To deny the Nakba is to perpetuate it
In the lives of nations, says George Orwell, no group would condemn crimes committed by its people. Even when admitted, those crimes are likely to be rationalised and justified.
This mentality largely defines Israel’s relations with the Nakba, the 1948 dispossession, displacement, and replacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their homeland.
Building a densely layered set of concealments, exclusions, and measures, Zionism has shaped not only what Jewish Israelis remember, but more importantly what they should forget and the foundation of their country. This has produced what can be described as a ‘banality of forgetting’ in Jewish Israeli society regarding Palestinian history.
"The purpose was and still is to sterilise Israeli historiography from any artefactual or archival references that would emphasise Palestinian pre-Nakba peoplehood, culture, and history"
In the immediate aftermath, the newly established Jewish state sought to destroy, hide, or alter the identity of the pre-Nakba Palestinian residential centres, heritage sites, and even artefacts.
The remnants of the hundreds of villages destroyed by the Zionist militias during the Nakba, for instance, are nowadays located within unbuilt open spaces where groves were planted, parks created, and nature reserves established.
Even the nearby roads were built using stones and rubble of destroyed Palestinian houses crushed into gravel to become the bedding layers under the roads.
The practice is known as ‘spacio-cide’, the enforcement of a new physical reality on top or instead of the original one.
For the physical erasure to withstand scrutiny, the Israeli government also sought to control any paper trail that may contradict the state's official narrative.
Today marks 75 years of the Nakba.— The New Arab (@The_NewArab) May 15, 2023
It was never a one-time thing. It has been 75 years of Nakba for Palestinians, and it's still ongoing.
Recently, the Israeli Defence Ministry’s secretive security department started removing and resealing historical documents on the Nakba after they had been cleared for publication by the military sensor.
The goal, speculatively, was to undermine the work of revisionist historians that used archival materials to deconstruct Israel’s founding myths.
Simultaneously, Palestinian artefacts, treasures, libraries, registers, and photographs which were looted by the Jewish militias during Operation Dalet and thereafter, were withheld and many were concealed from public eyes.
The purpose was and still is to sterilise Israeli historiography from any artefactual or archival references that would emphasise Palestinian pre-Nakba peoplehood, culture, and history. After all, goes the Zionist myth, Palestine was “ an uncultivated, arid land without people,” soon to be transformed into a “blooming country” by European Jewish settlers.
When the physical erasure and archival concealment were insufficient, the explicit denial of the Nakba was substituted for an implicatory one.
As a first tactic, the blame for the Palestinian catastrophe was shifted to the Palestinians themselves. That was mostly based on the false premise that Plan Dalet (Plan D), envisioned and authorised by Ben-Gurion, was not a blueprint for the expulsion and ethnic cleansing of Palestinians, but only a military strategy of defence.
Israeli leaders alleged that Palestinians left their homes voluntarily after Arab states encouraged them to do so to facilitate plans to “throw the Jews into the sea.”
Never mind that the rhetoric uses anti-Semitic grievances as a facade for a settler-colonial endeavour, it also fails to explain why Palestinians were banned from returning, illegalised as ‘infiltrators,’ then arrested or killed when they attempted to go back to their homes after the war.
"For decades following the Nakba, Palestinians were erased from the Western public discourse, and so was their catastrophe. Not only did that allow Israel and its Western supporters to impose the Zionist narrative, but also - inevitably - prevented Palestinians from telling their story"
In the second tactic, the Nakba was not denied per se, but its implications were given a moral dimension: it was, therefore, justified, rationalised, and legitimised.
Israeli historian Benny Morris - one of the founders of Israel’s new history movement in the late 1980s, which deconstructed many of Zionism’s foundational myths - admitted that the 1948 Palestinian exodus was largely due to Jewish military attacks, fear of attacks, and expulsions.
Still, he justified all of that as an unavoidable result of Israel’s inception. “You can't make an omelette without breaking eggs,” he said
Always the victim
Behind much of the deliberate Nakba denial lies also a psychological factor regarding Israel’s self-perceived victimhood, be it in relation to Jewish history, the Holocaust, the Arab-Israeli conflict, or all of the above.
The emphasis on victimhood as the formative pillar of Jewish Israeli identity has compelled the Jewish state and mainstream to attempt to deny any notion of Palestinian victimhood.
This has accounted for a heightened sense of entitlement, reduced sense of guilt for Palestinian suffering and, as a result, rejection of responsibility for the harm inflicted upon the Palestinian collective in 1948 and thereafter.
The alternative would be admitting that Palestinian victimhood, especially the Nakba, is real and ongoing, and that it is almost all Israel’s doing.
With such admission comes the terrifying prospect that not only are the Zionist myths baseless, but so are the entrenched beliefs about Israeli victimhood. Especially unsettling is when these beliefs are connected to the claims that Israel’s inception was a historical justice and redemption for the once diasporic, persecuted Jews.
An equally important but less known reason for the Nakba denial is the so-called anti-Palestinianism.
Anti-Palestinianism is a form of prejudice inseparable from the larger anti-Muslim and anti-Arab sentiment mostly in the West. It discriminates against Palestinians for being Palestinians, without necessarily being connected to the region’s political or geopolitical issues.
It is, as such, a latent type of racism that treats Palestinians and their rights with different standards to all other cherished liberal or even universal values.
For the international community, which is largely controlled by the Global North, Palestinian rights never bore any sense of urgency for resolution. This has been explicitly evident recently, as Western nations showed their double standards by putting their full support behind Ukrainian resistance while condemning that of Palestinians.
Because of that, for decades following the Nakba, Palestinians were erased from the Western public discourse, and so was their catastrophe. Not only did that allow Israel and its Western supporters to impose the Zionist narrative, but also - inevitably - prevented Palestinians from telling their story.
Because the Palestinian story was entwined with the dominant discourses on anti-Semitism also, it was overshadowed and under-expressed. In fact, it was and still is occasionally condemned for representing an ‘undesirable counter-narrative’ in a post-Holocaust Western world in the process of atonement for its Jewish victims.
To quote Edward Said, in the four decades following the Nakba, Palestinians were denied the “permission to narrate.” “Merely to mention the Palestinians or Palestine in Israel, or to a convinced Zionist, is to name the unnameable, so powerfully does our bare existence serve to accuse Israel of what it did to us,” he reflects in The Question of Palestine (1979).
All considered, Palestinians have in recent decades succeeded in reinstating the Nakba as the most nonnegotiable element in our history and relationship with Israel. However, except for minority advocacy groups - such as Zochrot - that seek to raise awareness about the issue, denial remains the mainstream trend in Israel.
Until Israel has owned up to its original sin and facilitated a mechanism of transitional justice for the Nakba victims and their descendants, as well as ended today’s occupation, the idea of justice in Palestine remains distant.
Dr Emad Moussa is a Palestinian-British researcher and writer specialising in the political psychology of intergroup and conflict dynamics, focusing on MENA with a special interest in Israel/Palestine. He has a background in human rights and journalism, and is currently a frequent contributor to multiple academic and media outlets, in addition to being a consultant for a US-based think tank.
Follow him on Twitter: @emadmoussa
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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.