Thursday, May 1, 2008

Rubin: Against Holocaust Denial, Against Naqba Denial (Updated with letter from The Guardian)

I try to be friendly, I try to be kind.
Now I'm gonna drive you from your home, just like I was driven from mine.
Someday baby you ain't gonna worry po' me any more.

Bob Dylan, Someday Baby.

May 8, Israeli Independence Day, will mark the 60th anniversary of the founding of the State of Israel, an occasion to be marked in Israel and Jewish communities around the world with celebration. As always, Independence Day is preceded by Holocaust Remembrance Day (May 2) and Yom ha-Zikaron (Memorial Day, on May 7, in memory of those fallen for the state.

May 15 will mark the 60th anniversary of the Naqba (catastrophe), as Palestinians call the founding of Israel and their consequent defeat, expulsion, and exile. Palestinian and other communities will mark the day with mourning, protest, and anger.

The founding of Israel is often justified, at least partly, as reparation for the genocide of European Jews by the German Nazi regime. For many Jews, the creation of this state redeems, if anything can (and in my view it can't) not only that ultimate atrocity, but also the entire history of Jewish suffering and persecution, seen as a prelude to national rebirth.

Of course the Nazi genocide and all the rest of the history of persecution of the Jews does not and cannot provide any moral justification for punishing Palestinian Arabs. (When I mentioned this in a previous post, a commenter listed various incidents in history where Jews have suffered in Muslim countries. Of course such incidents occurred. But Palestinians are no more guilty of the 1840 blood libel of Damascus, not to mention various outbreaks in 12th and 11th century Cordoba and Granada, than they are of the Holocaust. Palestinian Arabs began to attack Jews only after the Zionist movement began its efforts to establish a Jewish state in Palestine.)

Nonetheless, a few anti-Zionists (notably President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran) have resorted to denial of the historical fact of the Holocaust in order to undermine one of the justifications for the Jewish state. Some non-Jews may not understand how painful, threatening, and offensive this denial of history is. It is like denial of our our own experience, which validates our very existence.

I learned of the Holocaust as a child. When I was 12 or 13, a friend's father, all of whose family had been killed, told us sitting on his lawn one night what it felt like to be whipped at Auschwitz. In the Jewish Day School I attended, we saw Nazi documentary footage of the Warsaw Ghetto, including piles of starving bodies. When my grandfather died, my great aunt found letters in Yiddish in the basement informing his father (after whom I am named) of the death of his sisters, who had stayed behind in Balti, Bessarabia. (This area was in Russia when my great-grandfather left it around 1900. It became part of Romania after World War I and the Russian Revolution, and was joined to the USSR as the Bessarabian Soviet Socialist Republic after World War II. Today it is part of the Republic of Moldova. The violent peregrination of ethno-national borders in Eastern-Central Europe is not as irrelevant to this story as may first appear -- the same process is now going on in many other places, Israel-Palestine among them.)

I also learned about Israel and Zionism as a child. I learned that the Jewish settlers in Palestine scrupulously respected the rights of the few Arabs who lived in the mostly abandoned country, buying whatever land they obtained for a fair market price. I learned that the corrupt shaikhs and bureaucrats stirred up the common people against the Jews because they feared the ideology of equality, democracy, and socialism that they were bringing. I learned that the international community recognized the right of Jews to a homeland in establishing the British Mandate over Palestine after the defeat of the Ottomans, but that anti-Semitic British officials favored the Arabs, even while the Jews of Europe were being massacred by Hitler. I learned that in 1948, after the establishment of the State of Israel by the United Nations, and the declaration of Independence by the Yishuv (the political organization of the Jewish settlers in Palestine) the new Israeli government urged all Arabs to remain in their homes, where they would be protected as equal citizens of the State of Israel, but that the reactionary Arab regimes, which were trying to destroy the new state, broadcast repeated calls to the Arabs of Palestine to flee until the Jews were destroyed, and that most of the Arabs carried out this instruction, showing their bad intentions. The Jewish state miraculously survived and then rescued the Jews of the entire Arab and Muslim world from persecution. It brought these communities to Israel, while the Arabs and their supporters refused to accept this exchange of populations. Instead they preferred to use the Palestinian refugees as political tools.

In other words, I learned to deny the Naqba. My subsequent reading and experience have led me to conclude that the account I learned of the founding of Israel, is not much closer to the truth than the claim that the deaths at Auschwitz were mostly due to disease and war conditions. Of course some people in concentration camps did die of disease and war conditions.
Arab leaders certainly exploited the Palestinians for political gain. But the denial of the Naqba that I learned is, I imagine, as painful, threatening, and offensive to Palestinians as denial of the Holocaust is to Jews.

(I am not equating the Holocaust and the Naqba. Murdering an entire population is worse than expelling most of a population from their homes, treating those who remain as second-class citizens, occupying more of their land, and repressing them through military reprisals, mass detentions, blockades, and targeted killings. Racist genocide is worse than nationalist ethnic cleansing. But no action can be justified on the grounds that even worse actions are possible).

This is not an issue for historians. It is one of the core issues blocking a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization. It is the issue that prevents Hamas from offering to recognize Israel. It is the issue that makes Israel resist any recognition, however symbolic, of the right of return of Palestinian refugees. Dr. Mahmoud al-Zahar, a founder of Hamas, referred to this dispute in his recent Op-Ed in the Washington Post. After recounting the killing of his two sons and his son-in-law, he signaled his recognition of the Holocaust by comparing the resistance of Gazans to that of the Warsaw Ghetto. But he added:
Our movement fights on because we cannot allow the foundational crime at the core of the Jewish state -- the violent expulsion from our lands and villages that made us refugees -- to slip out of world consciousness, forgotten or negotiated away.
Naqba denial is as non-negotiable to Palestinians as Holocaust denial is to Jews.

[But Hamas is a terrorist organization! I can't spend time here exploring all the hypocrisies surrounding the word "terrorist." Suffice it to say that I never heard an American official apply it to the Afghan mujahidin in the 1980s, though their missiles caused far more civilian deaths in Kabul than missiles from Gaza or South Lebanon have in Israel. I am totally opposed to killing civilians for political purposes, either intentionally or because the attacker cannot be bothered to avoid it. But I am also against using that principled opposition to evade accountability for other kinds of crimes.]

We need a common history so that we can have a common future. Here's my outline:

Zionism arose as Jewish nationalism in Central and Eastern Europe in the nineteenth century as ethno-nationalism of other groups threatened the Jews of the Hapsburg and Russian empires. The European struggles over creating nations and states in that region resulted in both World Wars, the Holocaust, the ethnic cleansing of Germans from much of Eastern Europe, the ethnic cleansing of much of Yugoslavia, and mass migrations of many groups to create the more homogeneous states that exist there today. Ideologically, Zionism was one of several alternatives open to the Jews of Europe. The Dreyfus Affair convinced Theodor Herzl (from the Hungarian part of Austria-Hungary) that liberal integration would fail. Some turned to nationalism, and others to socialism. The largest number, including my ancestors, found an apolitical solution in emigration to the U.S. or elsewhere.

Simultaneously, the Ottoman Empire, like its European counterparts, was becoming weakened by international competition and internal nationalist movements. The weakening of the Ottomans opened the possibility for European Jews to settle in Palestine as part of a nationalist movement rather than, as previously, as religious pilgrims. To an extent that those unfamiliar with Jewish texts might not appreciate, the "Land of Israel" occupied and occupies a central place in the Jewish imagination. Three times a day religious Jews prayed for God to return them to the land from which they had been exiled, and in times of national catastrophe, chiliastic or messianic movements had repeatedly formed around a return to the land. Zionism provided a secular national transformation of this cultural pattern, and therefore melded Jewish nationalism (a new phenomenon) with the messianic passion of the return.

Palestinian Arabs (and most of the rest of the world) were not aware of these currents, nor, quite understandably, did they conclude that because of these beliefs they should allow a group of foreigners to form a state on their land. Britain could call on related Biblical narratives in sympathy with the plan for a Jewish National Home in Palestine, though strategic objectives (desire for a friendly population near the Suez Canal) certainly played a role.

Jews were persecuted, even massacred, in much of Europe, but they largely shared the European assumption that Western colonialism represented progress, and that the decision by the League of Nations to award a Mandate over Palestine to Britain, including the creation of a Jewish National Home, was a legitimate and binding decision in international law. In Palestine as elsewhere the subjects of colonial rule had a different perspective.

The creation of Israel was part of the global redrawing of borders, forced migrations, ethnic cleansing, imperial breakdown, and genocide that overwhelmed much of the world during and after World War II. As the Jewish state was established in Palestine, resulting in war and expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Arabs, a Muslim state, Pakistan, was carved out of India, leading to far bloodier wars and many more deaths. Germans were expelled from Czechoslovakia, Poland, and elsewhere, by virtue of their affiliation to the former occupier. Serbs, Croats, Albanians and others in and around Yugoslavia started the process of ethnic cleansing that continues today. The USSR seized territory from all the states to its west, with huge concomitant population transfers. These are just a few random examples. The formation of ethno-nationalist states through violence and population transfer was the rule rather than the exception -- which did not make it any more legitimate or tolerable for its victims.

In this general violent upheaval of nationalism, Jewish survivors were not welcome in their former homes and were even massacred at times on their return. The victorious countries of World War II, including the US, still emerging from both Depression and wartime deprivation, were not willing to open their borders to millions of refugees. As after other historical incidents of disaster (the various Jewish Naqbas) a movement (with messianic components such as the teachings of Rav Kook) arose around the return to the land, this time taking the form of nationalism. What happened in Palestine was nothing unusual -- it was happening all over the world. National movements recruited desperate, idealistic, devoted, cruel, thoughtful, and thoughtless people in service of creating states on territories by excluding others. After all they had been through, the Jews would not rely on anyone else for their security, and if their desperate and heroic act of national revival created other victims, it was up to the rest of the world to compensate them.

Palestinians, Arabs, Muslims, and others in the colonial world narrated these events as part of a different story. The European powers that won the war were also the major colonial powers and used their domination of the United Nations and the world scene to create a state in Palestine without consulting its inhabitants, who naturally resisted. Some saw this as part of an ongoing struggle of Muslims against their enemies, who aimed to destroy them.

Perhaps if the Arab states, still emerging from colonial domination themselves, had been stronger and had more resources, they could have reached an agreement that would include absorption of the Palestinian refugees, as Germany accepted the repatriated Germans or India and Pakistan accepted each others' refugees. But these countries were insecure and poor themselves. Their populations, and most of all, the Palestinians themselves would not accept it. Nor was there any reason that they should. No people is obliged to surrender its sovereignty and security to redress wrongs committed by others. Every person has the same individual human rights that the world affirmed (if hypocritically) largely in response to the Holocaust itself. Among these basic rights, included in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (passed by the UN General Assembly on December 10, 1948) is the "right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country." There is no exception for Palestinian refugees. But it wasn't enforced for Jews or many others. Why for them? But this is not a question likely to interest Palestinians expelled from their homes and still living under occupation or as refugees 60 years later.

That was the "foundational crime" of which Dr. al-Zahar wrote. I propose a reframing: the Jews and the Palestinians are joint victims of the Holocaust and the Naqba, of the history of nationalism, racism, and colonialism, from which we are all suffering. They should jointly demand of the rest of the world assistance and support in finding a way out of this tragedy.

Therefore: no to Holocaust denial, no to Naqba denial. There are still plenty of difficult issues to resolve. But let's start with the tragic truth.

Update: From the Guardian:

We're not celebrating Israel's anniversary

In May, Jewish organisations will be celebrating the 60th anniversary of the founding of the state of Israel. This is understandable in the context of centuries of persecution culminating in the Holocaust. Nevertheless, we are Jews who will not be celebrating. Surely it is now time to acknowledge the narrative of the other, the price paid by another people for European anti-semitism and Hitler's genocidal policies. As Edward Said emphasised, what the Holocaust is to the Jews, the Naqba is to the Palestinians.

In April 1948, the same month as the infamous massacre at Deir Yassin and the mortar attack on Palestinian civilians in Haifa's market square, Plan Dalet was put into operation. This authorised the destruction of Palestinian villages and the expulsion of the indigenous population outside the borders of the state. We will not be celebrating.

In July 1948, 70,000 Palestinians were driven from their homes in Lydda and Ramleh in the heat of the summer with no food or water. Hundreds died. It was known as the Death March. We will not be celebrating.

In all, 750,000 Palestinians became refugees. Some 400 villages were wiped off the map. That did not end the ethnic cleansing. Thousands of Palestinians (Israeli citizens) were expelled from the Galilee in 1956. Many thousands more when Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza. Under international law and sanctioned by UN resolution 194, refugees from war have a right to return or compensation. Israel has never accepted that right. We will not be celebrating.

We cannot celebrate the birthday of a state founded on terrorism, massacres and the dispossession of another people from their land. We cannot celebrate the birthday of a state that even now engages in ethnic cleansing, that violates international law, that is inflicting a monstrous collective punishment on the civilian population of Gaza and that continues to deny to Palestinians their human rights and national aspirations.

We will celebrate when Arab and Jew live as equals in a peaceful Middle East.

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gdamiani said...

"Racist genocide is worse than nationalist ethnic cleansing"

Say what !?!? You should say it in the face of the victim of the latter.

Anonymous said...

Rubin - thanks for your comments on the Israel Palestine conflict and the Nakba. The Israeli historian Ilan Pappe has written a book called "The Ethnic cleansing of Palestine" where he documents, based on military and civilian sources and a lot of interviews the actual policy of the Zionist leadership months before the establishment of Israel to by force evict Palestinians from villages and suburbs in what UN had decided should become the Jewish state, but also from areas supposed to become the Palestinian state. Pappe concludes that what happened to the Palestinians during 1947 to 1949 should be viewed as crimes against humanity. His message is that the acceptance of this by Israel as well as the international community is a condition for reaching a viable political settlement.

Barnett R. Rubin said...

To G. Damiani, I presume that by posting this on a blog, I have made the content available to everyone with web access and a knowledge of English, including victims of nationalist ethnic cleansing. As should be obvious, I am not proposing that the victims of ethnic cleansing should thank the perpetrators for not killing all of them. If I say that the Rwandan genocide of 1994 was an even worse crime than the Kenyan ethnic cleansing of 2008, I am not defending the latter or insulting the victims.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for that wonderful, bold post. Have you cross-posted, or considered cross-posting it on other, political blogs?

You covered quite a lot of ground, but one thing that might warrant more attention in your narrative is the way Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine were ravaged in the course of the two world wars, in large part due to their relationship with colonial powers (Ottoman and French drafts, e.g.). (Just a few lines, maybe. Because it's relevant, and I think people aren't well aware of this.)

Barnett R. Rubin said...

Dear Hussein Paladin, There is lots more to cover, lots and lots more....Hope to get to it all some day. But blogs make it possible to share work in progress....

Anonymous said...


One little not on a useful and sensitive post:

The term used to indicate the catastrophe in Arabic is Nakba (with a K). Naqba is the Hebrew rendering of that word.

Barnett R. Rubin said...

Really! I saw Nakba had a kaf (not qaf) in Wikipedia, but in most of the sources it seemed to be transliterated with a q. And now I can't find my Arabic dictionary....

gdamiani said...

To Barnett R. Rubin

Point taken. Thanks for clarifying.


Anonymous said...

"linked" from a comment at TPM-Cafe,
I think this is a marvelous perspective for discussion, I applaud the insight, thank you.

Anonymous said...

What a tremendously concise post! Congratulations, Prof. Rubin! Covering so extensively, sensibly and in an intellectually and morally honest manner the background of these complex thorny issues AND setting them in their wider context (rise of ethno-nationalism and its now 200year rampage in Europe and the world) in such little space makes your post an instant must-read.

If only everyone interested in the Israel-Palestine issue (or at least everyone attending classes on this topic) received this as a part of an initial briefing!

Maybe the general direction that Europe did take and is taking after its self-mutilation by ethno-nationalism can serve as an outline of a solution - with security guarantees, recognition for both the status-quo as well as the historical injustices, regional cooperation, efforts at reconcilation both at the grass-roots and inter-state level, and finally the freedom of movement?
(not that this process had been perfect, complete or without its owen aberrations...)

I very much look forward to continuing reading your posts!

Anonymous said...

Mr. Rubin - What a moving, intelligent, sorely needed post. Thank you.

aisha said...

I wish there were a way to make everyone emotionally and otherwise invested in that little strip of land, but mostly the policymakers in Washington, read this post. Thank you so much.

Anonymous said...

"I am not equating the Holocaust and the Naqba."

You most certainly are, that is exactly what your post does.

That you would find reason to append the vile Guardian declaration to your post puts you squarely in their company.

Barnett R. Rubin said...

Thank God, someone who doesn't agree with me read this post.

Matt Eckel said...

My response is a bit long for the comments section:

Anonymous said...

The fact of the matter is, in my humble opinion, that a new discourse needs to emerge that will look at the situation in a perspective that allows for both sides of the conflict to be recognized on equal terms. This constant slapping back and forth will never achieve ground in finding a solution. I applaud anyone who is willing to look into a solution that presents a reasonable/logical eqaulity. In reality, both sides have had horrible violence, death, and fear as part of their daily lives. At some point we will all wake up and remember that human beings are the victims. I may not agree with every word in this blog, but find valuable opinions. Enough with the elitist semantics, be real, this is a real situation, invloving real people. Prof. Rubin, thanks for the good read, I ran across it on Juan Cole's blog...will now put you on my daily must read list

Anonymous said...

Dear Prof Rubin:

"It is like denial of our our own experience, which validates our very existence."

Jewish existence was not validated by the Holocaust. Judaism is validated by its moral tradition. The Holocaust, or Shoah, was a sacrifice of millions of lives for Nothing.

Anonymous said...

Dear Professor Rubin:

" Palestinian Arabs began to attack Jews only after the Zionist movement began its efforts to establish a Jewish state in Palestine."

Beginning in 1897, Labor Zionist leaders sought a homeland for Jewish refugees, but not yet a political state. Palestine was a Turkish possession and the Zionist leaders knew better than to provoke the Turkish government by demanding a state. After 1917 Palestine was governed by the British, and Zionist leaders again envisioned a Jewish homeland within the British Mandate. Only in 1945, when the British refused to allow Jewish refugees to immigrate to Palestine, did the Zionist leadership finally seek Jewish statehood. Palestinian Arabs attacked Jews in Palestine long before 1945.

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