Amnesia and Awakening: Israel and the Nakba (Weiss)

Yfaat Weiss writes in a guest editorial for Informed Comment

Diachronic Neighbors

The 26th of April is this year’s Israeli Independence Day. The thoughts expressed here are part of an internal Israeli debate surrounding that day.

In March 2011 Israel’s parliament passed a law enabling the Finance Minister to reduce the state’s funding to bodies found to have committed various transgressions, including the following: denial of the existence of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state; an act of contempt or physical desecration that insults the dignity of the national flag or state emblem; or marking Independence Day or the day on which the state was founded as a day of mourning. This budgetary sanction, to which the law applies certain restrictions, is for the time being the limited achievement of Israel’s right-wing parties, which, through their membership of the governing coalition, are seeking to alter Israel’s constitutional foundation and reshape the country’s majority – minority relations. This is a further round in the struggle to establish Israel as “a Jewish and democratic state,” which reveals the insoluble disparity between ethnic and territorial perceptions of citizenship. By means of this and further such laws, so those who initiate them believe, they will be able to reinforce and even to perpetuate the Jewish majority’s current rule over the Arab minority in the country.

This legislation, widely known as the “nakba law,” originated in the demand to prohibit Israel’s Palestinian public from marking Independence Day – the State of Israel’s official holiday – as a day of mourning. Independence Day falls on the fifth day of the month of Iyar according to the Hebrew calendar. It marks the ending of the British Mandate in Palestine in 1948, the day on which the Jewish state was declared, and the onset of the battles between the Israeli army and the armies of the Arab countries, and symbolizes to Israel’s Jewish public the beginning of its independence. To Israeli Palestinians, who constitute some 20 percent of the state’s citizens, this date symbolizes their national catastrophe (Ar.: nakba). The legislators have sought to place a sweeping prohibition on this emerging self-awareness, stemming from the Palestinians’ growing national consciousness, which has generated refusal to participate in the state’s ceremonies alongside a series of Palestinian commemoration initiatives. Up to now they have been only partially successful, but their efforts are worrying, since they are part of an overall move to curb Palestinian Israelis’ civil rights.

This recent attack on the memory of the nakba may be understood as a reaction to a growing awakening to this event, not merely among the Palestinians themselves, who in any case live with it as a constant family reality that is regularly affirmed within their political, economic and cultural milieu, but also among Israel’s Jewish public. Typically of a majority, by far the greater part of the Jewish public has suffered total amnesia with regard to this history, and in particular toward the sensibilities and feelings of the minority living beside it. A series of events that have occurred since the year 2000 has conveyed Israeli Palestinians’ political distress and frustration to the awareness of the Jewish majority, generating solidarity among a few and a sense of menace among wide circles.

I have chosen to address the tension between amnesia and awakening by focusing on a single case, the particular that illuminates the general, in the plural singular form, in a book about the city of Haifa. The city’s municipal tourist and public relations publications suggest that Haifa, Israel’s third largest city, regards itself as “a city of co-existence.” This concept denotes the relative calm, the “good neighborliness” as it is referred to, that prevails between the Jewish majority and the indigenous Palestinian minority, which nowadays constitutes around ten percent of the population.

These harmonious relations are manifested in various ways, including the material prosperity enjoyed by a significant portion of the city’s Palestinian population, and the relatively high proportion of those with academic degrees and of people with academic or professional occupations among them. Alongside the concept of coexistence, Haifaites frequently speak of their city as a “mixed city.” One doubts whether this is an appropriate concept. It was coined by the British and served during the Mandate period to indicate cities in which the relative size of the ethnic groups – the Jews and the Arabs – was similar. At this time, of course, power was held not by one of the ethnic groupings but by the British.

The “mixed city,” in Mandatory terms, came to an end during the course of a single day and night of fighting between April 21 and April 22, 1948, when Jewish Haifa overcame Arab Haifa. As a result of this defeat the overwhelming majority of Haifa’s Arabs abandoned the city during the ensuing months and became refugees. Of the approximately 70,000 Arabs who had constituted roughly half the population prior to 1948, only a few thousand remained by mid 1948. Arab Jaffa fell to the Jewish forces some days later, and these two occurrences of the collapse and surrender of urban Palestinian centers symbolize the climax of the nakba. Parallel universes thus exist in Haifa: to its Jewish residents Haifa is a city of coexistence, while to its Palestinian residents it symbolizes a stinging defeat, alongside and despite the relative comfort of present day life.

I have chosen to reconstruct the process of the disappearance of Arab Haifa’s memory at a thoroughly Israeli “lieu de memoir,” namely Wadi Salib. In Israel’s collective memory this quarter marks the totality of charged relations between Ashkenazis and Mizrahim, or Oriental Jews. The tension between the Jewish establishment, made up largely of people of European origin, and the Jewish immigrants stemming from Arab countries burst forth for the first time in a series of violent incidents in Haifa’s Wadi Salib slum in the summer of 1959. Completely immersed in current issues, people at that time failed to make a connection between the event and the place, and neither did sociological scholarship over subsequent decades.

Despite the neighborhood’s Arab name, Wadi Salib, no-one in 1959 and certainly not thereafter paused to recall the former tenants, those indigent Muslims who fled during the fighting of 1948 leaving behind their homes, in which now, in 1959, lived a new set of Jewish paupers. Focusing on this site, the book weaves a dense net of links between the first residents – Muslims of meager means who founded the neighborhood in the last days of the Ottoman period, were left to their own devices under the apathy of British imperial policy and Zionist aspirations toward building the Jewish yishuv, and who fled for their lives in the wake of the 1948 defeat – and the new residents – Jewish refugees from Europe and destitute Moroccan Jews who had migrated to Israel as a result of the process of de-colonization in Morocco following its independence. This is a labor of memory that deciphers the undeniable contradiction of neighbors, within which the victory of one is the day of mourning of the other.

Yfaat Weiss is professor in the Department of the History of the Jewish People and head of the Franz Rosenzweig Minerva Research Center for German-Jewish Literature and Cultural History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She is the author of A Confiscated Memory: Wadi Salib and Haifa’s Lost Heritage, Columbia University Press 2011.

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4 Responses

  1. Not so long ago Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick traveled to Israel to on a trade mission. I wonder what was going through his mind as he traveled through a country that so brutally oppresses its minorities.

    What does Barak Obama think when he supports the “Jewish State” knowing how it treats its Palestinians?

    Certainly they are both politicians first and foremost, and therefore must keep their private thoughts in check. It is sad to see, this is surely politics at its most hypocritical!

  2. This article does not mention Plan Dalet, which was drawn up and implemented by the Haganah in 1947-48. It caused the forcible expulsion of Arabs from their homes.

    Laws were also passed by Israel barring Arabs any right of return to their residences.

    Professor Ilan Pappe, who is Jewish, is one of the top experts on these historical events and equates it with ethnic clensing.

    Author Thomas Friedman, in his book From Beirut to Jerusalem, described Israel’s founding as something that could not have occurred without the exodus of Jewish refugees from Europe into Palestine as the native Jewish population in Palestine lacked the will and ability to create a new state.

    Marek Edelman, one of the leaders of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, got into bitter arguments with David Ben Gurion over the decision to declare a Jewish state.

    The dispossesion of Arabs led to the creation of refugee camps where generations of Arabs have never escaped. Gaza is one of the major Arab refugee centers created by the Nakba.

    Livia Rokach’s book, “Israel’s Sacred Terrorism”, largely based on the diaries of Moshe Sharret, longtime Israeli foreign minister who spent a few years as prime minister, described the Israeli government’s role in systematically expelling and dispossessing the native Arab population and covering it up through misinformation.

    The Israeli government’s long term record of human rights abuses against Palestinian Arabs is one of the greatest tragedies in post WWII history. The failure of the Israeli govrnment to heed the findings of the Goldstone Commission report, findings of Amnesty International and its own human rights organizations, including B’Tselem and Machsom Watch, have damaged Israel’s credibility in the international commmunity.

  3. The below are selected excerpt from this article;

    “The legislators have sought to place a sweeping prohibition on this emerging self-awareness.”

    “The legislators seek to alter and reshape the country’s majority – minority relations.”

    “The legislators seek to reinforce and even to perpetuate the Jewish majority’s current rule over the Arab minority in the country.”

    “The legislators prohibit Israel’s Palestinian public who constitute some 20 % of the state’s citizens, from marking Independence Day – the State of Israel’s official holiday – as a day of mourning.”

    “The legislators put an effort and move to curb Palestinian Israelis’ civil rights.”

    “The legislators have sought to place a sweeping prohibition on this emerging self-awareness, stemming from the Palestinians’ (the same Palestinians who by the way constitute some 20% of the state’s citizens), growing national consciousness.”

    Below is what is still fresh in my mind from Political Science 101, Topic: Types of Political Regimes;


    “What are foundations/Ideals of Democracy?”
    • Individual dignity and unalienable rights
    • Respect for differences within their population
    • Freedom of conscience (religious liberty, religious diversity, respect for religious minorities)
    • Equal protection under the law
    • Participation in decision-making

    “What are components of Democracy?”
    • Protects minority populations
    • Helps all citizens fulfill their aspirations, these aspirations include;
    a) Desire to have basic human rights
    b) Practice one’s religion
    c) Speak freely on public issues
    d) An impartial court system

    Boy oh boy, if I didn’t get an A in knowing about political regimes and what they stand for, what its their ideals, I could/would have NOT question why for crying out loud we call Israel “A Vibrant Democracy In the whole of Region”, if I didn’t know better I would have believed I was suffering from some kind of cognitive dissonance disorder.

    But thank you Mr. Cole and Mr. Weiss, after reading this article I don’t think it is me, in fact it seems it is Israel who is suffering from debilitating “Amnesia”, we Americans have been battling with “Amnesia” for a while now, even though we have only +/-200 years of history to remember!!!!
    “Amnesia” is not contagious is it?!!! We here in US have a significant Jewish populations, is it possible that they brought it over, and we contracted it, or it is just because we don’t dislike and are oblivious to “history” just as much as we dislike and clueless about “geography” ?!! ☺

    Humor aside it is a sad state of affairs.

    And thank you for Mr. Weiss’s article and as always thank you Professor Cole for sharing it with us.

  4. Makes you wonder whether Sudeten German (the few who are left, anyway) commemorate their tragedy on VE day, and whether regular Czechs are sensitive enough to appreciate that, for them, the Nazi defeat was a disaster.

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