Nakba (Rhetorics and Logics)


May 15 was Nakba Day, and I’m noting how, with each passing year, more and more Nakba discourse slips into liberal and leftwing Jewish thought in Israel and the United States, even as some on the Israeli rightwing begin to consider the possibility of forging a single bi-national state in Israel and the occupied territories.

Whatever your politics, truth and candor about complex political and moral phenomena can only be a good thing. Always caught in the middle, I wonder if one can affirm the mainline of competing narratives, to talk honestly about the Nakba, the disaster and dispossession that overtook the Palestinian Arab community around the period of the 1948 Israel War of Independence.

Alas, Nakba discourse would seem to be caught between the panic and denial it elicits on the part of the Jewish Israeli and American Jewish public and the moral self-posturing on the part of activists on the anti-Israel left and in Palestine activism circles. In contrast, I’d like to aim for a higher cynicism. In thinking back about 1948, what seems very much as stake are both the machinations of the victors in tandem with the rolling disasters that the leaderships of the losing side brought down upon their own communities.

Regarding the problem that so much of the Nakba discourse dovetails into maximalist versions of the Palestinian Right of Return to what is today sovereign Green Line Israel, I don’t have much to say except that is all too original. I don’t see the “logic” to the “rhetoric” because I’m not sure how far these claims get one. For the vast majority of Israelis and those who support Israel in the United States and across the international community it’s an absolute non-starter. Obviously.

But even still, it should be possible to talk about the events surrounding 1948 and the disaster that the creation of the State of Israel wrought upon the Arabs of Palestine, as they were then called, and to do so with as much sympathy and candor one would give to any other complex human story in which one’s own is intricately involved, politically and/or emotionally.

I might be wrong, but I would like to think that candor about 1948 undermines only the cant that attends the narratives and claims that shape both sides to the conflict, but not the core narratives or claims themselves, which remain coherent and reasonable. The more polemical approach would be to insist that it is impossible to differentiate cant from some putative core, at least as they appear in the camp against which one finds oneself opposite. But that would be to assume that only one side to a conflict has rights while the other side represents evil incarnate. I don’t think it is either cynical nor naïve to assume instead that nations and revolutions are not born in sin, that they do not live without some sin or another, and to recognize that no sin is ever “original.”

I would like to be dispassionate, to observe and to understand both sides of the narrative coin, not any one side in isolation; and to look at the coin as a whole across larger historical contexts. I’d be interested in comparative work, to understand the Nakba in relation to the much larger discourse and practice of population transfer in the first half of the 20th century. This would include the Armenian genocide, the expulsion of Greek Turks from Anatolia in the 1920s and of Czech Germans from the Sudetenland, and the hyper catastrophe in India and Pakistan after partition. What would the comparative approach yield? Nothing original or unique to Israel and Palestine; just different demographic and geographic scales between the relatively small and the enormous, different intersections of histories and life histories, different regimes of symbolic representation and orders of brute and sad human misery, different imperatives of memory and burdens of responsibility, memory and forgetfulness.

Setting aside the rhetorics of recrimination and apologetics, about 1948 it should be possible to recognize as “right” the logic of an encompassing and unfolding historical conflict. With hindsight, this includes each and every action of all the involved actors: [1] why in the face of European anti-Semitism, Jewish political and cultural nationalists sought to advance Jewish “auto-emancipation” before and after the turn of the twentieth century, and why they ultimately settled on Palestine, [2] why the British first supported the Zionist cause in 1917 and then sought to undercut it in the late 1930s, [3] why Jews mobilized and moved en masse out of Europe for Palestine in the 1920s, 1930s, and then after the Holocaust, [4] why this naturally provoked resistance on the part of the Arab Palestinian population, anxious to preserve its hold to the land, caught up in the formation of its own national identity, from the riots of 1921 and 1929 to the open rebellion between 1936 and 1939 and in 1947 [5] why the Arab armies invaded the nascent State of Israel in 1948, and [6] why the Zionist movement and nascent State of Israel took the steps it took, sometimes to expel and never to repatriate, in order to create and to consolidate its claim to and hold on the Land between the 1880s and 1949.

In this complex narrative, there is a logic to every act, and every act makes sense. From this late historical juncture, it’s hard to understand how things could have possibly transpired other than the ways in which they did.

The logics are cold and without mercy, while the rhetorics tend to be hot and committed. And this too makes sense. But I would still rather see a discourse about Israel and Palestine, about Palestine and Israel that combines broad moral sympathy alongside coldblooded assessments of demographic-political dynamics, without confusing solidarity with politics. And then to understand or to contest how and at what point the logics and sympathies that motivate both principal parties to the Israel-Palestine conflict stop making sense.

Rashid Khalidi’s Palestinian Identity, Khalidi’s Iron Cage, and Benny Morris’ 1948 (minus the epilogue) are still among the best, most candid books written on these subjects.

Ultimately, new historical, demographic, political, and moral dynamics demand new kinds of logic and new kinds of sympathy, perhaps or perhaps not based on co-existence and mutual recognition. It’s never clear when new logics begin to take hold, and what kinds of new political formations they might one day shape. As for the logics, no doubt the new one, just like the old ones, will be asymmetrical in regards to the lines of driving force, and this too requires candor no matter the position one ultimately takes, and possibly a little rhetorical cant as well.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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3 Responses to Nakba (Rhetorics and Logics)

  1. Barbara says:

    Yes, Khalidi’s books are really good. Everyone should read them before talking about the Nakba (or about the Palestinians in general). And I totally agree about the need of some serious comparative work. I hope someone will do it some day. Although given how heated and extreme the discourse is it’s hard to hope it will happen any time soon.
    I would love to be able to be dispassionate about the issue. But I must say that when I saw an Israeli “friend” on Facebook post a picture with the words “Yom Nakba sameakh” my blood boiled.

  2. Adam Black says:

    Great reflection, Zak. I’d like to reiterate Barbara’s brief critique of a point you made. Sure, it will be great to make the shift from “hot” rhetoric, the language of advocacy and marketing, to “cold” logic, the language, one hopes, of the analyst. But do we, does the world, and–most importantly–do the people of the region have the time to wait for the logical turn? Will the passion on the ground and the sheer amount of weapons and money and egos allow for that turn until before it’s too late? I’d like to answer yes, but I fear I must answer no.

    • zjb says:

      thanks, Barbara and Adam: by cold logic I don’t mean anything cognitive or rational. what i mean by “logic” has more to do with a more anonymous unfolding of events under new and changed conditions, over which the blood continues to boil.

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