Why do some people have the power to remember, while others are asked to forget? That question is especially poignant at this time of year, as we move from Holocaust Remembrance day in early spring to Monday’s anniversary of Israel’s declaration of independence on May 14, 1948.
In the months surrounding that date, Jewish forces expelled, or intimidated into flight, an estimated 750,000 Palestinians. A living, breathing, society that had existed in Palestine for centuries was smashed and fragmented, and a new society built on its ruins.
Few Palestinian families lack a personal narrative of loss from that period — an uncle killed, or a branch of the family that fled north while the others fled east, never to be reunited, or homes, offices, orchards and other property seized. Ever since, Palestinians worldwide have commemorated May 15 as Nakba (Catastrophe) Day.
No ethical person would admonish Jews to “forget the Holocaust.” Indeed, recent decades have witnessed victims of that terrible era not only remembering, but also regaining paintings and financial assets seized by the Nazis — and justifiably so.
Other victims of mass wrongs — interned Japanese Americans, enslaved African Americans, and Armenians subjected to a genocide that may have later convinced Hitler of the feasibility of mass killings — receive at least respectful consideration of their cases, even while responses to their claims have differed.
Yet in dialogues with Israelis, and some Americans, Palestinians are repeatedly admonished to “forget the past,” that looking back is “not constructive” and “doesn’t get us closer to a solution.” Ironically, Palestinians live the consequences of the past every day — whether as exiles from their homeland, or as members of an oppressed minority within Israel, or as subjects of a brutal and violent military occupation.
In the West we are amply reminded of the suffering of Jewish people in World War II. Our newspaper featured several stories on local survivors of the Nazi holocaust around Holocaust Remembrance Day (an Israeli national holiday that is widely observed in the United States). My daughter has read at least one book on the Nazi holocaust every year since middle school. Last year, in ninth grade English literature alone, she read three. But we seldom confront the impact of Israel’s policies on Palestinians.
It is the “security of the Jewish people” that has rationalized Israel’s takeover of Palestinian lands, both in the past in Israel, and more recently in the occupied West Bank. There, most Palestinian children negotiate one of the 500 Israeli checkpoints and other barriers to movement just to reach school each day. Meanwhile, Israel’s program of colonization of the West Bank grinds ahead relentlessly, implanting ever more Israeli settlers who must be “protected” from those Palestinians not reconciled to the theft of their homes and fields.
The primacy of Jewish security over rights of Palestinians — to property, education, health care, a chance to make a living, and, also to security — is seldom challenged.
Unfortunately, remembering the Nazi Holocaust — something morally incumbent on all of us — has seemingly become entangled with, and even an instrument of, the amnesia some would force on Palestinians. Israel is enveloped in an aura of ethical propriety that makes it unseemly, even “anti-Semitic” to question its denial of Palestinian rights.
As Israeli journalist Amira Hass recently observed: “Turning the Holocaust into a political asset serves Israel primarily in its fight against the Palestinians. When the Holocaust is on one side of the scale, along with the guilty (and rightly so) conscience of the West, the dispossession of the Palestinian people from their homeland in 1948 is minimized and blurred.”
What this demonstrates is that memory is not just an idle capacity. Rather, who can remember, and who can be made to forget, is, fundamentally, an expression of power.
Equally importantly, however, memory can provide a blueprint for the future — a vision of a solution to seek, or an outcome to avoid. My Palestinian father grew up in Jerusalem before Israel was founded and the Palestinians expelled, when Muslims, Christians and Jews lived in peace and mutual respect. Recalling that past provides a vision for an alternative future — one involving equal rights and tolerance, rather than the domination of one ethno-religious group over others.
Thus, what Palestinians are really being commanded is not just to forget their past, but instead to forget their future, too. That they will never do.
GEORGE BISHARAT is professor of law at Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco. He writes frequently about the Middle East.