...By virtue of our natural and historic right and on the strength of the resolution of the United Nations General Assembly, [we] hereby declare the establishment of a Jewish state in Eretz-Israel, to be known as the state of Israel. -from the Israel Declaration of Independence, 1948
We recently engaged a new Arabic editor for our foundation's Hebrew-Arabic web newspaper. While only in her early 30s, Samach has been working in Israeli Arab media since high school and has accumulated impressive experience, and we are excited finally to have found someone who can help us build the Arabic component of the website. I first met with her in early May, and in discussing what topics might be of interest to both populations, the Nakba came up. Nakba, or "disaster" in Arabic, is the word that has come to be commonly used to describe the experience of the Palestinian Arabs in Israel's War of Independence in 1948. For years, public discussion of that experience was pretty much non-existent in Israel. If the Arabs thought about it or talked about it, it remained below the radar. There were even years when the government checked to make sure that Israeli Arab schools were properly celebrating Independence Day. But the country has grown up a bit, and so have the Arabs, and in the past decade or so, the word has come to be a common part of public discourse. Loaded, emotionally charged, arousing powerful feelings, but out there.
I learned from my conversation with Samach that the Nakba is now commemorated twice: Israeli Independence Day is observed as a national holiday according to the Hebrew calendar, on the 5th of Iyar, which falls on a different Gregorian date each year. Arabs, of course, have a day off just like everyone else. In the past, they simply treated it as a generic holiday, using it for family outings etc. However, in recent years, the leadership of the community has tried to educate the population regarding the historical meaning of the day for them, scheduling a public commemoration at the site of a destroyed village. My sense is that for most Israeli Arabs, the day remains a welcome vacation day, that can be enjoyed for what it is without too much guilt. Indeed, when our Jewish-Arab circus was invited to perform at an air force base on Independence Day, the Arab families were no less enthusiastic than the Jews about getting to see all that macho high-tech hardware close up. Meanwhile, however, the Gregorian date "officially" designated by the Arab leadership for commemorating the Nakba is May 15. On this day, in recent years, there have been large scale assemblies, and pilgrimages to destroyed villages. Sometimes these have morphed into angry demonstrations. It is fascinating to observe the ambivalence and division among the Israeli Palestinian Arabs with respect to these observances. As the immediate events recede into history (and as the generation who experienced them dies away), there are two competing forces: the movement toward forgetting, toward assimilation, toward wanting to get on with life in a modern democratic state - and the movement toward preserving, remembering, shoring up an identity of which the 1948 war was a major turning point. Samach pointed out that just as Jews cannot disconnect their identities from their historical memories (even though we often don't agree on just what the connection should be), so the Arabs face the challenge of trying to fit in, to "make it," without losing the roots and the memories that make them who they are.
Most Israeli Jews still cannot accept the public discussion of the Nakba, and the very sound of the word tends to provoke anger. Somehow it seems that the Arabs' insistence on remembering their defeat makes many Jews feel that they have not accepted it, and that commemoration of the Nakba is a tool in an unending irredentist campaign to undo 1948. The commemorations of recent years have given rise to several proposed laws (now pending) to make them illegal. It seems to me that people have a right to their feelings, their memories, and their identity, and that attempts to forbid, suppress, or delegitimize them are only destined to backfire, weakening rather than strengthening Israel's fragile social solidarity.