How I learned to stop worrying and acknowledge the Nakba

For more than seven decades, Israelis haven’t been able to come to terms with the consequences of the Nakba. To do so, they’ll have to confront the hard truths about 1948, and shed their moral superiority.

By Michal Talya

Palestinians in the city of Ramle surrender to Israeli forces during 1948 war. (Eldad David/GPO)
Palestinians in the city of Ramle surrender to Israeli forces during 1948 war. (Eldad David/GPO)

The first time I ever heard a testimony about the Nakba was nearly two decades ago from a Bedouin man named Khalil who lived in the Negev/Naqab. I remember how difficult it was for me to believe that he was speaking the truth. In fact, I was convinced that as he told stories of cruelty meted out by both Israeli soldiers and policymakers, he was blowing things out of proportion — that he was under the influence of his “Oriental imagination,” trying to benefit from his status as a victim.

In the room were a handful of Israelis and a few dozen people from other countries, and it was unbearable to hear someone tarnishing me and the collective with which I identify — to watch someone debunking the foundatoins of the moral image I had of Israel. I had always fallen on the left side of the political spectrum, yet it was difficult for me to believe that Israeli soldiers could behave this way. And he was only telling his and his family’s personal story.

Khalil’s testimony made me aware that there was an entire story that had been hidden from me. All of us, graduates of the Israeli education system, Jews and Arabs, learned history and civics from textbooks that distorted and hid the difficult truths that led to Israel’s establishment.

Since then, I have listened to many more personal Palestinian testimonies, continuing to read and learn about the Nakba from various historical sources. In 2003 I began holding an annual meeting, which have taken place ever since, between Israeli Jews and Arab citizens on Memorial Day and Independence Day, where people could hear each other’s stories and share their pain and their hope.

Reading a recent investigative report — by Hagar Shezaf in Haaretz — on Israel’s attempt to conceal archival documents on the Nakba was a kick to the stomach. Within the pain of that kick lie a number of insights, including the understanding of just how brittle the moral basis of Israel’s founding was, and the extent to which the country’s leaders tried and continue to try to hide that fact.

The Zionist narrative always portrayed Israel’s military victory over the Arab armies in 1948 with pride and patriotism. But when it came to the Arab population of the country the official narrative twisted facts and hid the truth. Israelis were taught that the Arabs allegedly fled on their own accord, as if we didn’t need to make any effort to clear the land. This is how the founders of the state built a story on which an entire generation of children, including my parents, were raised. Decades later, Israeli children are still being raised on that very narrative.

In the eyes of the newborn state, it was necessary to paint things as such. Israel’s leaders knew they would lose international support should those war crimes come to light, especially the mass expulsion of a civilian population (85 percent of the Arab population was forced into exile due to the Zionist enterprise).

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That is precisely why hiding the truth was necessary on two levels. One was practical, allowing Israel to maintain good relations with other countries. The other was internal, having to do with the Jewish collective self-image, which perceives the Jew as both spiritually and morally superior. According to this idea, Jews could do no evil or murder in cold blood. On a personal level, this kind of psychology made room for extremists who could easily be condemned, but certainly not a squad of soldiers in uniform carrying out orders. And if the acts carried out in the name of Jewish nationalism become too aggressive — whether in 1948 or today — then there must be some way to justify them.

Those who founded the state had a genuine need to tell a righteous story about themselves because the truth of what happened did not match their self-image as good human beings. The proud New Jew who worked the land — the tough tsabar — had an expectation of himself to act morally. After all, he was a member of the Chosen People, a light unto the nations.

One of the reasons we have not been able to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for over 100 years has to do with our self-perception as the Jewish people on three fundamental levels: the traditional-religious level, according to which  we are spiritually and therefore essentially superior to all other nations; the cultural level, according to which we believe our morality is greater than of all other nations (this can be seen as the secular interpretation of the religious layer); and the historical-sociological level, in which we perceive ourselves as the ultimate victims of the world’s cruelty, manifested in anti-Semitism throughout the course of Western history and until today.

It is that final level that creates the largest mental block for Israelis, as it deludes us into perceiving Palestinians as playing the very same victimizing role that the pharaohs, the Romans, the Crusades, and the Nazis did, rather than seeing them as a people who have resisted Zionism since its onset simply because it comes at their own expense.

Palestinian refugees play in an impoverished area in Gaza City on January 17, 2018, after the White House froze tens of millions of dollars in aid to UNRWA. (Wissam Nassar/Flash90)
Palestinian refugees play in an impoverished area in Gaza City on January 17, 2018. (Wissam Nassar/Flash90)

These three components of Jewish-Israeli identity are responsible for the gap between our collective high self-esteem and the actual way we have conducted ourselves vis-à-vis the Palestinians over the last century. This self-image of a superior and simultaneously persecuted people allows us to live this gap without spiraling into cognitive dissonance.

If we could give up on the perception of “the most moral army and nation in the world,” we could — 70 years down the line — take a brave look at ourselves and into our neighbors’ eyes and say: “Yes, this is what our founding fathers did. This is what the Zionist enterprise did to you. We acknowledge what happened.” Perhaps after 70 years we could have understood that we are a nation like any other — neither a morally superior people nor the ultimate victim of the world’s anti-Semitism, who deserves compensation at the expense of others. That instead, we are human beings who commit cruel acts when fighting for our lives, that we are nation with a commitment to take others into consideration to the best of our ability.

Jewish culture, the Hebrew language, and our national history are both important and precious to me. Yet I want to disassociate them from the package deal which ties them to the State of Israel under the banner of a “Chosen People” who are perpetually persecuted. We are a people like all others with complex problems that demand complex solutions. But we should strive for a more moral solution. Not because we are Jews but because we are human beings. It is important that we take responsibility for our still-censored past so that we can see ourselves for who we really are — so that we can take responsibility and change the reality we are creating for ourselves and those around us.

Michal Talya is an Israeli psychotherapist, social activist, and rabbinical student at the Hebrew Union College. She is also the founder of the project ‘Together in Pain, Together in Hope,” which has held an annual gathering of Israeli Jews and Palestinians on Israel’s Memorial Day and Independence Day since 2003. A version of article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.