If I had a shekel for every time someone said 'Nakba'

If there's one thing Israelis agree on when it comes to Nakba Day: Never has Nakba been so widely mentioned in the Hebrew press as last week.

nakba day gallery 2 (photo credit: BEN HARTMAN)
nakba day gallery 2
(photo credit: BEN HARTMAN)
There may be only one thing Israelis agree on these days when it comes to Nakba Day: Never has the Nakba been so widely mentioned in the Hebrew press as it was last week.
Growing up here, I can’t remember a time when the newspapers took note in mid-May of anything but Independence Day traffic jams, BBQs, the Bible Quiz and the Israel Prize. Nakba? I would barely recognize the word. Now, news consumers can’t avoid it. Numerous Israeli reporters covered the many Nakba Day events last week, not only in Israel and the West Bank but also in neighboring countries. Israeli commentators were asked to shed light on the events’ significance and implications, as did editorial pieces addressing it. Independence Day coverage barely competed with Nakba, Nakba, Nakba.
MY FIRST conclusion from this media frenzy is that the Nakba is on Israel’s agenda more than ever, whether we like it or not. Some of that change has to do with the wide scope of planned events this year, and the strong Facebook-led build-up to May 15, resulting in unbelievable scenes in Majd Al-Shams. The change, though, didn’t start there.
Lawmakers supporting the “Nakba Law,” which passed a final Knesset vote in March 2011, may have wished to see this topic swept under the rug and, at least inside Israel, not publicly mentioned. If anything, their efforts placed the topic higher on the agenda. The original version of the bill (which was later modified) made public commemoration of the Nakba a criminal offense. The version that eventually passed instead goes after the money, by reducing financial support for publicly funded institutions which act in ways that may constitute “marking the date of Israel’s establishment as a day of mourning,” or negating “the existence of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.”
Does an exhibit portraying a painting with the word ‘Nakba’ sketched across the date ‘May 15’ constitute a breach of this law? How about a lecture objecting to the Law of Return? Or a conference questioning whether the Jewish state is a full-fledged democracy? Schools, universities, local councils, cultural centers and other institutions need to think twice now about whether a given lecture, play or exhibit falls under the law’s loosely defined clauses.
A “chilling effect” is thus created, silencing actions and words that are in and of themselves lawful. Finance Ministry bureaucrats will be the ones required to answer complex questions of interpretation, despite the fact that they lack the tools to deal with such a highly nuanced and complex issue. In theory, they may reduce funding to a religious Jewish institute that opposes the rights and freedoms of non-Jewish citizens of Israel, as that would negate the state’s democratic character, but haredi lawmakers have made it clear that the law was not intended for that, and such institutes would not be harmed. The High Court of Justice, for its part, will need to rule as to whether the law is unconstitutional, as the Association of Civil Rights in Israel and its partners claim in a joint petition. Hence, a lot more Nakba-related media attention can be expected in the coming months.
My second conclusion is a positive one, albeit cautious. The media attention surrounding the Nakba suggests that at least some parts of our society have grown old enough – 63 and kicking – to begin addressing this wound. Addressing it doesn’t mean a change of opinion necessarily, as the overwhelming majority of Israeli Jews are probably going to continue supporting the Jewish character of the state and objecting to the Palestinian ‘right of return’ on the grounds that millions of Palestinians moving here would mean the end of the Jewish state as we know it.
But that political opinion must not stifle conversation on the matter. Our problem is that we fail to realize that discussing the fate of the Palestinians in 1948 doesn’t translate directly to the annihilation of Israel. We fail to comprehend that a Palestinian citizen of Israel marking his or her family’s tragedy, or calling what happened to their people in 1948 a catastrophe is not trying to say they wish to see all Jewish-Israelis in the sea or back in Europe. The fact that there are Arabs out there who wish to see Israel wiped off the map doesn’t mean that every time someone mentions 1948, they pose an immediate threat to our existence. This kind of differentiation is what I would consider growing up and having an adult conversation about things.
MY THIRD conclusion is that while all too many Knesset members have chosen to limit freedom of speech and expression through legislation, this attempt stands a good chance of failing. The Nakba is being publicly discussed as it should be, for, political views aside, it is in the public interest to hold lively and free debates on complex and difficult political questions. Any law trying to minimize such conversation infringes on our civil liberties, and adds to a continued distortion of what the discussion is about, or can be about. Those who supported and advanced the “Nakba Law” seek to stifle key ideological disparities that lie at the basis of Israeli society.
The fate of the Arab regimes around us that have banned free speech for too many years indicates the winds of change in our region are blowing in the opposite direction. At the end of the day, people here are adamant on having their voices heard.
We should place limitations on extreme views if they advocate terror and murder, but let’s give full protection under freedom of speech for the entire spectrum of legitimate political demands. They may be annoying, but democracy means dealing with a pluralism of ideas.
Addressing a topic that so many Israeli citizens feel is at the heart of their identity is a responsibility as well as an opportunity.
The writer is spokesperson for the Association for Civil Rights in Israel.