Denying the Holocaust, denying the Nakba- Middle East illusions

We are halfway through the semester of my course, East Africa in a Globalizing World. After nearly two months talking about geography and tribal customs, the history of East Africa from 1500 and the emergence of political parties, after watching movies about the imposition of colonialism and white settlement, this week we reached the period of the emergence of the three independent East African states. In relief, one of the students said, ‘It’s about time.’ She wants to know about contemporary matters, what Africa is like today and doesn’t find history, geography and culture very interesting.

I understand her impatience. Enough about the past. What’s gone is gone. Let’s just get on with things.

But I am of the mind that you can’t really understand the present without knowing the important facts about the past. This is why I like the image of two-faced Janus for January, ushering in the New Year by simultaneously looking backwards, so we can see where we came from, and forward, so we can see where we are going.

I don’t think you can make sense of the unfolding drama in Kenya regarding the charges in the International Criminal Court, for example, without understanding the underlying tribal affiliations that were formed during the colonial period.

And I don’t think the continuing tragedies in the Middle East can be made sense of without understanding the formation of the state of Israel. Without such knowledge, the bombing of civilian buses in Jerusalem this week can be dismissed as acts of savages and the razing of houses in Palestine by Israeli forces can be viewed as another expression of Western imperialism.

There is some truth in both these interpretation of events, but they are superficial responses. Context needs to be provided. And this is what the United Nations is proposing to do in Gaza schools in the fall by introducing a case study on the Holocaust. After all, how is it possible for Palestinian children to understand the fierce determination of Jews to keep Israel as an independent state without knowing about what happened to the Jewish people during the Nazi era? The UN lesson plan would be the first time that Palestinian children will learn about the Jewish genocide.

However, there is great opposition to the program. Mohammed Asquol, the Hamas Education Minister said that Hamas would block this case study “regardless of the price.”

The UN presently operates schools in Gaza for 200,000 children. Hamas, which has several leaders who deny to that the Holocaust ever happened and sees the UN as the main challenger to its authority, believe that exposing Palestinian children to the Holocaust will increase sympathy for Israel and thereby undermine their own claims to the Jewish territory.

Hamas is not alone in reacting negatively to the UN plan. “Teaching the Holocaust to Palestinian students in U.N. schools is unacceptable,” said Zakaria al-Agha, a member of the PLO’s executive committee.

It is teaching about the Holocaust that is a vital step in finding a solution to the Middle East conflict. While acknowledging the Holocaust doesn’t necessarily diminish the claims of Palestinians, it does humanize Jews in Israel and therefore makes conversation and dialogue a possibility.

The real history of the region isn’t on-sided, though. Palestinians aren’t the only deniers of history. In fact, Jews did steal land from thousands of Palestinians and push them out of Israel when it was established. The estimate is that 700,000 Palestinians either fled or were expelled from their ancestral homes. Palestinians refer to these events as Nakba. This needs to be part of Israeli history books.

Sadly, the Israeli Knesset yesterday passed a law that would require the state to fine local authorities and other state-funded bodies for holding events marking Nakba (Arabic for catastrophe) Day on Israel’s Independence Day.

The tragedy of the Middle East is that two people have legitimate claims to the land and both Palestinians and Jews have acted badly towards one another. It will require the courage of leaders from both sides to ask forgiveness from the other. Palestinians have to admit the fact and the scope of the Holocaust; then they can understand why Jews tenaciously cling to their homeland. Jews need to acknowledge the historic and continued theft of land from Palestinians, put a stop of building Jewish settlements in the West Bank and acknowledge the West Bank as part of an independent Palestinian state.


8 thoughts on “Denying the Holocaust, denying the Nakba- Middle East illusions

  1. I think you’re needed to head up the peace talks, Arthur. Both sides have some heavy doses of accountability and responsibility to own up to, and it must be done concomitantly so as to make sure neither side feels like they are giving up some kind of ridiculous symbolic advantage.

  2. Acknowledgement of the injustices by the Palestinians towards the Jews and the Jews towards the Palestinians would certainly be helpful in dealing with the future of this region.

    Chaim Weitzman, one of the people instrumental in founding the state of Israel admitted that the displacement of Palestinians by Jews was “the lesser of two evils,” referring to the fact that WW2 displaced Jews had no where to go because of limited immigration quotas in most countries, and open anti-semitism in some.

    Additionally, during the British mandate period in Palestine, set up by the League of Nations, the Balfour Declaration accepted the right of Jews to a national home in Palestine and many Jews lived there before 1948 when the state was created. There was therefore a legal basis for a Jewish state, although many Palestinians did not acknowledge it, especially feeling that western nations had betrayed Palestinians.

    During the 1948 war of Israeli independance, many Palestinians did indeed leave their land, in part because of fear of Jewish occupation, but also in anticipation that the Arab armies would sweep Israel into the sea and their land would only be abandoned temporarily. Had these Palestinians remained, they would still occupy their land (20% of Israel’s population, who remained during the war are Palestinian Arabs.)

    I don’t know that the comment ” In fact, Jews did steal land from thousands of Palestinians and push them out of Israel when it was established” is justified. It is hard to define a situation in which fear of possible Jewish retaliation was a factor and glee at the thought of wresting land owned by Jews was another. Some of the displacement was self-imposed; some of it was coerced. To say that the land was stolen is to imply that the Jews had no right to be there in the first place.

  3. The are facts and there are interpretation of facts.
    The Holocaust is a fact—Hamas and others deny this.
    The exodus of 700,000 Palestinians from what is now Israel is a fact—one that many Israelis once denied but don’t any longer since once secret documents were made public in Israel a number of years ago.
    What is subject to interpretation about the 700,000 expelled is whether they were forced out, chose to leave or fled out of fear.
    After independence Israel invited 100,000 Palestinians to return. The plight of the remaining 600,000 and their descendants is at question.
    My point is that both sides have legitimate and historic claims to the same area. That, it seems to me, needs to be acknowledged by everyone.

  4. I don’t disagree with anything that Arthur has written about “Middle Eastern Illusions” except for his use of the phrase ” in fact, Jew did steal land” describing the displacement of Palestinian Arabs during the 1948 war. The circumstances were quite difficult for these Palestinians and their choice of which side to adhere to was dangerous and uncertain.

    However, the partition of Palestine into two states, one Jewish, the other Palestinian, by the UN in 1948 was a solution which the Palestinians and Arab nations refused to accept, and which precipitated a war that by sheer logistics, any betting person would say should have swept the Jews away. If that had happened, Jewish property would clearly have devolved to the Palestinian victors.

    The Jews won, and the boundaries of the Israeli state were changed as a result of the war, incorporating areas that had been in Palestinian hands. Where Palestinians no longer occupied their land, Israel co-opted it. I can’t stretch my mind enough to call that stealing, although there clearly was some involuntary displacement of Palestinians.

    I would go so far as to accept the need for Israelis to pay reparations for the land co-opted in this fashion, although some people have wondered why no reparations have been offered where Jews have been forced to emigrate from unfriendly Arab countries. Only a limited amount of property could go with them and often, no compensation for property left behind was made.

    “Steal” was an unfortunate and inflammatory term to use.

  5. Pingback: Palestine article about ignoring the voices of Palestinians |

  6. Arthur,

    Wish you were in London, where there is a constant discourse in the heritage sector between those who deny the Trans Atlantic Slave Trade and its horrors, but are willing to acknowledge the holocaust.

    However with reagrsd to your opening sentence, I have this audio-slide by the BBC with regards to the exhibition that I co-curatted.

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