These are two rather incidental examples for the denial of the Palestinian Nakba by Jews in Israel. While it would certainly be possible to find even stronger examples, there appears to be no need for proof of the argument that the Jewish public in Israel denies the occurrence of the Nakba. The Nakba denial is found in the geography and the history taught in schools, on the maps of the country and in the signs marking places on its surface. All of them ignore, almost completely, the event which made possible the establishment of the Jewish State as a state with a Jewish majority and a Palestinian minority, after the majority of the indigenous people of the country were evicted, their properties destroyed and/or confiscated for the benefit of the new state.
How can we understand this denial of the Nakba? Can it be explained in psychological terms as the denial of an event that cannot be comfortably accepted? Could we also say that recognition of the suffering inflicted on the Palestinians would ‘remove’ Jews in Israel from the status of the ultimate victim which justifies almost each evil action? Or maybe the denial is a result of plain ignorance? There may be various correct explanations for this phenomenon. This article will try to shed light on one aspect of the discourse about the Nakba in Israel (before and after its establishment).
It will show that the Nakba represents for the Zionist subject an event that cannot possibly have occurred and – at the same time – had to occur. From early on, Zionism ignored the existence of the Arab inhabitants of Palestine. It is, therefore, not possible that some 800,000 persons were ethnically cleansed from the country and that more than 500 Palestinian villages were destroyed. On the other hand, the expulsion of the Palestinian majority from their country was inevitable for Zionism that aimed to establish a Jewish State, i.e. a national home for the Jewish people in the world on a territory ruled by a Jewish majority on the basis of law.
The Nakba – an event that did not occur
Zionist identity was built from the beginning on a two-fold negation: it negates time and space of the Jews outside Zion, a ‘negation of exile’ which extends beyond the realm of religion, and it negates time and space of those indigenous to the territory of Zion. The latter is best defined by the well-known statement of Zionist leader Israel Zangwill about, “a people without land returning to a land without people.” Attitudes of the leaders and architects of Zionism towards the indigenous inhabitants of ‘Zion’ were situated between their perception as (temporary) guardians or holders of the land on one end, and their absolute non-existence as a relevant factor on the other extreme. In this aspect, Zionism resembles other colonialist projects.
Edward Said writes in his book ‘Orientalism,’ that for the Orientalist there is “no trace of Arab individuals with personal histories that can be told (…) The Arab does not create existential depth, not even in semantics” (…) The oriental person is oriental first, and human second.” According to the approach of Zionism, a typical orientalist movement, indigenous Arabs of the country exist and live in it, but they are of no importance in the sense of deserving a relationship similar to that shown to ‘European humans.’ They certainly do not constitute a people or a collective able or interested in realizing itself as such, or similar to the Jewish national collective.
If Palestinians do not ‘really’ exist, as opposed to the ‘reality’ of Zionist existence, then also their expulsion cannot occur. It is not possible to expel somebody who is not present. According to Zionism, the violent events around 1948 did in fact occur, but only in form of an unavoidable response to the disturbance caused by the ‘locals,’ who did not accept the establishment of the new entity, the Jewish State. Therefore, what is important to understand, teach and tell about this period is the story of ‘liberation’ and ‘independence’ of the Jewish people in its homeland. According to this approach there was certainly no Nakba or tragedy for any other, because the other had never really existed in the land. Hundreds of villages in the costal areas, in the south and in the center were not expelled; rather ‘territorial continuity’ was created according to the Haganah’s Plan Dalet.
The space is thus ‘naturally’ Jewish. It must only be realized and transferred to Zionist control. Jewish territorial continuity and Jewish demographic homogeneity in Palestine represent the core of the Zionist project. Therefore, the Zionist subject cannot understand or see the catastrophe inherent in this project, especially since what is involved is the historical realization of an idea that derives its relevance from the Bible and a modern nationalism turned into a religion in many aspects. The Zionist subject cannot see the Nakba or seriously debate its circumstances. It must strip off its inner essence, in order to start to see it as an event that has shaped the space in which Zionism realized itself.
Ever since 1948 the Nakba is dismissed, and must be dismissed, from the consciousness of the Zionist subject, because its existence challenges the basis on which it was built – a people without land for a land without people. Recognition of the Palestinian Nakba signifies the destruction of the ground underneath the feet of this subject which understands itself as autonomous unit. Therefore, any such recognition, or even the attempt to look at this tragedy as something that happened to somebody else here is outrageous and almost incomprehensible. It is possible to recognize that some massacres happened here and there, as a result of local battles and fighting; it is possible to recognize that all Arab armies tried to destroy us, the subject that wished to form itself. It is impossible, however, to look at the Nakba as a catastrophe committed by this subject in order to form itself, or as a necessary process for the Zionist subject.
The Nakba – an event that had to occur
On the other hand, and paradoxically, the Nakba – the violent expulsion of the inhabitants of the country and the transformation of those remaining into refugees in their homeland, or into second-class citizens – is a necessary event, because it brought about the realization of the ethnically pure, closed and autonomous Zionist subject which builds itself in the framework of a state aimed exclusively for him/her. Without the Nakba, the Zionist subject might have become contaminated intellectually by foreign ideas and practices, such as bi-nationalism, or even physically from living in a space over which s/he does not exert exclusive and absolute control. Benny Morris, for example, describes eloquently how the idea of transfer was found strongly in the heads and writings of Zionist leaders back in the early decades of the 20th century, based on the profound understanding that the establishment and existence of the Jewish state will require the eviction of the native inhabitants of Eretz Isra’el.
Morris then proceeds to show that also in the process of the Nakba Zionist leaders decided immediately, and in his opinion rightly so, not to permit the return of the refugees so as not to infringe upon the possibility of the establishment of a Jewish state. The decision then, by the Israeli government, to prevent the return of the Palestinian refugees, clearly indicates that its members were aware of their capability to bring about ethnic cleansing and also justified this indirectly. Some Arab villages had maintained good neighbourly relations with the Jews until 1948 and some intervened on behalf of Arabs to stay in the country, however even this did not help them to remain in their homes. Zionism was not concerned with this village or that, depending on its attitude or behavior towards the new state. Arabs stayed in the country as a result of mercy, and, according to Morris, this was a mistake. The Zionist project had to evict the inhabitants of the country in order to realize itself.
Yosef Weitz, one of the heads of the Jewish National Fund at the time, provides evidence which is surprising in its honesty. He tells of the destruction of the village of Zarnuqa after its inhabitants had been expelled, despite of numerous calls by Jews to abstain from their expulsion. He describes how he stood in the village watching the bulldozers destroy the buildings which until recently had housed their inhabitants, feeling nothing. The destruction of Palestinian lives does not cause any doubts or emotional disturbance. He is even surprised about the fact that he feels nothing. As if this destruction was expected and premeditated.
The Nakba continues as a non-event and causes anxiety when it appears
If the basic argument outlined above is correct, it can help explain two processes related to the Nakba, one situated in the reality of the violent conflict, the other in the consciousness of Israeli Jews who become exposed to the Nakba.
The Nakba as an event that did not occur in the past continues to not occur also today. Extra-judicial assassination of Palestinian leaders, confiscation of land, barring of Palestinian farmers from working their land by means of the wall under construction and the denial of their basic human rights are understood by the Zionist subject as means of the war against terrorism and as defensive acts necessary in order to fight the intolerable and illegitimate terror of the Palestinian people, who, according a recent statement by an Israeli leader, are seen as a genetically abnormal species.
If the Nakba never happened, it is impossible that millions of Palestinians today are refugees who demand restitution of their rights. It is also impossible that the Palestinians demand control of at least one fifth of Palestine, because they also had nothing before. In the eyes of the Zionist subject, everything that is happening today is completely disconnected from the historical context of the Nakba. Reference to the past of 1948 is made only in line with the Zionist narrative which holds that, ‘just like they did not accept us here in the past (e.g. according to the UN Partition Plan), they continue to try to throw us into the sea also today.’
The above also helps explain the indifference, in Israel, towards the question of Palestinian return. On no other issue related to the conflict is there a similar and broad consensus like the consensus against Palestinian return. As a matter of fact, there is not even a need to oppose return, because the very discussion of this topic is perceived as an existential threat. It is therefore excluded from the agenda of public debate without meaningful reference.
All Zionist Jewish political parties share this approach, which meets the logic of the argument that the Nakba never happened and results in a situation where the rights of millions of people remain denied until this day. If the Nakba was perceived by the Zionist subject as an event that really took place, there could be some Israelis, at least among the Zionist left, who would realize that some responsibility must be taken by the Israeli side for what happened in 1948. However, if there was no Nakba, there is also nothing to take responsibility for.
Another interesting process related to the denial of the Nakba is what happens to Jewish Israelis who become exposed to it for the first time, whether through activities organized by Zochrot or otherwise. The Jewish Israeli individual experiences the encounter with the Palestinian Nakba as a kind of surprising slap in the face. Suddenly, and without prior warning or preparation (a result of years of denial), s/he is confronted with a tragedy that happened to the Palestinian neighbor, while s/he feels part of the side that had caused it. This creates intolerable feelings of guilt and helplessness.
Guilt may be relatively easy to cope with, because it can be recognized and forgiveness can be requested. If we are ready to really listen to the voice of the Nakba, the major problem, however, is the challenge of all we have grown up with. The Zionist subject stands on somewhat shaky ground. It established itself by means of a violent process that is denied as an event that did not happen. When the ghostly spirit of this process is risen (by Zochrot, for example), it triggers astonishment and anger. If, however, we rise above these emotions towards a more objective perspective of this threatening past, we may be able to find the key to conciliation almost sixty years after the Nakba.
Eitan Bronstein works at the School for Peace at Neve Shalom-Wahat al-Salaam and is the founder of Zochrot (Remembering). This article first appeared in Haq al-Awda (May 2004). Translation from Hebrew by Ingrid Jaradat Gassner.