Israel is still unable to deal with the catastrophe of 1948

The fact that Israel is unable to swallow or get rid of the territories it occupied in 1967, makes it far more difficult for the state to recognize the catastrophe that befell the Palestinians during the 1948 War. 

By Oren Barak

Palestinians put a sign marking the destroyed village of Lajjun in northern Israel, Nakba Day, May 15, 2015. (Photo by Omar Sameer/Activestills.org)
Palestinians put a sign marking the destroyed village of Lajjun in northern Israel, Nakba Day, May 15, 2015. (Photo by Omar Sameer/Activestills.org)

Why does the State of Israel, which just celebrated 69 years of independence, struggle to deal with the unpleasant events in its distant past, especially not the Nakba, the Palestinian catastrophe in the 1948 War?

Professor Avraham Sela and Professor Alon Kadish, two top scholars of the 1948 War from Hebrew University, recently published a book titled “The War of 1948: Representations of Israeli and Palestinian Memories and Narratives.” The book looks at a number of realms in which the memory of the war, as well as how it is forgotten, are expressed — among both the Jewish public in Israel, as well as Palestinian citizens. These realms include television shows, museums, hasbara, art, literature, physical space, and more.

The final chapter, was written by Sela and Professor Neil Kaplan, a Canadian researcher who focuses on the Israeli-Arab conflict, suggests an important insight: memory and historical narratives are the product of a particular political and social reality — not the other way around. The question is, then, what is the political and social reality that influences what is remembered and what is forgotten about the war, as well as on the historical narratives by both the Israeli and Palestinian sides. I will focus on the Israeli side.

Although the physical, organizational, and theoretical infrastructure of the state was laid during the era of the “Yishuv” before 1948, Israel was a new state that was undergoing an accelerated process of nation building and integration. Thus, the leaders of the state, and especially its first prime minister, David Ben Gurion, used the tools and institutions at their disposal. This included the education system, hasbara, the media, memorial sites, museums, and the army. Moreover, they encouraged the writing of a national history that would serve the needs of the nascent state.

Israeli soldiers in battle with the Arab village of Sassa in the upper Galilee, October 1, 1948. (GPO)
Israeli soldiers in battle with the Arab village of Sassa in the upper Galilee, October 1, 1948. (GPO)

Furthermore, several of the chapters in the book focus on the results of this process, which include a number of key events in the 1948 War, alongside the forgetting of less pleasant events, which “erased from space and consciousness,” as Noga Kadman put it in her book on the widespread destruction of the remains of Palestinian villages inside Israel following 1948. This behavior stemmed from practical considerations, such as thwarting legal claims and international pressure to allow the return of refugees. But the most important motivation was Israel’s raison d’État.

One could have predicted that the importance of these considerations would have decreased over time, as Israel became consolidated into the Jewish nation-state with a solid Jewish majority and a relatively small Palestinian minority. And yet, in 1966 the government put an end to “military law” over Israel’s Palestinian citizens. A year later, following the 1967 War and Israel’s expansion across the territory west of Jordan, came about a new political entity: “Israel/Palestine.” One of the results of this process was the shrinking of the Jewish majority in the new entity, creating a severe problem of legitimacy for the state and its leaders.

This dramatic change in political and societal circumstances in Israel/Palestine has also influenced the memory and historical narratives of 1948. This is due to the fact that the expanding state is currently facing a much more severe crisis of legitimacy, which is expressed in the severing of diplomatic ties between Israel and a great number of countries, in anti-Israel UN resolutions that have caused Israelis to feel international isolation, and in the military and political challenges posed by Palestinian organizations, which have taken the initiative in the Arab-Israeli conflict, following the failure of the Arab armies in the 1967 War (but not in the 1973 Yom Kippur War).

In light of this “overall attack,” it is clear why the Israeli state has a difficult time recognizing its responsibility for the Palestinian catastrophe of 1948, especially now that some additional aspects have come to light, such as the expulsion of Palestinians from the Latrun area in 1967. Meanwhile, there are actors inside the Jewish Israeli public in Israel/Palestine, for whom the victory in 1967 provided an opportunity to resume the struggle from 1948. Sela and Kadish’s book provides an example: the way in which the Jewish village of Kfar Etzion, which was conquered by the Jordanians in 1948, has been mythologized by part of the national-religious public brought about its rebuilding after 1967. Thus, instead of the 1948 War becoming a historic issue, it turned into an inseparable part of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Palestinian artists paint artwork during a rally marking the Nakba anniversary in the West Bank city of Hebron, May 15, 2016. (Wisam Hashlamoun/Flash90)
Palestinian artists paint artwork during a rally marking the Nakba anniversary in the West Bank city of Hebron, May 15, 2016. (Wisam Hashlamoun/Flash90)

It was these political and social circumstances that brought about changes in the following decades, changes that influenced both the memory and historical narrative of 1948. Thus, for instance, following the First Intifada in 1987, and during the peace process of the 90s, Israeli scholars — known as the “New Historians” — began researching the 1948 War, and the causes for the creation of the Palestinian refugee problem, from various perspectives. The most blatant expression of the change in the Israeli narrative and memory vis-a-vis the war were Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s speech to the Knesset on October 5, 1995, exactly one month before he was murdered, in which he said that “we did not return to an empty country.”

When the Israeli-Palestinian conflict escalated once again, especially from 2000 onward, the memory and historical narrative of 1948 changed once again. In 2015, for example, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon said that the “War of Independence has not ended.” The attempts to silence every public mention of the Palestinian Nakba, including on the part of the current government, are further proof of this tendency.

In other words, the State of Israel, which is unable to swallow or get rid of the territories it occupied in 1967, has no willingness — or perhaps even ability — to recognize the pain of the Palestinian side in 1948, not least due to the connection between the two events.

A Palestinian man watches a school in a refugee camp, 1948 (photo via wikimedia. license CC)
A Palestinian man watches a school in a refugee camp, 1948 (photo via wikimedia. license CC)

However, it is the silence — and attempts at silencing — on the part of the state of the less than pleasant aspects of the 1948 War that may cause certain segments of Israeli civil society to “mention the war.”

This happened in Lebanon following the civil war (1975-1990) due to the state and its leaders’ defining silence vis-a-vis the conflict, pushing civil society groups to deal with the war and even force the state to recognize it. That struggle made several important gains, including opening a new museum commemorating the war, built in a house that was used as a sniping position during the conflict.

From this perspective, one can view Sela and Kadish’s new book as a call to action. This is not only because the book does not only turn memory (and forgetfulness) and the historical narrative of the 1948 War into a topic of research — on both the Israeli and Palestinian side — but because it encourages both academic and public discussion on topics that the state prefers to remain silent on, and sometimes even silence those who raise them.

Oren Barak is an associate professor in political science and international relations at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a research fellow at The Forum for Regional Thinking where ths article was first published in Hebrew.