The galling absence of the Jewish Nakba

On Monday 7 September, the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute will be launching a book about the Holocaust and the Palestinian ‘Nakba’ titled “The Holocaust and the Nakba: Memory, National Identity, and Jewish-Arab Partnership.”

Already, the Institute has been fending off a torrent of accusations that the book, which emerged from seven years of collaboration between Arabs and Jews, is making an offensive and dangerous comparison between the systematic murder of a whole people by the Nazis, and the flight of 700,000 Palestinian Arab refugees in wartime.

To juxtapose the words Holocaust and ‘Nakba’ trivialises the Holocaust. It also de-contextualises the flight of the Arab refugees from Israel: the ‘Nakba’ was a catastrophe that the Arab leadership brought upon their people by failing to inflict a catastrophic defeat on the Jews of Palestine. They would have shed few tears for the defeated Jews had the 1948 war, which they launched, had a different outcome.

As yet few critics of the Van Leer initiative have drawn attention, except in a cursory way, to the galling absence from this distorted reading of history of the ethnic cleansing of a greater number of Jewish refugees — the Jewish ‘Nakba’. Almost a million Jews were driven out of their homes in Arab countries about the same time as the Palestinian Arab refugees fled Israel. If the Arabs lost their war against the new state of Israel, they decisively won their war against their innocent non-combatant civilians of the Jewish faith. Before a single Arab refugee had left what was to become Israel, the Arab League pre-meditated its war against ‘the Jewish minority of Palestine’, and drew up a Nuremberg-style plan of persecution.

Prof. Gabriel Motzkin, director of the Van Leer Institute and a professor emeritus of Philosophy at the Hebrew University, has said: “the real issue about the ‘Nakba’ is that Israeli society is “unwilling to understand the trauma that constitutes the identity of this other people.” But Professor Motzkin spares nary a thought for the trauma suffered by the Jewish refugees. Torture, imprisonment, arrest, murder, execution on trumped-up spying charges, dispossession and expulsion of a million Jews — all count for nothing in Professor Motzkin’s selective reading of the facts.

Jews not only lost livelihoods, homes, shops, schools, shrines, hospitals, synagogues and deeded private land five times the size of Israel, but a 2,500 year-old heritage predating Islam by a millennium.

The Jewish ‘nakba’ was also an Arab-Jewish ‘nakba’ — it tore a gaping hole in the Arab cultural, social and economic fabric from which they have never recovered. Cities such as Baghdad — one-third Jewish — were emptied overnight.

Most Jewish refugees fled to Israel, where half the Jewish population hails from Arab and Muslim lands. This makes Israel both a necessary haven from Arab Muslim anti-Semitism, and the legitimate political expression of an indigenous Middle Eastern people.

A comparison between the two ‘Nakbas’ — one Arab, one Jewish — might be more appropriate: an exchange of roughly equal refugee populations took place, as was common in 20th century conflicts.

But swathes of world opinion are in denial about the Jewish ‘Nakba’. Arab states have never acknowledged that a mass violation of Jewish rights took place, much less admitted guilt or offered compensation. Over 100 UN resolutions relate to Palestinian refugees; not one to the more numerous Jewish refugees.

What is especially painful is that Israel’s own elite army of moral narcissists, such as Professor Motzkin, collude with the purveyors of the ‘Palestinian Nakba‘ narrative, while wiping from memory a trauma that afflicted their own Jewish people. This can only pour fuel on the flames of hatred, while perpetuating a monopoly of Palestinian victimhood.

Oddly enough, the European Holocaust did have an impact on the Jewish ‘Nakba’. The Palestinian leader Haj Amin al-Husseini, with the overwhelming support of the Palestinian Arabs, was a willing collaborator in the Nazi extermination of the Jews. He had every intention of perpetrating the genocide of Jews living in the Arab world. After inciting the 1941 Farhud against the Jews of Iraq, he spent the rest of WWII as Hitler’s guest in Berlin, together with sixty other Arabs. His poisonous radio propaganda broadcasts primed an illiterate Arab populace to massacre Jews among them even before the creation of Israel. His legacy, and that of the Muslim Brotherhood he partnered, endures to this day.

There’s material enough for another book: “The Holocaust and the Jewish Nakba.” Somehow, I don’t think the Van Leer Institute will be interested in launching that one.

About the Author
Lyn Julius is a journalist and co-founder of Harif, an association of Jews from the Middle East and North Africa in the UK. She is the author of 'Uprooted: How 3,000 years of Jewish Civilisation in the Arab world vanished overnight.' (Vallentine Mitchell)
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