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What We Talk About When We Don’t Talk About The Nakba

In recent weeks, I have been paying particular attention to the arguments in favor of Zionism from those who call themselves progressive Zionists and call for a two-state solution, support Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state, and express criticism of some of Israel’s policies and actions. More precisely, I have been paying attention to what is NOT being discussed in these arguments, namely, anything about the Nakba (Arabic for catastrophe), the expulsion of approximately 750,000 Palestinians from their homes and land before and during Israel’s creation. If we are talking about Zionism, then we are also necessarily talking about the Nakba.

So why does the Nakba not enter these discussions?

Let us not accept as a given, as happens too often in discussions of Zionism, the belief that those who are deeply connected to Jewish culture and history and concerned about Jewish safety have no choice but to support Zionism even though (as it is sometimes acknowledged in a footnote) its implementation was at the expense of others. Those “others” are the Palestinian people who the Zionist movement and then Israel forced out of their homes and their land. The Nakba doesn’t enter these conversations and is made invisible because it is not considered relevant. This logic assumes that the suffering and anti-Semitism Jews have endured provide a free pass for the ongoing dispossession of the Palestinian people, all in the name of Jewish national liberation and self-determination.

In short, the Nakba doesn’t enter these conversations because it is the legacy and clearest manifestation of Zionism. Those who ignore the Nakba — which Zionist and Israeli institutions have consistently done — are refusing to acknowledge Zionism as illegitimate from the beginning of its implementation. (Just a few days ago in Israel, the police refused to allow the Palestinian community to commemorate the Nakba by denying a permit for the annual March of Return).

We cannot ignore the anti-Arab and anti-Palestinian racism, the “othering,” and the Islamophobia, as well as the centering of Ashkenazi Jewish voices and experiences that are inherent in this discourse about Zionism. We need to be clear about what is being promoted and address these questions:

Whose lives are being valued — and whose are not?

Whose lives are being privileged — and whose are not?

Whose lives seem to matter — and whose do not?

Whose interests are being served — and whose are not?

How we respond to those questions says so much about our values, our principles, and our commitments, and whether we support liberation or oppression.

One argument put forth among Zionists of all persuasions is that Israel is unfairly being targeted in ways other countries with terrible human rights records aren’t. But what is that argument really saying? Are the Nakba and Israeli apartheid less wrong if they are not discussed alongside many other atrocities? Israel is by far the largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid, which makes it an extremely appropriate target for condemnation. Many Jewish and Zionist organizations also support Israel “right-or-wrong,” providing enormous financial and political support, despite ongoing land theft, multiple forms of violence and harassment, discriminatory treatment against Palestinians in every sphere of life, and much more.

Like many Jews I know, I was raised to stand for justice and learned that “Never Again” meant never again for anyone. Also, like many Jews, I had an extensive Jewish education and learned about Israel without ever learning about the Nakba. In the years since, I, like so many others, have listened to and learned from the stories and experiences of Palestinians who had been expelled from their homeland. I have studied and read about the Nakba and the disastrous impact and consequences of the Zionist movement on Palestinian society and on the Palestinian people. And then, like so many others, I went where the truth and my conscience brought me — which did not include support for Zionism, but, rather, meant standing with the Palestinian-led movement for justice.

Why does this matter? It matters because people‘s histories matter and deserve to be respected and honored. It also matters because fully understanding the Nakba necessarily leads to a different recognition of what is a fair and just solution.

Then it becomes clear why the global call for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) until Israel complies with basic rights is fair and just.

Then it becomes clear why the BDS call “to end the occupation and colonization of Arab lands and dismantle the wall” is fair and just.

Then it becomes clear why the BDS call “to recognize the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality” is fair and just.

Then it becomes clear why the BDS call “to respect, protect, and promote the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in U.N. resolution 194” is fair and just.

Many of us know what it’s like to have our histories denied and how painfully wrong and harmful it is. So, when we have discussions about Zionism and Israel within our communities, we must not just include, but we must center, the Nakba. And we must then go where the truth leads us.

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