“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.”
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…