What was – or is – the Nakba?

Israel and Hamas are once again on the brink of war.  Palestinian support for a two-state option is plummeting.  The brutal slayings of three Israeli yeshiva students on the West Bank have been followed by reprisals by Israeli civilians against Arabs on an order not seen since the creation of the state.  In the days and weeks ahead, battles will be waged with weapons and with words.  And for the Palestinians, one of the most powerful of those words will be Nakba – the catastrophe of 1948.

The political use of the Arabic word nakba (disaster) goes back to 1920, when Arabs decried European colonial rule over portions of the now-defunct Ottoman empire.  While the 1948 war was still raging, Constantine Zureiq, a professor at the American University in Beirut, wrote a book, “The Meaning of the Disaster,” which used the term Nakba to describe the internal weaknesses and failings of the Arab world that had made Israel’s victory possible.

Over time, the term Nakba has come to be associated with the forced migration of the Palestinians in 1948 and the Israeli government’s refusal to let the refugees return after the war’s end.  Most Israeli Jews and supporters of Israel have a visceral, negative reaction to the word.  A recent Israeli law (which has not yet been tested in the courts) allows the government to fine publicly-funded institutions that commemorate Israel’s Independence Day as a day of mourning.  This legislation is colloquially referred to as “the Nakba law.”

Why is this word so threatening?  When Israeli Jews hear the word Naqba, they infer a denial of Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state.  They associate the Naqba with the Palestinian Right of Return, which, if exercised, could theoretically lead to millions of Palestinian refugees (those surviving from 1948, and their descendants) coming to Israel and claiming their lands, upon which hundreds of Israeli communities now sit.

Denial of the Nakba is less about what happened in 1948 than about why.  It is about causes and consequences of events, not events themselves.   Mainstream Israeli narratives of 1948 often underestimate the number of Palestinian refugees, but many Israeli Jews would acknowledge that in 1948 hundreds of thousands of Palestinians lost their homes – and their homeland.  Along with that acknowledgment, though, comes the claim that the Palestinians brought disaster upon themselves by not accepting the United Nations Partition plan of November 1947.  Israeli denial of the Nakba is a denial of responsibility, and hence of culpability.

For Palestinians, mourning for their lost homeland is inseparable from rage against all the actors – the international community, the Arab states, and, most of all, Israel – who, they feel, brought, and continue to bring, disaster upon them. Nakba is more than a description, more than a lament – it is an accusation of crimes past and present.

It is hard to deny the Nakba, however, without using the word itself.  Israeli newspapers now write about the Naqba more than ever before.  Palestinian political rhetoric has been accepted into Israeli public conversation.

During the Cold War, conservative West German newspapers referred to East Germany in quotes, as the “DDR,” and in communist East Germany West Berlin’s separate status as part of the Federal Republic of Germany was obscured by referring to it as Berlin (West).  Such linguistic trickery served only to strengthen awareness of the reality of both East Germany and West Berlin.  The Cold War of the 1940s through 1980s is now over, and East Germany and West Berlin have ceased to exist as political entities. But the Nakba continues, and it will continue to continue, until Israel acknowledges its past and the Palestinians, including Hamas, legitimize Israel’s future. In the current climate, neither appears likely.