Every year on Israel’s Independence Day, the anti-Zionists can be relied upon, like clockwork, to trumpet the Nakba in counterpoint. The indispensible refrain is always, “Your celebration is their mourning.”
One of the insidious things about pushing the anti-Zionist narrative is not the narrative itself (already an affront on its own) but the way the Zionist is expected to identify with its sentiments, or else. I have no trouble listening to the arguments of the other side, reading their points of view at length and learning what makes them tick, but what the anti-Zionists demand is that their narrative be accepted on the emotional level as well, that it push our side’s take into the wayside. It is not enough for the Zionist to acknowledge that the Arab word “nakba” means “catastrophe,” signifying how the other side regard the events of 1947–9; what is required of the Zionist is to accept that the events were objectively a catastrophe, to the minds of all human beings, including the Zionists themselves.
Given that the war of 1947–9 was initiated by the Arab colonists in Palestine to prevent the indigenous Palestinians—the Jews—from realizing their national right to a state of their own, and given that the failure of the Jews to repulse Arab aggression would have resulted in genocide, I am naturally disinclined to view the outcome of that war as a catastrophe. Even for the Arab colonists it was not the greatest catastrophe possible, seeing as most of them were able to stay alive by fleeing, and many could even stay where they were. More worthy of righteous indignation would be the treatment of the ex-Palestine colonists by the Arab states in the later years, from the 1950s up to the massacres in Lebanon and Kuwait—shows of “brotherly love” to contrast with Israel’s unaided, single-handed resettlement of the hundreds of thousands of Jews kicked out of the Arab world.
Israel’s War of Independence followed Arab/Islamic lines closely, with an attempt by the local colonists to conquer the land first, and then, failing that, the job was taken over by state armies. Most of the Arabs of 1947 Palestine fled at the exhortation of the Arab states prior to their military invasions, a fact not only borne out by the historical archives, but also corroborated by the recurrence of the pattern. In July 2006, at the beginning of the Second Lebanon War, Hezbollah chief Nasrallah told the Arabs of the Galilee to flee northward to Lebanon and await their return to take the spoils upon his victory. (There were no takers—no one seriously believed Hezbollah would conquer parts of Israel, even if Israel was unable to wipe them out.) And in March 2012, the Nigerian Islamic terrorist organization Boko Haram told the Muslims in Christian-majority Southern Nigeria to flee to the Muslim-majority Northern Nigeria to await an Islamic victory and subsequent return to take the spoils. History repeats itself for anyone who takes the time to learn.
Of course, some of the Arabs did flee because of the war itself. Where an Arab village like Iraq Suweidan stood on the hills near an important supply road, the Jewish resistance fighters had to clear what would otherwise be a choke point for their convoys. We can imagine that, as in a war, asking nicely would not do the trick; those population centers had to be waded into and fought over. At the end of the fighting, the Arabs were allowed to flee—an outcome that did not ensue when the Arabs won, as the massacres of Hebron and Gush Etzyon showed.
The brief survey above shows that the Nakba was largely self-caused, and that, in Middle East standards, the Arab colonists got off pretty lightly for a “catastrophe.” The anti-Zionists would have none of these facts, of course: It takes only a few minutes of reading them to realize that the events of the war of 1947–9 are not the important thing, but the narrative that the Jews were (and still are) the invaders whom the natives had every right to repulse, by any means possible. This narrative takes such high priority that even the fact that the Arab attacks were in flagrant violation of a U.N. decision is ignored—no mean feat, considering the way the anti-Zionists parrot those U.N. decisions that are against Israel as if they were holy writ.
A Counterpoint to the Holocaust
The foremost reason for the anti-Zionists to emphasize the Nakba is as an “answer” to the Holocaust. It seems perverse beyond belief to say it, but sometimes I get the impression the Nakba narrative is a result of Holocaust envy. The term “Nakba Denial” has been coined to be the equivalent of “Holocaust Denial,” and the Nakba is constantly brought up in conjunction with the post-WWII German admission of guilt, contrition and reparations, saying, “What they did in the name of restoring justice, you can do too.” By ignoring the crucial difference between the significance of those two events—the Holocaust and the Nakba—the anti-Zionists employ a ruthless, cynical stratagem calculated to make the Israeli Jews apologize for having their state on Palestine.
When the Germans confessed their guilt after the world war, the consequences of that confession were uncontroversial and did not lead to demands that the German nation could not abide by. It was uncontroversial that Nazi Germany, the episode of the years 1933–45 in German history, was evil and had to be prevented from ever happening again; it was not Germany itself and the German people that had thus been declared illegitimate. The Allied occupation of Germany and Austria was to be temporary; nobody suggested that the war justified rendering the German nation stateless in perpetuity, or that the German nation-state had its Original Sin in its very founding in 1871 or in even earlier events.
In contrast, the equivalence of the Holocaust and the Nakba serves the anti-Zionists in staining Jewish nationalism in its entirety for all time. That war of 1947–9 was the war in which the Jewish state formally came to be; to construe it as Israel’s Original Sin is to condemn the Jewish state for its entire history. It is no wonder, in light of this, that the Israeli Jews could never regard the events of 1947–9 with the same critical eye that many of them have regarded the war of 1967 and its consequences. To assert that things went astray with Israel after 1967 is still within the bounds of the acceptable, since compromising on that point would leave a piece of land for Jewish self-determination; but to “confess” the “sinfulness” of the war of 1947–9 is something that no normal Israeli Jew could do, because therein lies the first step to the loss of the Jewish statehood that had been dreamed of for nearly 2000 years. It is an unconscionable demand for all but a lunatic fringe, a tiny fraction of a percent of Israeli Jews afflicted with acute Stockholm syndrome.
Even Meretz, the left-wing Israeli party long known for its insistence on abandoning the post-1967 territories (read: ethnically cleansing them of Jews) for the sake of peace, are not willing to budge on the Nakba, the “refugees” (the descendants of the Arab colonists who fled Palestine in 1947–9) and the entire “1948 File.” When, in 2008, the anti-Zionist document titled “The Future Vision for the Palestinian Arabs in Israel” was published, with the usual shtick about Israel being a “European colonial project,” Elazar Granot, one of the leaders of Meretz back then, said of it, “I read it and seethed in outrage.” Even they know that there is great peril in opening the file that puts the legitimacy of the entire Jewish state in jeopardy. The only thing they lack is confidence in responding to the Nakba narrative and to the comparisons to the Holocaust, since they have yet to come into terms with the fact that the clash of narratives is not about what happened in the past, but who had and still has the right to this land.
Abandoning the Redress Narrative
As the faux-Palestinian narrative was devised to hide the fact of Arab imperialist aggression against the Jews under the mantle of an imitation of Zionism, so too was the Nakba magnified beyond its true proportions to become a facsimile of the redress narrative, whose central argument is the Holocaust. The argument of Zionism before 1947 had been, “We Jews are stateless, the Arabs have many states; the Arabs’ complaints about dispossession are therefore unfounded.” That argument having worked effectively in convincing the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine, the Arabs realized after the war that they had to mimic it in order to turn the Jewish state from a David standing against the Arab Goliath into a Israeli Goliath oppressing the “Palestinian” David. In like manner, equating the Nakba with the Holocaust would be the response, by mimicry, to the argument often made by Israeli Jews that the Holocaust justifies the existence of the Jewish state.
Whether it is the Holocaust that is brought up or the countless instances of persecution of the Jews before it, the narrative of Israel as redress and sanctuary for the Jews presents a good case but suffers from a fatal flaw: It does not give a reason as to why the nation-state of the Jews must be in Palestine of all places. This has provided the opening for anti-Zionists to deny the Jewish nation’s rights to the land, from a Saudi king saying after WWII that the Jews should be given a state carved out from defeated Germany, through Arafat and Helen Thomas stating the Jews are not entitled to a nation-state at all but should be content being citizens of non-Jewish states, to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad saying that it was unjust for the Arabs in Palestine to have been punished for events (such as the Holocaust which he denies) that they had nothing to do with. (Which is not true, by the way: The Mufti of Jerusalem actively took Nazi Germany’s side, and many Arabs in Mandate Palestine were ready to assist in the extermination of the Jews in a Nazi-ruled Palestine.)
The narrative of Zionism as redress for past wrongs, as the building of a sanctuary for the Jews, still has value in countering ideas that could lead to genocide, not least the Binational Solution where two nations that hate each other are to be forced to live together (the very setting that failed in the years 1920–49). However, it cannot be used as the main justification of Zionism, for it is an argument independent of location. What Zionist Jews need to argue is that Israel is not a redress for past wrongs but the fulfillment of the Jews’ inalienable national rights. Whether through the appeal to international documents such as the San Remo Treaty or to the incontrovertible fact, supported by an objectively real cultural connection to the land, that the Jews are the one and only true Palestinian nation, the argument for the justice of the Jews having their nation-state in Palestine must be based on the recognition that Jews belong to this land, that they are not interlopers as the anti-Zionists have it.
Having shifted the parameters away from redress and into national rights, it becomes much easier to stand for Zionism confidently: Instead of endless discussions about what happened in 1947–9 and the quagmire of being held to impossible gentlemanly standards in the course of an existential struggle, the Zionist can respond in the same token as he or she has been accused. The Jewish return to their land from 1882 onward and the success in resisting Arab imperialist aggression to this day are right and just actions on the part of the indigenous people of Palestine (who are the Jews and none other), while the Arab colonists’ attempts to prevent Jewish return and their waging of a war of aggression against the fledgling Jewish state in 1947–9, contrary to the United Nations decision, are unjust acts of belligerence born of imperialist greed that can never be justified.