Ben White: Nakba in Israeli Official Discourse

By Ben White

The contents of school textbooks in Palestine/Israel have often been the cause of controversy, normally when a report is published purporting to reveal "shocking revelations" about the alleged indoctrination of Palestinian schoolchildren. Last week, however, it was Israeli textbooks in the spotlight, as the Ministry of Education approved a new textbook with a difference. As the BBC reported, "for the first time" the "Palestinian denunciation of the creation of Israel in 1948" had been included. This incident afforded a perfect opportunity for seeing how the Nakba — what Palestinians called their expulsion by Zionist forces from their homes and villages in what is now Israel during 1947-48 — is viewed by "official" discourse in the West (through the filter of the mainstream media), and within Israel itself.

Most mainstream news stories about the Israeli textbook were infused with a positive tone, and typical headlines described the development as "acknowledging" Palestinian suffering, "adding perspective," or "admitting" the Palestinian view (LA Times-Washington Post, San Francisco Gate, Sydney Morning Herald). Taking the online BBC report as an example, however, we find that this apparent move towards objectivity is deeply problematic. In fact, the closer we look, the more we find that the official discourse about 1948 is still bound by Zionism-forged fetters.

The center of the controversy is the inclusion of the "Palestinian denunciation of the creation of Israel in 1948," and, that the new book "notes that Palestinians describe the event as a ‘catastrophe.’" But notice that the Palestinians, even here as victims of misdeeds rather than the perpetrators, are colonized subjects whose counter-history can only exist as a negation of the official narrative. The Palestinian "Catastrophe" was not "the creation of Israel;" it was the forcible dispossession of more than half of Palestine’s population and the shattering of a society by an ethno-supremacist colonial-settler state.

Any references to the documented massacres and expulsions by Jewish militias are entirely absent. The Palestinian exodus is without agency, a passive product of Israel’s "independence war." Here, the BBC is actually more conservative than the Israeli education ministry itself, which at least is quoted as saying that the new textbook relates how "some of the Palestinians were expelled following the War of Independence and that many Arab-owned lands were confiscated."

The Associated Press report goes a bit further than the BBC, noting the work of "several Israeli historians" who have claimed that "while many Palestinians did flee of their own accord, many others were forced from their homes as fighting raged and then never allowed back because the nascent Jewish state feared it would be swamped by refugees." It is a perfect example of surface balance disguising gross misrepresentation (even of the very research cited by the article). The Palestinians who fled "of their own accord," did so in fear that they would be subjected to the same campaign of mass killings and rapes that befell so many Palestinian villages; hardly a "free choice." Moreover, the nascent Israeli state expelled Palestinians before, during, and after the "war of independence," not, as the report coyly suggests, "as fighting raged." Crucially, the question as to why a state would fear being swamped by refugees is not mentioned, since the rather indigestible answer would be that they were not Jewish.

Yet such indelicate matters are entirely familiar in Israeli society, whether it is the newspaper editorials, on the street, or in the Knesset. Israeli reactions to the new textbook offered a fascinating glimpse into contemporary Zionism, and its "contradictions" that condemn true believers to "protracted madness," as espoused by Haim Hanegbi in Haaretz, 8 December 2003. Firstly, the Israeli government was at pains to stress how the offending book would only be used in "Israeli Arab" schools. This is important, and seems to suggest that whatever other purpose is being pursued here, it is certainly not a desire for the propagation of historical truth. The argument that this was merely an exercise in cultural accommodation is supported by Education Minister Yuli Tamir herself, who even went so far in her efforts to placate the Zionist right that she claimed including the term "Nakba" was a mere quibble of translation. But is it right to say that the decision to limit the textbook to the Palestinian community within Israel is because the Zionist discourse denies the "original sin?" Not quite.

Strategic Affairs Minister Avigdor Lieberman, a standard-bearer of the modern Zionist right, lambasted the textbook, bemoaning "the masochism and defeatism of the Israeli left, which constantly seeks to apologize, while we did what we had to." In this short, angry retort, Zionism’s internal tensions, and the relationship between ideology and narrative, are laid bare. For the Zionist right, the textbook is to be denounced, not because it is peddling untruths, but rather because doing "what we had to" — the ethnic cleansing required to secure a Jewish-majority state in Palestine — is condemned. The Zionist left, meanwhile, as Lieberman actually correctly points out, is happy to apologize for the Nakba, without lifting a finger towards actual restitution — much less unpicking the ethno-supremacist fabric of the Zionist state. There is a further curiosity however. Likud MK Limor Livnat warned that the new addition to the textbook would "encourage Arabs to take up arms against Israel":

“… once the Arab pupils are taught that the establishment of Israel was a disaster, they might infer that they should be fighting against us … our very own educational system may be raising a fifth column.”

There is a presumption here that the textbook itself will be a sufficient incitement to treasonous violence. One right-wing blogger berated the move as guaranteeing that Israeli will face a "new generation of terrorists" in its midst. It is as if the Palestinians living in Israel had to be reminded of the expulsion of their kin, their status as second class citizens, and the continued existential threat to their very presence in the land. It is reminiscent of complaints in right-wing American circles that publicizing photographic or documented evidence of US atrocities in Iraq is more likely to result in a backlash than the crimes themselves (as if a tortured Iraqi needs a Human Rights Watch report to authenticate his scars).

It has been noted before that public conversation in Israel allows for a far more penetrating critique of Zionism than can be even hinted at in the US public sphere. The story of the textbook bears this out, and should also be a reminder that next year’s 60th anniversary of the Nakba is a vital opportunity for education and awareness-raising. The textbook controversy also highlights the fundamental contradictions found throughout the Zionist spectrum in Israel, inconsistencies that may very well prove fatal. To go back to Haim Hanegbi in Haaretz:

“It’s impossible to live like this. It’s impossible to live with such a tremendous wrong. It’s impossible to live with such conflicting moral criteria … I have to conclude that there is something very deep here in our attitude to the indigenous people of this land that drives us out of our minds. There is something gigantic here that doesn’t allow us truly to recognize the Palestinians, that doesn’t allow us to make peace with them. And that something has to do with the fact that even before the return of the land and the houses and the money, the settlers’ first act of expiation toward the natives of this land must be to restore to them their dignity, their memory, their justness.”

-Ben White is a freelance journalist specialising in Palestine/Israel. His website is at and he can be contacted directly at

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