Catastrophe was self-inflicted

The story of the Palestinian Naqba should remain in the textbooks but be properly explained

By Geoffrey Alderman, July 30, 2009

What are we to make of the recent decision by the Israeli government to require the removal of the word “naqba” from a textbook designed for use in schools catering for Arab youngsters?

The Arabic word naqba means “catastrophe”. Whereas Jews all over the world celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut — Israel’s Independence Day (5th of Iyar, falling between 15 April and 15 May) — as a day of rejoicing, the Muslim world (following the 1998 diktat of Yasir Arafat) marks the occasion annually, on or about 15 May, as Naqba Day, a time of solemn, mournful processions and ritualistic denunciations of Israel, Zionism, Jews and Judaism.

Such demonstrations of extreme negativity (to put it mildly) have, of recent years, extended to Israel itself. As one Arab member of the Knesset explained in 2006, “Independence Day is your holiday, not ours. We mark this as the day of our Naqba, the tragedy that befell the Palestinian nation in 1948”.
I can entirely understand and sympathise with the outrage in Israel such Naqba demonstrations cause. Naqba Day reflects the mind-set of victimhood that pervades the Arab world. Yet Arabs living in Israel enjoy a high standard of living, and can take full advantage of the educational and economic opportunities the Jewish state provides.

Gideon Saar, education minister in Bibi Netanyahu’s government, spoke eloquently when he explained to the Knesset last week why he was excising the word naqba from the textbook in question: “There is no reason,” he said, “to present the creation of the Israeli state as a catastrophe in an official teaching programme. The objective of the education system is not to deny the legitimacy of our state, nor promote extremism among Arab-Israelis. In no country in the world does an educational curriculum refer to the creation of the country as a ‘catastrophe’. There is a difference between referring to specific tragedies that take place in a war — either against the Jewish or Arab population — as catastrophes, and referring to the creation of the state as a catastrophe.”

As indicated, I entirely understand and sympathise with this view. All the same, I cannot help feeling that an opportunity has been missed.

Academics can argue (and do, fiercely) about whether and to what extent Palestinian Arabs were themselves to blame for the fate that befell them in 1948. We all know that over the past two decades or so a group of revisionist historians has sought to rewrite the “official” Zionist narrative of that time, and has talked about the “original sin” of “ethnic cleansing” that — they allege — accompanied the re-establishment of the Jewish state.

Yet there is a sense in which even these revisionists, or at least the more intelligent-minded of them, agree that Palestinian-Arab policy makers in the last years of the Mandate made dreadful decisions based on frankly stupid and semi-hysterical assessments. Those of you who wish to explore this theme in greater detail can do no better than read the latest analysis to fall from the pen of one of these revisionists: Professor Benny Morris’s volume, One State, Two States.

But we do not need to read any learned tome to reassure ourselves of the truth of Palestinian-Arab complicity in the Naqba. Earlier this month, on Al-Palestinia TV, no less a personage than Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas spoke at length about his childhood in Sfat. Until the Naqba, he explained, his family was well-to-do. Then, in 1948, they all left for Damascus. Why? Not because they were expelled, forced out, or ethnically cleansed. Mr Abbas spoke frankly: “People were motivated to run away.” And why was that? Because, he revealed, they feared retribution for massacres of Jews that had taken place in Sfat in 1929 and 1936.

In 1947, the Arabs in Mandate Palestine rejected the two-state solution. And in 1948 they left, fearing that the violence meted out upon the Jews would be re-visited upon the perpetrators. There was indeed a Naqba. But it was self-inflicted.

My advice to Gideon Saar, then, is not to excise the word from the textbook, but — quoting the very words of Mahmoud Abbas — to explain its true meaning.

Last updated: 1:43pm, July 30 2009