The Nakba in Israeli Society

By Miri

Today, May 15th marks Nakba Day. Nakba means “catastrophe“ in Arabic and refers to 1) the events that took place during the war of 1947/1948, usually referred to by the Jewish-Israel discourse as the War of Independence, during which an estimated number of 750,000 Palestinians were expelled and/or fled from their homes and hundreds of villages and towns were depopulated and destroyed and 2) to the continuation of displacement and dispossession of the Palestinian population across the whole of historic Palestine up until today.

Obviously, there are great discrepancies between the official Israeli and the Palestinian narrative of the events of 1948. The official Israeli version claims that after the Palestinian leadership had rejected the UN partition plan, which would have led to the establishment of both a Jewish and a Palestinian state, a war broke out during which a small number of Jewish soldiers fought and defeated a much greater number of Arab fighters from the surrounding countries.
According to the Israeli narrative, the local Palestinian population, caught up in the crossfire, voluntarily fled their homes to the neighbouring Arab countries, believing they would return after the country would be liberated from the Jews. Although Israeli historiography does not speak with a unified voice, and especially since the late 1980s and 1990s more and more critical perspectives emerged and started challenging and eventually dismantling the myths surrounding the foundation of the state, it is safe to say that the majority of the Israeli public rejects or denies notions, such as ethnic cleansing, to describe the events of 1948.

Most recently Israeli Minister of Culture, Limor Livnat, expressed her confusion about a map published by the Israeli NGO Zochrot (Hebrew: "remembering"), whose mission it is to raise public consciousness about the Nakba. Said map showed the locations of the more than 400 villages and towns that were destroyed by Israeli forces. Livnat was quoted as saying: “They present a map, and the map has dots. Dots, dots, dots […] from the north of the country to its south, south of Be’er Sheva. And these dots, which are the villages we’re talking about, the points are all in the State of Israel! Not in Judea and Samaria, not in the Gaza region, not in what you call the Occupied Territories […] Here, inside Tel Aviv! I found some like that in the Tel Aviv area, dozens of dots.“

Livnat's reaction constitutes a testimony of the success of the efforts of the Israeli government to erase the Nakba from Israeli collective consciousness, as well as from the Israeli landscape. Most of the Palestinian villages that were deserted during the events of 1947/1948 were bulldozed in the 1950s and were thereafter turned into Israeli settlements, or planted with trees so as to remove all signs of earlier habitation. Hebrew-language history books focus on the heroism of the Jewish forces, while glossing over the mass exile of Palestinians. If mentioned at all, it is usually attributed to a voluntary mass flight, rather than a deliberate expulsion. 

In 2009 Israel's ministry of education has further ordered to drop the concept of Nakba also from Arab school text books. In the same year, Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman's extreme right party proposed a law to criminalise the marking of the anniversary of the Nakba. In March 2011, a “softened” version of this law was passed, which allows the Ministry of Finance to fine municipalities, public institutions or publicly supported organisations if they believed that these bodies oppose the interpretation of the term “Jewish democratic State” and/or express feelings of mourning related to the Israeli Independence Day or the Nakba. Israeli NGOs affirmed that the bill clearly violates the right of the Palestinian communities to assert their cultural and historical identity by interfering with their right to freedom of opinion and expression.
The bill furthermore prevents the Jewish Israeli public from learning about the Nakba, an essential part of their own history, and inhibits a process of genuine reconciliation which necessarily has to be based on the acknowledgement of the plight of the other.

Right wingers disturb a Nakba event at Tel Aviv University, May 14th, 2012, sign reading "When I got to this country, there wasn't a Palestinian people - Golda Meir" Photo: Oren Ziv/ActiveStills

Green Olive Tours forms part of a small circle of Israeli organisations and initiatives that try to work against the erasure of the Nakba. 
In several of our tours, especially those beyond the Green Line, such as the Jaffa and Tel Aviv Walking Tour and the Jerusalem Tours, participants learn about the events of 1948 with reference to those specific places. Our Bethlehem and Nablus tours include visits to refugee camps which are especially revealing in terms of the relevance of the Nakba for today. For people with a special interest in the events of 1948, Green Olive Tours provides the possibility of arranging custom design tours, including meetings with Palestinian time witnesses.


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