Remembering the Nakba

Recently the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC sponsored an unusual exhibit, “Darfur: Who Will Survive Today?” Photographic images of the genocide in Darfur are flashed to incredible size at night outside on the wall of the Museum.

Even given the fast and furious pace of many who live in Washington, the exhibit may have raised some awareness, touched some hearts, and spurred willingness to get involved. A friend of mine who works on Darfur recently told me that “there are no easy answers” to the crisis there. She sees grave problems with advocacy of military intervention without resolute attention to a meaningful peace process.

It seems to me that Darfur represents, for the U.S. government at least, a “benign” genocide, to adapt an idea from Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky’s books on contemporary bloodbaths, The Political Economy of Human Rights. Darfur doesn’t really affect primary elite U.S. interests and, thus, there appears to be no “Operation Darfur Freedom” in the works, reminiscent of President Bush’s drive to invade and “liberate” Iraq. Despite some occasional rhetoric from the president, the people are Darfur appear to be expendable.

Perhaps such practical indifference on the part of the U.S. government influenced the Holocaust Museum to offer the photo exhibit. Back in 1978, it was President Jimmy Carter who started a President’s Commission on Remembering the Holocaust that would eventually give birth to Holocaust museum. In 1979, Carter addressed why such a project was necessary for us as Americans: “because we are humane people, concerned with the human rights of all peoples, we feel compelled to study the systematic destruction of the Jews so that we may seek to learn how to prevent such enormities from occurring in the future.” So, it is understandable that the Holocaust Museum would have a mandate to be concerned with calling attention to contemporary genocides and ethnic cleansings.

Today is a good time to think about an ethnic cleansing that remains too little known in the United States. For November 29 is the anniversary of the 1947 UN partition plan of Palestine, after which began what Palestinians have called al-Nakba, the catastrophe. In a new book, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, Israeli historian Ilan Pappe, describes the process under the Zionists and Israeli Jews by which Palestinian villages were occupied and then destroyed, and its people expelled. Of particular interest to Pappe is David Ben-Gurion’s Plan D, which in March 1948, gave the unequivocal green light for this cleansing (Pappe points out several Hebrew words used in various communications of the time that spoke clearly of “cleaning”). Looting, murder, and rape also accompanied these operations. Pappe writes of early spring 1948: “Between 30 March and 15 May, 200 villages were occupied and their inhabitants expelled. This is a fact that must be repeated, as it undermines the Israeli myth that the ‘Arabs’ ran away once the ‘Arab invasion’ began. Almost half of the Arab villages had already been attacked by the time the Arab governments eventually, and, as we know, reluctantly decided to send in their troops. Another ninety villages would be wiped out between 15 May and 11 June 1948, when the first of two truces finally came into effect.”

Edward Said once recalled, “I’ve frequently said [to Israelis], ‘Look what happened to you: You as Jews are the victims of all time, really. The history of anti-Semitism is a millennial fact. And we are your victims now. How can you, having suffered victimization, in what seems to be with heedless consciences, inflict similar punishments on another people? People, who, in the great scale of things, have done you very little harm–except that they were there?'”

Given the political economy of memory of the Holocaust Museum, one ought neither to expect that the Museum will host an exhibit on al-Nakba nor think that the Museum will invite Jimmy Carter to discuss his new book in which he speaks of Israeli apartheid in the occupied territories. Photos of the suffering in Darfur are acceptable; photos of Palestinians who have suffered ethnic cleansing and apartheid will be unacceptable and arouse outrage. Books speaking of the need for Israel’s security are praised; books addressing Palestinian insecurity at the hands of Israelis are de facto anti-Semitic.

However, other institutions, civic groups, churches, and schools ought to sponsor such al-Nakba photo exhibits and invitations to Carter to speak a truth that many would just as soon forget or deny.

The Holocaust Museum and its leaders like Elie Wiesel have been tireless in urging remembrance of the Holocaust and working against Holocaust denial.

We ought also to be tireless in urging remembrance of the Palestinian Nakba and in working against Nakba denial as well.

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