Acknowledge the Nakba

Palestinian solidarity flyers. Via Padova, Milan.

On May 14, 1948, Israel declared its independence and was immediately recognized by the United States. On May 14, 2012, Israeli ambassador to the US, Michael Oren, whined in the Wall Street Journal over the low opinion the State of Israel is held in by much of the world.

Oren’s article was a rehash of standard hasbara (Hebrew for state propaganda.) Much of what he said was true, but taken out of context. One part is worth noting for its blatant falsehood. Oren wrote:

“Iran, which regularly pledges to wipe Israel off the map, is developing nuclear weapons.”

I won’t get too far into this;  an article I wrote about Iran in 2007 still offers a clearer view of the country than Oren ever will. Still, it’s worth quoting no less a person than Israel’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Intelligence and Atomic Energy, Dan Meridor of Benjamin Netanyahu’s own party, Likud:

“[Iran has said] that Israel is an unnatural creature, it will not survive. They didn’t say, ‘We’ll wipe it out,’ you’re right, but, ‘It will not survive.’ ”

You don’t get a more straightforward, authoritative refutation of Michael Oren’s lies than that. From his own employer, even.  The rest of the ambassador’s article was equally problematic, consisting of distortions, and bits of history taken out of context, a skill of academic sophistry that Oren has developed into an art form.

That’s a shame, because on Israel’s independence day, it is fair enough to look at the country’s very real accomplishments. Israel is hardly alone in having achieved a great deal it can be proud of, despite it’s accomplishments  being intertwined with having caused great human hardship. When one writes that last sentence in the United States, it rings especially true.

Oren wants to know why Israel is so reviled thirty-nine years after an article in Life Magazine absolutely fawned over the Jewish state. He provides the answer as a straw man: “Some claim that Israel today is a Middle Eastern power that threatens its neighbors, and that conservative immigrants and extremists have pushed Israel rightward. Most damaging, they contend, are Israel’s policies toward the territories it captured in the 1967 Six-Day War, toward the peace process and the Palestinians, and toward the construction of settlements.”

The trouble is, Oren never actually bothers to knock that straw man down. He simply extols Israel’s virtues (some real, many illusory) as if that shows that the low opinion in which Israel is currently held is rooted in baseless hatred, perhaps even fanatical anti-Semitism.

One can understand Oren’s concern. Just a few days ago, a global poll conducted for the BBC World Service showed that Israel ranked among the most unfavorably-viewed countries in the world. Only Iran, Pakistan and North Korea ranked below Israel.

No doubt, many will see this as a symptom of global anti-Semitism. However, that answer is not only glib. It also ignores the reality of Israel on a day to day basis, as Oren hopes people will do. Key is the word “ignore.”

Palestinian solidarity flyer. Via Padova, Milan.

Israel has lived every day of its sixty-four years as the giant casting a shadow over the displaced Palestinians, even as it has lived those years in perpetual conflict. Ultimately, this is the cause of the negative view of the state.

Some continue to see Israel in purely colonial terms. No matter what the views of the early Zionist settlers and leadership, it’s an inescapable truth that this is the way Jewish settlement played out. This was so not only in terms of the Palestinians, but also within the plans of the British, French, and even Ottoman rulers of the day. That is an historical reality Israel must contend with, even though Zionism was, at its essence, initially a movement for Jewish liberation.

But when a new nation-state is born, every nationalist movement inevitably transforms, and must face ugly truths about how it came to be. In order to become a state with a secure feeling about itself, Israel must confront the realities of its past and how that past continues to deeply affect the lives of millions of Palestinians to this day.

Wars create refugees. It is also true that the end of a war does not always mean those refugees can return home. Circumstance might prevent it, and surely there were then and are now circumstances which prevent a full return of Palestinian refugees to their homes, not the least of which is that most of those homes no longer stand, or are, in certain instances, occupied by Jewish Israelis.

But that doesn’t change the fact that Israel made the decision to bar the return of Palestinians after the 1948 war ended and that the Knesset enacted laws to permanently confiscate their lands and property. No matter whether the numerous documented cases of Israeli expulsion of Palestinians was the key to Palestinian flight or whether it was due to the war; no matter whether the ongoing state of hostilities made it more difficult to allow any of the Palestinians to return home; no matter what version of history you wish to subscribe to (excluding Oren’s or any other which simply ignores even the Israeli records), Israel is still left with a history that it refuses to confront.

In the United States, we still have a very long way to go in addressing racism. As an American, I am not going to sit on a moral high horse when it comes to Israel. However, we have embarked on that road, and we did it through a difficult process. Our example is as valid a benchmark for Israelis as South Africa.

As a child in the 1970s, I came of age just after the civil rights protests of the 1960s. That era forced the United States to confront its history, including the genocide of the native inhabitants of this land, the enslavement of Africans, the era of apartheid that we called “segregation” and the resilient racism that yet survives all of that.

Wherever the US goes from here, and however long it takes to create a more just and egalitarian multiethnic society, Americans will always have that collective memory. During the years of my childhood, they were indelibly burned into the culture, despite right-wing efforts to deny them.

Israel must do this as well. It must face the reality that its birth caused a humanitarian catastrophe. It must cease its defensive reaction to Nakba Day commemorations, events which memorialize Palestinian dispossession but which Israelis can only see as mourning the birth of their country. That reaction means that the real history of Palestinians can only be seen by Israelis as an attack on their country.

It is Israel that must break this cycle, because the Palestinians will not forget what happened to them. They can’t even if they wanted to. The results of their dispossession are apparent in their lives every minute of every day, at every refugee camp, every checkpoint, on every hill where a settlement has been built.

Michael Oren’s empty and phony history is precisely what perpetuates the negative global view of Israel. Of course, there will always be those who hate Jews and anything Jewish. But if Oren really believes that this is what drives such widespread negative views of Israel, he has a clear way to prove it.

Confront the past. Acknowledge that Israel’s War of Independence caused a humanitarian disaster that is still with us today, and start to do what it must to make that right. If the world still sees Israel as being no better than North Korea, it will be pretty hard to deny that this hatred is divorced from Israeli policies.

Despite this, Israel need not take all the responsibility. The Palestinians were put into this situation by many parties, including Great Britain, the United States, other Arab states, and, yes, by their own bad leaders and poor decisions.

However, it was Israel that was built on Palestinian dispossession, and it is Israel that must begin the reconciliation process, just as it was white America that had to reach out to minorities, and continues to owe an ethical and practical debt to the Native and African American communities (among others).

Like those white Americans, Israelis were forced to build a new homeland in order to escape persecution in the lands where they lived. But that doesn’t help those who were dispossessed to make room for the Jewish state.

With all the other ways Israel has come to emulate the US, it is equally incumbent that Israel own up to its history. It doesn’t matter if there will be a single state solution, two states, or twelve states that ends its conflict with the Palestinians. This is different. Without this acknowledgment, no peace will ever hold.

Photographs courtesy of Joel Schalit


  1. Great article. Mitchell continues to distinguish himself as a thought leader. Not so much because the perspective that he is articulating is new. (It isn’t. As a long-time Jewish peace activist, I consider it to be part and parcel of what anti-Occupation activists have been saying for a very long time.) But because of the way that he promotes ideas publicly; plus, his willingness to take on the government of Israel’s propaganda machine and the host of reactionaries and right-wing nuts who claim to speak for international Jewry. They certainly don’t speak for me; most especially when it comes to how they deride Palestinians and attempt to justify the hideous treatment that they have received — and continue to receive — at the hands of Israel.

  2. Addendum: I am especially grateful to Mitchell for highlighting the connection between emotional reckoning and moral imperative. In my view, the ability of Jewish Israelis to acknowledge the central role that they have played in the tragic story of the Palestinians over the past 60+ years lies at the h-e-a-r-t of us Jews digging ourselves out of the morally depraved hole that Israeli nationalism has created.

  3. This article presents a very fair evaluation of all parties involved in this issue, which is a commendable feat. I only have one problem with it, and that problem is found in the author’s analogy between the creation of the US and that of Israel. While the civil rights movement eventually brought about relative social equality for minorities, the civil rights movement is not the obvious choice for an analogy to the creation of Israel and the removal of Palestinians. That sounds much more similar to an event in US history that we too, like the Israeli ambassador, tend to gloss over: Andrew Jackson’s Trail of Tears. In fact, the Trail of Tears seems almost a perfect match to the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Thus, I would suggest that while America’s handling of the civil rights movement is something for the world to look to (and improve upon) with respect to social change, it is would be much more useful for the Knesset to view America’s handling of the Native Americans as a what-not-to-do guidebook because based on the current state of affairs, history seems to be once again repeating itself.

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