Reconciling the Nakba

If you are Israeli, the months of April and May bring with them times of celebration and mourning.

As April draws to an end, family and friends share photos, meat grilling on portable barbecues, happy children waving small national flags.

These images capture scenes of Yom Ha’atzmaut celebrations. This is Israel’s Independence Day, which takes place every year on or around the fifth of Iyar, the eighth month of the Hebrew calendar (generally between mid-April and early May).

Across Israel families take advantage of the national holiday to meet friends and watch fireworks. The streets, bathed in warm spring sun, are crowded with voices and laughter. There is a collective sense of elation as people bask in national pride. There’s a reason the Day of Independence is held immediately after Yom Hazikaron, the Memorial Day for the Fallen Soldiers of Israel and Victims of Terrorism: tragedy precedes celebration, and the two are inextricably linked.

But aside from the fallen soldiers, Israel’s freedom comes at another high cost – the dispossession of Palestinians.

Weeks after Independence Day, on 15 May, Palestinians and their supporters mark the Nakba. In the words of Nahed Odeh: ‘Nakba means “catastrophe”, and it refers to the violent displacement of Palestinians that began in 1948.’

Again, we see the nexus of tragedy and celebration – one’s freedom is told by another as a story of loss. Growing up in Israel, however, I only knew one of those stories.

Childhood memories flood my mind, images of hands clutching a small plastic Israeli flag in school assemblies, white shirt and blue jeans, a moment of silence for the fallen followed by fireworks and song.

I remember the first time I heard about the Nakba. In Sydney, in the early hours of the morning, soft lights and dark skies. Three of us left after a night of drinking, as happens when you’re a university student.

I don’t remember the turns the conversation took to get to that place, but I do remember the words landing heavily in my ears, each one like a punch to the face. I just sat there, crying, hearing sound but refusing to listen.

I don’t remember the word ‘Nakba’ being used, but I remember others: ‘massacres‘, ‘women and children’, ‘terrorist actions’.

The room around me came crashing down. I remember calling my ex-boyfriend to pick me up, voice drowned in tears. I remember breaking down in his car, confiding in him the events of the night: ‘And he said that we did all this … destroyed homes and villages.’

‘They don’t understand what it was like then,’ my ex-boyfriend said, ‘we had to protect ourselves, they twist these stories around so much because they’re anti-Semitic, hate seeing that we’re safe, that we’re still here.’

This was all I needed to hear. For years, I put everything I was told that night out of my mind.

When I finally realised that there was something wrong with the story I grew up with –  the myth of nationalism, freedom and pride –  the room came crashing down around me again.

Only this time, I had the tools to rebuild. Away from Israel, the Separation Wall out of sight, I met Palestinians for the first time in my life, and we spoke, laughed and got along.

I don’t remember the second time I heard about the Nakba. There is no moment in time that I can bring to mind. But now I know of it. The trauma of hearing about it for the first time subsided, and it gave room to pain and obligation.

The Palestinian story of 1948 is an untold history in Israel. By erasing the Palestinian narrative, we have rewritten history to suit our needs – this is not unique to Israel, but a facet of every colonising state.

Indeed, in Australia, we are still coming to terms with the suffering inflicted on our First Nations. In May we hold Sorry Day, when Australia remembers its mistreatment of the country’s Indigenous peoples. National Sorry Day dates back only to 1998 – centuries after the first fleets. Granted, some might take issue with this comparison and argue that Jews are indigenous to Israel, but I think that the answer isn’t so simple – both Jews and Palestinians have equal right to sovereignty in their homeland.

What is undeniable is the dispossession and occupation of Palestinians, gross human rights infringements by the State of Israel, and denial of the right of return to Palestinians.

Healing takes time, and it requires more than empty gestures. In the case of Israel and Palestine, we first need to make room for the Palestinian historical narrative, which is presently erased in Israeli society.

I don’t remember the second time I heard about the Nakba, but I can see its traces every day.

I see it when my friends are separated from their families and arbitrarily denied movement on their own land.

I see it when soldiers enter private homes in the middle of the night just because they can, terrorising children.

I see it when hundreds of Palestinians – many of them minors – are held in custody for years without trial.

But this is the thing, I only see. I don’t feel the Nakba, I don’t experience it. There is a senseless cruelty to the Israeli occupation, but it shields its Jewish Israeli citizens well.

I don’t remember the second time I heard about the Nakba, but I don’t need to. I’m able to forget. And this is one of the tragedies of such a catastrophe – that those who perpetrated it can live without daily memory of it, and so history is doomed to repeat.


Image: Abu Dis checkpoint; East Jerusalem / Kashfi Halford


This is part of a special edition marking seventy years of occupation in Palestine. Read the rest of the edition:

– ‘Seventy years of the Nakba’: Jacinda Woodhead, Sian Vate and Rasheeda Wilson

– ‘Indigenous there, settlers here: Palestinians in Australia’ – Tasnim Sammak

– ‘Language, law and laudateurs: understanding the response to the Great March of Return’ – Elliot Dolan-Evans

– ‘A history of Palestinian dispossession’ – Lana Tatour

Na'ama Carlin

Na'ama Carlin is sociologist, writer, and academic. A dual Israeli-Australian citizen, she writes about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, ethics, identity, and violence. You can follow her on Twitter as @derridalicious

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