Published on Friends of Sabeel -- North America (http://www.fosna.org)
Beyond Holocaust and Nakba Denial: Toward Compassionate Co-humanity
29 August 2007
Rosemary Radford Ruether
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, President of Iran, has been widely condemned in the West as a “holocaust denier,” someone who has declared that the story that six million Jews were killed by the Nazis during the Second World War is a “myth.” What horrified western condemnations of this denial fail to explore, however, is why there is sympathy for this denial in the Middle East? The reason quite simply is that the Middle East has experienced the story of the Holocaust as a claim to a unique entitlement of the Jewish people to a state built on Arab land. It is this use of the Holocaust as entitlement against themselves that makes people of the Middle East suspect that the story has been made up by the West. As Ahmadinejad put it, “Our question is, if you have committed this huge crime, why should the innocent nation of Palestine pay for this crime?”
This use of Holocaust history as entitlement to land was made evident to me in an incident I experienced in the Gaza Strip about ten years ago. I was present in Gaza with a study delegation I was helping to lead, when some Palestinians from a Gazan village contacted us and told us that their last piece of agricultural land had just been confiscated by Israeli settlers. They had built greenhouses to expand the productivity of this land and were about to harvest the crops, when the Israelis from a near-by settlement came and destroyed the greenhouses, bulldozed the land and claimed it as theirs.
We followed the villagers in our bus and were standing looking at the bulldozed field, when two settlers arrived in a car, carrying the ubiquitous Uzis (machine guns). Two women of our delegations ran over to talk to them through the car window. “Why did you do this to these villagers,” they asked. The settlers shouted back, “It is because of what happened to us in the war.” “But these Palestinians had nothing to do with what happened to you in the war,” the women protested. “It makes no difference,” the settlers replied. “Everyone must pay. The whole world must pay.”
It is in the context of such experiences of land confiscation in the name of “payment” for the Holocaust that Palestinians and others in the Middle East are tempted to retort, “But that never really happened. You just made it up to justify what you are doing to us.”
Resistance to honoring the Holocaust is aggravated, for Palestinians particularly, by the fact that they have suffered since 1948 by what might be called “Nakba denial” by the Israelis. Just before and during the 1948-9 Israeli “war of independence” some 800,000 Palestinians fled or were forcibly expelled from their towns and villages in an expanded state of Israel (from the 54% of Palestine originally granted by the UN for a Jewish state to 73%). Those driven out became refugees under Jordan, Lebanon or Egypt, while the remnant of Palestinians who remained within Israel also lost most of their land to become internal refugees.
It is this massive “ethnic cleansing” of Palestinians during the 1948-9 war that Palestinians refer to as the Nakba (the Catastrophe). The official Israeli version of the history denies that these Palestinians were ever forcibly expelled. It claims that the Palestinians left voluntarily, having been called to leave by the Arab nations, hoping to return triumphantly after the victory of these armies.
Careful studies of the broadcasts that took place during the war have proved that no such call from the Arab states ever took place. Those who fled did so as a temporary measure to avoid being killed (in the light of the Israeli massacre of the people of the village of Deir Yassin). Many others, such as the people of the Arab towns of Ramle and Lydda, were forcibly marched over the border to Ramallah, many dying along the way.
More recently, revisionist Israeli historians have confirmed the Palestinian account of these events and shown that the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians from land claimed by Israel was an intentional plan by Israeli leaders, such as Ben-Gurion. Unfortunately one of the most prominent of these Israel revisionist historians, Benny Morris, while still confirming that the Palestinians were intentionally expelled, has turned to justifying this, saying it was necessary to create a Jewish majority in Israel. He has suggested that it should have been done more thoroughly.
For Palestinians, the Nakba is not simply about past history. The Nakba continues in endless new instances of expropriation of land, and in efforts, such as the building of the “wall” around the Palestinians areas in the West Bank, to make life for Palestinians so intolerable that they will leave. Thus Palestinians experience themselves as living an ongoing Catastrophe that continues to today, but whose reality is denied by Israel.
Does Nakba denial by Israelis justify Holocaust denial by Arabs? Obviously not. But what is illegitimate is using the Holocaust to justify catastrophic destruction of Palestinian life and confiscation of their land. A more insightful approach would be to link the two positively. One should say, “the Holocaust was a terrible crime against the Jews by the West, and now Israel uses it to justify another crime against the Palestinians.”
This is the approach of Khaled Mahameed, a Muslim Palestinian in Nazareth, who has put up a small museum of pictures of European Jewish suffering during the Nazi era to instruct his fellow Palestinians about the reality of the Holocaust. He added a few pictures of Palestinian refugees from the 1948 war, thus condemning both crimes. While the Anti-Defamation League has applauded Mahameed’s effort to educate fellow Palestinians about the Holocaust, they have condemned any link with the Palestinian Nakba as inappropriate. Clearly what is needed is a breakthrough to a compassionate sense of co-humanity, in which Israelis and Palestinians can mourn each other’s disasters and refuse to use one disaster to justify another.