On May 23 in these pages, Professor Yehuda Bauer wrote an open letter to Palestinian director and actor Mohammad Bakri in response to Bakri's public assertion that Israel was only created because of the Holocaust.
Bakri made his statement at an event marking Nakba ("catastrophe") Day –which Palestinians commemorate annually on the anniversary of Israel's establishment.
In the piece, "Israel didn’t come into being because of the Shoah; Israel exists in spite of it," Bauer claims that Israel was established thanks to a diplomatic breakthrough, not the Holocaust and not feelings of guilt toward the Jewish people. His assertion is magnificently constructed and convincing.
With it, he has helped shift the discourse about the Nakba and the Holocaust from the area of myth to that of history, allowing for a fairer, more direct investigation of the topic.
Still, Bauer’s impressive claim misses the historical question that Bakri poses – that of Israel’s responsibility for the Nakba.
It is not important whether or not the Holocaust caused the establishment of the State of Israel. Neither is the fact that the State of Israel gave refuge to a substantial number of Holocaust survivors, rehabilitating them in buildings and towns that were, in essence, Palestinian ruins. It seems there can be no historical argument over this fact.
Because of this historical fact, which to this day allows the Holocaust to be used as a justification for the State of Israel’s existence (even if it was not the cause of its establishment), Israel bears heavy responsibility.
This responsibility stems, in part, from the fact that it is Israel's own leaders who are making connections between the Holocaust and the establishment of the state. And the state is responsible for the Nakba. For example, these leaders invoke the Holocaust to justify potential military action against Iran.
And Israel’s responsibility for the Nakba does not stop at the events of 1948. The Nakba, which is ongoing, is only getting worse – and for that, Israel is culpable.
It does not matter whether, in 1948, the Palestinians fled their homes or were driven from them. What matters is that when the dust settled, they were not allowed to return. Even if Israel's establishment is not connected to the Holocaust, Israel took in Jewish refugees while creating Palestinian ones. That that creates an undeniable connection between the Holocaust and the state's creation.
It was because of the Holocaust that Israel's leaders felt the need to establish the State of Israel as a Jewish state. This state guards its Jewish character by, among other tactics, continuing to oppose the Palestinian right of return.
Like many Israelis, Bauer understands that it takes more than just empathy for the Palestinian disaster to accept responsibility for the Nakba. He knows that this is a responsibility that demands expression in the practical realms of law and justice – in other words, by recognizing the right of return and entering into negotiations about how that right will look in practice.
It seems that this is why he would rather deflect the debate to the historical clarification of the role played by the “state in the making,” which existed before the Holocaust, and to the diplomatic factors that enabled the establishment of the State of Israel.
But the painful and real question, the one that is both historical and moral, is what role the Holocaust played, and continues to play, in the State of Israel’s existence and actions. This is, after all, the same country that refuses to recognize its responsibility for the Nakba for fear that recognizing of the right of return could compromise its Jewish character.