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Erasing the Nakba


Be’er-Sheva, Israel.

I first heard about the Nakba in the late 1980s, while I was an undergraduate student of philosophy at Hebrew University. This, I believe, is a revealing fact, particularly since, as a teenager, I was a member of Peace Now and was raised in a liberal home. I grew up in the southern city of Be’er-Sheva, which is just a few kilometres from several unrecognised Bedouin villages that, today, are home to thousands of residents who were displaced in 1948. I now know that the vast majority of the Negev’s Bedouin population was not as lucky, and that, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, most Bedouin either fled or were expelled from their ancestral lands to Jordan or Gaza.
How is it possible that a left-leaning Israeli teenager who was living in the Negev during the early 1980s (I graduated from high-school in 1983) had never heard the word “Nakba”?

How, in other words, is collective amnesia engendered?

There are many explanations of how master narratives are created and how they suppress and marginalise competing historical accounts. In addition to the work carried out by state institutions and apparata, this careful erasure also demands the ongoing mobilisation of scholars, novelists and artists – as well as other producers of popular culture.

When I was growing up, the history depicted in Israeli high-school textbooks, as well as the historical narrative promulgated by the mass media (there was only one television channel in Israel at the time, which was government run), was validated by famous novelists and public intellectuals. According to a PhD thesis written by Alon Gan from Tel Aviv University, Amos Oz, for example, interviewed soldiers after the 1967 war and used his editorial prerogative to excise descriptions of abuse in order to produce an image of the moral Israeli combatant.

Thinking back to the days when I was involved in Peace Now, I now realise that, even for most Israeli doves at the time, a conflicted history only emerged post-1967 – with the occupation of the Sinai, West Bank, Gaza Strip and the Golan Heights. Accordingly, the solution offered by Peace Now addressed the wrongs created in 1967, but had nothing to say about 1948. Indeed, I do not recall any reference to the Palestinian refugees in their publications. The seamless way in which the state had managed to completely suture the happenings of 1948, even among the Israeli peace camp, was indeed remarkable.

To be sure, the Nakba existed in the landscape. There are hundreds of ruined Palestinian villages throughout Israel, many of which are still surrounded by the sabra cactus. The Nakba also emerged in a handful of literary works. S Yizhar’s novella Khirbet Khizehre counts, for instance, how a group of Israeli soldiers laid siege to a Palestinian village and how they meticulously followed their “operation orders” by clearing the area of “hostile forces”. The unnamed narrator details how they “assemble the inhabitants of the area … load them onto transports, and convey them across [the] lines”, and, finally, they “blow up the stone houses, and burn the huts”. Published a few months after the 1948 war, the novella aroused a public debate, but for some reason neither the novella nor the ruins of villages across the countryside managed to register among the Jewish Israeli population.


Despite the Nakba’s immediacy, many tactics have been successfully deployed to hide its traces. Often critics mention in this context Israel’s ongoing scheme of planting forests on ruined Palestinian villages, but in my view the severe segregation characterising Israeli society has a much more profound impact. The actual geographical distance separating me from Bedouin youth my age was negligible, but the social spaces we occupied were worlds apart. The segregation was so intense that I never actually met, needless to say, played with, Bedouin children. I accordingly did not have any opportunity to hear their stories.

After all, history often emerges from quotidian details, like where one’s grandparents came from. Mine emigrated to Mandate Palestine from Russia and Poland and I went to visit them at their kibbutz on most school vacations. Tragically, Jewish and Bedouin youth never had the occasion to share such information with each other.

Palestinian rights

The Nakba, both as a word and as a historical phenomenon, began to surface among Jews in Israel – and indeed in the international arena – following a series of publications by the “new historians”, whose writings spurred ferocious debates about Israel’s role in creating the Palestinian refugee problem. Perhaps the most influential of these was Benny Morris’ The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, which appeared in 1987 – almost four decades after Yizhar’s novella.

Other historians such as Ilan Pappe, sociologists such as Baruch Kimmerling and geographers such as Oren Yiftachel took part in this debate, and, despite harsh attacks (often of a personal nature), they began to disrupt Israel’s master narrative – which, until then, had placed all of the blame on Arab leaders. These Israeli academics were following in the footsteps of Palestinian intellectuals such as Walid Khalidi, Sami Hadawi, Ghassan Kanafani and Lebanon’s Elias Khoury. But, because the claims were being made by Israeli Jews, their impact in Israel and abroad was much greater.

At around the same time, the first intifada erupted (December 1987). Images of brutal repression of nonviolent resistance prompted a discussion of Palestinian human and national rights in Israeli society. Within a period of four years (1988-1991), numerous Israeli NGOs were established in order to help protect different Palestinian rights. The Jewish Israeli rights practitioners then had the occasion to meet thousands of Palestinians who had suffered abuse at the hands of the Israeli military; they heard their stories about the present, but from these stories, alternative narratives of the past also emerged. In Gaza, after all, 75 per cent of the residents are refugees from the 1948 war.

During the Oslo years, new textbooks, which discussed the Palestinian refugee problem and mentioned, even if in passing, Israel’s role in its creation, began to appear. In 2002, a group of Israelis created Zochrot (remembering), whose goal was to introduce the Palestinian Nakba to the Israeli-Jewish public, to express the Nakba in Hebrew, and to create a place for the Nakba in the intellectual environment. As one of its founders explained: “This is in order to promote an alternative memory to the hegemonic Zionist memory. The Nakba is the disaster of the Palestinian people: the destruction of the villages and cities, the killing, the expulsion, the erasure of Palestinian culture. But the Nakba, I believe, is also our story, the story of the Jews who live in Israel, who enjoy the privileges of being the ‘winners’.”

These developments have led to a profound change in awareness among the Jewish Israeli public, so that, over the years more and more Israeli Jews have become familiar with the word “Nakba” and the historical events which it denotes. I see the difference among my students today. When I used to say the word “Nakba” in class in the late 1990s, hardly anyone knew what I was talking about; however, if I were to say “Nakba” today, there is hardly a student who would not know what I was referring to. This, it is important to emphasise, does not reflect a change in the views of Israelis towards the conflict, but the understanding of its historical origins is, nonetheless, less naive.
Nakba backlash

It is precisely within this context that one should understand the state’s decision to reassert itself in an attempt to silence, once again, all talk of the Nakba. One strategy it adopted was the passing of the Nakba law, which was approved by the Knesset in March 2011. The law is actually an amendment to the Budget Foundation Law, and states that the minister of finance is entitled to reduce funds to any public institution, such as a school or university, if it commemorates “Independence Day or the day of the establishment of the state as a day of mourning… ”

The legislation process itself was covered by the media, provoking a lively discussion, which in effect rendered the Nakba visible to a much wider audience than ever before. Furthermore, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel and Adalah (The Legal Center for the Arab Minority in Israel) immediately filed a petition with the supreme court, arguing that the new law constituted a grave violation of the freedom of speech and was part of “a political persecution campaign that aims to de-legitimise an entire population of Israel’s citizenry”.

The two rights groups went on to claim that the commemoration of Nakba Day in no way denies the existence of the state of Israel, as the language of the bill attempts to suggest. Moreover, according to these organisations, the bill blatantly violates the rights of a minority to preserve its history and culture as well as to determine the stories it wants to tell about itself. They further argued that the bill seeks to single out and mark Israel’s Arab citizens as dangerous and disloyal to the state, in that they seek to express their own narrative and interpretation of historical events (Independence Day/Nakba Day), a narrative that is frowned upon by certain political groups in the country.

This is a clear example of a “tyranny of the majority”, where the political majority would violate the basic rights of the minority – in this case their freedom of speech – and consequently also their cultural freedom and freedom to interpret history in ways that offend the majority.

On January 5, 2012, the Supreme Court published its ruling, rejecting the appeal, and upholding the Nakba Law. President Dorit Beinisch and Justices Eliezer Rivlin and Miriam Naor concluded: “The declarative level of the law does indeed raise difficult and complex questions. However, from the outset, the constitutionality of the law depends largely upon the interpretation given to the law’s directives.” In other words, the court refrained from judging the constitutionality of the law before it was implemented in a concrete case.

In this way, as Dan Yakir from the Association for Civil Rights stated: “The court completely ignored the claims regarding the chilling effect of this law, which forces state-supported entities to risk a significant reduction in their budgets before the law will be considered for judicial review. In this, it limits free speech.” Yakir’s point was that the law harms both the freedom of expression and the civil rights of Arab citizens, even before its implementation, because the law’s formulation is so broad and vague, many institutions have already begun to censor themselves so as not to risk incurring penalties.

Truth goes both ways

Despite the legal setback with respect to the Nakba Law, as well as the well-orchestrated attack against organisations like Zochrot, the Israeli government’s concerted effort to reinitiate national amnesia is futile. As the great Jewish political philosopher Hannah Arendt once put it, the fact that Leon Trotsky does not appear in Soviet Russian history books does not mean that he did not exist. “The trouble with lying and deceiving,” Arendt explains, “is that their efficiency depends entirely upon a clear notion of the truth that the liar and deceiver wishes to hide. In this sense, truth, even if it does not prevail in public, possesses an ineradicable primacy over all falsehoods.”

The Nakba is a truth, and while the efforts to expose the unfolding historical events have recently experienced a fierce legal assault, its primacy over falsehoods guarantees that it will prevail. Jewish Israeli society needs to confront the Nakba for what it was, as well as its ongoing ramifications, whether in the refugee camps across the Levant or in the hills of south Hebron, where Palestinians are under constant threat of expulsion; we need to recognise that the Palestinians have suffered – and still suffer – and that they have been stripped of basic rights by successive Israeli governments for more than half a century. This recognition is the condition of possibility for a better future.

But if there is any hope for this region, the recognition must be reciprocal. The Palestinians, who have no doubt been wronged, must concede, as the late Edward Said urged them to do, that two wrongs do not make a right. Only once there is mutual recognition of the two historical narratives will an opportunity for reconciliation truly emerge.

Neve Gordon is an Israeli activist and the author of and author of Israel’s Occupation (University of California Press, 2008). He can be contacted through his website


Neve Gordon is the co-author (with Nicola Perugini) of the newly released The Human Right to Dominate.

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