To Be a Jew on Nakba Day

photo credit: Al Jazeera

Back in 2009, when I was beginning to struggle openly with my relationship to Israel and Zionism, I wrote a blog post entitled “Why I Didn’t Celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut.” Here’s how it began:

I’ve decided not to celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut today. I don’t think I can celebrate this holiday any more.

That doesn’t mean I’m not acknowledging the anniversary of Israel’s independence – only that I can no longer view this milestone as a day for unabashed celebration. I’ve come to believe that for me, Yom Ha’atzmaut is more appropriately observed as an occasion for reckoning and honest soul searching.

As a Jew, as someone who has identified with Israel for his entire life, it is profoundly painful to me to admit the honest truth of this day: that Israel’s founding is inextricably bound up with its dispossession of the indigenous inhabitants of the land. In the end, Yom Ha’atzmaut and what the Palestinian people refer to as the Nakba are two inseparable sides of the same coin. And I simply cannot separate these two realities any more.

In the fourteen years since writing these words, I haven’t wavered on this essential conviction. I still don’t consider the founding of a Jewish state on the backs of another people to be a day to celebrate.

A rabbi whose work I’ve often admired recently tweeted, “What if you knew your heart was big enough to hold the joy of Yom HaAtzmaut and the bitter anguish of the Nakba?” I must respectfully disagree. I reject the implication that those of us who refuse to celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut with joy are somehow being “small hearted.” There are increasing numbers of Jews who refuse to celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut out of genuine and deep seated moral conviction. We understand all too well that the the “national liberation” of Jewish statehood was accomplished through the ethnic cleansing of another people – a Nakba that is still very much ongoing. Intentionally or not, those who celebrate this selective form of liberation are, in a very real sense, normalizing dispossession. And it is not small hearted to affirm this.

As I see it, the question on whether or not to celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut is not a question of holding complex, contrary emotions at the same time. Rather, it is a question of solidarity. As Marek Edelman, the anti-Zionist leader of the Warsaw ghetto uprising famously put it, “To be a Jew means always being with the oppressed and never the oppressors.“ Perhaps this is the real question: “What if you knew your heart was strong enough to stand down a celebration of dispossession – particularly when this dispossession is actually occurring in real time?”

As with the fourth of July in the US, these kinds of national holidays give us the opportunity to interrogate our histories and think honestly and seriously about their legacies. To this end, I’d like to suggest that the Jewish community find new ways to commemorate the occasion of Israel’s founding (see for instance, my 2018 prayer “A Jewish Prayer for Nakba Day.”) I am not suggesting for a moment that we should appropriate Nakba Day and “make it about ourselves.” It should go without saying that Nakba Day rightly belongs to the Palestinian people. But at the same time, I do think it provides the Jewish community with the opportunity to acknowledge the truth of the Nakba in a world where Nakba denial continues to run rampant.

My friend and colleague Rabbi Brian Walt wrote powerfully about this issue in a recent essay, “Nakba Denial and ‘Teshuvah’/Reparations:”

As a Jew, I believe that the Nakba…is the most important ethical and spiritual issue facing the Jewish people in our time. Our people will be judged, and we will judge ourselves, by whether we will treat others differently when we have power over them. Will we mistreat others in the same way we were mistreated, or will we follow the ethical imperative of our tradition to treat everyone as an individual created in the image of God deserving of equality, compassion and love? This is a moral question on which the future of Judaism and the Jewish people rests in our time.

…We must ask ourselves what is the cost that Palestinians should pay for our safety? We simply must create a different reality where both peoples thrive, not one at the cost of the other…The first step of teshuvah is hoda’a/acknowledgement. The very first step is to challenge the denial by acknowledging the truth of what was done, no matter how painful that acknowledgement may be.

As I wrote in 2009, just because I’m not celebrating on Yom Ha’atzmaut with joy, it doesn’t mean I’m not acknowledging the anniversary of Israel’s establishment. Rather, I’m taking this opportunity – as a Jew and a person of conscience – to stand in solidarity with the Palestinian people, to acknowledge the truth of their historic and ongoing dispossession, and to affirm a different reality: “where both peoples thrive – not one at the cost of another.”

May we all have the strength of heart to make it so.