You Can Teach Everything, Barring a ‘Disaster’

On Language

By Philologos

Published September 09, 2009, issue of September 18, 2009.
  • Print
  • Share Share

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.

Who Can Name Our Oppression?: Schoolchildren represent the best hope of peace in the region.
Who Can Name Our Oppression?: Schoolchildren represent the best hope of peace in the region.

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.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • Happy birthday to the Boy Who Lived! July 31 marks the day that Harry Potter — and his creator, J.K. Rowling — first entered the world. Harry is a loyal Gryffindorian, a matchless wizard, a native Parseltongue speaker, and…a Jew?
  • "Orwell would side with Israel for building a flourishing democracy, rather than Hamas, which imposed a floundering dictatorship. He would applaud the IDF, which warns civilians before bombing them in a justified war, not Hamas terrorists who cower behind their own civilians, target neighboring civilians, and planned to swarm civilian settlements on the Jewish New Year." Read Gil Troy's response to Daniel May's opinion piece:
  • "My dear Penelope, when you accuse Israel of committing 'genocide,' do you actually know what you are talking about?"
  • What's for #Shabbat dinner? Try Molly Yeh's coconut quinoa with dates and nuts. Recipe here:
  • Can animals suffer from PTSD?
  • Is anti-Zionism the new anti-Semitism?
  • "I thought I was the only Jew on a Harley Davidson, but I was wrong." — Gil Paul, member of the Hillel's Angels.
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.