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Cleansing the Nakba

Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts. (Former United States Senator, Pat Moynihan)

Brown University Hillel recently backed out of sponsoring a student event titled “Jews Facing the Nakba,” which was held on May 11th — the eve of Israel Independence Day. As a result, some Jewish students chose to carry out the event privately. They screened three short films and followed with a “discussion about the political nature of memory.” It is not entirely clear why Brown Hillel chose to disassociate itself from this affair. Perhaps the sensitive timing made some students uncomfortable. Perhaps Brown Hillel succumbed to pressure exerted by some of its stakeholders.

Although I do not know the ins and outs of this particular incident, as an Israel educator, I have mixed feelings about Hillel’s decision to pull out of such an event.

On the one hand, I believe it is important to expose students to the Nakba narrative, even if it only holds a kernel of truth. More and more graduates of Jewish high schools are asking for it. They feel like they were sold short. They complain that their Israel curriculum only highlighted Israel’s virtues and glossed over the Palestinian narrative and Israel’s shortcomings.

On the other hand, I’m concerned that most articles I’ve read or films I’ve watched about the Nakba fail to meet the test of robust historical evidence.

The conventional Palestinian narrative about the Nakba (literally meaning “catastrophe”) egregiously accuses Israel of carrying out an ethnic cleansing in Palestine and creating the Palestinian refugee crisis – leaving more than 5 million Palestinians homeless and deprived in the West Bank, Gaza and surrounding Arab countries.

Indeed, it has some truth to it. In the 1948 war, a small percentage of Arabs – historians have no way of determining exact figures – were indeed expelled or unjustifiably killed by Jewish forces, a dark chapter in our not too distant past

However, the vast majority of Palestinian Arabs became refugees because they did what so many others do in a time of war. They fled the conflict zone, looking for a safe haven.

The Nakba narrative fails to mention Arab leaders’ rejection of the 1947 UN Partition plan, which offered the Arabs of Palestine a state, and could have prevented the refugee crisis. The narrative omits the fact that following their defeat, most Arab states refused to settle Palestinian refugees in their midst – consequences of the war of extermination that they declared on the Jewish people.  Nor does the narrative explain how 700,000 people in 1948 grew into today’s more that 5 million registered Palestinian refugees – or why the UN’s definition of Palestinian refugees applies not only to those that fled the war zone, but also to their male descendants, a qualification that applies to no other refugee group in the world.

True, the conventional Zionist narrative has had its own share of inaccuracies and misrepresentations. For many years, it denied there were any expulsions, claimed that most (rather than some) Arabs fled because they were told to do so by Arab armies, and misrepresented the balance of power, particularly in the later stages of the war. But since the early 80’s, official Israeli government and military documents began to be declassified, and a growing amount of data started pointing to a more coherent account of the events that led to, took place in, and followed the 1948 war. The data was carefully studied and published by a group of post-revisionist historians, often referred to as the ‘new historians.’ While they too had their biases, their work ignited a more robust study of the 1948 war.

Unfortunately, you’d be hard-pressed to find their Palestinian equivalents. Virtually no Palestinian historian has dared to seriously question their peoples’ old tales. The Nakba narrative has yet to be revised.

The teaching of Nakba, therefore, provides us with an invaluable opportunity to make the important distinction between fact and narrative. I would like to argue that a narrative verified by historical study is superior to a narrative based on hearsay. To paraphrase George Orwell in his allegoric novel Animal Farm: “all narratives are equal but some narratives are more equal than others.”

The other problem with the Nakba narrative is that it utterly shapes Palestinian identity. In many ways, to be a Palestinian is first and foremost to be a victim of the catastrophe. It leaves no clearing for dreams about a better future. And what’s unfortunate is that many Jews find themselves sucked into this wretched mindset.

Don’t get me wrong – I don’t have a problem when Jews empathize with another’s suffering. Mourning for the suffering of others, even our enemies, is part of what it means to be a Jew, as the custom of spilling drops of wine at the Passover Seder to commemorate the suffering of the Egyptians so beautifully teaches us.

I do have a problem, however, when Jews empathize with another’s fabrication.

I have a problem when “Jewish Voice for Peace” egregiously accuses Israel of ethnically cleansing Palestine. Or when the NGO “Zochrot“ primarily accuses Israel of creating the Palestinian refugee crisis and endorses the Palestinian “Right of Return” – which essentially means the end of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people.

To those genuinely interested in learning more about the facts of 1948, consider this a call to action. Go beyond the emotional appeal of personal anecdotes, beyond the luring attraction of the underdog narrative, beyond the limited and questionable work of Ilan Pappe and Noam Chomsky. Validate your sources. Read the scholarly works of Benny Morris and Anita Shapira to understand the complex history of Israel and the Palestinians.

One last thought relating to the disconcerting timing Brown students chose for “Facing the Nakba.” Sitting here at home on Independence Day, as joyful Israeli songs play in the background and colorful fireworks light the beautiful skyline of Jerusalem, I cannot help but wonder about our people. Why can’t we suspend disbelief for just one day a year, and be happy with ourselves? Why this automatic Pavlovian compulsion to criticize Israel every time we dare celebrate it? Why, even in our most festive times, do we seek to remind ourselves of past miseries?

What if next year, as we celebrate Israel’s Independence, we could imitate one of our oldest Jewish traditions, and break another glass? And intend its shattering to remind us that for at least one day in the year, it is ok for our happiness to be complete.

Zeev Ben-Shachar is Jerusalem U’s Director of Israel Education. He oversees curriculum development and lectures widely at synagogues, Jewish federations, Christian communities, college campuses and international conferences. Zeev has a BA in Psychology from Harvard – later receiving a certificate of distinction for teaching there – and a Masters in Middle Eastern Studies from Tel Aviv University. He is featured in Jerusalem U’s mini-documentary, The Plight of the Palestinian Refugees.



About the Author
Zeev has been delivering trainings across the globe in public speaking, storytelling, leadership and public diplomacy. He previously served as Director of Israel Education at Jerusalem U where he developed organizational strategy, created content for online courses, led customer trainings and scripted short films that connect millions of people worldwide to Israeli geopolitics, society and innovation. He has a BA from Harvard and an MA from Tel Aviv University.
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