Shlomo Avineri
Haaretz (Opinion)
May 11, 2011 - 12:00am

Efforts by members of Israel's far right to forbid the country's Arab citizens from commemorating the Nakba are mean, foolish and destined to fail. But initiatives by the extreme left to turn Nakba Day into a joint memorial day for all of Israel's citizens are also doomed. Israel is not a binational state, and with all due liberalism and humanism, it is hard to treat victory and defeat in the same way.

What can be demanded of the Jewish majority is that it show respect for the mourning of the Palestinians. But this has been made difficult by the way the Palestinian narrative has until now presented the Nakba, and Israeli liberals must be intellectually honest enough to deal with that issue.

First, the very concept of Nakba, the Arabic word for catastrophe or disaster - as though the events of 1948 were a natural disaster rather than the result of human action - blurs the historical context of the events. The so-called Nakba was not a natural disaster. It was the outcome of military and political defeat resulting from political decisions for which specific people were responsible.

Second, in the Arab world in general, and among the Palestinians in particular, there is great reluctance to confront the Holocaust. Nevertheless, one sometimes hears comparisons between the Nakba and the Holocaust. But the very comparison is morally obtuse: What happened to the Palestinians from 1947 to 1948 was the result of a war in which they were defeated, while the Holocaust was the planned, methodical mass murder of civilians. The 6 million Jews of Europe who were killed in the Holocaust had not gone to war against Germany. German Jews were in fact good German patriots, and many of the Jews of Eastern Europe saw German culture as the apex of European civilization.

Third, and this is the most important point: The Palestinian discourse does not address the fact that Arab political decisions are what brought the terrible disaster down on the Palestinians. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of articles and books in Arabic about the war of 1948, and there are expert analyses of the reasons for the Arabs' military failure. But to this day there is no willingness to deal with a simple fact: The decision to go to war against the UN resolution to partition Mandatory Palestine was a terrible political and moral mistake on the part of the Arab world.

If the Palestinians and the Arab countries had accepted the partition plan, the Arab state of Falastin would have been established in 1948 and there would have been no refugee problem. It was not the establishment of the State of Israel that created the refugee problem, but rather the fact that the Arabs went to war against the establishment of a Jewish state in part of Palestine.

Israelis seeking reconciliation may be permitted to ask the Arab side to face these issues. Just as it is impossible to detach the deportation of 12 million ethnic Germans from Eastern Europe after 1945 from Germany's attack on Poland in 1939, so it is impossible to ignore the moral dimension of the Arab decision to go to war against the idea of partition. When you go to war and lose, there are consequences, even if the winners must still be held responsible for their own actions.

If we are indeed heading toward a two-state solution, some self-criticism should be expected from the Arab side, something like what S. Yizhar's book "The Story of Hirbet Hizah," about the expulsion of Arab villagers by an Israel Defense Forces unit acting under orders, symbolized for the Israeli discourse. That would make it much easier for Israelis to share Palestinian pain.

The democratic winds beginning to blow in the Arab world should raise the hope that one of the next steps after Tahrir Square will be the development of a critical discourse - the beginning of liberation, not only from autocratic regimes, but also from the inability to take a good hard look in the mirror.


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