Controversy has erupted over news that the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute and HaKibbutz Hameuchad Sifirat Poalim Publishing Group plan to introduce a book of essays by Israeli and Palestinian writers entitled The Holocaust and the Nakba; Memory, National Identity and Jewish-Arab Partnership.
Im Tirtzu, a Zionism advocacy group, charged the book “preposterously” equated the Holocaust with what Arabs call al-nakba, “the catastrophe” of Israel’s creation and displacement of Palestinian Arab refugees as a result of the 1948-1949 War of Independence. The organization also termed the work an affront to Holocaust survivors and urged Van Leer to cancel its September 7 debut symposium.
Van Leer’s director, Prof. Gabriel Motzkin, denied equating the Holocaust and nakba. He said “we are just drawing parallels between the ways both are memorialized. … Memory, by its very nature, is different from the actual events, because not everyone remembers the events in the exact way they unfolded.”
They certainly don’t. For nearly a century Americans in the old South falsely remembered the “War of Northern Aggression” and reimposed white supremacy.
Lord Acton, the British historian who famously said “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely” also insisted that “truth is the only merit that gives dignity and worth to history.” Until Arabs in general, Palestinians in particular, remember the truth of exactly how and why the nakba unfolded—and Jews in Israel and diaspora uphold it—mutual understanding and reconciliation may remain unachievable.
Forgo a book of essays playing with the vagaries of memory, potentially engendering the post-modern—that is, post-empirical—sensibility that “we have our narrative, you have yours, let’s all go for coffee.” What’s needed to spark Israeli-Palestinian understanding is a truth and reconciliation commission like those that have tamped down conflicts elsewhere by acknowledging the truth and substituting it for vengeance.
Such a commission would highlight Arab complicity in the Holocaust and Arab self-dispossession. Evidence publicly acknowledged would include:
a) Arab pogroms against Palestinian Jews in the 1920s and ’30s. They helped induce British Mandatory authorities virtually to end Jewish immigration—in violation of the letter and spirit of the mandate. The result was to trap European Jewry on the eve of the Holocaust, ensuring a much greater genocide.
b) Arab rejection, including by Palestinian Arab leadership, of the United Nations’ 1947 partition plan calling for two states, one Arab, one Jewish after the expiration of the British Mandate. This contrary to Israeli leaders’ acceptance of a truncated statelet.
c) Insistence by five Arab countries and Palestinian “irregulars” on war against the new Jewish country in 1948.
d) Arab vows, like that by the Arab League secretary general, of “a momentous war of extermination and a momentous massacre …” Israel’s victory, despite its isolation and numerical inferiority, denied fulfillment of those pledges. Defeat at the hands of the Jews—by religion and culture necessarily a subordinate dhimmi people—was for Arabs, especially Muslims, an enduring psychological trauma.
e) Flight of Arab refugees from what became Israel amounted to a self-imposed consequence of rejection and defeat. Likewise the multi-generational maintenance and growth of a toxic “refugee” class. Contrast this with Israel’s absorption of a larger number of Jewish refugees from Arab lands, let alone examples of Germany’s post-war acceptance of many times more Germans from Czechoslovakia and Poland, India’s integration of millions of Hindu from Pakistan and Pakistan’s absorption of millions of Indian Muslims.
So responsibility for the nakba and its results lies with the Arabs, including Palestinian Arabs and their leaders. That makes it historically the opposite of the Holocaust, for which European Jews were not responsible by their actions but in fact were victims of the Nazis and their collaborators on the continent and in the Middle East.
The oft-cited example of Palestinian Arab leader Haj Amin el-Husseini, the British-appointed Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, is not just a symbol but also an epitome. He helped foment the massacres of Jews in the 1920’s and ’30s, spent World War II in Berlin conferring with Adolf Hitler and raising a Muslim Balkan division to kill Jews and Serbs and was back in the Middle East in 1948, urging his brethren to “murder the Jews, murder them all!”
The Van Leer Institute is correct in that memory is selective. But historical truth, testing many memories against internal inconsistencies and external patterns, sifting documents, artifacts and in recent times forensic evidence from multiple relevant sources is what Arabs as well as Jews must grapple with. On historical truth, not selective, self-justifying memories, acknowledged by Arabs and upheld by Jews, partnership might be built.
The writer is Washington director of CAMERA, the 65,000-member Boston-based Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America. Any opinions expressed above are solely his own.