Demonizing the Nakba

Despite what Israeli Jews believe, on Nakba Day, this country’s Arab citizens aren’t mourning Israel’s creation, but rather what it cost them. 

When left-leaning Haaretz explains in a news story that the Nakba Day events are “commemorating the ‘disaster’ of Israel’s formation,” this country has got a problem. If Haaretz doesn’t understand that Israeli Arabs are mourning what they and the other Palestinians lost in the 1948 war, not the state the Jews gained by winning it, then the attitude here toward the Nakba is worse than I thought.

It’s not just that right-wingers are deliberately distorting the Nakba’s meaning into something malevolent and traitorous, it’s that even well-meaning liberals have come by the same view innocently, from being bombarded by Israeli propaganda. (I don’t want to be too harsh on Haaretz; its editorial, “Commemorating the Nakba,” was a model of accuracy and fairness.) Yedioth Aharonoth’s news story said the day’s events “mark the ‘catastrophe’ of Israel’s inception.” This is the consensus view among Israeli Jews of what the Nakba is: a tale of grief over Israel’s birth, and an implicit wish for it to die, for the catastrophe to be reversed.

I’m sure this is what many Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza mean by it, and what many Arabs in foreign countries do, too. But for the most part, this is not what Israel’s Arab citizens mean. In 2008, Israel’s 60th year, I interviewed numerous Israeli Arabs about the Nakba – from supporters of Zionist parties to supporters of Arab parties to the then-mayor of Umm el-Fahm, a member of the Islamic Movement’s faction that supports no national party, and every single one of them told me that Israeli Jews have got it wrong. Arab citizens, they said, are not mourning Israel’s creation, they’re mourning what it cost them – the loss of their country, their fight for independence, over 400 villages that were destroyed and some 700,000 people who were exiled.

Mahmoud Abu Rajab, editor of Nazareth’s Al Akbar newspaper and a traditional Labor Party supporter, told me this: “Yom Ha’atzmaut, when Israel was founded, was a time of nakba for Arab citizens. That’s something no one, not Jew or Arab, can deny.”

Ibrahim Shawahna, a physiotherapist and Hadash supporter from Sahknin, told me that on Nakba Day, he and his family visit the site of the former Galilee village where his wife’s parents lived. But he also said: “This is our country, and I won’t be part of any attempt to destroy it. What I want is equality.”

Where’s the contradiction? What does Israel expect from its Arab citizens – that they forget their history of only 64 years ago, that they banish all trace of sadness over it? And if they don’t, that means they’re spitting on this country, cursing its existence?

Yes, this is what Israel expects of its Arab citizens, and this is what Israel concludes about them if they don’t meet that expectation. The right-wing power in this country pounds away at this idea out of anti-Arab belligerence, while the mainstream and even many liberals simply absorb it from the atmosphere.

And it’s a lie. The Arab citizens of this country don’t burn Israeli flags, not on Nakba Day or any other day. They don’t call for the state’s destruction. With very rare exceptions, they don’t do anything subversive.  In effect, they have accepted the loss of 1948. What they won’t accept, though, is the justice of that loss.

For Israeli nationalists, the proud winners, this is intolerable. If Israeli Arabs don’t agree that they and their fellow Arabs brought their suffering upon themselves, that they are to blame for the war, the destroyed villages, the refugees and everything else, then they’re saying Israel doesn’t have a right to exist. Then on Nakba Day, they’re “marking the ‘catastrophe’ of Israel’s inception.”

A lie, but one that most Israelis believe. The truth, rather, is that by demonizing Nakba Day, the winners of the War of Independence are telling the losers that they’re not even allowed to cry, not in public, anyway.

It’s cruel. It’s the way of the conqueror.  I’m glad the Jews won the War of Independence, but in some ways it was a catastrophe for us, too.

Read also:
This Nakba Day, peace is more urgent then ever
IMAGES: Protesters, IDF clash on Nakba Day at Ofer prison
Rightists disrupt Nakba ceremony at Tel Aviv University
Why the inconvenient truths of the Nakba must be recognized