Reconciling the Stories of Zionism and the Nakba

Palestinian Key of Return in the Refugee Camp of Al-Aida (Jonah Naghi, 2022).

This time of year is when Israelis’ and Palestinians’ conflicting memories of the 1948 War may be the most salient.

On May 14, Israelis and diaspora Jews like myself celebrated Yom Ha’atzmaut, the day the Zionist dream of a Jewish homeland became a reality when Israel won its independence.

The following day, on May 15, Palestinians commemorated the Nakba, remembering when hundreds of thousands of them were displaced from their homes as a result of Israel’s War of Independence.

Over the years, many peace activists have tried to reconcile these conflicting narratives to promote peace and reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians. However, after October 7 and with the current war in the Gaza Strip, it may be even harder to do so, as this war is uncannily reminiscent of the 1948 War.

Hamas’s attack on October 7 was not just an act of terrorism. It was the largest mass murder of Jews since the Holocaust. It shattered Israelis’ – and to a certain extent diaspora Jews’ – sense of safety. As Israeli author David Grossman wrote in a New York Times article, “Israelis had a harsh and concrete glimpse of what might happen if their country…ceased to exist. If Israel were no longer. I have talked with Jewish people living outside of Israel who have said their physical – and spiritual – existence felt vulnerable during those hours (as well).”

For the Palestinians, Israel’s military response is not just the most aggressive operation it has conducted in Gaza, but also feels like a second Nakba. Nearly everyone in Gaza has been displaced at least once and there have been many images of them fleeing to the south of Gaza that strongly resemble photographs of Palestinians fleeing their homes during the Nakba in 1948.

Indeed, the current war in the Middle East may be triggering the memories of the 1948 War and creating an existential crisis for both peoples. It may take years, if not generations, for them to heal from their physical and psychological wounds. However, some social and clinical psychology research may provide insight on how to help Israelis and Palestinians, not only heal from their trauma, but also foster peace and reconciliation through empathy and understanding in the long run.

Social Psychology Professor Johanna Ray Vollhardt (2009) has suggested that adversarial groups’ collective memories of victimhood are not necessarily an impediment to peace. Rather, it depends on how they are framed. For instance, if their narratives are constructed in a more exclusive way, their collective memories may serve as a barrier for peace. But if they are framed in a more inclusive way, they may encourage empathy and reconciliation between the adversarial groups.

One way to create a more inclusive sense of victimhood between adversarial groups is to find common themes within their respective narratives.

For Jews and Palestinians, perhaps the most significant similarities of our stories are our experience as refugees and longing for a home. When I reflect on why I identify myself as a Zionist, I remember my grandparents’ story of when they fled from their homes in Iran after the revolution in 1979 and were provided a safe haven in Israel. However, when I reflect on my conversations with many Palestinians in the West Bank, I remember when they told me their grandparents’ stories of how they fled from their homes in what is today Israel proper during the 1948 War.

I often experience an identity crisis when I reflect on my family’s story of when they fled from Iran to Israel and the Palestinians’ story of the Nakba. However, when I recognize that we are both refugees who are longing for a home, I not only further empathize with the Palestinians, but it also enhances my motivation to find a solution where both we, the Jewish people, and the Palestinians can have a home in the land.

Indeed, recognizing the common themes in their stories may not only promote empathy between Israelis and Palestinians, but may also increase their willingness to make peace with each other. For example, in their report, some of Hameiri’s & Nadler’s (2017) studies indicated a causal effect where if an Israeli or Palestinian perceives the other side acknowledging their victimhood, they become significantly more likely to both acknowledge their adversarial group’s victimhood and increase their willingness to make compromises on tangible issues, such as borders, Jerusalem, and refugees, as part of a comprehensive peace agreement.

To be sure, these studies have limited sample sizes and need to be replicated. But if we conduct more studies and dialogue sessions between Israelis and Palestinians where they hear each other’s stories, we may begin to see the formation of a more inclusive sense of victimhood where they are more willing to make peace with each other through empathy and recognizing the similarities in their aspirations.

Of course, we cannot and should not expect Israelis and Palestinians to listen to and empathize with each other immediately after the war. As a Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker (LICSW), when I work with my clients, I need to first listen to and validate their experiences and feelings before I can expect them to change their thoughts or behaviors. Indeed, before people can change the way they see and do things, they first need to be heard. In this case, before Israelis and Palestinians can empathize and make peace with each other, they need time to process their grief and have their own pain be acknowledged.

Israelis and Palestinians also need to preserve the uniqueness of their narratives. While finding common themes within our stories can promote peace and reconciliation, people still care about what makes their narratives special, and, for Israelis and Palestinians, there are some parts of their stories that are not only different, but directly contradict each other.

From a clinical perspective, I believe the way to reconcile our conflicting narratives while preserving their uniqueness is by recognizing that they are both true at the same time. Something I often emphasize when working with my clients is that it is possible to experience contradictory feelings at the same time and have them be equally valid. It is possible to be both sad and happy at the same time. It is possible to be both scared and excited at the same time. The same holds true for Israelis’ and Palestinians’ stories.

For Israelis and diaspora Jews, our story is that Zionism and the State of Israel provided and continues to provide us a safe haven that nowhere else in the world can. And that’s true. 

For the Palestinians, their story is that Zionism and the creation of the State of Israel led to the Nakba where hundreds of thousands of them were displaced from their homes. That’s also true.

Although our stories conflict, they are both valid. Two stories can hold true at once and they are two stories that are both a part of mine.

About the Author
Jonah Naghi is a Boston-based writer and the Partnership Chair of Israel Policy Forum's IPF Atid Steering Committee in the city of Boston. A frequent commentator on Middle Eastern affairs, Jonah has spent extensive time in the region and received his Masters in Social Work at Boston College (2020) and LICSW (2023). All the views expressed are his own.
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