Saturday, May 19, 2012


It was exactly one month ago today when the world marked Holocaust Remembrance Day. And speaking for myself, it was truly a day for reflection. I reflected not only on the Holocaust itself, but on a meeting of the Jewish Islamic Dialogue Society of Washington that took place the previous month. It was a great session, marked by both civility and candor – a beautiful combination whenever the most controversial topics are addressed among Jews and Muslims. Yet there was one thing about the session that profoundly disturbed me. Every time the discussion focused on the Holocaust for more than a brief period of time, like clockwork, it would be refocused on the Israeli occupation of Palestine. It was as if the Muslim members in attendance felt guilty for thinking about the one without thinking about the other. In their minds, these two injustices, these two “catastrophes,” are forever linked.

In the Jewish world, the term “Occupation” is associated with the Jewish settlements beyond the green line that marked the pre-’67 Israel/Palestine border. But among Palestinians, I suspect it has a different meaning. They covet pre-‘67 Israel as well, not merely the West Bank. For it is in such pre-’67 Israeli towns like Haifa, Jaffa and West Jerusalem that Palestinian communities owned and cherished large amounts of land prior to the formation of Israel. In 1948, when Israel declared its independence as a Jewish state, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were thrown out of their homes and forced to live in refugee camps. To this expulsion, they give the name “The Nakba,” which literally means, “the catastrophe.” Each year, on May 15th, that historical moment is remembered with the name Yawm an-Nakba, or “the Day of the Catastrophe.” And indeed, this past week, I was invited by a Palestinian friend – a PhD who knows me as a staunch Zionist – to attend a Yawm an-Nakba ceremony on Tuesday.

My first reaction was “Why did my friend invite me? Doesn’t she realize how much I dislike to hear that her people are referring to the formation of Israel as a ‘catastrophe’? Doesn’t she realize that if we’re ever going to have a two-state solution, we’ll need the Israelis to accept a Palestinian state and the Palestinians to accept the Jewish state, and how is the latter possible if they are using such insulting terms for the creation of Israel?” Then, of course, it dawned on me that this friend, like a number of Palestinians I know, is an unabashed supporter of a one-state solution. And that the invitation she sent out wasn’t personal, but one that went out to a number of folks in a distribution list. So I simply shrugged off the offer – if she had thought about it, I figured, she would have realized that I opposed Nakba Day ceremonies on principle.

But why? Why is it so important that the whole world remember – and mark – the Holocaust, but perfectly acceptable for Jewish Zionists to ignore the Palestinian displacement that followed the birth of Israel?

Do I like the term “Nakba”? Do I want it to be associated with the idea of a Jewish state? Well no, and I doubt that will change. But isn’t it clearly the case that the Palestinian displacement was a tragedy for those families who were forced out of their homes? And don’t they have a right to mark that tragedy, and to see all men and women of good will similarly mark it? Perhaps my Zionist ancestors had a perfectly good reason to do what they did (or at least most of what they did), but that doesn’t make the situation any less tragic for the Palestinian people. Is it not important to remember that tragedy, just as we Jews remember our own? In fact, isn’t our very willingness to remember the tragedy an integral component of any two-state solution? Isn’t it the flip side of the Palestinian willingness to remember the Holocaust, and the Russian pogroms, and all the other persecutions of Jews over the centuries, which collectively add so much force to the Zionist enterprise?

So today, on behalf of the Empathic Rationalist, I call for remembrance. This week, let us be compassionate to those Arab families who lived in the land currently controlled by Israel and who were ejected from that land for no fault of their own. Let us mark their suffering and accept their longing. And while we’re at it, let us consider all the Jewish families who lived in the Arab world prior to 1948, and who were also expelled from their homes and forced to emigrate to Israel. They, too, are part of the “Nakba,” if we must call it that.

Names are important. And I wish that any event associated with the birth of the modern state of Israel would stop being associated with a word like “catastrophe.” But the displacement that is being memorialized is larger than the name that is being used to remember it. And this week, even those of us who love Israel should feel morally compelled to think about the innocent victims of its birth, feel their pain, and resolve to compromise with them in finding a solution.

I realize that “you have to crack a few eggs to make an omelet,” but these are human beings, not omelets. In fact, these are our cousins – Semites, from the House of Abraham. What would our father Abraham say if he saw us treating them like enemies and forgetting that their pain is ours? Perhaps he would say that instead of smashing idols of God, he would go and tear up a Jewish flag.

If abused, even the most beautiful of symbols can turn into an unholy idol.

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