The new school year has begun in Israel, as in much of the world, and with it a renewed debate over the use in Israeli-Arab schoolchildren’s textbooks of the word nakba, or “disaster,” to designate the establishment of Israel in 1948 and the flight from its territory of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees. Approved for textbook use in 2007 by Labor Party education minister Yuli Tamir after a campaign on its behalf by Israeli-Arab educators, the word — so the current minister, Likud member Gideon Sa’ar, has announced — will be stricken from future editions. Although what the Palestinians experienced in 1948 was “certainly a tragedy” for them, Sa’ar has said, government-okayed books must not refer to the creation of the State of Israel as a tragedy.
Recently, “the Nakba” has become, by dint of vigorous Palestinian efforts, such an acknowledged international phrase that it comes as a surprise to learn that it was practically unknown until a little more than 10 years ago.
It derives from the Arabic verb nakaba, “to inflict disaster on someone,” and it was traditionally used in Arabic to refer to any calamity, large or small; as former Israeli-Arab Knesset member Azmi Bishara once observed, it could just as easily have described “the death of a horse or a cow” as a grand historical event. Its first documented use in connection with the events of 1948 was in a book published in the summer of that year by the Syrian-Christian intellectual (and soon-to-be-appointed president of the University of Damascus) Constantine Zureik under the title “Ma’na el-Nakba,” “The Meaning of the Disaster [of Israel’s 1948 victory].”
And yet, Zureik’s book never circulated widely among Palestinians, and nakba as a term for the events of 1948 took decades to enter their political discourse. As the Argentine political scientist Pedro Brieger has pointed out in a Spanish article, “At a conference on Palestine sponsored in Geneva in 1983 by the United Nations, a group of prominent Palestinian intellectuals… [such as] Edward Said, Ibrahim Abu-Lughod, Janet Abu-Lughod, Muhammad Hallaj and Elia Zureik spoke about the history of their people without the word Nakba occurring even once.” Nor was the word used by Yasser Arafat when, in 1988, he made the United Nations a forum for declaring Palestinian independence. It was not until 1998, when Arafat instituted an official “Nakba Day” to be held every year on May 15, the anniversary of the declaration of the State of Israel, that the word began to assume the place in Palestinian life that it has now. Its spread since then has been phenomenal. Promoted by countless books, articles, pamphlets, films, conferences, rallies and demonstrations, as well as by the 12 annual Nakba Days that have been subsequently observed, it is well on its way to becoming as universally recognized as the Hebrew word Shoah — to which, as has been remarked, it now leads a kind of parallel shadow existence.
One can, of course, raise an eyebrow at the fact that a word that meant so little to Palestinians not long ago now means so much that its inclusion in their textbooks has become a major issue in Israel. This is not, though, a terribly relevant objection. Words can be politically galvanizing forces, and once introduced, they often galvanize quickly. Think, for example, of the meteoric rise of “gay” in the 1960s and ’70s, or more recently, of the rapid acceptance of “African American.” “Nakba” is a similar case, and it is pointless for partisans of Israel to protest that it is a linguistic Johnny-come-lately.
Still, I think Gideon Sa’ar made the correct decision. Precisely because Nakba is a word with far-reaching political implications, the Israeli educational ministry needs to take these into account. If Nakba Day hadn’t been permanently set for May 15, the matter might look different in Israeli eyes. The Palestinians’ fate has indeed been a tragic one, and Israeli Arabs deserve the right to call it that in their textbooks. But to turn the collective remembrance of this fate into an annual day of mourning for Israel’s establishment is not something that a Jewish state needs to, or should, legitimize. And because the Arabic word nakba is irrevocably associated with Nakba Day, it should not be given Israeli legitimization, either.
This is not a question of censorship. No one is demanding that Israeli Arabs, or anyone else for that matter, stop using the word nakba if they find it appropriate. If Arab teachers in Israel go on employing it in classrooms (as they undoubtedly will), there is nothing that can be done to stop them. Yet, the government that authorizes the textbooks read in these classrooms must make it clear that this is not a usage that is acceptable to it. To do otherwise would be an abdication of its duty.
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