Recognizing the nakba at this juncture would be a timid response to a day whose events were inspired as much by either the Arab Spring or prodding from a desperate Syrian dictatorship as they were by frustration over the nakba itself. Just because some ass hole ran over someone on a Tel Aviv sidewalk, does not mean I am going to recognize your version of history. The two things have nothing to do with each other, that is for sure, but enough people think they do that caving into an implicit demand would be giving more reason to continue violent protests – that is, riots – when there is a latent political issue.

    Caving to violent demonstrators, especially trying to invade our territory, is just like caving to violence that didn’t start out of protests. The attitude of certain demonstrators matches the attitude of the Turks on the Mavi Marmara in 2010 that felt entitled to bring knives to start a fight with Israeli soldiers. That is a seriously messed up mentality. There is no legitimacy to these riots, and Israel nor the Jewish people can afford to make it appear as though there is. Any actual recognition should be far removed from these events for these reasons.

    These demonstrations were unprecedented. Palestinians have never been this violent on Nakba Day. There are more immediate issues at hand here. For sure there are people just as angry with Jews for ignoring Nakba Day as there are Jews who hate when Palestinians minimize or deny the Holocaust.

    But there is an undeniable gulf between the attitudes of the two peoples. The past is not prologue to many Palestinians, but it is going to have to be if we are ever going to get anywhere in the Middle East – especially with terrorist states like Syria’s always willing to throw a wrench into the works in order to screw up the system.

    The peace process is bigger than political. In the long run, I agree with Ben Sales that recognizing the Nakba, whatever that entails, would go far for peace’s progress. It fits snugly with what I have written the last couple weeks about the Palestinians’ need to recognize the Holocaust. The issues are neither directly related to each other nor can a serious person be able to compare the two events, but mutual solemnity would push Jewish Israelis and Israeli or Palestinian Arabs to recognize each others’ humanity.

  4. Harpo Jaeger
    May 16, 2011 at 11:52 pm #

    Joshua: For sure there are people just as angry with Jews for ignoring Nakba Day as there are Jews who hate when Palestinians minimize or deny the Holocaust.
    I think you’re missing the point. There aren’t Palestinian governmental structures that promote Holocaust denial. There are Israeli policies that minimize the Nakba. This is not to equivocate the Nakba with the Shoah, just to point out that there is also no equivalency between the policies of Israel and the PA.

    Also, you seem to see the riots as a distraction from the peace process. I’m not defending any particular component of the riots, but do you not see them as arising out of the current state of the peace talks? As a warning about, rather than a distraction from, the peace process?

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