Marking The “Nakba”

Jeremy Ben-Ami
on May 15, 2023

Today, Palestinians around the world mark “Nakba Day” – commemorating events in 1948 when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were displaced from the land they call home.

Yesterday marked 75 years (on the Gregorian calendar) since Israel declared independence. Jews around the world celebrate Israel’s independence as a miracle – the rebirth of a nation-state of the Jewish people centuries after they were displaced from the land they call home.

As a Jewish American with deep connections to Israel, I take deep pride and joy in the return of the Jewish people to our historic home and the establishment of a state that provides safety and self-determination for Jews after centuries of oppression and tragedy.

Even so, I recognize that Palestinians regard the events surrounding the founding of the modern State of Israel to be a national “catastrophe” (“Nakba” in Arabic).

Understanding that view and sense of loss is critical.

After all, I know that the Jewish people wept by the rivers of Babylon after the First Temple was destroyed and prayed for millennia to return to Zion after the Roman conquest in 70 CE. Precisely because of these and so many other Jewish experiences with loss and catastrophe, I understand how deeply Palestinians yearn to return to the homes they lost less than a century ago.

And I know that, if we are ever to resolve this tragic conflict between Jews and Palestinians, both peoples will need to understand the narrative of the other, their history of pain and their connection to the same land.

All Palestinians will, I hope, one day acknowledge the Jewish people’s meaningful and deep connection to the land of Israel.

And all Jews will, I hope, one day acknowledge the Palestinian connection to the land and understand why they regard 1948 as a catastrophe.

If Americans are to play a productive role, it will be by helping these two peoples to resolve their conflict and to fulfill their individual and collective rights in the land they both call home (almost certainly in two states living side by side).

That won’t happen, though, if Americans themselves are incapable of seeing that each of these peoples is entitled to their narrative and their history.

Last week’s decision by House Speaker Kevin McCarthy to cancel a Nakba Day commemoration sponsored by Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib was a step in precisely the wrong direction. Even more unfortunate was the support for his decision by major American Jewish organizations.

When Senator Bernie Sanders, himself a Jewish pro-Israel American, ultimately provided space in a Senate hearing room for the event, the head of the ADL then denounced the Senator’s action as “disgraceful.”

Sadly, this aggressive effort to prevent acknowledgement of the Nakba on Capitol Hill is consistent with everyday efforts to label Palestinian voices and advocates for Palestinian rights as antisemites and figures of hate.

Guided by the misguided view that anti-Zionism is inherently antisemitic, too many advocates for Israel imply that those who experienced 1948 as a tragedy rather than a miracle have no right to speak their own truths – and that even attempting to grapple with Palestinian experiences and aspirations is somehow an act that harms or endangers Israel.

In his tweet denouncing Senator Sanders, the ADL’s CEO wrote that “real conversations are needed around a path to peace, but not with groups and individuals who espouse antisemitism.” Yet pushing the notion that Palestinian rights advocacy, opposition to occupation, or discussion of Nakba is “antisemitic” effectively excludes the vast majority of Palestinians from any meaningful engagement around the conflict and its resolution.

Let me be clear – this goes both ways: I believe those who mark the Nakba should also acknowledge the legitimacy of Jewish connection to the land of Israel and that the Jewish people too have a right to self-determination.

Israelis and Palestinians are unlikely to ever agree on a common version of history – and they don’t need to. But they will never achieve a peaceful shared future if they cannot acknowledge the legitimacy of the other’s perspective.

There are dozens of Jewish Americans in the Senate and House. Last month, they proudly enlisted the overwhelming majority of Congress in celebrating Israel’s independence.

Representative Tlaib is the one Palestinian-American in national elected office. Silencing and/or demonizing her does nothing to defend Israel. In fact, it makes it more difficult to have honest, pragmatic and serious conversations about the role of the United States in promoting peace and self-determination for both Jews and Palestinians.

One final thought: Jewish leaders and organizations should pause before celebrating when politicians like Kevin McCarthy silence pro-Palestinian voices. Too many politicians on the American right today are representing and appealing to a populist base whose politics are grounded in white nationalism and antisemitism. These are people manifestly opposed to the interests of the Jewish community in America.

Jewish Americans need to stand in solidarity with Arab Americans and Palestinian Americans against the shared threat we face to our rights and equality in this country and not allow ourselves to be divided to advance far-right Republican politics.

I celebrate Israel and its independence even as I recognize the tragedy and suffering endured by the Palestinian people. As with our own American independence, there is a reckoning to be had about the costs, and it begins with acknowledgement of the legitimacy of the suffering and loss on the other side of a formative conflict.

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