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Haviva Ner-David
post-denominational inter-spiritual rabbi, mikveh specialist, spiritual counselor, author
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Nakba: When independence is catastrophe

With deep listening and inner work, we heard testimony, bore witness, and began the healing that will allow us to move toward peace. It was a sacred encounter

Last Friday was Nakba Day, the day set aside to remember the Nakba, which means catastrophe in Arabic.

The term refers to the Arab experience in the 1948 Arab-Jewish War in Palestine when the Arab Palestinian population lost many of their villages, and a significant portion of the population (also from cities like Haifa and Jaffa, for example) were either expelled or fled. Some crossed over the border into neighboring Arab countries and some went to other Arab villages or cities that had not been captured. In most cases, they were not allowed to return to their homes.

This war is also called Israel’s War of Independence, when seeing it from the Jewish point of view, although it is, of course, both at once. It is the war the Jews in Palestine won after the Arab leadership (including that of surrounding Arab countries) rejected partition of the land and attacked the Jews. This victory created the opportunity for the Jews to establish a state even on parts of the land designated as Arab in the Partition Plan, and to form a Jewish majority for a Jewish state by not allowing those who had fled over the border to return.

Thus, it was a victory for the Jews in Palestine and a catastrophe for the Arabs in Palestine (some becoming Israeli citizens, some becoming citizens of other countries, and some remaining refugees).

As in past years, I participated in an event organized by a group of Palestinian and Jewish Israelis each year on Israel Independence Day and Nakba Day. At these gatherings, we hear testimony, bear witness, and begin to heal in order to move forward towards peace. Those participating in the event are able to say both names for the war — Nakba (catastrophe) and Atzmaut (independence) — and hold both narratives without feeling threatened. This requires deep listening and inner work. But it is possible.

This year, the day began at the seashore of Nachsholim/Tantura, where Kibbutz Nachsholim was built next to and on the ruins of the Palestinian Arab village of Tantura. The village was captured in 1948, and, according to witness testimonies (villagers and former soldiers), after the village had already surrendered, Haganah soldiers — riled up by the murder and mutilation of a jeep full of Haganah soldiers — massacred around 200 villagers. People from the neighboring village of Faradis were then forced to dig a mass grave for the villagers who were killed. The village was emptied, and a group of Jews moved into its buildings and farmed its agricultural land, thus establishing Kibbutz Nachsholim. (For a more in depth analysis and depiction of this story, I recommend the documentary film Tantura).

That last paragraph was not easy for me to write, and yes, there were massacres by Arabs of Jews in those years as well. And yes, Jews were exiled and fled from Muslim countries then, too. And yes, this all happened right after the Holocaust, leaving over a hundred thousand European refugees, too, to absorb into Israel (others went elsewhere), plus terrible trauma, very legitimate fear, and a need to fight for the survival of the Jewish People.

I do not minimize any of this Jewish suffering, trauma, or fear. And I do not hold only Jews responsible for Palestinian suffering. And I know Israel is not the first country built partially on war ruins, and this war is not the first to result in the creation of refugees.

But terrible things did indeed happen to the Arabs living in Palestine and those innocent people who suffered from what transpired deserve acknowledgment and a space to tell their story and mourn. They too carry trauma, and they too are afraid. Especially since many of these people moved to villages or cities close to those from which they were exiled, and they and their descendants saw and continue to see the site of these events daily. These are my neighbors and friends. I feel their pain.

This does not mean it is only the Jews who are at fault in this ongoing conflict. It means we acknowledge our part in its perpetuation and listen with an open heart to the pain of innocent people who have suffered because of the conflict – not only innocent Jews, but innocent Palestinians as well. It is not about pointing fingers or comparing suffering. It is about owning and understanding the past so we can learn from it, processing our trauma (on both sides), and recognizing each other’s pain so we can heal from it.

This was the message of Friday’s event as well. Before the group set off on a silent peace walk from Kibbutz Nachsholim to the remaining ruins of Tantura, MK Ibtisam Mara’ana from the Labor party, whose father was from the neighboring village of Faradis, addressed those gathered. She told of how her father did not speak of his experience in 1948 when she was growing up, but often cried and was in many ways a broken man. Later she learned why. He was one of those brought over from Faradis and forced to dig the mass grave, which is now paved over by a parking lot.

Second generation Nakba trauma — that was the theme of the day. After the peace walk, the event moved to a quiet, shaded spot in the Ofer Forest nearby to share reactions and reflections on the walk and hear more testimony from children of the Nakba generation.

These “children of” (all between the ages of 40-70 now) sat in a circle in the center, sharing in Arabic (with simultaneous translation for those who do not speak Arabic). They told their family stories and how their familial and societal trauma affected them personally. Those who were not sharing sat in a circle around them, to hold them in non-judgment and bear witness.

While I know most of the speakers personally and converse with them in Hebrew, it was especially powerful to hear them speak in this closed intimate circle in Arabic among themselves, sharing their deeply personal emotions around growing up as Palestinian Israelis in the shadow of the Nakba. This setup lent itself to authentic, candid, and deeply honest sharing that would not have happened had they been addressing a mixed audience in Hebrew.

After they spoke, people from the outer circle shared one sentence about how hearing this had touched them. There was no discussion or debate. This was about sacred listening. It was a privilege to be a witness. And those in the center felt seen and heard. It is hard to capture in words the power of this experience.

It was not easy material to take in and process, especially as a Jewish Israeli, and especially because it was being spoken by friends and partners in building a shared Arab-Jewish society on this land. And yet, there is still so much pain.

People spoke of feelings of alienation, belonging nowhere, shame, anger, resentment, humiliation, fear, and loss. And all spoke of how it was to grow up as not only a minority, but as children of those who had lost the war and were now living under the rule of those who had won, even if they were now citizens of that country. All of this while also having family who were not Israeli citizens but refugees of that war living in other countries and not allowed to return. The complexity of their unique situation and identity came out strongly in the sharing.

A common thread was on one hand feeling anger and resentment towards the Jews while on the other hand feeling ashamed of their Palestinian parents’ generation whom they associated with defeat and loss. And on one hand feeling part of Israeli culture and society, even having close friends and even intimate relationships with Jewish Israelis, while on the other hand knowing these are the people who caused their people’s catastrophe.

One speaker told how his family lost not only their house and village but many dunams of agricultural land, leaving them with nothing; another told of how his father had spent years in an Israeli jail; another said his parents’ generation “lost its heart” as a result of the Nakba; another said she felt a need to appease her Jewish neighbors and prove herself worthy, while at the same time she resented their privilege. “I thought they should know better, having gone through the Holocaust,” she said.

I was especially moved by one speaker who told of his years as a younger adult being ashamed to be Palestinian, of how he left home to assimilate into Jewish Israeli culture out of a desire to identify with the victors. Only later in life did he reclaim his Palestinian roots and try to make peace with his people’s history and collective trauma.

Each speaker’s family came from a different Arab Palestinian village, all with their own stories. For example: Saffuriya. which was destroyed in 1948 and where Moshav Zipori now stands; and Eilaboun, where a massacre took place in the village church (although the village was not destroyed and its villagers were given Israeli citizenship).

Past Nakba memorial events of this group were held in both Eilaboun and in the ruins of Saffuriya (both are near my kibbutz, Hannaton), as well as at other similar sites. The village of Yakut il’Jalil in my novel, Hope Valley (about the friendship between a Palestinian Israeli woman and a Jewish Israeli woman in Galilee, told from their alternating points of view, with a backstory in 1948), is a fictionalized combination of these two villages’ stories.

I know Jews have also suffered terribly, in this conflict and throughout our People’s history. But that does not mean we cannot sympathize with other people’s pain, even if they are on the other side of this conflict.

I know the listening must go both ways, and in this group and others like it, it does. When you experience being heard, seen, and held in this way, you want to do so for others. It is beautiful to behold and experience. Mutual sacred open-hearted listening builds trust and understanding and brings home the urgency of working together to build a shared peaceful and equitable society so that we can put an end to all this suffering. As two peoples who have both suffered so much, we should be able to cry on each other’s shoulders — even if some of each’s suffering was caused by the other — and work together for a better future for us all. 

Amen. Inshallah.

Dedicated to the memory of Amir Shlomian z”l, founder of the Maayan Babustan (in Arabic: Ein Bustan) Arab-Jewish nursery school, musician, and peace activist, who passed from this physical world yesterday.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Haviva Ner-David is a rabbi and writer. She is the rabbinic founder of Shmaya: A Mikveh for Mind, Body, and Soul, the only mikveh in Israel open to all to immerse as they choose. She is the author of three spiritual journey memoirs: Chanah's Voice: A Rabbi Wrestles with Gender, Commandment, and the Women's Rituals of Baking, Bathing, and Brightening, and Life on the Fringes: A Feminist Journey Towards Traditional Rabbinic Ordination, which was a runner up for the National Jewish Book Council Awards. Ordained as both a rabbi and an inter-faith minister, certified as a spiritual companion (with a specialty in dream work), and with a doctorate on mikveh from Bar Ilan University, she offers mikveh guidance and spiritual counseling for individuals and couples, and mikveh workshops and talks for groups. Her debut novel, Hope Valley, is available at: https://www.amazon.com/Hope-Valley-Haviva-Ner-David/dp/194929059X/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1638266281&sr=8-1. The newly released Dreaming Against the Current: A Rabbi's Soul Journey, is available at: https://www.amazon.com/Dreaming-Against-Current-Rabbis-Journey/dp/1949290751/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=Dreaming+Against+the+Current+Haviva+Ner-David&qid=1638295562&sr=8-1. Getting (and Staying) Married Jewishly: Preparing for your Life Together with Ancient and Modern Wisdom, is slated for publication in 2022. She lives on Kibbutz Hannaton with her husband and seven children.
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