By Daniel Sokatch, NIF International CEO
This month, we marked 75 years since the establishment of the State of Israel. For many Jews in Israel and around the world, this is an occasion for celebration. After centuries of persecution, antisemitism, and existential threats, the birth of Israel represented the creation of a safe homeland for Jewish people in the immediate aftermath of the Holocaust. But this moment of salvation for Jews was, at the same time, a moment of dispossession and exile for Palestinians.
For Palestinians, Israel’s establishment was their Nakba, or catastrophe, as hundreds of thousands fled or were forced from their homes by the army of the new state.
The long-term consequences of this complex moment are felt today in Israel, the occupied territories, and around the world. And those of us who care deeply about the fate and future of both Israelis and Palestinians need to hold that complexity with empathy and compassion for both peoples.
In that spirit, earlier this month, NIF grantee Combatants for Peace held a Joint Nakba Remembrance Ceremony. It was a moving event in which Jews and Palestinians joined together to recognize the profound impact of the Nakba and its reverberations today.
It is imperative that we grapple with the full history of Israel’s establishment — both the creation of a safe haven for Jews and the devastating impact this had on Palestinians.
Many in Israel’s mainstream are reluctant to acknowledge the Nakba, arguing that it was an unfortunate necessity, that it was not as bad as history proves it was, or denying that it ever happened at all. This kind of denialism, this attempt to erase or whitewash uncomfortable chapters from history, reminds me of those here in the United States who subscribe to a sanitized founding myth of our country, one that omits our original sins of slavery and the genocide of Native Americans. But those of us who have meaningfully, honestly engaged with American history can acknowledge the intertwined and sometimes conflicting truths of our country. We know that the United States has been a beacon of hope for the oppressed and a refuge for many fleeing persecution. And we also know that so much of what we are was built on catastrophe for Native Americans and Black Americans. Both of these things are true. Both are a part of our history and our identity.
In order to build toward a better, shared future for all Americans, we have to acknowledge both of those truths. And the same is true for Israel.
In fact, we saw this Nakba denialism spill over into the United States Congress earlier this month, when House Speaker Kevin McCarthy weaponized accusations of antisemitism to block Palestinian American Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib from using a room in the House to host a Nakba Day event. We saw conservative and centrist politicians and leaders of Jewish establishment organizations pile on, denouncing the event. It breaks my heart that there are some leaders in our country and our community who cannot bring themselves to acknowledge the reality of Palestinian suffering, as if doing so will somehow diminish the reality of Jewish suffering. It was thus fitting, even poetic, that at the end of the day it was Senator Bernie Sanders, perhaps the most prominent Jewish politician in American history, who made space available in the Senate to host the event. That made me proud.
While too many people in Israel and beyond try their best to ignore this painful chapter of our shared history, Israel’s ruling right-wing do not attempt to ignore or deny the Nakba. Instead, as Yehuda Shaul, founder of Breaking the Silence laid out in a Twitter thread, they are proud of it, and threatening another. In 2021, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich lamented the fact that David Ben-Gurion “didn’t finish the job” by expelling all Palestinians from within the Green Line in 1948. Meanwhile, just last May, National Infrastructure Minister Israel Katz (then a Likud MK), standing on the Knesset podium, warned Arabs to “Remember 1948. Remember our War of Independence and your Nakba…We will teach you a lesson that you will not forget.”
As I wrote together with former NIF President David N. Myers last year, many Palestinians fear another Nakba is looming. They seem to have good reasons to.
And we are seeing the logic of the Nakba play out in both the occupied territories and within the Green Line. The settler movement, in conjunction with the Israeli military, has spent years trying to forcibly expel Palestinians from Area C of the West Bank. Most recently, they’ve focused their efforts on the Masafer Yatta region, claiming that the area in which Palestinians have lived for generations is needed as a firing zone for the IDF. In East Jerusalem, as we saw today during the annual Jerusalem Day Flag March, extremist Israelis chanted “Death to Arabs” and “May Your Village Burn,” in what is clear incitement to violence against Palestinians.
In Israel proper, a cache of discriminatory laws have neglected, ghettoized, and criminalized Arab residents for years. But back in 2021, we also watched as the Jewish National Fund—Keren Kayemet LeYisrael (JNF-KKL) tried to plant a forest on top of Bedouin farmland in Negev. And just two weeks ago we saw an effort from a member of Netanyahu’s government to make the High Follow-Up Committee on Arab Affairs, a quasi-governmental organization that is one of the few avenues Palestinian citizens of Israel have to hold their government accountable, illegal.
This month’s fighting between the IDF and Islamic Jihad in Gaza brought up echoes of the tortured legacy of the events of May 1948. Israeli bombs rained down on Gaza’s residents, many of whom are descended from refugees who fled or were expelled from their homes in Israel in 1948. Meanwhile, militants fired barrage after barrage of rockets at the cities, towns, and kibbutzim Israelis built as their safe haven from persecution.
If we want to see an end to this violence, if we want to see a future in which everyone, Israeli and Palestinian alike, enjoy true equality, justice, and democracy, we will need to wrestle with the good, the bad, and the ugly in Israel’s history.
There is much to celebrate, but we cannot do so while ignoring other painful chapters of the past. To do this requires true Arab-Jewish partnership — partnership that, like the Combatants for Peace event, holds the complexities of a shared history with different traumas while at the same time working towards a better shared future.