A slanted view of Middle East history

It was inconceivable that TAU, part of whose budget is covered by the state, would permit “Nakba Day” on campus.

TAU Nakba Day counter-protest 370 (photo credit: Ben Hartman)
TAU Nakba Day counter-protest 370
(photo credit: Ben Hartman)
It was inconceivable that Tel Aviv University, part of whose budget is covered by the State of Israel, would permit the observance of “Nakba Day” – “The Day of the Catastrophe” – on campus.
It was unbelievable that Arab students who are Israeli citizens would be joined by Jewish students to commemorate the suffering endured by Palestine’s Arabs due to Israel’s emergence as an independent Jewish state 64 years ago.
This abortive event, which initially was unopposed by the university’s administration, surely has no counterpart in the United States, which, like Israel, also is a democratic country. Students in none of the American South’s colleges and universities mourn the defeat of the Confederacy that violated the US Constitution by seceding from the federal union and forming a separate government 151 years ago. Similarly, latter-day monarchists in France, if there still are any, do not stage memorial ceremonies for members of the royalty and aristocracy who were guillotined during the French Revolution of 1789.
Fortunately, when Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar learned that plans were afoot for Nakba Day to be observed at TAU, he forbade it. An attempt to stage it just outside the university’s fence resulted in a fiasco in which demonstrators in favor were loudly jeered by demonstrators against.
But Nakba Day was marked elsewhere in the country by the closure of Arab-owned shops and other enterprises. That did not add any luster to Israel’s democratic character. At most, it reflected official passivity or indifference toward the refusal of diehard elements within the Arab minority to resign themselves to the reality that resulted from Israel’s Declaration of Independence on May 14, 1948. (It is no accident that this inherently anti-Israel event takes place every May 15; That is the date when Great Britain terminated its League of Nations mandate over Palestine.)
The commercial stoppage is an act of solidarity that coincides with those in the Arab World who observe Nakba Day by staging large demonstrations in which Israel is condemned for the alleged expulsion of most of Palestine’s Arab population. It also bemoans Israel’s alleged “ethnic cleansing” that is blamed for the physical disappearance of hundreds of Arab villages.
The number of refugees, most of whom are subsidized by the UN Relief and Works Administration (UNRWA) with which they are registered and which keeps the demographic count, has been increasing annually. Today, it exceeds four million.
This does not make any demographic sense. Although no official or reliable census of Palestine’s population was taken prior to 1948, the consensus was that there were just over one million Arabs here when the country was partitioned to form two states, one Jewish and one Arab. More than 100,000 Arabs stayed put when Israel was established and nearly 200,000 returned during the state’s first two or three years as a result of various reunification of families programs. Those figures mean that 700,000 became refugees.
And indeed, 700,000 is a plausible estimate of the number of Arabs who were uprooted.
On the other hand, it does not take into consideration the fact that at least half that number relocated in the West Bank and that they and their descendants have been living there ever since.
These calculations and interpretations are not meant to disregard or ignore the suffering endured by the Arabs who fled. However, the unfortunate fact is that in modern wars large numbers of people flee their homes for fear that they may be harmed if their side loses. It should be noted that Nazi Germany’s defeat in World War II was followed by the USSR’s takeover of East Prussia, the transfer of Upper and Lower Silesia to Poland and the establishment of the Soviet-dominated East German republic – events that turned 19 million Germans into refugees. Unlike the case of the Palestinian Arabs, however, there have been no demands by these Germans that they be repatriated.
The partition of the Indian subcontinent into two states – India and Pakistan – spawned more than 15 million refugees, which is twice as many as the number of Palestinian Arab refugees cited (inaccurately) by some elements of the news media today and more than 15 times the plausible estimate that fewer than a million fled Palestine in 1948.
Nor can one overlook the fact that the Palestinian Arab refugee problem was a direct result of the Arab states’ joint attack on the fledgling Jewish state and of their subsequent refusal to negotiate any kind of compromise with Palestine’s Jews before their attempted invasion failed to achieve its goal, i.e. the destruction of Israel.
Had they been willing to make peace, a mutually acceptable solution to the Palestinian refugee problem might have been an instant by-product.
This recalls a profound statement made to me by a late Palestinian Arab colleague.
He was a distinguished journalist whose articles appeared in the Arabic press, and also served as a foreign correspondent.
In 1948, his family fled from its village in what was to become Israeli territory.
“We simply had very bad political leadership,” he said, undoubtedly referring to the grand mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, who not only opposed Jewish immigration to British-ruled Palestine despite the Jews’ need for a haven from Nazi persecution, but also spent part of WWII in Berlin as an honored guest of Adolf Hitler.
Contemporary Israeli Jews looking for a bright light at the end of this historical tunnel may find it in the planned establishment of a new Israeli-Arab political party that advocates greater integration into Israel’s society, economy and culture and basically is pro- rather than anti-Israel. That undoubtedly is the way to go and the extent to which this idea may be implemented may serve as a source of hope for better intercommunal relations.
The writer is a veteran foreign correspondent.