Mondoweiss / May 21, 2023
Just as the Nakba is at the heart of Palestinian national existence, the denial of the Nakba is at the heart of the racist ideology that has so successfully warped U.S. foreign policy.
For most of the past 75 years in the United States, the days around May 15 have seen celebrations of the anniversary of Israel’s creation. Pro-Israel marches, gushing articles breathlessly perpetuating myths about Israel’s “miraculous” creation and development, and, perhaps, an occasional mention of those Palestinians casting a shadow on it all, with their unreasonable hatred of the state.
It has been different recently, and especially so this year. Israel’s creation is still being celebrated in many corners, but the commemoration of the Nakba, the ongoing dispossession of and denial of rights to the Palestinian people, is getting more attention and consideration. This fact has not gone unnoticed by supporters of Israel.
In a sign of the changing times, Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of the liberal Zionist group J Street, sent out a letter he titled “Marking the ‘Nakba.’” It’s far from a radical letter, but the mere fact that Ben-Ami would acknowledge the Nakba and call on his fellow supporters of Israel to do the same represents a shift in the discourse, one that the more staunchly pro-apartheid groups such as AIPAC blasted.
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s attempt to prevent Rep. Rashida Tlaib, the only Palestinian-American woman in Congress, from holding an event marking the 75th anniversary of the Nakba failed, when Bernie Sanders, a Jewish senator, stepped in to allow a solemn and meaningful remembrance to move forward. How did the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), AIPAC, and Democratic Majority for Israel (DMFI) respond? Sadly, just as one would expect, with extremist statements of anti-Palestinian hate.
“It is disgraceful that @SenSanders allowed this event by @RepRashida to be held in our nation’s Capitol,” tweeted Jonathan Greenblatt, president and CEO of the ADL. “Real conversations are needed around a path to peace, but not with groups & individuals who espouse antisemitism. We call on the Senate to condemn this event.”
While Greenblatt knows how to craft his message, the venomous hate here is still obvious. We can start with the fact that the Nakba, the seminal event in modern Palestinian history, is seen only in terms of its implications for Israel. This calls for some unpacking.
Nakba denial and anti-Palestinian hate
In response to the United States calling the United Nations’ Nakba Day recognition a reflection of “anti-Israel bias,” I asked, “Would the US call recognition of the horrors of slavery anti-American? Would it call a Holocaust commemoration anti-German? There is no difference.”
This is not merely scoring points. It’s a question that Jews answer in many of our traditions. For example, the holiday of Tisha B’Av commemorates several tragedies in Jewish history every year. These events included, among others, the razing of both Temples, one by the Babylonians and one by the Romans; the beginning of the First Crusade; and expulsions from England, France, and Spain. It would be outrageous and absurd if anyone claimed that Tisha B’Av was anti-Iraqi, or anti-Italian, British, French, or Spanish.
That’s what Greenblatt was alleging about the Nakba, seeing it only in terms of what it implies for Israel. Imagine the outcry if a similar attitude was taken about the Native American Day of Mourning, observed every year on the fourth Thursday in November—Thanksgiving Day.
Meanwhile, DMFI was even more absolute and stark in their venomous hate speech. They tweeted a presentation about the Nakba, which opened by stating, “Those who seek to commemorate Israel’s founding and establishment as a ‘Nakba’…are not only distorting history, but perpetuating a narrative that intentionally seeks to delegitimize the only Jewish state.”
Again, there’s a lot more here. DMFI’s presentation is the usual; mix of de-contextualization, half-truths, and outright falsehoods that characterize a narrative so detached from reality that Israel’s own records and even very mainstream Zionist Israeli scholars contradict virtually all of it.
But it is the view that the Nakba, a purely Palestinian experience, needs to be seen through the lens of Israel that is so profoundly hateful. These same people would never tolerate Israel’s creation being seen exclusively through a Palestinian lens. But more than that, the Nakba, being so central to Palestinian identity, history, and national consciousness, is a Palestinian experience that Israel’s supporters are trying to strip away.
This was never clearer than in a tweet by Emily Schneider, a reporter for the Israeli news site, Ynet. She tweeted, “The real ‘Nakba survivors’ are the Jews whom the Arabs tried to commit a genocide against in 1948.”
It was a stunning statement. It was a complete erasure of the Palestinian narrative and the Palestinians themselves. And it once again co-opts the Nakba for Israeli purposes.
It’s true there were violent upheavals against Jews in many Arab countries during and after the 1948 war (some of which were fomented by Zionist/Israeli agents, as in Iraq and Egypt, but anti-Jewish hostility in the wake of the dispossession of the Palestinians was at least as big a factor), and these were a significant factor in the exodus of Jews from the Arab world in the late 1940s and 1950s.
But to compare this to the Nakba is the height of dis-ingenuity. As Prof. Philip Mendes put it back in 2002 when comparing the exodus of Jews from the Arab world and the Nakba, while it is important to note that anti-Jewish hostility was a factor in the former, it is “…insensitive for Israel to use the experience of the Jewish refugees as a justification for its treatment of the Palestinian refugees. The latter group also have a justifiable claim for financial compensation.” And, one must add, they also have a justified and legal claim to return, regardless of the fact that, as Mendes also noted, “most of the Jewish refugees had little or no desire to return to their former homes in Baghdad or elsewhere.”
Nakba denial, Islamophobia, and anti-Arab hate in U.S. policy
Schneider’s job title is, by her account, “journalist.” Yet here she is denying the Nakba, an event which Israel’s own records—as has been extensively documented by Israeli historians and researchers—show that the Nakba was very much real and, while the flight of Palestinians might have exceeded Zionist expectations, it was very much intentional.
This is the purest and most vicious kind of anti-Palestinian hate, a type of anti-Arab bigotry inextricably bound with Islamophobia, and it is rampant in American discourse. As Yehuda Shaul of Breaking the Silence pointed out, “Unlike [House Speaker Kevin] McCarthy, leaders from the Likud don’t deny the Nakba – in fact, they fully acknowledge it & threaten Palestinians with another one.”
Anti-Arab/Palestinian racism and Islamophobia, though far from being the sole reasons for exceptional US policy on Palestine, are significant factors in forming that policy. They reinforce the stereotypes of the “Muslim other” that effectively deprive Palestinians and their supporters of full participation in public debates about foreign relations and human rights.
That bigotry is not what causes the U.S. to support Israel. There are strong strategic, economic, and political reasons for that support. But none of those reasons explain U.S. support for the dispossession of the Palestinians. Indeed, many of those same interests would be far better served by an alliance with an Israel that was not constantly undermining American credibility on international rules and consistent diplomacy and alienating so much, not only of the Arab world but the Global South more broadly.
The stark bigotry of pro-Israel groups like the ADL, AIPAC, DMFI, and many others finds a connection with the innate bigotry of American policymakers in both major U.S. parties. Thus, the United States does not need to be pushed to support the harshest oppression of Palestinians. The simpatico of bigotry is key to the success of Israel’s lobby in the U.S.
Without that bigotry, we would see a U.S. policy that surely would not go so far as to demand a full right of return for Palestinian refugees but would certainly have long ago pressed for an end to Israel’s occupation in a serious way. It would still invest heavily in Israel’s security and its military hegemony in the Middle East, but it would actually use that same investment as leverage to press Israel to grant Palestinians their rights, whether in a single democratic state or a separate Palestinian one. It would understand and press for Palestinian security as hard as it does Israeli.
A U.S. which did not harbor this intense bigotry against the Palestinians would not adopt such policies out of kindness or a sense of justice. It would do so because it is profoundly in American interests, even in a thoroughly imperialist/capitalist sense of that word, to promote a democratic Israel and full rights for Palestinians, either in that democratic Israel or beside it.
That’s why Nakba denial is so important for Israel and its supporters. Just as the Nakba is at the heart of Palestinian national existence, the denial of the Nakba is at the heart of the racist ideology that has so successfully warped U.S. policy and pressed Europe and other Western countries like Australia and Canada to follow the U.S. lead on Palestine.
Acknowledging the Nakba ultimately leads either to support the Palestinian cause or, as it does for the Israeli right, to outright support ethnic cleansing, apartheid, and even genocide. That’s why these groups, founded and fed by bigotry, are desperate to deny it. It’s not just an image issue, it is the very foundation of the Israel right-or-wrong ideology.
Mitchell Plitnick is the president of ReThinking Foreign Policy; he is the co-author, with Marc Lamont Hill, of Except for Palestine: The Limits of Progressive Politics