Exploring the ‘Catastrophe’

May 2, 2011
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Gregory Khalil & Paul Scham

Dear Greg,

At the beginning of my course on the Middle East conflict, I distribute a handout entitled, “The Vocabulary of the Conflict.” It lists a number of expressions that Palestinians and Israelis use to describe the same thing, including “War of Independence/Nakba.” What’s missing, of course, is the emotional resonance the expressions carry for both sides, though I hope my students will understand some of that by the end of the semester.

Recently, the Knesset passed a bill requiring the state to fine local authorities and other state-funded bodies for holding events commemorating the Nakba or “catastrophe.” Poor Israel. This says far more about Israeli national insecurity than anything else.

The Nakba is the other, dark side of the emergence of the Jewish state, and Israelis need to make their peace with the word — which is intertwined with making peace with the Palestinians. Granted, the Israeli understanding of the Nakba cannot and should not be the same as that of the Palestinians. But to pretend there was no Nakba and, even more, demand that Palestinians — even if they are also Israeli citizens — pretend as well, means building Israeli statehood on a foundation of lies.

Virtually all Israeli historians — left, right, and centrist — now accept that the former pristine view of Jewish conduct during the War of Independence is historically inaccurate; that there was no “call by Arab leaders” for Palestinians to flee; and that brutal expulsions took place. However, the Israeli narrative — that is, the memory held by the person in the street — has changed little in 63 years; textbooks and documentaries introducing these ideas are still banned from Israeli schools and television.

While those who reject peace with Israel also commemorate the Nakba, the commemoration itself does not assert a rejectionist stance toward Israel. In 1993, Israel recognized the Palestinians as a people. To demand that Palestinians ignore their greatest catastrophe —also the seminal event in their short history — is bizarre, especially for a people that yearly commemorates the destruction of its First Temple 2597 years ago.

Israelis have every right to commemorate their Independence Day as a joyous national holiday. But allowing Palestinians to air their own sadness — and, yes, anger — on Nakba Day is an expression of national maturity. Just as Jewish weddings introduce a note of (ritualized) sadness by breaking a glass in memory of the destruction of our Temple, it might someday be possible for Israelis, and even the Israeli state, to, without hypocrisy, express some empathy as well for the Palestinian suffering Nakba Day commemorates. I look forward to hearing your thoughts on the issue of the Nakba.

Paul Scham


Dear Paul,

Your letter is moving — and provocative. Too often, Israelis and Palestinians only approach the other’s story as a propaganda tool — a weapon wielded for some nefarious political objective. You reach far beyond that unhelpful tendency and I very much appreciate it.

Still, our own stories can be just as complicated to negotiate as the story of the other. The Nakba is a loaded term for Palestinians, too.

Literally, “Nakba” means “catastrophe.” Nakba typically refers to the historical events surrounding Israel’s independence. Most historians now agree that as much as three-quarters of the indigenous Muslim and Christian Palestinian population in what became Israel lost their homes, more than 400 villages were destroyed, and few Palestinians were ever allowed to return.

Even Palestinians who became citizens of Israel after 1948 were not allowed to return to their destroyed villages, as my friend reminded me last month when driving past the remains of his hometown in northern Israel.

This definition and telling of history, however, completely miss what you term the “resonance” of the word.

For Palestinians, the Nakba is not just a historic event. It is not past tragedy; it is current reality. It is a condition of prolonged insecurity — of dispossession, disenfranchisement, and disempowerment — that for many never ended. Instead, it seems only to be getting worse.

Palestinians implicitly divide history in two — before the Nakba and after the Nakba. As with any people’s telling of their own history, it is mythologized. The story I received tells of a time before the fall — when Palestinians lived in relative harmony for many hundreds of years. It is a story deeply connected to the land and its unique status for followers of the Abrahamic faiths.

My own family, through my father, farmed fields for many generations. Those lands are now on the “Israeli side” of the barrier near Jerusalem — but still technically in the West Bank. As with other Palestinian Christians, we trace what you termed our “short” history back to Pentecost, 2000 years ago (and one day I can show you our homes, some of which date back hundreds of years, built by my ancestors). I grew up primarily in the United States. But I remember elders often talking about the time before the Nakba, when “Palestinian” Jews, Christians, and Muslims all had good relations. And then, according to the story, everything changed.

After the Nakba, neighbors who had been part of this period of relative harmony were suddenly on the other side of a bitter conflict. Communities who saw themselves as rooted in flesh and spirit to the same land, unbroken, for centuries, were uprooted. And suddenly, a whole generation of Palestinians awoke one day to find, in their minds, that they had somehow been born the wrong race and wrong religion in their own land. Not only did they lose land, lives, and livelihoods, but they awoke without rights or a voice.

Today, Palestinians see evidence of the continuation of the Nakba every day. From settlement expansion, to lack of civil and political rights, to restrictions on movement, to continued occupation, to sprawling refugee camps, to the siege of Gaza — all are felt to be part of this larger incomprehensible tragedy that never seems to end. My point in telling this story is to communicate how deep the wound is and why it is still open.

Obviously, this experience is necessarily linked to the establishment of the State of Israel. And I know this could not but make Israelis and their supporters uncomfortable. Yet many Palestinians are willing and eager to find a real-world accommodation — to finally close the wound and begin to heal.

You did mention, and I think astutely, that Israelis will have to write a new narrative about the Nakba at some point. I’m curious: How could that happen now when Israelis themselves feel that Israel’s very existence is still at stake? And what would that narrative look like?

I look forward to hearing from you,
Greg Khalil


Dear Greg,

Thanks for your thoughtful response. Before I address your question, let me clear up a misunderstanding that, on rereading my own letter, you were right to notice. When I referred to the Palestinians’ “short history” on the land, I meant that of the Palestinian nation; clearly, I should have written “national history” instead of assuming it. I have seen genealogies of Palestinians that trace their ancestry to the Crusades, and I know some Palestinian families that trace their histories back to the seventh century. So I understand your sharpness on that point.

You ask what a new Israeli narrative might look like, and how it might be written. Of course circumstances now are not promising; in my previous letter I noted current examples of Nakba-phobia. I am not going to pretend to be optimistic regarding the current non-peace process. But peace requires a new narrative on both sides — or, rather, significant amendments to the old ones. Despite the power disparities, both sides will have to indulge in this process.

Let’s assume the current mantra, “a Palestinian state living peacefully next to Israel with East Jerusalem as its capital.” Israeli education, culture, history, political rhetoric, and narrative cannot ignore this Palestinian neighbor. Unless Israelis maintain that a Palestinian state was forced upon them — and even the current government’s spokesmen proclaim that a Palestinian state is in Israel’s interest — they must explain and fit their neighbor into Israel’s own narrative of exile, return, and rebirth.

It isn’t that hard; mostly, it takes some confidence in one’s own story. In the last 50 years, for example, the American mainstream accorded recognition to the oppression of Native Americans (formerly Indians), African-Americans (formerly colored, Negro, and black) and Japanese-Americans (interned during World War II). The fundamental American narrative hasn’t changed; civics and history textbooks now acknowledge that the American march toward progress and equality was not without wrong turns, but maintain that these errors are being rectified, and a stronger and more inclusive America is now facing the future with greater honesty.

Similarly, the Israeli narrative, without altering its basic contours, can adjust to the reality that when the pioneers of the first and second aliyot arrived, they found another people living in the land who were — understandably — suspicious of the intentions of the new arrivals. After the Holocaust, Jewish demands for a refuge became more desperate; Jews offered compromises that Arabs refused, and war ensued. But — and this is where the new narrative must diverge from the old one — the War of Independence was justified, though not pure. The Jewish army was not solicitous of the Palestinians; they evicted and sometimes massacred them. This is already accepted by most reputable Israeli historians.

Space precludes describing a new narrative in detail, but it might portray the following: Israelis continue to be suspicious of Palestinian intentions, recognize many injustices in the overlong occupation, and admit that a significant minority opposed recognizing Palestinians as legitimately having a claim on the land. Eventually (we now enter the future), with much suffering, a Palestinian state is born, with Israeli acquiescence.

I stress that this sketchy outline is narrative, not history, and is still a work in progress. But if you can posit a Palestinian state emerging from the current wasteland of hope, the appearance of a narrative somewhat like this might well be its companion.

It need not and should not be a “shared narrative.” Palestinians must have their own narrative in order to build their state, which will also have to come to terms with how to deal with Israel; you do not want your children to grow up as irredentists.

I do not see a new narrative as so problematic. Where policy goes, narrative has to (eventually) follow. And until the Middle East becomes post-nationalist, these national narratives will continue to be powerful.

And now I would like to ask you a similar question. You correctly point out that many Palestinians, despite their current oppression by the occupation, “are eager to find a real-world accommodation.” But most are acquiescing in a reality they feel they have little choice but to accept; they feel under duress. Could a Palestinian narrative come to terms with accepting, not just accommodating, Israel, so your children will not want to take up arms to regain what they may feel that your generation gave away?

With very best wishes,


Dear Paul,

Before I answer your question directly, let me make a few general points regarding narrative. The question of narrative very much depends on our experience of reality. If we feel imprisoned by insecurity or injustice, the story we tell of how we got to such a terrible place — and of those who we believe bind us there — affirms that experience.

If, however, we feel safe and secure, that experience will be reflected in our story. Our story will easily wrestle with and acknowledge our “wrong turns.” Moreover, such narratives often take relish in the trials and tribulations that were nevertheless overcome — and I expect Palestinians and Israelis will both eventually look back on these traumatic times through that more assured and hopeful lens.

Still, I do not want to eviscerate the power of narrative by saying that it carries no proscriptive weight. One of art’s most terrific gifts is its ability to use narrative to change reality — to help us see that another path, a seemingly hidden path, may indeed take us to a different and better place, should we choose to write that story.

Yet Palestinians live under a harsh reality. I just visited with some farmers to the west of Bethlehem — known to Israelis as “Gush Etzion.” There, a settlement is expanding over the remains of their farmland, and has, in the past, dropped raw sewage on the farmers’ crops. This ancient farming community has received sacks of flour from foreign taxpayers to feed their families. No revisionist narrative will be able to compete with the story being jackhammered and bulldozed into the hills surrounding Bethlehem.

Our experience of reality, and the inertia that comes with it, will therefore be the most influential authors of any narrative — redemptive or otherwise.

This point is critical, in my mind, to answering your question about the Nakba. This is not to absolve Palestinians from claiming full ownership over the writing of their own story. This is to say, however, that the degree of subjugation Palestinians experience makes it less likely that any new hopeful narratives will take root — unless, perhaps, the Palestinian issue gets swept up in events shaking the rest of the Middle East.

So, regarding your question: As long as that harsh reality persists, I doubt Palestinians will ever fully accept Israel — even though most Palestinians have come to terms with the fact of its existence. They may always resist; sometimes that resistance may take violent forms. Prolonged resistance is thus absolutely certain unless the objective reality in Gaza, East Jerusalem, and the West Bank changes. I am not saying this is right or wrong — but simply that it is.

If, however, a new reality emerges in which, one day, Palestinians enjoy dignity, security, and freedom, too, I can imagine a narrative that would not just accommodate Israel, but accept it.

I can imagine the generation of my grandchildren living happily as Palestinians in a safe and prosperous Palestine (and not a beggar nation giving defeated farmers sacks of flour). I can see them looking back and understanding the difficult choices I hope our generation makes as tortured — but necessary and good.

Yet I can never imagine any Palestinian generation internalizing or accepting a Zionist narrative. This is where the stories will likely always diverge. Palestinians could empathize — and many already do — with the extreme suffering of the Jewish people, which culminated in the Shoah. And Palestinians could even understand basic Zionist drives — particularly considering the deep Jewish historical connections to the land. But Palestinians would never say that their suffering is inconsequential or that their deep and historical connections to the same land are only secondary.

For me, for example, accepting a Zionist narrative would mean saying that what happened to some members of my larger family — who were dislodged from their homes and never allowed to return because of their ethno-religious identity — was right. That was not right; it was and is wrong. This is not by any means to discount or diminish the Shoah — and I hate to even mention it in the same breath — but this is to illustrate perhaps the most important point in this exercise: the narratives may never converge; nor must they.

In fact, if we focus on writing a common narrative, we will never have peace. If we accept that each people will maintain its own narrative — and those narratives will likely remain irreconcilable — we might just have a chance.

For Palestinians, the Nakba will never, ever be anything other than a tragedy. It will always be one of a few defining moments for Palestinians. But to write that post-Nakba story, we have to get to post-Nakba. And we are not there yet.

Growing up in San Diego — and I mean this as no joke — I was no stranger to complex identity narratives. Many Hispanic Americans share a similar narrative of dispossession with Palestinians. While they, too, fight to gain acceptance in what is for many the land of their birth and ancestry (as the repugnant vitriol in Arizona demonstrates), there is no drive to take up arms against America. Indeed, most are proud of their national identity. Yet their voice has a chance of being heard while most Palestinians lack that opportunity.

Ultimately, I cannot claim to speak for anyone but myself. But I do hope this sensitive exchange highlights the need to create urgently a more just, more secure, and more dignified reality for Israelis and Palestinians. If we build it — and it is good — I believe the supporting narratives will easily come.


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Gregory Khalil is president and co-founder of the Telos Group, a nonprofit that educates America’s mainstream faith-based communities on causes of — and solutions to — the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He was based previously in Ramallah, where he advised the Palestinian leadership on peace negotiations with Israel. Born and raised primarily in San Diego, Calif., Khalil still has extended family in Beit Sahour, a predominately Palestinian Christian town near Bethlehem. Khalil is a graduate of the University of California, Los Angeles, and Yale Law School, and a member of the State Bar of California.

Paul Scham is a visiting assistant professor of Israel studies at the University of Maryland at College Park, where he serves as executive director of the Joseph and Alma Gildenhorn Institute for Israel Studies. Over the past 20 years, he has worked in think tanks, advocacy organizations, and NGOs on issues related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including six years coordinating Israeli-Palestinian joint research projects at the Harry S. Truman Institute for the Advancement of Peace at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Much of his research and writing has focused on Israeli and Palestinian historical narratives and their relevance to peacemaking.

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