Israel has resorted to three main strategies to suppress Palestinian calls for justice and human rights, including refugees’ right of return: Rewriting history, distracting from present realities and claiming the Palestinian narrative as an Israeli one.
The rewriting of history happened much earlier than some historians assume. Israel’s propaganda machine went into motion almost simultaneously with Plan Dalet, which saw the military conquest of Palestine and the ethnic cleansing of its inhabitants. But the discourse regarding the Nakba (Catastrophe) that befell the Palestinians in 1947-48 was constituted in the 1950s and 1960s.
In an article entitled “Catastrophic thinking: Did Ben-Gurion try to rewrite history?” Shay Hazkani revealed the fascinating process of how Israel’s first Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion worked closely with a group of Israeli Jewish scholars to develop a narrative about what had taken place in 1947-48: The founding of Israel and the destruction of Palestine.
Ben-Gurion wanted to propagate a version of history consistent with Israel’s political position. He needed “evidence” to support that position. The “evidence” eventually became “history,” and no other narrative on the Nakba was allowed to challenge Israel’s.
“Ben-Gurion probably never heard the word ‘Nakba,’ but early on, at the end of the 1950s, Israel’s first prime minister grasped the importance of the historical narrative,” Hazkani wrote. Ben-Gurion assigned scholars in the civil service to fashion an alternative history that permeates Israeli thinking to this day.
Distracting from history, or the current reality of the horrific occupation of Palestine, has been in motion for nearly 70 years. From the early myths of Palestine being a “land with no people for a people with no land,” to today’s claim that Israel is an icon of civilization, technology and democracy surrounded by Arab and Muslim savages, Israel’s official distortions are relentless.
While Palestinians are gearing up to commemorate the war of June 5, 1967 that led to the ongoing 50-year military occupation, Israel is throwing a big party. The absurdity does not escape all Israelis. “A state that celebrates 50 years of occupation is a state whose sense of direction has been lost, its ability to distinguish good from evil, impaired,” commentator Gideon Levy wrote in Haaretz newspaper.
“What exactly is there to celebrate, Israelis? Fifty years of bloodshed, abuse, disinheritance and sadism? Only societies that have no conscience celebrate such anniversaries.” Levy says Israel won the 1967 war but has “lost nearly everything else.” Since then, Israel’s arrogance, detestation of international law, “ongoing contempt for the world, the bragging and bullying” have reached unprecedented heights.
Levy’s article is entitled “Our Nakba.” He is not trying to claim the Palestinian narrative, but is succinctly registering that Israel’s military triumphs were an affliction, especially as they were not followed by any sense of national reflection or attempt to correct the injustices of the past and present.
But the process of claiming the term “Nakba” has been pursued cunningly by Israeli writers for many years. For them, “the Jewish Nakba” refers to the Arab Jews who arrived in the newly independent Israel, largely on the urgings of Zionist leaders for Jews worldwide to “return” to the biblical homeland.
A Jerusalem Post editorial complained that the “Palestinian propaganda juggernaut has persuaded world public opinion that the term ‘refugee’ is synonymous with the term ‘Palestinian’.” Israelis trying to hijack the Palestinian narrative to create an equilibrium in the discourse, one that is inconsistent with reality.
The editorial puts the number of “Jewish refugees” of the “Jewish Nakba” at 850,000, slightly above the number of Palestinian refugees who were expelled by Zionist militias upon Israel’s founding. Luckily, such disingenuous claims are increasingly challenged by Jewish voices as well. A few, but significant, voices among Israeli and Jewish intellectuals worldwide are daring to re-examine Israel’s past.
They are rightly confronting a version of history that has been accepted in Israel and the West as the uncontested truth behind Israel’s birth in 1948, the military occupation of what remained of Palestine in 1967, and other historical junctures.
These intellectuals are leaving a mark on the Palestine-Israel discourse wherever they go. Their voices are particularly significant in challenging official Israeli truisms and historical myths.
Writing in The Forward, Donna Nevel refuses to accept that discussion of the conflict starts with the war and occupation of 1967. Nevel is critical of the so-called “progressive Zionists” who insist on positioning the conversation only on the question of occupation, thus limiting any possibility of resolution. Not only is the ‘two-state solution’ defunct and practically impossible, but the very discussion precludes the Nakba of 1948.
The “Nakba doesn’t enter these conversations because it is the legacy and clearest manifestation of Zionism,” Nevel wrote. “Those who ignore the ‘Nakba’ — which Zionist and Israeli institutions have consistently done — are refusing to acknowledge Zionism as illegitimate from the beginning of its implementation.”
This is why Israeli police recently blocked the March of Return, conducted annually by Palestinians in Israel.
For years, Israel has been wary that a growing movement among Palestinians, Israelis and others worldwide has been pushing for a paradigm shift in order to understand the roots of the conflict. This new thinking is a rational outcome of the end of the “peace process” and the demise of the “two-state solution.”
Unable to sustain its founding myths yet unable to offer an alternative, Israel’s government is using coercion to respond to the budding movement: Punishing those who commemorate the Nakba, fining organizations that participate in such events, and perceiving as traitors Jewish individuals and groups that deviate from official thinking.
In such cases, coercion hardly works. “The March (of Return) has rapidly grown in size over the past few years, in defiance of increasingly repressive measures from the Israeli authorities,” wrote Jonathan Cook in Al-Jazeera. It seems that 70 years after Israel’s founding, the past still looms large.
Fortunately, Palestinian voices that have fought against Israel’s official narrative are now joined by a growing number of Jewish voices. Through a new, common narrative, a true understanding of the past can be attained, with the hope that a peaceful vision for the future can replace the current one, which can only be sustained by military domination, inequality and propaganda.