How do we say Nakba in Hebrew? Reflections on teaching Jews in Israel about the Nakba

Cover of the Learning Packet produced by Zochrot Cover of the Learning Packet produced by Zochrot Zochrot

How should the topic of the Palestinian right of return be dealt with by the Israeli educational system? How should it be approached when the reality in Israel is that the topic is one “we don’t talk about”? How can we start a conversation, get people to listen, overcome objections?

The usual Israeli responses to the idea of the right of return are almost always bound up with inflammatory statements which heighten fears of Jewish-Israelis that they will once again become victims. They combine apprehension about potential future victimization with refusal to accept responsibility for Israel’s unjust treatment of the Palestinians, in the past as well as today. The result is that no serious, nuanced discussion of the Nakba and the Palestinian right of return takes place in Israel today. Jews in Israel who wish to be part of the solution to the conflict and live in an egalitarian society must be part of that discussion. Raising the issue in the educational system is essential to encouraging public discussion.
Zochrot, whose goal is to increase Israeli awareness of the Nakba and the right of return, has prepared educational materials aimed at Jewish-Israelis focusing on these two issues. We recently published a Learning Packet entitled How do we say Nakba in Hebrew? for use in the Israeli education system - those who are part of the formal educational system as well as others. This unique Learning Packet contains the first set of lesson plans and educational resources in Hebrew for teaching about the Nakba.

"That’s Not Something We Talk About: The Palestinian refugees’ right of return"


Unit 12 from the Learning Packet: "How to say Nakba in Hebrew?" (available on Zochrot's website)

The lesson aims are to elicit questions about the meaning of return for Palestinians and Israelis. The lesson opens by providing information about the Palestinian refugees, how and at whose hands they became refugees and what their situation is today. It continues by discussing Israel’s decision to refuse to permit refugees to return during the war and how it prevented them from doing so, as well as international recognition of the right of return as expressed in UN Resolution 194. The second part of the lesson considers the meaning of return for Palestinians, using a photography exhibit by Palestinian youth from the project “Dreams of Home” created by Lajee Center in Aida refugee camp, Bethlehem. It continues with statements from Badil’s information packet by Palestinians about the right of return. The lesson ends by opening a discussion through the questions: What does the right of return mean to us as Jews in Israel? What happens to us when we hear about the right of return? How are we affected by the fact that many of us don’t recognize the right of return and are not even willing to discuss it?
The Learning Packet is aimed at schools which are, for the most part, Jewish-Israeli, where Zionist discourse reigns, and is intended primarily for educators in the formal and informal school systems, including colleges, universities and teacher training institutions.
The Learning Packet is appropriate for students aged fifteen and older, and contains lessons, activities and resources for learning about the Nakba from various perspectives, addresses a range of topics, and employs a variety of educational methods. It includes units based on literary texts, artwork, historical material, film, and a variety of other media, and allows teachers and students to approach the topic modularly, from their own political, emotional and social perspectives. Each lesson unit in the Learning Packet can stand alone; used in combination, they encourage different learning processes. For example, the Learning Packet opens by referring to the student's personal situation, moving to what they know about where they live, about themselves, their families, the society in which they live and the history they are familiar with. It then moves on to more general discussions of the Nakba. Another trail in the packet looks first at the past, then at today’s reality, and concludes by considering possible futures.
The Learning Packet draws on the principles of critical pedagogy, and links them to Zochrot’s political perspective. According to the tradition established by Paulo Freire, critical pedagogy is learning that involves commitment, relevance and a call to take action. It assumes that learning depends on context, on one’s location and on one’s society, so that learning about the Nakba must be different for Jewish-Israelis and for Palestinians. The critical pedagogical approach allows us to undertake a process of educational change, without suddenly pulling the rug out from under the students. As part of the critical process, students face their own resistance to dismantling the core Zionist narrative, re-viewing their own ideas and basic assumptions, and even changing them.
It is an educational procedure which imparts knowledge and simultaneously involves a political-emotional process of reworking the new information as well as the old. For Jews in Israel, learning about the Nakba involves not only gaining new knowledge, but also understanding, and sometimes discovering, that much information about their own past has been deliberately concealed from them. That knowledge structures the individual and collective fundamental assumptions which are based on a Zionist/nationalist perspective. Learning about the Nakba, then, is not only about gaining knowledge, but is also a process which raises fundamental questions about Israeli identity and the Jewish state that must be faced and dealt with emotionally as well as politically.

Tours and Signposting

Zochrot organizes tours to the sites of Palestinian villages that were destroyed in 1948, the existence of which is unknown to many people in Israel. The tours invite the public to re-encounter the landscape with new eyes, retracing the paths of the destroyed village and hearing its stories as told by refugees and scholars. During the tours we also post signs in Hebrew and Arabic marking village sites and distribute booklets containing original research on the village, testimonies, photographs, and maps. Zochrot Booklets (in Arabic and Hebrew) are all available on Zochrot's website. Unit seven of the learning packet offers different pedagogical methods for processing the tours with students.
In preparing the Learning Packet, the following question arose: How can we create an educational process which empathizes with the students but also avoids pandering to their deeply-held Zionist assumptions? Empathy is both the basis for the educational process and what makes it possible. Empathy, understanding, and sensitivity to the situation of Jewish-Israeli students are all part of the educational process, along with challenging and objecting to Zionism’s basic assumptions – asking questions, providing information, recounting unfamiliar stories, deconstructing the unspoken assumptions of racism, power relations, colonialism, Europeanization, and so on. Students who were taught using the Learning Packet report that, in addition to what they learned about the Nakba and about Palestinian refugees today, many questions arose and challenged their view of the world: What is history and what is truth? Who writes the history? Why do we tend to pay attention to and believe written, rather than oral, history? How does the concept of “narrative” serve the stronger side, the one with power? What obligations does learning about the Nakba impose on us?
Noa Sandbank-Rahat, a member of a group of Israeli educators who learned about the Nakba under the auspices of Zochrot, and was part of developing the Learning Packet, had this to say about the process she herself went through in learning about the Nakba:
I came to Zochrot with great difficulty, even anxiety, at the prospect of going back past 1967, of reaching “Year zero” – 1948 – saying the word “Nakba” in Hebrew. I actually felt threatened, helpless, guilt-ridden.
I first came into contact with the Nakba with a group of other educators. Studying with that group allowed me to begin a journey that started with the eyes. Looking, first of all, at the process of forgetting, at memory’s shadow. Gazing at that shadow allowed me to recognize the existence of the memory itself. And then, very slowly, like an archaeologist caressing with his brush each discovery that emerges from the sand, I was able to begin touching that place, touching the Nakba.
To my great surprise, the process of looking freed me of those fears, that helplessness. Learning about the Nakba as part of a group allowed me to be in two places at once – the one where I mourned what had occurred, mourned the Nakba that surrounds us, what it did to me and to us all; and the other in which I seek ways to redress, to change and to fix in order to create a different present and a different future. Instead of being paralyzed by guilt, my sense of responsibility now motivates me to act.
So – how do we develop an educational program on the Nakba for Israeli Jews?
This is the question which guides the unit in the Packet dealing with the right of return, the one entitled "That’s Not Something We Talk About: The Palestinian refugees’ right of return." The lesson combines two main questions: what is the right of return for Palestinians? What does it means to us as Jews in Israel?

The Map Activity

In this activity, participants recreate a large-scale map of all the Palestinian localities destroyed in the Nakba. The map is actually a grid, made of adhesive tape or rope that correlates to the actual longitude and latitude lines of the map of Israel/Palestine.
During the activity, participants are “returning” individual cards representing each village to their correct location on the map according to the longitude and latitude number printed on the card. The participants can also personalize their cards or decorate the map using chalk, colored stones, stickers, ribbons… At an open microphone, participants can voice their personal connection to the village or to the community located at its site today. Instructions for building the map can be found at:
In workshops with educators where the Learning Packet was presented, the discussion also centered around the questions: What happens to us when we hear about the right of return? How are we affected by the fact that many of us don’t recognize the right of return and are not even willing to discuss it? It raised the sort of fears and apprehensions I referred to earlier, and provided a place for expressing them. But what also came through was a feeling of helplessness in the face of such a complex and fundamental issue – that the chance of any solution was fainter and less likely than ever. Such helplessness is accompanied by a fear of raising the issue in front of students, of being labeled a leftist, an “Arab lover,” as well as a pedagogical concern about leaving Israeli students with feelings of guilt and injustice. But these are exactly the issues that must be confronted in order to arrive at a solution and bring about reconciliation. Feelings of guilt need not be paralyzing; they can lead to accepting responsibility and action for change.
The question, “What does the right of return mean to us as Jewish Israelis?” makes it possible to conduct a discussion aimed at constructing a different reality. A reality of cooperation, one in which Israeli Jews are aware of and accept responsibility for Palestinian suffering as well, but also be part of developing mechanisms for justice and reconciliation. Talking about the right of return allows us to see possible solutions to the conflict rather than letting it continue. We borrowed from the methodology of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commissions as an example of Transitional Justice as a mechanism for solving a conflict elsewhere, one not our own. Learning about other conflicts in the world gives us the opportunity to see that many ways exist to deal with and solve violent conflicts. The solutions aren’t perfect, but learning about them can make us think about and plan solutions and political structures which don’t sanctify the Jews as the sole nation possessing rights here. Wisconsin Lawyers by city
Landscapes of Home
What do we see when we look at the landscape? What don’t we see?
Unit 2 from the Learning Packet: "How to say Nakba in Hebrew?" (available on Zochrot's website)
This lesson aims to give Jews in Israel a starting point to learn about the Nakba.
In this lesson, we look at images of various places in Israel, that are well knows for Israelis, where remains of Palestinian localities destroyed since 1948 are found. We use the photographs to look at familiar surroundings with fresh eyes to recognize traces of the Nakba in the landscape and learn how Israel worked to erase evidence of the Nakba and Palestinian heritage.
Recognizing in the Israeli surroundings the remnants of Palestinian life exposes the practices employed to erase the Palestinian Nakba from the Israeli landscape. These practices of erasure appear again and again in various sites throughout the country. We’ve found that these practices of erasure can be identified and grouped into different “series.” Examining one example of each series can teach the participants about the series as a whole, about the particular practice of erasure. By practicing the pedagogical methods “reading photographs” we can develop a new way of examining our surroundings, one which also includes seeing the Nakba.
Teaching Jews in Israel about the Nakba educates us for the future. It challenges the core Zionist narrative, and aims to create and encourage thinking about civic perspectives. It reexamines the fundamental assumptions of Zionist/nationalist education. For Israeli Jews, learning the story of the Nakba challenges the basis of their collective identity, fracturing it again and again. Jews in Israel are also obligated to search, research, and examine our own history. Such learning has the potential for us to play an active role in the struggle to create a future of reconciliation and establish relations between Jews and Palestinians based on accepting responsibility, recognition and respect. Learning about the Nakba involves not only learning about the injustice and plunder Palestinians suffered at Israeli hands, but also learning about aspects of the history of Jews in Israel which have been silenced.