The Nakba and Its Marginalization in Israeli Collective Memory
The Nakba (catastrophe in Arabic) is the term describing the “uprooting of the Palestinians and the dismemberment and de-Arabization of historic Palestine” (Masalha, 2012, p. 1). The Nakba, however, is more than a mere descriptor. Describing events that took place before, during, and after the 1948 war between Jewish armed forces, located in what was at the time the British colony of Palestine, and local Palestinian-Arab forces supported by neighboring Arab countries, the Nakba is a politically charged term that to this day affects the lives of both Palestinians and Israelis.
For Palestinians, the result of the 1948 war, which broke out following the UN resolution on the establishment of the State of Israel as well as a Palestinian State, which was never formed, was disastrous. It meant the uprooting from their native land and their dispersion as refugees all over the world—mainly in Arab countries such as Jordan and Lebanon. Those who stayed in what became Israel form a distinct minority (12.5 percent of the population in the newly born state; more than 18 percent currently) within a Jewish majority (Confino, 2012; Morris, 2001; Pappe, 2007; Peled, 2014). Jewish Israelis, although winning the war, are still subjected to a bloody national conflict that is very much fueled by the Nakba and its aftermath.
One major consequence of the Nakba is the destruction of Palestinian villages by Jewish forces during the 1948 war and afterwards as a deliberate
Israeli policy during the 1950s and 1960s (Kadman, 2008). In addition, the Nakba resulted in the transfer from the Palestinians to the Jewish state of approximately 250,000 acres of land (Peled, 2014). The Nakba has had social consequences besides material losses. It split Palestinian society into two distinct groups: refugees in various places including the State of Israel and those who stayed in their original habitats (Peled, 2014; Sorek,
2015) . The Palestinians who remained in their native land, lost their elite, who were exiled to neighboring Arab countries, and so Palestine lost that part of its society that operated the culture- and knowledge-producing institutions (Sorek, 2015).
At the same time, however, the Nakba is also a mobilizing force promoting political activism and consolidating a coherent national Palestinian identity (Abu-Lughod & Sa’di, 2007; Masalha, 2012). Indeed, different Palestinian political organizations worked to create a balance between the private longing for the old village and traditional way of life and the national Palestinian aspiration for a sovereign state and independence (Milshtein, 2009). Thus, the Nakba is both a symbol of loss and destruction and a political tool disseminating Palestinian national consciousness in the occupied territories, Israel, and abroad (Ibid). In other words, the Nakba is the Palestinian “foundational past” (Confino, 2012), in whose light the Palestinian identity is constructed, manifested, and maintained in the present (Abu-Lughod & Sa’di, 2007; Milshtein, 2009; Sela & Kadish,
As a foundational past, the collective and organized efforts to commemorate and remember the Nakba are highly political, as different actors try to influence its consolidation process (Abu-Lughod & Sa’di, 2007; Sorek, 2015). Thus, for example, while secular fragments of Palestinian society have asked to commemorate the Nakba in a way that will emphasize the national coherence of the Palestinian people, religious movements seek to highlight the religious aspects of the 1948 war, emphasizing that the conflict is also a “religious confrontation in which not only national territory has been lost but also, first and foremost, the holy endowed Islamic land” (Milshtein, 2009, p. 59).
Distinct memory actors are the Palestinians living in Israel who developed unique ways to commemorate the Nakba owing to their physical proximity to the villages that were lost during the 1948 war and their unique positioning within Israeli society (Sorek, 2015). Indeed, their unique form of memory was always “a subject of surveillance by the authorities, and a sphere of dialogue with, and defiance of, Jewish
Israeli citizens and the state” (Sorek, 2015, p. 3); thus it differs from the commemoration patterns of the Nakba among Palestinians living in the occupied territories and in refugee camps. Demonstrating these unique mnemonic practices are ritualized familial pilgrimages to ruined villages as well as public restoration of destroyed mosques and churches; neither of these practices is available to Palestinians living in exile (Sela & Kadish, 2016). Another distinct feature of the Palestinian residents of Israel’s Nakba commemoration is the glorification of Yitzhak Rabin, the assassinated Israeli Prime Minister whose administration promoted civil equality for Palestinians living in Israel, while he himself took an active part in the 1948 war as a military officer, thereby contributing to the making of the Palestinian Nakba (Sorek, 2015).
The Jewish-Zionist perspective of the 1948 war— Israelis call it the War of Independence—and both the official and unofficial attempts of Israeli authorities to prevent Israeli Palestinians from commemorating the Nakba have significantly influenced Nakba memorialization in Israel. Among the major elements of social division in Israel, a deeply divided society (Peled, 2014), are the different views Jews and Arabs hold regarding the 1948 war. For Arab Palestinians living in Israel, the war symbolizes a catastrophe; for Jewish Israelis it is the fulfillment of a dream and a redemptive moment (Sela & Kadish, 2016; Sorek, 2015). As such, there is no wonder that a zero-sum game between the narratives exists (Sorek, 2015) and that for Jewish Israelis “even the slightest symbolic gesture raises the fear of entering a slippery slope that would end Jewish national sovereignty” (Ibid., p.8).
The Israeli fear of memorialization of the Nakba is translated into systematic attempts at its prevention (Ram, 2009). The official establishment of the Israeli national narrative, such as in history books, describes the Palestinian Nakba as an “escape that took place either because of overblown fear fanned by Arab media, or in compliance with a call issued by the Arab leadership” (Ram, 2009, p. 372). The new national cartography ignored the Palestinian and Arabic topography of the land and suggested new names for places that were once Arabic or ignored “deserted” Palestinian villages (Benvenisti, 1997). The “physical forgetting” (Ram, 2009) consisted of two elements: the destruction of villages and other remains that “might [have] served as mute monuments to the lives that had taken place in them” (Ram, 2009, p. 376) and the repopulation of Arab property with Jewish people (Kadman, 2008; Ram, 2009; Sorek, 2015).
While these latter activities are no longer practiced in Israel,2 denying the possibility to remember the Nakba is still a common practice in the Israeli political and public spheres. A recent example is the Budgetary Foundations (Amendment 40) Law of 2011, more commonly known as the Nakba Law. This law reduces from the budget of a government-funded body up to three times the expenditure that an organization has made on activities that designate the establishment of Israel, or its Independence Day, as a day of mourning (Tirosh & Schejter, 2015). Demonstrating the law’s chilling effect is the fact that since its establishment, mayors of Palestinian municipalities in Israel avoid participating in commemorative events, fearing that the government will prevent funding of their municipalities (Sorek, 2015).
These organized efforts to make the Nakba unmemorialized can be interpreted as an example of “repressive erasure” (Connerton, 2008) of the past—the deletion, destruction, and cultural editing of historical knowledge in order to manipulate how it will be remembered in the future (Reading, 2011). However, apart from actual destruction, or laws negating the commemoration of the Nakba, it is also the Jewish “civil gaze” that disciplines the way Palestinians in Israel commemorate the Nakba (Sorek, 2015) and influences the way the Nakba is remembered in Israel. This gaze can be demonstrated by public attempts to discredit the Nakba and describe it as an event that never happened. A booklet titled Nakba Harta (literally Nakba Nonsense) (2011), for example, was published by Im Tirzu (literally “if you will it”3), a right-wing organization that was very active in the debate about the Nakba Law and its articulation. As mentioned in the booklet, its aim was to “sanctify the war against the terrible lies that in their name our enemies ask to delegitimize the Zionist’s rights and to prepare the ground for the destruction of the Jewish State—this lie is the Nakba myth” (Tadmor & Segal, 2011, p. 3).