On the Nakba, Jewish identity and memory

On Monday, the eve of Nakba Day, I attended a book launch for the memoirs of five elderly Holocaust survivors who emigrated from Europe to Canada after the Second World War. The event took place in the main sanctuary of a large, well-established Conservative synagogue in a prosperous area of Toronto, very much like the one I attended as a child in Vancouver. Canadian and Israeli flags hung from flagpoles at either side of the pulpit. The director of the non-profit foundation that edits, publishes and distributes the memoirs gave an eloquent speech; this was followed by a series of short documentary films that featured interviews with each of the authors, all of whom were in the audience.

These elderly Jews recounted disparate experiences of surviving the Holocaust. A Czech woman and a Hungarian woman survived as children because their parents sent them away to live as Christians – one in a convent, the other with a non-Jewish family in a different town. Another woman survived because she escaped from Poland to the Soviet Union and was sent at age 16 to a forced labour camp in Siberia. A man escaped occupied France as a 16 year-old by swimming a freezing river and climbing the Pyrenees, only to be arrested by Spanish police and interned in a labor camp under extremely harsh conditions. And another was shipped from Lodz to Auschwitz-Birkenau when he was 15, but survived the death camp due to remarkable good fortune. They told their stories with unusual candor and a notable lack of sentimentality. One of the men, Max Bornstein, said the extreme loneliness of being the only survivor of his family precipitated a nervous breakdown after the war, and that he had never really recovered emotionally.

But these five survivors were unanimous about one thing: The experience of writing their memoirs and seeing them published was immensely cathartic and meaningful. Their history was recorded now; it would not be forgotten after they died.

While I watched the films about these amateur authors who had survived, as one of them put it, due to a combination of sheer luck and the willingness of total strangers to risk their lives for them, a little part of my mind was busy worrying about the post I had promised to write about the Nakba – the Palestinian dispersal and dispossession of 1948.

Like so many conventionally educated Jewish children, I knew a lot about the Holocaust from a very young age – too much, perhaps. It is probably the most thoroughly documented historical event of all time, and I grew up at a time when there were middle-aged survivors everywhere – like the woman who taught me religion and Bible when I was 7 years old, or the woman with the camp tattoo on her arm who ran the snack concession at the Jewish Community Center, where I took my swimming lessons, or the distant cousin who had been a Mengele twin. Most of them are dead now, of course. It’s been nearly 70 years since the war ended.

Over and over, our teachers emphasized that the Holocaust was a unique event – that comparing it to any other crime was an insult to the memories of our dead. Genocide is not, unfortunately, a unique crime, although the Nazis did manage to add the unprecedented element of industrialized slaughter. It is important to record and remember one’s own history; we Jews understand that well, and have recorded our history carefully. The people who instigated the genocide of the Jews have acknowledged their crimes, asked forgiveness, made restitution payments, outlawed Nazism and made Holocaust studies part of their school curriculum. One can never really apologize for committing genocide, but acknowledgment and accepting responsibility are essential. Otherwise it’s not possible to move on.

Very few Israelis and / or Jews are willing to accept and acknowledge the pain caused the Palestinian people by the Nakba. We deny, deflect, turn away, ignore. We get angry. We accuse those amongst us who wish to remember and record, like Zochrot, of undermining the state of Israel or denying Jews their right to self-determination. Or of being traitors. How can the act of remembering be a betrayal?

We compare forced exile and dispossession to Auschwitz and Babi Yar and say the Palestinians couldn’t possibly know about real suffering. We claim that 800,000 Jews from Arab countries became refugees after 1948, as if that were the fault of the Palestinians or as if that justified the exile of the equivalent number of Palestinians from their homes. We ask what’s the matter with the Arab states, why don’t they take care of their fellow Arabs instead of leaving them to rot in refugee camps.

We praise MK Ahmed Tibi for addressing the Knesset with a moving, empathetic speech about the trauma caused by the Holocaust, but we jeer or ignore him when he points out that the Arab towns in Israel lack basic services and infrastructure, or that not a single new Arab town has been built since 1948, while new Jewish settlements are built constantly, both inside the 1948 borders of Israel and in the West Bank.

In 1950, the American journalist Dorothy Thompson narrated a 30-minute newsreel-style documentary about the Palestinian refugees, with footage and facts that I saw and heard for the first time when I watched it a few months ago. The film is called The Sands of Sorrow and I’ve embedded it below. It includes some odd orientalist commentary here and there, but the overall effect is powerful; it really brings home the meaning of the word ‘nakba,’ or catastrophe. I am sure that most Palestinians my age grew up listening to their parents and grandparents talk about this time in their history, just as I heard stories about Cossacks and pogroms and death camps. But no-one ever told me it didn’t happen or it was my fault or it wasn’t that bad compared to the suffering of other peoples. That kind of revisionism was considered socially unacceptable and ethically reprehensible. And rightly so.

Some of the more shocking statements in The Sands of Sorrow:

  • Two years after 1948, 750,000 people were still living in tents or caves in the desert
  • They were subsisting on 1,400 calories a day – 300 less than the necessary minimum
  • Many of the camps had only one well to provide water for 10,000 people
  • There was only one doctor and three nurses for every 20,000 people
  •  Only one baby out of five survived past the age of six months


As a very good friend of mine, who grew up in a national-religious Zionist home, once said to me, “It’s not good for the Jewish soul to ignore these things.”