Responding to the Outlandish, Offensive Claims in Mahmoud Abbas’ Nakba Speech

Jeremy Ben-Ami
on May 19, 2023

Earlier this week, I posted some thoughts about Nakba Day, the cancellation of an event on Capitol Hill to mark it, and the role of mutual acceptance of conflicting narratives in conflict resolution. 

I wrote then – and I reiterate now – that the need for understanding and acceptance of the history and pain of the other is mutual. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict will never end if political leaders on both sides, and here in the US, try to stake a claim to exclusive ownership over either historical narrative or collective pain.

It is with that perspective that I was deeply pained to read the outlandish, offensive and counterproductive claims made by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in his Nakba Day speech earlier this week at the United Nations.

The speech compared Israeli mythology around its founding to lies by Nazi politician Joseph Goebbels, stated that the US and the UK established Israel so they could “get rid of their Jews,” and denied any Jewish connection to the Western Wall and Temple Mount, stating that it belonged “exclusively and only” to the Muslim world.

These statements are demonstrably false, deeply offensive and push Jews and Palestinians further from peace. Such statements damage the credibility of the Palestinian President’s leadership (and I have long defended President Abbas as a potential partner for peace), feed division and seem designed to negate Jewish connection to the land that both Palestinians and Israelis call home. 

As I wrote the same day of that speech: “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.”

President Abbas’s speech failed that test.

Events like Nakba Day – a commemoration of the violence and displacement that led an estimated 700,000 Palestinians to flee their homes in 1948 – can offer an opportunity for mutual reconciliation, respect and understanding.

President Abbas’s speech fell painfully short of those goals. 

In contrast, many Israelis, Palestinians and Jewish people around the world marked Nakba Day with shared events – including in Washington DC – which were rooted in solidarity and dialogue.

We ourselves condemned House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s decision to ban a Nakba Day commemoration event. We have also called out others in our community who seek to deny any recognition of the history of the Nakba within the American Jewish community, noting their uncomfortable alignment with right-wing forces who are seeking to restrict the true teaching of America’s own traumatic history.

Israelis and Palestinians and their supporters in America and around the world have to be willing to confront intransigence, division and denialism within their own communities, and make an effort to show compassion, curiosity and good faith toward the other. We must also not hesitate to demand that same approach in return, especially from our political leaders. 

If President Abbas seeks respect, recognition and understanding from Israelis and the Jewish diaspora around the world, he should offer those same values in return.

“All Palestinians will, I hope, one day acknowledge the Jewish people’s meaningful and deep connection to the land of Israel,” I wrote this week. “All Jews will, I hope, one day acknowledge the Palestinian connection to the land and understand why they regard 1948 as a catastrophe.”

I continue to hold that hope. 

J Street is dedicated to building a future in which all Israelis and Palestinians can live in safety, peace and freedom, engaged in the hard work of reconciling with the past and with each other. 

As we work toward that vision, we’ll continue to call out statements, policies and ideologies that run counter to that goal, wherever they may come from.

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