Recognizing the grief of the Nakba

In appointing itself the gatekeeper of historical memory, Israel has shackled the promotion of its own narrative to the suppression of the Palestinian narrative.

Thousands of Palestinian citizens of Israel take part in March of Return,in the lands of the destroyed village of Hadatha, near Tiberias, April 23, 2015.
Thousands of Palestinian citizens of Israel take part in March of Return, to the landsof the destroyed village of Hadatha, near Tiberias, April 23, 2015. (

A few years ago I took part in a class about the Armenian genocide at Toronto University with students from around the world, including several Armenian and Turkish participants.

Three of the Armenian students were sitting opposite me during the seminar. Within about 15 minutes of the lecturer beginning to speak, they broke down crying, one by one. Seeing their distress, one of our Turkish classmates, A., also began to weep. It was a stark visual lesson about how close to the surface grief remains when it is boxed in over decades, and when the perpetrator of that grief refuses to accept responsibility for the pain it has caused, as is the case with Turkey.

I was reminded of this scene recently when reading Louis Fishman’s excellent Haaretz op-ed about why Israel should recognize the Armenian genocide as well as its responsibility for the Nakba, when over 700,000 Palestinians were expelled and fled, and over 500 villages destroyed, in the war that accompanied the founding of the State of Israel.

Without drawing parallels between the nature of the two events, there is a meaningful comparison to be made regarding their position as defining national traumas. Additionally, as Fishman wrote, “it can be argued that Israel has adopted Turkey’s stance of denial as a model toward the Palestinian Nakba.”

Such denial does more than add insult to injury — it also houses the even more profound issue of the delegitimization of grief. Israel, like Turkey, has taken legislative steps against the mention or memorializing of the historical injustices it is responsible for. In appointing itself the gatekeeper of historical memory here, Israel has shackled the promotion of its own narrative to the suppression of that of Palestinians.

This is a hefty toll to exact on a population. As painful as grief is, having that grief unacknowledged, rejected or undermined cuts even deeper. Grief is an urgent and unwieldy human emotion, and we need its active expression, mourning, as a platform on which to shoulder the unbearable heaviness of loss.

When that platform is denied us, we can make no sense nor structure of our grief. It just remains there: thick, amorphous, and impossible to outrun. And just as grief that isn’t acknowledged or accommodated cannot dissipate, so an injustice that is not accounted for remains an open wound for those who have borne it. As a Palestinian friend told me recently, the length of time that has passed has done nothing to make the sense of loss any less acute.

Yet for the last 68 years, Israel has placed this burden on Palestinians, as well as continuing to extract the price of ongoing displacement and dispossession. Moreover, Palestinians are not only ridiculed, harassed and have their public institutions threatened for mourning what was lost when the State of Israel was founded, they are demanded to actively forget what once was, and dismantle the hope that any of it may be recovered.

So all those abandoned Palestinian homes, and piles of rubble, and fruit trees and cactuses, must be seen through the lens of Zionism — with their recent history scraped away, and with it the memories and stories attached to them. Yet that was always both the luxury and quest of a colonizing power: to pick and choose narratives and work to instill them, both retroactively and in the present, in order to determine the future.

But what kind of future can there be when it is based on a foundation as brittle and unjust as denial and obstruction of the truth? As Ayman Odeh said at the March of Return in the Negev on Thursday, without recognition of the Nakba there can be no reconciliation. And indeed, it is difficult to see how there can be meaningful change here until Israel acknowledges the loss that forms the cornerstone of the state.


At the end of our week-long study program in Toronto, all the students and faculty gathered for a farewell dinner. There were the usual speeches, warmth and applause. And then something happened which I believe no one in the room will ever forget: One of the Armenian students, E., got up and started speaking about how moving and memorable the week had been. Then she walked over to our seated Turkish classmate, A., who had been so distraught during our earlier class.

Taking A. by the hand and bringing her to stand in the center of the room with her, E. put her arm around her, turned to everyone and said, simply: “This is what is possible.” Then the two hugged each other tightly, and the room erupted.