Nakba Denial

Washington Watch

It is deeply troubling to see the lengths to which Israel and its hardline supporters will go to snuff out any recognition of Palestinian humanity. In their “acceptable narrative” of events, both historical and current, only Israelis are vulnerable or victims; only they experience fear and the pain of loss; and only they have rights that must be acknowledged by all. Critics who question this “acceptable narrative” are silenced and/or demonized. And when Israel is the culprit that has victimized or violated the rights of Palestinians, their approach has been to “deny, lie, and obfuscate” what actually occurred: “The incident didn’t happen.” “If it did happen, we weren’t responsible. “Maybe it did happen, maybe it didn’t, but we didn’t do it and blaming us is a ‘blood libel.’”

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This has been Israel’s modus operandi from the beginning, the classic example being its role in the nightmarish events that resulted in the Nakba, the planned and forced expulsion of Palestinians from their homes in 1948.

The first thing to know about the Nakba is that it did happen. There are contemporaneous eyewitness accounts from Palestinian victims. And Israeli military and political archives contain detailed reports by those who designed and executed the plan, as Yigal Allon (who later served as Israel’s Foreign Minister) noted, “to clean the upper Galilee and create territorial Jewish continuity.”

To accomplish this goal, the archives show how Israeli forces used a combination of forced expulsions and the killings of civilians to terrorize others into leaving. In the end, 700,000 Palestinians were uprooted. Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, celebrated the expulsions referring to the outcome as a “double miracle”— a state that was larger and more Jewish. Chaim Weizmann, Israel’s first president, similarly praised the result of the Nakba as a “miraculous cleaning of the land.”

While Israelis were celebrating their state having been “cleansed” of most of its Arabs, they also confronted the challenge of cleaning up the story of what actually happened. The testimonies of Palestinian victims were ignored and the investigations by the Red Cross and other international agencies who had been operating in Palestine were dismissed as biased and anti-Jewish.

The Israelis denied that any massacres had happened or that they had used their forces to terrorize and evict civilians from their homes. And when all else failed, they countered that the Arabs fled because their leaders ordered them to, so as to clear the path for the “invading Arab armies” coming to defeat Israel. Denied, lied, and then obfuscated.

In 1971, I experienced my first immersion into the Nakba reality. I traveled to Lebanon and Jordan on a university grant to collect the stories of Palestinian refugees. It was only 23 years after the expulsions and many of those whom I interviewed had vivid memories of the horrors they experienced. They were personal, detailed, and compelling.

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Shortly thereafter I had my first experience of Nakba denial. On my return to the USA, I wrote a series of three articles on what I had learned in the camps, calling the series “Three Days in Palestine.” A dean at my university wrote a letter to the paper’s editor, using bizarrely excessive language, denouncing my work as an example of “neo-Nazi, neo-Bolshevik, antisemitism.” And when I was invited to speak about the articles, some in the audience responded with violent rejection.

One of the representatives of the group that had invited me explained the hostile reaction, saying, “They are in denial, having been conditioned to see Palestinians as objects and not human. By making them see Palestinians as real people, you threatened that denial that protects them from acknowledging Israeli culpability.”

This same dynamic of denial is still at work today. It was in evidence in recent weeks in response to Palestinian efforts to remember the Nakba in Washington and at the United Nations.

In Washington, Representative Rashida Tlaib, the only Palestinian-American member of Congress, planned to host a Nakba commemorative event on May 10th and secured the Capitol Visitors’ Center as a venue. The program was to feature Palestinians who lived through the Nakba as well as Palestinian historians to tell the broader story of the expulsions of 1948.

A major American Jewish organization wrote to the Speaker of the House of Representatives forcefully objecting to the event, warning that it could devolve into “hateful, anti-Israel, and even antisemitic” rhetoric.

Speaker McCarthy responded by noting that the event “almost feels like” antisemitism and pledged that “I will never allow it to happen in this body.” Since his office has the final say on the use of congressional facilities, he withdrew permission for the venue, forcing the Nakba event organizers to seek another space. They found an alternative location in a Senate office building only to face yet another forced removal. The event finally took place in a room controlled by Senator Bernie Sanders.

McCarthy then used the venue from which the Palestinians had been evicted to host an Israel Independence celebration—apparently missing the irony in all of this. To make it even more bizarre, while McCarthy’s “celebration” was billed as a “bipartisan” event, no Democratic elected officials were invited.

In November 2022, after the UN General Assembly overwhelmingly passed a resolution commemorating the Nakba, the Palestinians began plans to host a Nakba commemoration at the UN headquarters. In response, the Israeli delegation called for a boycott and worked overtime to pressure member-states to avoid participation. In a letter to the other national delegations, the Israeli Ambassador used every insulting and defamatory word he could find to denounce not only the event but also the very idea that the expulsions had occurred. He called the Nakba a “distortion of history” and a “horrifying falsification” that fed into “Jew-hatred” and antisemitism. The planned UN event was called “shameful,” “an abomination,” “appalling and repulsive,” and “despicable.”

Israel’s and its supporters’ use of extreme language, to silence critics and deny Palestinians the opportunity to tell their stories, is born of both the need to deny an uncomfortable reality and their desperation that they are losing the battle of narratives. A sign of their growing panic is the insistence that criticism of Israel is tantamount to antisemitism, suggesting that those who do so are “singling Israel out for criticism” and, therefore, antisemites. What, in fact, these Israeli apologists are doing is insisting that Israel is the one country that can’t be criticized and, in the process, denying Palestinians the right to tell their story and have their humanity recognized. That is racism and it is what is at the root of Nakba denial.

Dr James J Zogby
Dr James J Zogby
The writer is President, Arab American Institute.


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