May 17, 2011
Nakba Is in the Eye of the Beholder
While the world media was buzzing on May 15 about the Arab demonstrations marking the “Nakba” (catastrophe) of 1948, I was listening to a commencement address by Secretary of Energy Steven Chu at Pomona College in which he lamented, among other things, America’s inability to reduce its addiction to oil. At one point, Chu spoke eloquently about a future in which electric cars would be mass-produced, and how this might ignite an environmental revolution that could “save the planet.”
As he spoke, I thought of an article I had read on JPost that morning about an Israeli initiative to reduce global dependency on oil. The company Better Place unveiled the first electric car to be sold to the Israeli market — the Renault Fluence ZE. According to the report, “Israel will become, along with Denmark, the first country in which Better Place’s rechargeable, zero-emission vehicles will be sold commercially.”
I couldn’t help connecting the dots. On the one hand, there was the “catastrophe” of Israel’s creation in 1948 as expressed by Arab demonstrators, and, on the other hand, there was a miracle country with the potential to help “save the planet.”
Which one is it, a catastrophe or a miracle?
It’s easy to cop out and say we must recognize everyone’s narrative. If the Palestinians see the birth of Israel and the subsequent displacement of Arabs as a “catastrophe,” well, then, as Gideon Levy of Haaretz proposes, even Jewish schools in Israel must mark Nakba Day. As Levy wrote, “On that day it would be possible to tell our pupils that next to us lives a nation for whom our day of joy is their day of disaster, for which we and they are to blame.”
Personally, I’m more aligned with Jeffrey Goldberg, who calls the Arab “disaster” of 1948 “largely self-inflicted because the Arabs rejected the U.N. partition plan for Palestine, attacked the just-born Jewish state and then managed to lose on the battlefield.”
In other words, the Arab definition of “catastrophe” is that they failed to destroy the Jewish state at its birth.
Regardless, though, of how one sees the Nakba, it’s clear that the Nakba mindset nurtures bitterness and resentment — elements that are hardly conducive to planting seeds of peace and reconciliation. How can an Arab student want to have a healthy and respectful relationship with his Jewish neighbors if he is encouraged to see that very Jewish presence as a mark of Arab failure — a mark of enduring Arab shame? And if he is encouraged to see this Jewish creation as something that must be corrected, or even reversed?
If you ask me, the real Nakba day for the Palestinians is the day Hamas created its official charter with hate-filled, anti-Semitic tracts like this one: “For our struggle against the Jews is extremely wide-ranging and grave, so much so that it will need all the loyal efforts we can wield, to be followed by further steps and reinforced by successive battalions from the multifarious Arab and Islamic world, until the enemies are defeated and Allah’s victory prevails.”
This Hamas “catastrophe” was made even more relevant recently with the reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas. As French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy lamented in The Huffington Post, prospects for peace have now “gone by the wayside with the rehabilitation of the only party concerned that is still proclaiming that ‘the fulfillment of the promise’ shall not come until ‘the Muslims’ have not only ‘combated’ but ‘killed’ all ‘the Jews.’ ”
The plain, ugly truth right now is that there is no peace on the horizon. But many of us, including presidents, pundits and peaceniks, cannot accept that truth, so we ignore inconvenient facts or just spin them into glimmers of false hope. As Saul Bellow once wrote, “A great deal of intelligence can be invested in ignorance when the need for illusion is deep.”
Beyond all this gloomy talk, perhaps the biggest disaster of all is the inability of the Arab world to see the Jewish state as anything but a cursed presence. Call me a cynic, but I don’t think peace has a chance when Arabs still see the birth of Israel as a Nakba. In fact, I dream of the day when more Arabs will see the birth of Israel as a Fursa (“opportunity”). That would be the day Israeli Arabs discovered a messy and imperfect Jewish democracy that allowed them the freedom to speak up, and gave them rights and opportunities they could find nowhere else in the Middle East.
I even have an idea for who could lead this little movement: George Kerra, the Arab Israeli judge who sentenced the former president of Israel, Moshe Katsav, to seven years in jail for sexual aggression against a former female aide.
Think about that. A Middle Eastern country that is hated and threatened by its neighbors, forced to constantly fight for its life, manages to create a civil society where no one is above the law and where anyone can become a judge. Oh, and a society that still finds time to work on things like an electric car that could “save the planet.”
You want to endorse calling the birth of that nation a catastrophe? Don’t count me in.