Nakba and freedom

Israel’s vibrant – though embattled – democracy was on display Monday at Tel Aviv University in all its glory.

Nakba Day event at Tel Aviv University 370 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS/Nir Elias)
Nakba Day event at Tel Aviv University 370 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS/Nir Elias)
Israel’s vibrant – though embattled – democracy was on display Monday at Tel Aviv University in all its glory. Dozens of students – Palestinian and Jewish – articulated their belief that the events surrounding the creation of the State of Israel were a “Nakba,” Arabic for catastrophe, after receiving authorization from Tel Aviv University President Joseph Klafter.
Participants heard the reading of a poem by the late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, observed a moment of silence and – in a clear attempt to reach out to Jewish students by “Judaizing” the ceremony – recited a version of the “Yizkor” prayer, traditionally read in synagogues and other Jewish memorial events for the deceased.
The ceremony strengthens the argument – made by this paper’s editorial board –that the so-called “Nakba Law” does not violate the freedom of assembly or the freedom of expression of Israeli citizens – Arab or Jewish. Though the legislation, passed in March 2011, has been grossly misrepresented in the press, what it actually says is very reasonable.
Essentially an amendment to Finance Ministry funding directives, the Nakba Law empowers the finance minister to stop state budgeting of organizations, institutions, municipalities or other bodies that use Israeli taxpayers’ money to fund activities that have the goal of undermining the very moral foundations of the State of Israel.
As a Jewish state, Israel cannot be expected to use taxpayers’ money to perpetuate a Palestinian narrative of victimization that intentionally distorts reality in order to delegitimize Zionism. After all, Palestinian suffering was the result of the extremist Palestinian leadership’s rejection of the 1947 UN General Assembly’s partition plan and the foolish decision by figures such as the anti-Semitic Haj Amin al-Husseini to launch a war against the fledgling Jewish state. Short of lying down and dying and trashing aspirations for national self-determination, there was little Jews could have done to prevent Palestinian suffering.
Still, as a democracy, Israel has an obligation to protect the right of Palestinians to commemorate their history, regardless how distorted and counterproductive to peace it might be.
The Nakba Law maintains that delicate balance. Organizers and university administrators were careful to adhere to the strictures of the Nakba Law, which forbid the university to use state money to fund anti-Israel activities.
Tel Aviv University did not take part in funding of the Nakba Day ceremonies. Organizers had to foot the bill for expenses such as security guards and decorations. But by permitting the ceremony to be held on campus, the university’s president was reaffirming the democratic principles of freedom of speech and freedom of assembly.
Back in January, Adalah, the legal center for Arab minority rights in Israel, and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, as well as several Jewish and Arab citizens, petitioned the Supreme Court against the law. The Supreme Court rejected the petition, arguing that it was still too early to determine whether the law contradicted principles of equal rights.
“The questions that this law raises will only become clear with its implementation,” the justices noted in their decision. Judging from the way it was applied at Tel Aviv University, the Nakba Law manages to prevent the inappropriate use of state funds without curtailing basic human rights.
Unfortunately, there were those who did not appreciate the Nakba Law’s careful balancing of Israel’s Jewish and democratic ideals. Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar reportedly attempted to convince Klafter to “reconsider” his decision allowing the event. Meanwhile, Tel Aviv University’s Student Union claimed that out of respect for the feelings of students on campus, the Nakba Day celebration should be canceled.
This attempt to stifle free speech did little more than draw inordinate attention to an event attended by a small number of people representing a minority of Israelis.
As for the participants in the Nakba Day commemorations, would it be too much to ask that along with the mourning over the “catastrophe” they recognize some of the good as well?
If the Palestinians had succeeded in snuffing out Israel at its very inception there would almost certainly not be an institute of higher learning like Tel Aviv University – not just in Israel but in the entire region – that accepts all students regardless of race, religion or gender and fosters an atmosphere of free expression. Just something to ponder on Nakba Day.