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  • Writer's pictureJames Ron

Palestinian Nakbah, Jewish Holocaust: Defining Tragedies

I just returned from an eight-day trip to Israel and Palestine (specifically, the West Bank) with my 16-year-old son.

We had attended a Tel Aviv funeral of an old friend, who died tragically, at a young age, from a freak brain bleed.

To manage our sadness, we took a few days to travel around. We visited the Bahá'í temple in Haifa; the old port of Akko and its impressive archaeological sites; a Palestinian-Israeli town in the northern Galilee, Mi'ilya; Ramallah, in the West Bank; the anti-government demonstration in Tel Aviv's Kaplan street; and more.

While visiting Ramallah, the capital of the Palestine Authority, we attended a concert in the central square. It was crowded with people on a festive night out, including older folks, young families, teenagers, and many young adults.

On the stage, the orchestra had a big sign advertising their name, and how many years they had played at this event. They also displayed a large number 75, which referred to the "Nakbah," or Catastrophe. This is the term Palestinians use to describe the outcome of the 1947-48 war between the fledgling Israeli state and fighters from local Palestinian communities, backed on occasion by military detachments from surrounding Arab countries.

I thought about the central role the Nakbah plays in Palestinian identity. When we visited the Yasser Arafat Museum the next day, the first exhibit we saw was a map of mandatory Palestine with an interactive screen that allowed visitors to type in the names of destroyed villages, and get details on how many Palestinians had lived there before the fighting began.

In the Jewish part of Israel, the word "Nakbah" is rarely spoken outside politically radical circles. My son and I visited an agricultural town (a former Moshav shitufi, or collective agricultural enterprise) named Ya'ad while driving back from Mi'ilya to our friends' home in northern Tel Aviv.

There, we met the father of a friend and spent two hours hearing about Ya'ad's history. Nothing, however, about the Palestinian village of Mi'ar, which was emptied in the 1948 fighting. When specifically asked, my friend's father readily acknowledged Mi'ar's existence, but its depopulation didn't seem to torture him much. To a Holocaust survivor, Mi'ar's tragedy must seem small in comparison.

It strikes me that the Nakbah serves the same sociological and cultural purpose for Palestinians as the Holocaust does for Israeli Jews. For each, the Nakbah/Holocaust is the founding tragedy that defines their identity, gives them purpose, and lends legitimacy to their claim over the land and an independent political entity. Without the Nakbah and the Holocaust, Palestinian and Jewish communities would find it hard to define who they are, and why they keep fighting so hard to maintain their foothold in this land. Israelis can refer back to the first and second Jewish temples 2000–2500 years ago, but that seems far less persuasive than the horrific events of World War II.

I had never heard of the Nakbah growing up in Israel in the late 1970s and early 1980s; it was a non-issue in our high school textbooks. My dad, an immigrant to Israel from the US, only referred to the Palestinian refugees once that I remember.

He simply said they had fled during the war on the orders of Arab leaders, having been told they would return triumphant once the Arab armies had crushed the Jews. That story, typical at the time, has since been discredited.

Instead, the vast majority of the 750,000 Palestinians who lost their homes in that war were forcibly pushed out, or forcibly prevented from returning, by the army of the new Israeli state.

I never thought about or heard of, the Nakbah until Israeli historian Benny Morris published his book in the late 1980s, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949.

It was a shock I've never quite gotten over.

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