Last Thursday, the Walter Lebach Institute for Jewish-Arab Coexistence through Education, and the Tami Steinmetz Center for Peace Research, both of Tel Aviv University, held a joint symposium on “The Nakba in Israel’s National Memory.”

The topic is explosive any day of the year, but certainly several days before the Remembrance Day for the Fallen of Israel’s Wars, and the celebrations of Independence Day.

Surprisingly enough, the day-long symposium proceeded calmly and in a civilized atmosphere, despite the fact that the audience included both left-wingers and right-wingers, and both Jewish and Arab academics, and that several members of Im Tirzu turned up to try and cause a provocation, by sticking posters outside the hall where the symposium was being held and distributing a pamphlet entitled “Nakba Kharta” (literally “Nakba bullshit”), which it published last year.

The pamphlet does not deny most of the facts of the Arab narrative relating to the Palestinian Catastrophe (the translation of the word “nakba”), but points out, inter alia, that since the Palestinians refused to accept the UN partition plan back in 1947 and establish a state in the area allocated to them, since many of them escaped their homes voluntarily, and since around 900,000 Jews were forced to leave their homes in the Arab countries as a result of the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Arabs in general and the Palestinians in particular have no one to blame but themselves, and should simply take responsibility for their actions and stop whining.

The problem with the Im Tirzu approach is that it reverts to the debate of “who’s right,” which characterized Israeli-Palestinian relations until the Oslo Accords were signed in 1992, rather than trying to depart from the vicious circle of arguing about rights and wrongs, and embarking on a path leading to reconciliation, and a more satisfactory relationship between the two peoples – which is basically what the symposium was about.

The 13 academics who presented papers at the symposium spoke about the concepts of collective memory and collective catastrophe, the content of the Nakba narrative, how the official Israeli authorities relate to the issue of the Nakba, and examples of efforts of reconciliation among other peoples in bitter and bloody conflict.

What interested me most was the question how one can proceed toward a process of reconciliation, from a point where official Israel is busy trying to delegitimize all talk of the Nakba, and the majority of the Israeli Jews are inclined to agree with the Im Tirzu approach.

Dr. Yehudit Auerbach of Bar-Ilan University spoke of the stages necessary to enable reconciliation via forgiveness. The first stage (of seven) consists of becoming familiar with the narrative of the other side, and the second of accepting this narrative – not in terms of agreeing with it or adopting it in place of one’s own narrative, but in terms of recognizing its legitimacy.

Auerbach concluded from research she conducted on the approach of Israeli elites to reconciliation with the Palestinians, that almost none of the Israeli elites are willing to go beyond the first stage, and Rabbi Ovadia Yosef isn’t even willing to familiarize himself with the Palestinian narrative.

The reality in Israel today is that it is not against the law to speak and write about the Nakba, or in other words, about the catastrophe that befell the Palestinian people as a result of the establishment of the State of Israel, both as a nation that lost in the 1948/9 war, and as individuals, many of whom lost their homes and lands, and tens of thousands of whom lost their lives.

However, the “Nakba Law” passed by the Knesset in March 2011, grants the finance minister the power to reduce the budget of state-funded bodies that openly reject Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, or mark Independence Day as a day of mourning.

In addition, the Nakba is not mentioned in the curriculums of civic studies or history in the Israeli school system. The chairman of the Committee on Civic Studies in the Education Ministry, Professor Asher Cohen of Bar-Ilan University, who participated in the symposium, argued that the subject of the Nakba is not included in the curriculum because the curriculum deals with facts and not narratives. This is a dishonest argument.

First of all, the current curriculum is based almost exclusively on the Jewish-Israeli narrative.

Secondly, that around 700,000 Palestinians became refugees, either because they fled, or because they were forcefully expelled by the Israeli forces – is fact. That over 500 Palestinian villages were wiped off the face of the earth in the sovereign territory of Israel – is fact. That Israel confiscated vast quantities of private Arab lands after the 1948/9 war under all sorts of contorted excuses – is fact. The facts also include the Arab rejection of the partition plan, the Palestinian failure to try and establish a functioning state, and Arab plans to prevent the establishment of the Jewish state, but while the latter facts serve the Israeli narrative, the former do not. Vive la petite difference! The truth is that the Israeli authorities are either not interested in coming to terms with an alternative narrative that contradicts certain parts of the official Israeli narrative, or are simply at a loss as to how to deal with a narrative, associated with 20 percent of the Israeli population, which under certain conditions could endanger the continued existence of Israel and a Jewish state.

No matter what one’s political views, this is a very real problem, and I was sorry that none of the participants spoke about it. Apparently no one has researched the question: what is the democratic way to act, without committing national suicide, when the narrative of a minority is the basis for the denial of the legitimacy of the narrative of the majority? I believe that the answer to this question is that it all depends on what each of the sides does with its narrative. If the narrative, based on collective memory, is the sole basis for actions, there is really no way out of the vicious circle. As one of the speakers stated: “A nation, which bases its actions mainly on collective memory, faces a difficulty in meeting the challenges that the present and the future pose.” This applies to us, and to the Palestinians alike.

The writer is a retired Knesset Employee.

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