Josh Feldman
Josh Feldman

We Need to Start Teaching Jewish Youth About the Nakba

A mural in the predominantly Arab city of Nazareth calls attention to the Palestinian "Nakba" [catastrophe] of 1948 that coincided with the establishment of Israel. (Larry Luxner)
A mural in the predominantly Arab city of Nazareth calls attention to the Palestinian "Nakba" [catastrophe] of 1948 that coincided with the establishment of Israel. (Larry Luxner)

Seth Rogen was furious with his teachers. They lied to him, and he wanted revenge.

In an interview last year, the Jewish comedian caused a ruckus among American Jews after claiming he was “fed a huge amount of lies about Israel” as a child, while also questioning the need for a Jewish state.

While Rogen’s comments were, at first glance, little more than a careless outburst, it’s worthwhile exploring the substance of the celebrity jokester’s tantrum about his Israel education.

None encapsulated the issue better than Israeli-American author Daniel Gordis, who asked, “Do we expect that they [Jewish students] will get to college and not hear the Palestinian narrative? Do we want [to] help them think about what the Palestinians call the ‘Nakba’ while we’re still around? Or do we prefer to hope that we can pump them up with enough enthusiasm about Israel so that no matter what they hear, they’ll somehow stay attached to the Jewish state?”

As Gordis noted, there’s one key event — what Palestinians call ‘the Nakba’ — that our community, too, has failed to address.

In 1947, on the eve of the Jewish state’s establishment, around 950,000 Arabs resided in what is today Israel. By 1949, more than 700,000 of them had lost their homes. Hundreds of villages ceased to exist. For Palestinians today, this destruction of their society is commemorated annually as the ‘Nakba’ (Arabic for ‘Catastrophe’).

While many Israelis have long contended that most Arabs left of their own accord — often following their leaders’ directives — Palestinians insist that Israel systematically emptied village after village; ethnically cleansing the land of its Arab population. In recent decades, however, the argument has become more nuanced, with many now accepting elements of truth in both narratives.

Now, I’m not here to debate history, but I will contend that we need to start teaching Jewish youth about this episode.

Refusal to engage in one of Israel’s most seminal events is not only dishonest, but is setting our youth up for failure. After all, if they can’t defend Israel’s founding, how can they defend its actions today? Young Jews need to be familiar with the calamities that befell over 700,000 Arabs while the Jewish State was being formed, regardless of who was at fault. To truly understand the conflict, they must first understand the Palestinian narrative.

Jewish tradition implores us to challenge what we learn. So too, does it preach the importance of history. And yet, for years, we’ve conveniently avoided broaching the Israeli-Palestinian conflict’s most longstanding controversy with Jewish youth. This is unacceptable. In a world — both within and outside our community — that is increasingly hostile towards Israel, we can no longer afford to ignore such events.

And no, this conversation need not be contrasted with the ethnic cleansing of 850,000 Jews from Arab lands after 1948. Between 1947 and 1949, nearly one million human beings lost their homes. It was a human tragedy that we should teach about without comparisons to the plight of Mizrahi Jewry. To compare these two tragedies serves only to create a point scoring exercise and zero sum game, from which no party benefits.

And so, we have a choice to make. We can begin having the tough conversations with our youth about Israel’s founding, and simultaneously equip them with the facts to combat a rapidly spreading antisemitism under the guise of criticism of Israel and anti-Zionism, or we can send them into society ill-prepared to fight for the world’s only Jewish state.

There are countless schools, youth movements and organisations that pride themselves on educating the young in our community about Israel, and indeed, many do provide our youth with invaluable tools. And yet, when Jewish students arrive on university campuses and are confronted with the Palestinian narrative of 1948, they more often than not fail to offer any more than a hasbara one-liner they learnt in school, if they can even offer that.

In a recent conversation with Yossi Klein Halevi — one of world Jewry’s most authoritative thinkers — he explained to me that “we need to pay attention to” the Palestinian narrative “without buying into” it. As someone who is heavily involved in informal education, I’m well aware of the risks when discussing such contentious issues with teenagers. There is, after all, only so much information we can feed them, and we ultimately want Israel education to foster within them a love for the Jewish state. Nevertheless, this issue is simply not something we can afford to ignore any longer.

What do we have to hide? What are we so afraid of?

I have no doubt in my mind about the justness of Israel’s founding, but, as Daniel Gordis wondered, “Don’t we wish that Seth Rogen had had what to say when he was confronted with a different narrative about 1948?”

A shorter version of this article originally appeared in a Betar Australia publication.

About the Author
Josh Feldman writes about Israeli and Jewish issues. His work has appeared in leading Australian, Israeli, American and international publications, including the Jerusalem Post, Sydney Morning Herald, The Forward, and The Age. He was part of the Australian delegation to the 38th World Zionist Congress. Twitter: @joshrfeldman
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