Arab families leaving Jaffa, 1948.(UNRWA)
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Foundation Myths

Stifling debate on the Nakba—the Arabic word for catastrophe and how Palestinians refer to Israel’s founding—prevents a free and open discussion of the historical record

Joseph Dana
June 01, 2011
Arab families leaving Jaffa, 1948.(UNRWA)

On May 15, five days after Israel’s Independence Day, Palestinians rallied around the Nakba—the Arabic word for catastrophe, used to mark the displacement of as many as 750,000 Palestinians in 1948. It was a bid to reiterate their opposition to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and control of the Gaza Strip. For the first time in years, every Israeli newspaper carried the word “Nakba” on its front page, albeit not in reference to the historical event but to demonstrations that consumed the West Bank and Israel’s border towns. The episode highlighted an important truth: Sooner or later, Israel will be forced to incorporate the Palestinian Nakba narrative into the larger Israeli societal discourse. There can be a Zionist narrative of 1948 that includes the tragic and violent Palestinian experience of displacement—but it must be predicated on the acceptance of the Nakba in Israeli society.

My first experience with the history of the Nakba came as a young Jewish Studies student at the University of Maryland. One graduate seminar I attended was led by Benny Morris, the prominent Israeli historian responsible for revolutionizing his country’s historiography pertaining to the founding period. The subject of the seminar was 1948, and the course material—army reports from the field, personal letters, radio transcripts—came directly from Morris’ influential first book, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, published in 1988.

Early on in the seminar, I asked Morris, a short man with a fiery personality, if it was difficult to be a post-Zionist—an adherent of a movement that strives to replace Israel’s Zionist identity with a liberal cosmopolitan one—in Israel. He responded, almost snapping at me, that he was not a post-Zionist and never had been. As I would see in the seminar, Morris had exposed one of Israel’s darkest chapters without abandoning a strong allegiance to Zionism.

The traditional Israeli 1948 narrative, which Morris challenges, starts with the Arab rejection of the U.N.-sponsored partition plan for Palestine. The plan guaranteed an Arab and a Jewish state, living in peace, after the British mandate over Palestine expired, according to that traditional narrative. Due to the Arab rejection of the plan, a violent regional war broke out in which a small number of Israeli soldiers fought thousands of Arab fighters bent on driving the Jews into the sea. Caught in the crossfires of war, the native Palestinian population voluntarily fled their homes to neighboring Arab countries. As the dust settled, the newly formed state of Israel had no choice but to refuse the return of the Palestinian refugees, given the high numbers of Jews who had been expelled from Arab countries in the course of the war.

In the late 1980s, a group of Israeli “new” historians began rewriting the foundation myths of the country. Through recently declassified Israeli and British state documents, the new historians uncovered a different version of events, which was much closer to Palestinian accounts of partial ethnic cleansing that took place in 1948. Led by Morris, a devoted archive historian, they were able to confirm that roughly 750,000 Palestinians fled from their homes, in part due to Israeli military force, small-scale massacre, episodic cases of rape, and violent intimidation. The new historians proved that Israel had planned to expel thousands of Arabs regardless of the success of the U.N. partition plan. As the 1990s dawned, Israeli society was no longer able to easily dismiss the Palestinian narrative of the Nakba as mere propaganda.

Israeli society was also slow to react to the information coming from the halls of academia. There has always been a narrative of Palestinian flight during 1948, but never one that acknowledged undertones of ethnic cleansing or active Jewish participation. Given the small size of Israeli society in 1948, it is striking that high-ranking military and intelligence officials, not to mention soldiers and kibbutz members who were responsible for expulsions, did not come forward in the 1950s and share their experiences.

According to Haaretz, the Israeli ministry of education faced a crisis when textbooks including the Palestinian narrative of 1948 were introduced for 11th- and 12th-grade students in 2009. For the first time in the history of the country, Palestinian narratives were presented alongside Israeli narratives, and the words “ethnic cleansing” appeared in high-school texts. In one section, the textbook’s authors argued that armed Jewish forces instituted a policy of ethnic cleaning, “contrary to the proclamations of peace in the Declaration of Independence.” After 61 years, the Palestinian narrative had reached Israeli high-school classrooms—but that inclusion did not last long. In 2009, the textbooks were replaced.

Despite the damaging nature of his research, Benny Morris maintained in opinion pieces and interviews that one must “break eggs to make an omelet.” He vociferously argued that ethnic cleansing was a necessary part of Israeli state building, just as the creation of the United States required the ethnic cleansing of the Native American population. In a now famous 2004 interview with Haaretz, Morris even argued that David Ben Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister and commander of the Israeli Defence Forces in 1948, did not go far enough in the expulsion of Palestinians from newly controlled state territory. Had Ben Gurion removed all the Palestinians, Israel would have been better off in future conflicts with the Palestinians and the Arab world, Morris said.

Not all of the new historians share Morris’ rationale for Israeli actions in 1948. Ilan Pappé, author of the 2006 work The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine and one of the prominent new historians, uses the Nakba to portray an overall Zionist strategy predicated on the ethnic cleansing of all the native inhabitants of historic Palestine to establish a Jewish state. Pappé is a social historian who relies on testimonies, interviews, and first-person accounts of Palestinians to construct his version of events. Unlike Morris’ pragmatism concerning the process of Israeli state building, Pappé has condemned the events of 1948, in his professional and political life, as a part in Israel’s growingly oppressive posture toward anything Arab, including Jews from Arab countries.


The Israeli social and political climate has not changed much since the new historians began publishing their books in the halcyon days of the Oslo peace accords. The Israeli political debate still lacks honest discussion of the Nakba and its relevance today. The Nakba debate and the groundbreaking research associated with it remain confined to small intellectual circles and the halls of academia, and even that arena is under attack. To mark the Nakba this year, Im Tirztu, an Israeli university group, published a 70-page booklet in Hebrew titled “The BS That Is the Nakba.” The pamphlet demonizes the new historians (excluding Morris, who is selectively referred to) and other Israeli academics for disseminating Arab propaganda about the country’s founding.

“There was automatic resistance when we first started publishing,” Benny Morris told me in a recent telephone interview from Oxford, where he is conducting research. “Many told me that the conflict with the Arabs is ongoing, and discussion of certain aspects of 1948 should wait until after the conflict is over and peace is here.”

Ilan Pappé told me by email from the University of Exeter, where he is a professor of Middle Eastern history: “One cannot deny that during the Oslo years (1993-2000), it was possible to air some questions about the Israeli mythology of the 1948 war. When I commenced my research I was convinced that there was a basis for a dialogue with my peers in the academia and with the public at large. But this was an illusion.” He continued, “The debate was allowed as long as it was conducted within the Zionist frame of mind; if you were able to liberate yourself from this mind-set, which I did, you were delegitimized as a partner in the debate.”

After the high-school textbook controversy broke with the Haartez coverage, education minister Gideon Saar launched an investigation that found “a great number of mistakes” in the text. The book, Nationalism: Building a State in the Middle East, was quickly edited so that the term “ethnic cleansing” and most of the Palestinian narrative disappeared. New copies lacking the controversial terms—and without any explicit mention of the Palestinian narrative of 1948—were then sent to Israeli classrooms.

In March 2011, the Knesset passed a bill that made publicly-sponsored commemoration of the Nakba a punishable crime. The bill, sponsored by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party, is designed to prohibit activity “which would entail undermining the foundations of the state and contradicting its values.” In practice, the bill will allow Israel to levy fines on local- and state-funded organizations that commemorate the Nakba inside the state.

The bill has been denounced by some, including the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, as an attack on free speech, which it clearly is, and criticized for its vague language. Israelis and Palestinians on the right and the left will continue to differ about the meaning of the Nakba and the relative validity of different versions of their national narratives. But the refusal to acknowledge documented historical realities is clearly something else. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously put it, “Everyone is entitled to his opinion, but not to his own facts.”

Including the Nakba in Israeli public discourse, newspapers, and textbooks hardly means the unqualified embrace of one version of history over another. But open discussion of competing narratives with reference to the historical record is clearly a precondition for any wider kind of social and political understanding between Israeli Jews and Palestinian citizens of Israel and between Israelis and Palestinians. Repressive attempts to criminalize narratives of the Nakba—however partial or wrong-headed its opponents may believe those narratives to be—block any possibility of mutual understanding and weaken critical discourse inside Zionist circles and within Israeli society as a whole. The most likely victim of such misguided attempts to shore up Zionism through attacks on free speech and the historical record is Zionism itself.

Joseph Dana, Monocle’s former Istanbul bureau chief, is a writer living in South Africa.

Joseph Dana is a writer living in Cape Town, South Africa.

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