‘Nakba’ commemoration elicits racism from right-wing Zionists, silence from the liberals

Philip Weiss

Mondoweiss  /  May 11, 2023

When Rashida Tlaib tweeted about the 75th anniversary of the Nakba, AIPAC described her history as “dangerous lies.” Meanwhile, liberal Zionist statements on Israel’s founding contain Nakba denial as well.

Last week Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib, who is Palestinian, tweeted about the Nakba, offering a short history lesson: “The apartheid state of Israel was born out of violence and the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians. 75 years later, the Nakba continues to this day.”

The leading pro-Israel group AIPAC promptly condemned what it called her “dangerous lies.” It went on, “For 75 years, anti-Israel voices have tried to rewrite history and deny the Jewish state’s right to exist.”

This month Palestinian groups are honoring the 75th anniversary of a central historical episode: the Nakba, or “catastrophe,” in which more than 700,000 Palestinians fled or were expelled from their land and were not allowed to return to their homes and villages. And though that commemoration is making historic inroads, the American Jewish community has responded with racism on the right, or painful silence from liberals.

“The Palestinians are addicted to an endless cycle of ‘nakbas’” the Jewish News Syndicate tells us. This celebration describes Israel as “ever-miraculous” in changing the Jewish condition and never mentions Palestinian history. This podcast by Dan Senor and Daniel Gordis also overlooks the Nakba in hailing Israel’s foundation– “Magical,” “mythical,” “something that defies imagination,” “an unbelievable story,” Gordis exults– in which a Jewish state is born three years after Auschwitz.

Someday my community’s refusal to acknowledge Palestinian history will be a source for mortification (I believe), but on this anniversary it’s clear that any mention of the Nakba makes American Jewish leadership extremely uncomfortable.

When a Jewish academic brought up the Nakba at a Center for Jewish History event commemorating Israel’s founding, there were boos and cries of “Shame” from the New York audience. That conference also hosted Einat Wilf– an Israeli “liberal” but a Nakba denier, who wrote a year ago that “the Nakba was the failure” of Arab armies to defeat Zionism after Israel established itself on May 14, 1948. (This is a misrepresentation of Palestinian history.)

Liberal Zionists in the U.S. are not much better than Wilf. They largely ignore the Nakba. For instance, a J Street official celebrating Israel’s 75th birthday mentioned the “occupation” but left out the Nakba, and then recommended this video aimed at American Jews, which declares of the recent protests in Israel: “We are literally fighting for our survival, not just as a democracy, but as the homeland for the entire Jewish people.”

That is the Zionist credo, of course. But if you sanctify Israel as the homeland for Jews everywhere, it’s hard to accept the fact that when the state was formed, Israeli leaders sought a large Jewish majority, and in order to achieve that they pursued policies of ethnic persecution/cleansing, which have not ended.

Not surprisingly, those Jews in the U.S. who have a strong stance on the Nakba are anti-Zionist. “In Israel, as well as in the U.S., the Nakba is often disregarded or denied altogether. Instead, the focus is on the creation of Israel as a haven for Jews, completely ignoring the mass dispossession of the Palestinian people,” writes Donna Nevel of Jews Say No and Jewish Voice for Peace.

Rabbi Brant Rosen also put the Nakba at the center of his reflections on Israel’s founding: “[T]he over 700,000 Palestinians refugees who were forcibly displaced from their homes and forbidden to return were decidedly not included as part of the newly established nation.”

Jewish Voice for Peace is taking an active part in Nakba Day events, and puts Nakba education at the center of its work.

But those voices are exceptional. Even leading leftwing groups like IfNotNow and Jews for Economic and Racial Justice don’t put much emphasis on the Nakba.

And establishment organizations are way worse. In celebrating Israel’s 75th birthday last week, one liberal Zionist organization after another left the Nakba out.

The New Israel Fund sent out a map of Israel to its mailing list, covered with pro-Israel slogans.

Yossi Alpher at Americans for Peace Now described Israel’s achievements after 75 years and simply erased the Nakba. The downside of the past 75 years, he says, is “the unresolved conflict with the Palestinians, failure to achieve universal recognition of the country’s capital Jerusalem, failure to achieve recognized borders,” etc.

Nakba was also a hushed whisper in the Progressive Israel Network’s announcement of an “energizing gathering” for Israel’s 75th: “The creation of the State of Israel represents one of the most profound and important achievements of Jewish history, even as the day means something very different for Palestinians,” it said. So the Nakba was an achievement?

Nakba is, at best, obliquely mentioned in this J Street celebration of Israel’s 75th anniversary of independence in late April. Some statements in that post amount to Nakba denial.

For instance, Rabbi John L. Rosove, a chair of J Street’s rabbinic cabinet, said reestablishing Israel was “a herculean task.” And offered this Hollywood version of that period:

As time passes, however, it is easy for us in the 21st century to forget or to take for granted how very difficult it was for the early Zionist pioneers and state’s founders to settle the land, protect themselves, renew Hebrew into a modern language, welcome immigration waves, build cities, towns, kibbutzim, and moshavim, hospitals and universities, forge cooperative relationships with surrounding Arab villages and Bedouin camps, and redefine what it means to be Jewish in the modern era.

Another chair of that committee, Rabbi Andrea London, acknowledged that the Palestinians’ “displacement from their homeland” began with the Balfour Declaration of 1917– very euphemistic. London left out the word Nakba, preferring to focus on the occupation.

On this 75th anniversary of the foundation of the State of Israel, we need to open our minds to the Palestinian perspective and recognize our role in enabling Israel’s entrenchment of the Occupation and persecution of the Palestinians.

Today Tlaib leads seven Congresspeople sponsoring a Nakba commemoration bill— all familiar names to us in the Palestinian solidarity community. But U.S. politicians are generally obedient to the Israel lobby; even progressive congresspeople are no better than the liberal Zionist line.

Look at this letter from Reps. Anna Eshoo and Jamie Raskin to Israeli protesters celebrating the 75th anniversary of Israel’s founding and hailing it as a “vibrant democracy.” Palestinians are barely mentioned in that letter.

While Democratic Majority for Israel tweeted out this billboard, which is surely accurate with respect to Democratic presidents, and then quoted then-Senator John Kennedy’s slavish speech to Israel lobbyists in 1960 as he was running for president.

Kennedy spoke to the Zionists of America convention in New York, and his remarks are charged with Nakba denial. Kennedy was running to Richard Nixon’s right on Israel and, urging a “reconsideration of the Arab refugee problem,” he left out Palestinian refugees in relating Israel’s creation:

I returned in 1951 to see the grandeur of Israel. In 3 years this new state had opened its doors to 600,000 immigrants and refugees. Even while fighting for its own survival, Israel had given new hope to the persecuted and new dignity to the pattern of Jewish life.

That official denial of the Nakba does not end.

When Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau issued a statement celebrating 75 years of Israel’s existence, Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East (CJPME) promptly amended him: “What he failed to mention, however, was that Israel was founded through the Nakba: when Israeli forces ethnically cleansed at least 700,000 Palestinians, expropriated their land and property, demolished over 500 villages, and banned refugees from returning to their homes. 75 years later, there remains a lot of work to do in educating Canadians about this catastrophe.”

Today at least, the left is taking on these mythologies and trying to raise awareness. Rashida Tlaib staged a commemoration of the Nakba at the Capitol to an overflow crowd yesterday, an event enabled by Senator Bernie Sanders. And some inside the Jewish community are paying attention.

Philip Weiss is senior editor of Mondoweiss.net and founded the site in 2005-2006