Israel News

As the Nakba comes to Washington, a wasted opportunity

Palestinian refugee-themed artwork promoted by the “Nakba Museum Project of Memory and Hope.” Credit: Nakba Museum Project Facebook page.
Palestinian refugee-themed artwork promoted by the “Nakba Museum Project of Memory and Hope.” Credit: Nakba Museum Project Facebook page.

For two weeks in June, Washington, DC will play host to a group of pro-Palestinian activists who have assembled an exhibit about the dispersion of the Palestinians during Israel’s War of Independence. The exhibit takes place under the auspices of the “Nakba Museum Project of Memory and Hope”—“nakba” is the Arabic word for “catastrophe,” which is how Palestinians and their supporters typically refer to the 1948 upheaval that accompanied the war launched against the nascent state of Israel by five Arab armies.

It’s a clever idea that requires a clever response. And that means looking closely at both the image and the message that the Nakba Museum is projecting.

The online publicity materials for the museum are decked out in autumnal tones and soft, inclusive language that is occasionally indecipherable. (How’s this for a sentence? “The goal of each display or event will be to create a culture of listening and represent a non-contested space, through a simple invitation to witness.”)

The mission statement is a little clearer in that regard. “We believe that refugee stories need to be acknowledged, witnessed and finally for the refugees to be empowered to respond in acts of healing and reconciliation,” it says.

Terms like “healing” and “reconciliation” are much in evidence. The brainchild of Bshara Nasser, a Palestinian from Bethlehem, and Sam Feigenbaum, an American Jew, the Nakba Museum is dedicated—they say—to building “hope for both Palestinians and Israelis that sharing the land is indeed possible.”

Conspicuous by its absence from the museum’s website is the lexicon of Palestinian solidarity—those drearily familiar words like “boycott,” “apartheid,” “genocide,” and “war crimes.” How, though, does the museum define the “Nakba,” a term Palestinians traditionally use to signify what they consider the original and irredeemable sin committed by the Zionist movement in forging Israel’s existence?

The Nakba, says the Museum, refers to “the mass expulsion of Palestinians from their homes in 1948 and represents a dark period in the Palestinian existence.” It then adds, “However, the Nakba is not just a singular event in the past, but an ongoing reality for all the Palestinians living under Israeli occupation.”

So, for the Nakba Museum, as for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, the Nakba is portrayed within the conventional framework of Zionist original sin. Consequently, one has to wonder whether the ambition of “sharing the land” really entails what Palestinian activists call the “one-state solution,” which most Jews understand as meaning the elimination of Jewish national sovereignty.

Though many supporters of Israel would disagree with me, I don’t have an a priori objection to the term “Nakba.” George Deek, an articulate young Arab-Israeli diplomat, uses it. When I interviewed him for The Algemeiner last year, he told me, “People were driven out of their homes because of intimidation, or because of the warnings of other leaders. It can’t be described as anything other than a terrible tragedy.”

But, Deek added, “The question is not what happened, but why it happened.” To this day, both the Palestinians and the Arab states steadfastly refuse to recognize that the flight of British Mandatory Palestine’s Arabs was, as the historian Benny Morris has said, “a product, direct and indirect” of the attack on Israel. As Deek pointed out to me, “Imagine what things might have been like if the Palestinians would have said to the Jews, ‘Welcome back. This is your home, but it’s also our home, so let’s find a way that we can live here together.’”

The problem, then, is not the word “Nakba,” but the manner in which it is interpreted and deployed. If those who use it were to be faithful to the historical record, they would be duty-bound to accept that culpability for the Palestinian refugee issue is shared. I am confident enough, when it comes to Israel’s moral and legal legitimacy, to say that Israel does share some of the culpability, but those who say that Israel is entirely responsible are either ignoring the eliminationist war waged by the Arab states or are silently sympathetic with its aims—aims that have since been picked up by organizations like Hamas.

Some will say that the choice of Washington as the location for the Nakba Museum’s first physical exhibit is no accident. America’s capital is where the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is situated—and the centrality of the Holocaust means that other peoples who have suffered from genocide, like the Armenians and the Cambodians, often invoke it as a reference point that most people will recognize. The Nakba Museum, it would seem, is doing the same, and brazenly so.

Except that the Nakba was not a genocide—far from it. But as far as the “official” narrative of the events of 1948 is concerned, that doesn’t really matter. What counts to critics of Israel is enshrining eternal Palestinian victimhood at the hands of the Israelis, and then continually reinforcing that message.

It’s still early in the life of the Nakba Museum, but at this point, the entire project looks to me like a wasted opportunity. Arguing that Israel bears a degree of responsibility towards Palestinian refugees is one thing; trotting out the same tired Arab League propaganda points is something else entirely. And however many Jews with doubts about Israel might be attracted by the museum, the vast majority will shun its message and everything it stands for.

The Nakba Museum could still be an exciting venue, both online and offline. It is ideal for an exhibition about the ongoing suffering of Palestinians in Yarmouk and elsewhere in Syria, the vast majority of whom are experiencing actual displacement for the first time in their lives. It might even host a seminar about the wholesale movement of populations in the wake of World War II, from the Sudetenland to India and Pakistan, and thence to British Palestine.

I’d even dare to suggest that they include in that list the 800,000 Jews from the Arab world who lost their homes and livelihoods following Israel’s creation—another hidden “nakba” that the Arab states, having first violently agitated against their Jewish populations, now depict as a Zionist plot to rip the Jews away from their loving Muslim neighbors. 

Some histories, it seems, are more memorable than others.

Ben Cohen, senior editor of & The Tower Magazine, writes a weekly column for on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics. His writings have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Haaretz, The Wall Street Journal, and many other publications. He is the author of “Some of My Best Friends: A Journey Through Twenty-First Century Antisemitism” (Edition Critic, 2014).

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