Rabbis Remembering the Nakba

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“These I remember and I pour out my soul…”

Last Thursday night I welcomed 14 people  – 9 Jews and 5 Palestinians – into my home for what turned out to be a powerful and sacred experience. The timing of our gathering was significant. May 14, 1948, the date of the State of Israel was declared, is a joyful milestone for Israel and Jews around the world. For the collective memory of the Palestinian people, however, this date represents their displacement and dispossession – an event they refer to collectively as the Nakba (“catastrophe.”)

The gathering in my home was one of four events that took place throughout the country on Thursday evening sponsored by “Rabbis Remembering the Nakba” – a new ad hoc group of rabbis and rabbinical students who seek to create a Jewish context for remembering this tragic event. Even more crucially, we believe it is critical that the Jewish community find a way to honestly face the painful truth of this event – and in particular, of Israel’s role in it.

In the words of a statement that was read at each gathering:

Our gathering tonight, “Rabbis Remembering the Nakba” is part of a series of programs occurring simultaneously around the country. It was originated by an ad-hoc group of American rabbis who desire to seriously reflect upon the meaning of Israel’s Independence Day. We are united in our common conviction that we cannot view Yom Ha’atzmaut – or what is for Palestinians the Nakba – as an occasion for celebration. Guided by the values of Jewish tradition, we believe that this day is more appropriately an occasion for zikaron (memory), cheshbon nefesh (“soul searching”) and teshuvah (“repentance.”)

These spiritual values compel us to acknowledge the following: that Israel’s founding is inextricably bound up with the dispossession of hundreds of thousands indigenous inhabitants of the land, that a moment so many Jews consider to be the occasion of national liberation is the occasion of tragedy and exile for another people, and that the violence begun in 1948 continues to this day. This is the truth of our common history – it cannot be denied, ignored or wished away.

Jewish tradition teaches that peace and reconciliation can only be achieved after a process of repentance. And we can only repent after an honest accounting of our responsibility in the wronging of others. While it is true that none of the Jews present tonight were actively involved in the dispossession of Palestinians from their homes in 1948, it is also true that if we deny or remain silent about the truth of these events, past and present, we remain complicit in this crime. In the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, “In a free society some are guilty, but all are responsible.”

Our gatherings this evening bring together Jews and Palestinians in this act of remembrance. This coming together is an essential, courageous choice. To choose to face this painful past together is to begin to give shape to a vision of the future where refugees go home, when the occupation is ended, when walls are torn down and where reconciliation is underway.

In addition to the event I hosted in Chicago, “Rabbis Remember the Nakba” gatherings were held simultaneously in Berkeley (led by Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb), New York (Rabbinical Student Alissa Wise), and Philadelphia (Rabbi Linda Holtzman). Though each event was organized separately and involved the additional participation of various local peace and justice groups, each gathering was linked by a few important common factors: each was led by a rabbi or rabbinical student, each involved the participation of both Jews and Palestinians, and each incorporated aspects of Jewish ritual in their ceremonies.

At the Chicago gathering, the guiding value of our ritual was zikaron – remembrance. As part of our ceremony, we bore witness by reading the history of the eight Palestinian villages that were destroyed on May 14, 1948. (In all, over 400 villages were depopulated of their inhabitants over the course of that year.)  In addition to learning about the events that transpired on the Nakba, we also learned about the history, culture, and communal life of each village. (Palestinian historian Walid Khalidi’s exhaustive and highly recommended work, “All That Remains” was an essential resource for our ceremony.) After hearing the history and fate of each village, a memorial candle was lit and we recited the following line from the Yom Kippur liturgy together: “These I remember and I pour out my soul.”

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On the whole I would describe our evening as a modest first effort that nonetheless contained some profound and indelible moments. By incredible coincidence, one of the Palestinian participants, Shafic Budron, mentioned that his wife’s family was from al-Bassa – one of the eight villages we commemorated in our ceremony. (Al-Bassa was a large village in Acre District, near the northwest coast of Palestine.)

As we read about al-Bassa’s fate during the Nakba, we learned this tragic account relayed by Palestinian eyewitnesses: after occupying the village, Haganah forces lined up some of the townspeople outside a church, shot them, and ordered others to bury the bodies. Shafic said he has heard numerous stories about al-Bassa from his mother-in-law over the year, including her traumatic recounting of the massacre on May 14. He added that his mother-in-law now has Alzheimer’s and has lost most of her adult memory – her only remaining memories are of her childhood village.

After our ritual, other Palestinian participants spoke at length about the stories of their own families. One man told us about the experiences of his mother, who was a survivor of an infamous massacre in the village of Deir Yassin, outside Jerusalem. Our gathering also included a Christian Palestinian from the north of the country, who experienced the Nakba personally.  Another Palestinian participant told us about his father who was saved by a Jewish friend during the Irgun’s attack on Jaffa.

In the end, the Palestinian participants were quite obviously moved that they were given this opportunity to have this conversation with Jews, as part of a ceremony convened by a rabbi. To put it mildly, it was obviously something quite unprecedented in their experience.  For the Jewish participants, there were a myriad of complex and powerful emotions. I’m personally still trying to sort through them all.

Whatever cognitive dissonance I might feel over this issue, I truly believe that this kind of reckoning is utterly essential for us as Jews. When it comes to the Nakba, most of us tend to respond through denial, avoidance, or dismissive rationalization (“that’s just how nations are made – what can you do?”)  The reason seems fairly clear: to face the painful truths of this history means to admit that our people  – a people who has been the victim of dispossession and dehumanization for centuries – has now become the perpetrator. And if we do indeed manage to face these truths, where does that leave the Zionist narrative that has been so deeply cherished by so many of us for so long?

I don’t know where we will go from here, but everyone present agreed that this was the tentative beginning of something enormously important. Our humble gathering resonated with a myriad of implications that ranged from the personal to the political. But by the end of the evening, it was clear that whatever happens next, Jews and Palestinians must do it together.

PS: Just learned that Yisrael Beiteinu, the party of Avigdor Lieberman, seeks to make it illegal for Arabs in Israel to commemorate the Nakba. This is what it has now come to: memory is not only denied, it is now deemed against the law…


19 Comments on “Rabbis Remembering the Nakba”

  1. Lesley says:

    I am awestruck. Most of what I have read about Deir Yassin in Jewish sources has been denials, equivocations and minimizations. Your gathering sounds like the start of a much needed truth and reconciliation process for everyone involved in this ongoing tragedy.

    I know you will hear angry voices demanding that Arabs and Palestinians need to accept their share of responsibility for the violence. That is true, but if we keep waiting for “someone else” to take the first step, we will never get anywhere. Thank you Brant, and your fellow rabbis for taking that first step.

  2. [...] dream-come-true to be another people’s nightmare.) Just as a small but remarkable group of American rabbis took it upon themselves to Remember the Nakba this week, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s party, Yisrael Beitenu, continued the march [...]

  3. Bill Plitt says:

    Your statement about whatever comes next, “Jews and Palestinians must do so together”, is a very powerful committment to an essential truth. Resolution will come through increasing awareness of “the other” and in the healing of relationships. Thanks for this small step in that direction.

  4. Stan says:

    OK Brant. On this one I have such a turmoil of emotions on this one it’s hard to know where to begin.

    First – I agree totally that if we are to have peace we must come together – Jews and Palestinians – to make the next steps. We must do it together. And I completely agree that as part of that we must have honest and open dialogue about the actions of everyone – both past and present.

    However, it seems that the balance on the evening is precisely what was missing. It is proper and important that the day be one of remembrance for what was lost and resolve for trying to make things right. But just as it is important for Jews to know what their actions have had on the Palestinians, isn’t it also important for the Palestinians to know what Israel has meant for those who had nowhere else to go?

    I applaud your efforts for leading towards a true sense of co-awareness and ultimately (hopefully) reconcilliation. But if it is to occur it must – equally as honestly – allow the Palestinians to understand why Israel is so important to so many Jews. Just as it is naive and disingenuous for Jews to dismiss the pain and suffering we have caused, so it is equally disingenuous to disavow the political, historical, and social needs for Jews that have led them to cling so desparately to a homeland.

    While I certainly respect and admire your honesty and strength in arranging such an event, I also completely disagree with the inability to celebrate the day.

    You need not accept the process by which the State of Israel was founded to accept the joy of its presence. I oppose the way that the United States has treated the Native Americans – the disposession of their peoples, the diminution of their cultures, and the breaking of their treaties. Yet, this does not keep me from celebrating the presence of a country where I can openly study these facts, openly disagree with the government, and actively work for a society that is better.

    Similarly I find the State of Israel, even with its flaws of action and omission, to be a blessing, just as I would find the foundation of a Palestinian State to equally be a blessing. In Passover we celebrate our freedom, yet remember the pain we have caused. At Yom Kippur we end with a joyous celebration, even though we have spent day (days) self-reflecting on the pain and suffering we have caused others and wish to avoid in the future. Judaism is nothing if not a religion of contrasts, and I find no conflict in celebrating our blessings while simultaneously cursing our own evils and remembering the pain we have inflicted.

    I believe that the path to peace lies not in just remembering together our tragedies and pain, but also imagining together the blessings we can share. That is why I will continue to celebrate with joy Israel’s Independence Day – while simultaneously renewing myself towards ridding the pain and suffering of others.

    My the day come speedily where Israelis and Palestinians can together celebrate their Independence Days and work together for peace and prosperity for all their peoples.

    Stan

  5. Thank you, Stan, for a eloquent and thoughtful response, as always. I agree with much of what you say, of course. I would only add that I don’t think we agree on what constitutes “balance” in this particular conflict.

    If there was parity in the power dynamic between Israel and Palestine, then perhaps I would agree with you that a balanced “co-awareness” would be necessary for reconciliation. But that is not the case here. In the case of Israel/Palestine, there is a radically imbalanced power dynamic between the two parties. And a big part of the problem comes from the fact that while this imbalance is patently obvious to most Palestinians, most Jews/Israelis simply just don’t see it. Most of us good liberal Jews tend view the conflict simply as a conflict between two equal sides with two equal claims to the same piece of land.

    Part of my own evolution on this issue is my own coming to grips with the reality that the playing field is not actually level at all – that Israel is the infinitely more powerful party here. And even more to the point (and much more painful to admit) that Israel has, in a very real way, committed an injustice against the Palestinians and continues to oppress them to this day.

    And if we do accept these painful realities, then what does coexistence ultimately mean in this context? What does it mean for the oppressor to “coexist” with the oppressed? And what do we mean by reconciliation? Cannot reconciliation only truly occur when the offending party admits and takes responsibility for its past and present offenses and makes an effort to make repair? This is precisely the step that is so horribly difficult (if not unthinkable) for so many Jews and Israelis.

    The reason I organized this gathering was precisely because I don’t think most Jews understand the true source of the Palestinian people’s pain – and the depth of the injustice that was committed against them. And until we Jews honestly come to grips with our role in perpetrating and perpetuating this injustice, I don’t see how we will ever achieve balance or reconciliation going forward.

  6. Yotam says:

    First of all, let me thank you again, Rabbi, for hosting this powerful event in your home. I found it very meaningful, and I personally greatly appreciated having a Jewish context for such a commemoration.

    I think it was a testament to how earnestly your intentions came across that the Palestinians present felt comfortable sharing such clearly painful first and second hand experiences. I think it’s incredibly important that we Jews take the initiative when we can in things like this because it is the only way to overcome the skepticism seen in many Palestinians. Miryam and I were talking about this on the way to your house. We agreed that while we can understand why there is this skepticism – years of overtures of reconciliation have only yielded more dispossession and bereavement – still it is important whenever possible to expose Palestinians to Jews who are in the process of acknowledging and accepting their share of responsibility for the long-suppressed narrative of the Nakba.

    On the other hand, it was clear that the Jews present were sympathetic enough to what the Palestinians there had to share that we could have a successful memorial without it becoming too much of a debate. On that note, most of the debating happened between the Palestinians there! I am especially grateful that we had the kind of dynamic where the Palestinian participants were the ones who brought up the Holocaust and other persecution of the Jewish people in an attempt to bridge a gap between our two narratives (and NOT in an attempt to equate). The fact that we had to remind ourselves that it was getting late and we all needed sleep is a good sign that we all wanted to continue the conversation about what happened and what we can realistically do now to actively acknowledge and redress the Nakba.

    I felt especially connected to this experience because we accessed it through Jewish values. As in a Shiva, we participated in the sorrow and pain the Palestinians were expressing. Furthermore, it is my belief that our value of remembering (never forgetting) is only strengthened by serving that function to others, especially those whom we have injured. The pain and loss we have suffered in our Jewish narrative will only be made more legitimate by our acknowledgment of and participation in the pain and loss of other, especially the Palestinians.

  7. Larry Rosen says:

    Congratlations on this milestone in what should be a first step in a populist dialogue between jews and palestinians.

    LMR

  8. Avner says:

    Dear Rabbi Rosen

    Thanks for your eloquent and well written answer to Stan.

    Although you mentioned the present suffering of the Palestinians, it should be stressed out that their Nakba is on going and counting to this day. Surely, one can’t speak about true reconcilliation in the present situation.

    Avner

  9. Lisa says:

    I feel so blessed to have been invited to share your Nakba commemoration last Thursday. I also felt so humbled and fortunate to have earned the trust of my Palestinian friends, that they could share their very painful personal stories. It is a testament to you, Brant, that you created such a safe environment for them to do so – as so often, they are silenced in either subtle or blatantly cruel ways in our society. My journey from growing up in the Reform Zionist movement, to becoming an activist for Palestinian human rights and a just peace in Israel/Palestine, was for so many years an extremely lonely one. While many in the Jewish community speak of “peace,” there is a conspicuous absence of honest soul searching and coming to grips with the true history of how Israel came to be, what it is today, and how we got here. I have often felt that I focus my anger, outrage, shame, and grief into activism. What was missing was a moment to reflect, to mourn, to commemorate. Thursday night provided that much-needed opportunity. You and the other rabbis who remember the Nakba, are true spiritual leaders and I hope many more follow your example.

  10. [...] For reflections on this event as well as the position statement made by these Rabbis, read Rabbi Rosen’s blog. [...]

  11. ZionistJew says:

    I am a student at CJHS. I heard your rebuttal and was convinced that your were a Zionist. You have proven me wrong. You mourn with the ones who won’t recognize Israel as a Jewish homeland, how dare you! Isn’t a primary tenant of Zionism to believe that we have a right to the land? How could you mourn the death of those who want to kill us? According to Haifa University, 40.5% of Israeli Arabs deny the holocaust. They cannot even recognize our greatest tragedy, but you are quick to recognize theirs and even “celebrate” it. Defend your honor rabbi, or you will be written in history as yet another anti-Zionist Jew.

  12. Miryam says:

    Dear Rabbi Rosen,

    The gathering and Nakba commemoration at your home Thursday night was incredibly meaningful to me in so many different ways. Your initiative felt so genuine and grounded that as a Palestinian, I was “at home” discussing and reflecting on this painful situation with you.

    I read a previous comment about the gathering being unbalanced. But demanding or expecting balance in a situation that’s so acutely unequal and unbalanced prevents a necessary coming to terms with the major injury and injustice that was done and continues to be done to the Palestinian people on a daily basis. There are few Palestinians who haven’t experienced the effects of dispossession or occupation. I don’t think my experience of having lived under military occupation is different than most Palestinians in that it is that much more difficult to get to a place of healing when the wound is ongoing.

    I think you’re exactly right when you say it’s important that we work and move forward together as Arabs and Jews. When all is said and done, there will be a major reservoir of painful memories and experiences for people to draw on when carving out a future. It’s critical that we build another kind of historic memory now, as we work in solidarity to end the occupation and support human rights and equal rights for all.

    I hope you know how important your leadership felt in furthering a new kind of relationship.

    Miryam

  13. Zionist Jew,

    Not all Palestinians are our enemies, and not all Palestinians want to kill us. If we are going to find a way out of this horrible conflict, we will need to come together in common understanding. The central question for me is not which people has a “right” to this land, but rather, how are we going to extend equal rights to all who live upon it?

    You should know that more than one Palestinian participant at my house mentioned their sorrow over the Jewish tragedy of the Holocaust. This gave me hope that there is indeed a chance for a better future together. I fervently believe that if there were more attempts at common understanding and learning from one another, the numbers in that survey would change dramatically.

  14. Eric Selinger says:

    Your comment, ZionistJew, reminds me of something I once heard from a Palestinian militant: “You mourn with the ones who won’t recognize Palestine as an Arab homeland, how dare you! Isn’t a primary tenant of our cause to believe that we have a right to the land? How could you mourn the death of those who want to keep us and our children in eternal exile? According to Bir Zeit University, 40.5% of Jews deny the Nakba. They cannot even recognize our greatest tragedy, but you are quick to recognize their Holocaust…. Defend your honor, or you will be written in history as yet another collaborator with the enemy.”

    Except in this case, I’m sure it’s far more than 40.5 % of Jews who refuse to recognize the Palestinian tragedy, or at least our part in it.

    What Blake says has come true of both sides: “They became what they beheld.” (And Auden: “I and the public know / What all schoolchildren learn: / Those to whom evil is done / Will do evil in return.”)

  15. jil Levin Deheeger says:

    I would like to add my own sense of awe at what you are trying (and on some profound, albeit personal/small level, succeeding) to accomplish. If only more people could reach out to all participants in this conflict, and not just see it as “us vs. them” or “right vs. wrong” or “entitled vs. usurper” and look at one another as a fellow human being in need of a solution, we would all benefit. And that is certainly not unique to this particular situation.
    I think get-togethers such as yours and the others that were held across the country are certainly a strong step in the right direction – towards dialogue, mutual respect and understanding, and the possibility of real solution.
    Thanks so much, Brant, for this wonderful initiative.

  16. A statement on ‘balance’ from the editors of Rethinking Globalization:
    Teaching (and political action) is biased when it ignores multiple perspectives and does not allow interrogation of its own assumptions and propositions.
    Partisan teaching (and political action) on the other hand, invites diversity of opinion but does not lose sight of the aim of the curriculum (or event or action): to alert students (individuals) to injustice, to seek explanations and to encourage activism.

    This speaks to the question of ‘balance’. When there is a historical injustice, such as the forced exile of an entire population from its home, a partisan response is required.
    True, we want to include many perspectives in consideration.
    However, the use of torture, collective punishment, administrative detention, checkpoints, five hundred miles of security barriers, sniper towers, massive military assault, destruction of land, loyalty oaths, denial of access to education and health care, forced starvation by denying access to food and water by one military superior side against a basically defenseless population is not a balanced situation. That is why some rabbis and Jewish community activists show partisanship toward victims of terrible and ongoing abuse. This is the situation of the Palestinian people. In order not to be biased, and because we all deeply believe in the security and well-being of Jewish people wherever we live, including Israel, of course, we condemn the firing of rockets on civilians in Sederot. However, we see that condition as a result and response to the forty year military occupation of Gaza by Israel. The only way forward is to first acknowledge the event that catapulted Palestinians into the unending trauma unleashed by ongoing military occupation. Therefore, I remember the Nakba which is not in the past, but is a daily ongoing event in the lives of millions of Palestinians. Let us remember, and let us act. Join the movement for ending the siege on Gaza. Search the JVP website for ways you can become active for the sake of peace.

  17. Shalom Salaam Peace says:

    I am also a student at CJHS.
    I would like to commend you, Rabbi Rosen, for being a true dugmah b’tzibur. You demonstrate to us all an alternative to the extreme violence of the conflict and the one-sidedness of the majority of the American Jewish (AIPAC) population.
    Correct me if I am wrong, but I believe you are a Zionist, simply who also has a sense of justice. Zionism has been corrupted by the retired American Jews of Florida who get nervous every time anyone with the Mohammed comes within 100 feet. (They also get nervous anytime anyone who is not white comes close to them, but that doesn’t matter… We should still set the standards by them, duhh…) True just Zionism is a recognition that Jews have a right to exist (not exclusively, nor even necessarily as a majority) in at least part of the Holy Land.
    The work to be done (as you clearly demonstrate by your actions) is that of dialogue, mutual understanding and love, shared culture and experience (as we must eliminate the “other” quality of the conflict. Those who die in battle on opposite sides, both die in battle together. A SHARED conflict) , and most of all in education of justice and peace.
    It is sometimes astounding in this post-post-modern world that such archaic beliefs are still mainstream among those both prominent and typical (as my fellow CJHSer) in the American Jewish community.
    Perhaps some lobbying reform will be passed someday soon to at least level the playing field.
    B’eztrat Ha’Chevrah V’Ha’tevah and your continued efforts we shall all see peace soon.
    Shalom Salaam Peace

  18. Thomas Bauer says:

    Dear Rabbi,

    Todays edition of Haaretz carries this article on “Are teachers introducing Nakba to students against state’s wishes?” (http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/1090345.html). Here
    “An educational kit on the Nakba [catastrophe] – the Palestinian term for what happened to them after 1948 – is being disseminated among teachers throughout the country. It was developed by Zochrot, a non-government organization, and is meant to serve the Jewish educational system for pupils aged 15 and above, and includes history plus literary and personal views on the Nakba, as well as discussion of the ways the issue has been sidelined in public discourse.”

    ” initially the pupils express all the usual opposition such as denial, justification of the Jewish side and sometimes even calls to kill the messenger – in this case the teacher. The pupils find it very difficult to accept there is no one truth to the story. Spivak says there is no 180-degree change in the pupils’ views but “I can see that there is the start of questioning.”

    “The Education Ministry responded: “The education kit was not approved by the ministry. Teachers using materials not approved by the ministry are acting against ministry procedure and policy.” The ministry also said it would conduct “an immediate investigation, including into this case.”

    I am deeply touched by your initiative, and also by your replies to some of the hostile comments. If more people would think like you, it might be easier to come to Peace in that region of the world which is Holy to three religions. The article clearly shows, though, that there is still a long way to go.

  19. The community that remembered the Naqba at your house is a tremendous statement of humanity!

    In Australia I was taught as a child of European ‘settlement’. This has a very nice , cosy feel about it. Not so much blood and guts. It was not until much later that we talked about invasion. Even still this is hard to hear for some European Australians.

    I realise many will be mortified to even try and compare European invasion of countries like Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, the US or Canada to Israel.

    Yes there has been an indigenous connection with the land for millenia. Yes the land holds deep spiritual and cultural heritage to Jewish people. However, this spiritual and cultural heritage is not unique to Judaism. Palestinian Christians and Palestinian Muslims too share in the rich heritage of this land.
    They saw the British come after the Ottomans had been defeated and replace one master for another. They saw mass Jewish immigration from the 1920s to 1940s.

    Yes Palestinians could have done more to provide a refuge for European Jews fleeing persecution in Europe. However, what is a fair share of the burden? Australia, closed it’s doors after taking no more than 16,000 Jews, South Africa and other European colonial countries similarly took few people.

    My sadness is that we learn little from the past oppressed people become oppressors in just a lifetime. This is as true of my Scottish ancestors who came to this land for a new life after being kicked out of ‘their’ land by the English. My ancestors proceeded to demonise and persecute Aboriginal people.

    The last 60 years of Israel whilst exhibiting clear differences still reflects the difficulties in coming to terms with what it means to build a democratic and free society for all people regardless of race, religion etc.

    My fear is that so much hatred has been stirred up amongst elements within the Palestinian community that they too given the chance would not learn from history. But that fear cannot stop me from ensuring that we honestly speak about the wrongs committed in the past as a step towards rapproachment and healing and hopefully a new way of relating to each other as fellow human beings, as brother, sister, mother and father.


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