The proposal to legally bar the commemoration of the Nakba on Israel’s Independence Day reflects growing trepidation in Israel about the inevitable encounter with the Palestinian Nakba and the understanding that the Nakba is a foundational part of Israeli identity. Until recently, the threat of exposing the Nakba was barely felt. There was no need to fight this repressed demon, which might suddenly reveal itself and disrupt the seeming calm of a harmonious Jewish democracy. But the Nakba is not a demon, not the fruit of deceptive imagination, and therefore we should not underestimate the challenge facing Israeli society: to recognize Israel’s part in the expulsion of most of the Palestinian inhabitants of the land in 1948, the destruction of most of their localities (upwards of five hundred), the annihilation of urban Palestinian culture, and tens of massacres, rapes, incidents of looting, and dispossession. Looking into so dark a mirror takes courage and maturity, demonstrated in the research of such scholars as Morris, Gelber, Milstein, Khalidi, Pappe, and others, as well as in the diaries of Netiva Ben Yehuda and Yosef Nahmani.
It is not surprising that the “appropriate Zionist response,” to inscribe the forgetting of this human horror into law, comes from the circles of the political right-wing. They have always been more sincere in their racist attitudes toward Arabs in Israel, compared to the Left, which marketed to the world and to us its honest (yet illusory) longing for peace.
More than eighty years ago, it was clear to Jabotinsky, the leader of the historic Right and perhaps the most realistic Zionist thinker, that the establishment of the Jewish state required citizens to be forever soldiers under the protection of the “Iron Wall.” Jabotinsky understood that Jewish existence depended upon violent strength, on killing and being killed in a predominantly Arab region that would never accept them. A year ago his student, Tzipi Livni, suggested that Palestinians remove the word ‘Nakba’ from their lexicon as part of a comprehensive peace deal. Our current Prime Minister announced during his recent campaign that he would expunge the Nakba from educational curricula (since when has the Nakba been taught anyway?) and would order the teaching of Jabotinsky’s legacy.
The Greek philosopher Thrasymachus taught us that “the law is what is good for the stronger,” but no law, not even that of the democratic Jewish Knesset, can erase the horrors of history. Traces of these horrors will always be visible, in both personal and collective memory and forgetfulness. In Israel, the sabras, prickly cactus bushes, have become vivid and thorny monuments of the Palestinian Nakba. This obstinate plant was brought by the Palestinians from Mexico to mark and defend their territory. The sabra not only persists in the landscape long after Israel expelled those who planted it, it also grows wild despite attempts to eradicate it. Perhaps, in response, the Israeli government should make it unlawful to eat its fruit?
At the same time, remembrance of the Nakba is growing and takes root in the deepening fissures in the Iron Wall. The Palestinian refugees – the majority of Palestinians are, indeed, refugees – have mourned the Nakba from the moment it occurred and demand justice. After the Oslo Accords, when they realized their concerns would be pushed aside indefinitely, they began to struggle effectively against the worldwide disregard for their tragedy. However, the proposed law to forget the Nakba is in actuality a response to cultural shifts in Jewish-Israeli society to coping with this disaster. The real threat to the colonialist Iron Wall occurs as the majority of its soldiers refuse to obey the commandment not to remember. In the last few years, hundreds of Jews in Israel (and around the world) have participated in events commemorating the Nakba during Israel’s Independence Day. In recent years hundreds of Israelis have turned to Zochrot – an organization working to bring the Nakba to the consciousness of Jews in Israel – to request information on the topic. Journalists, writers, architects, as well as people in film, television, and theater who grew up on the good old stories of Israel seek to discover their repressed past. Educators are requesting the educational packet on the Nakba developed by Zochrot. Soldiers from the Palmach are turning to Zochrot towards the end of their lives to share stories of what they did and saw in 1948.
Who knows, maybe the day is not far off when the choice at the center of the political debate will be the State of Israel as it is today versus recognition of the Nakba and the right of return of the Palestinian refugees. When this day comes, the citizens of Israel will be able to choose between two clear visions: separation and perpetual violence versus a life of equality for all the country’s residents and refugees. To hurry this day forward, maybe we should make up another Hebrew word: “de-colonization.”