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Erasing the Nakba

By Neve Gordon - posted Friday, 18 May 2012

Be'er-Sheva, Israel: I first heard about the Nakba in the late 1980s, while I was an undergraduate student of philosophy at Hebrew University. This, I believe, is a revealing fact, particularly since, as a teenager, I was a member of Peace Now and was raised in a liberal home. I grew up in the southern city of Be'er-Sheva, which is just a few kilometres from several unrecognised Bedouin villages that, today, are home to thousands of residents who were displaced in 1948. I now know that the vast majority of the Negev's Bedouin population was not as lucky, and that, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, most Bedouin either fled or were expelled from their ancestral lands to Jordan or Gaza.

How is it possible that a left-leaning Israeli teenager who was living in the Negev during the early 1980s (I graduated from high-school in 1983) had never heard the word "Nakba"?

How, in other words, is collective amnesia engendered?


There are many explanations of how master narratives are created and how they suppress and marginalise competing historical accounts. In addition to the work carried out by state institutions and apparata, this careful erasure also demands the ongoing mobilisation of scholars, novelists and artists - as well as other producers of popular culture.

When I was growing up, the history depicted in Israeli high-school textbooks, as well as the historical narrative promulgated by the mass media (there was only one television channel in Israel at the time, which was government run), was validated by famous novelists and public intellectuals. According to a PhD thesis written by Alon Gan from Tel Aviv University, Amos Oz, for example, interviewed soldiers after the 1967 war and used his editorial prerogative to excise descriptions of abuse in order to produce an image of the moral Israeli combatant.

Thinking back to the days when I was involved in Peace Now, I now realise that, even for most Israeli doves at the time, a conflicted history only emerged post-1967 - with the occupation of the Sinai, West Bank, Gaza Strip and the Golan Heights. Accordingly, the solution offered by Peace Now addressed the wrongs created in 1967, but had nothing to say about 1948. Indeed, I do not recall any reference to the Palestinian refugees in their publications. The seamless way in which the state had managed to completely suture the happenings of 1948, even among the Israeli peace camp, was indeed remarkable.

To be sure, the Nakba existed in the landscape. There are hundreds of ruined Palestinian villages throughout Israel, many of which are still surrounded by the sabra cactus. The Nakba also emerged in a handful of literary works. S Yizhar's novella Khirbet Khizehre counts, for instance, how a group of Israeli soldiers laid siege to a Palestinian village and how they meticulously followed their "operation orders" by clearing the area of "hostile forces". The unnamed narrator details how they "assemble the inhabitants of the area ... load them onto transports, and convey them across [the] lines", and, finally, they "blow up the stone houses, and burn the huts". Published a few months after the 1948 war, the novella aroused a public debate, but for some reason neither the novella nor the ruins of villages across the countryside managed to register among the Jewish Israeli population.

Despite the Nakba's immediacy, many tactics have been successfully deployed to hide its traces. Often critics mention in this context Israel's ongoing scheme ofplanting forests on ruined Palestinian villages, but in my view the severe segregation characterising Israeli society has a much more profound impact. The actual geographical distance separating me from Bedouin youth my age was negligible, but the social spaces we occupied were worlds apart. The segregation was so intense that I never actually met, needless to say, played with, Bedouin children. I accordingly did not have any opportunity to hear their stories.

After all, history often emerges from quotidian details, like where one's grandparents came from. Mine emigrated to Mandate Palestine from Russia and Poland and I went to visit them at their kibbutz on most school vacations. Tragically, Jewish and Bedouin youth never had the occasion to share such information with each other.


Palestinian rights

The Nakba, both as a word and as a historical phenomenon, began to surface among Jews in Israel - and indeed in the international arena - following a series of publications by the "new historians", whose writings spurred ferocious debates about Israel's role in creating the Palestinian refugee problem. Perhaps the most influential of these was Benny Morris' The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, which appeared in 1987 - almost four decades after Yizhar's novella.

Other historians such as Ilan Pappe, sociologists such as Baruch Kimmerling and geographers such as Oren Yiftachel took part in this debate, and, despite harsh attacks (often of a personal nature), they began to disrupt Israel's master narrative - which, until then, had placed all of the blame on Arab leaders. These Israeli academics were following in the footsteps of Palestinian intellectuals such as Walid Khalidi, Sami Hadawi, Ghassan Kanafani and Lebanon's Elias Khoury. But, because the claims were being made by Israeli Jews, their impact in Israel and abroad was much greater.

At around the same time, the first intifada erupted (December 1987). Images of brutal repression of nonviolent resistance prompted a discussion of Palestinian human and national rights in Israeli society. Within a period of four years (1988-1991), numerous Israeli NGOs were established in order to help protect different Palestinian rights. The Jewish Israeli rights practitioners then had the occasion to meet thousands of Palestinians who had suffered abuse at the hands of the Israeli military; they heard their stories about the present, but from these stories, alternative narratives of the past also emerged. In Gaza, after all, 75 per cent of the residents are refugees from the 1948 war.

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About the Author

Neve Gordon is the co-author (with Nicola Perugini) of the newly released The Human Right to Dominate.

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