Opinion // Challenging History’s Taboos
What Palestinians—and Israelis—can’t say
by Mohammed S. Dajani Daoudi
The Holocaust (Shoah) and the Nakba (al-Karitha) share three characteristics. First, both terms mean catastrophe, disaster or calamity. Second, both tragedies have left deep scars in the psyche of their victims that are difficult to heal. And third, both events are taboo. In Palestinian society, you can’t discuss the Holocaust, and in Israel, increasingly, you can’t talk about the Nakba.
The Nakba is the term used to describe the loss of nation, state and national identity, the displacement of more than 800,000 refugees and the demolition of hundreds of villages and residential neighborhoods, before and during the establishment of the State of Israel in 1947–48. In the Jewish world, the same event is celebrated as the War of Independence.
While there are Palestinians taking great risks in working to break the Holocaust taboo in Palestinian society—writing in Arabic about the Holocaust, having Palestinian students visit Yad Vashem and Nazi death camps—tragically, at the same time, some in Israel are working to make the 1948 Nakba a taboo within the Jewish community.
Does acknowledging one undermine the other? Can’t the taboo against talking about both be broken? If so, how? But maybe one should first ask, “Why should it be broken?” Why should people take risks to break taboos? After all, doing so can earn taboo-breakers the label of traitor. It can bring shame to them and their family, if not immediate threat to their personal safety. It’s a little like being a whistle-blower, but much worse, since the whistle-blower is viewed as betraying one unit in society—such as the company where he or she works—while the taboo-breaker is seen as betraying the whole society. The taboo-breaker and the whistle-blower have one thing in common: They both believe they are serving their society.
I have some experience with this. I have taught about the Holocaust in Palestine and have taken students to Nazi concentration camps, to visit Holocaust museums and to participate in Holocaust memorial ceremonies. Such activities may seem the right thing to do for any decent person in the world, but not in the Muslim world, not in the Arab world, and in particular, not in Palestine. There are many reasons, but one main reason lies in properly understanding the Nakba. The dominant Palestinian narrative erroneously attributes the Nakba to the Holocaust—as if, had there been no Holocaust, there would have been no 1948 Nakba and no State of Israel.
Palestinians tend to perceive the Holocaust as Zionist propaganda, to deny it happened and therefore to exclude it from the educational curriculum. Blaming the Holocaust for the Nakba gives Palestinians comfort; it makes them feel they are not to blame for the role they played in their own tragedy. It helps bury memories of the disunity and divisiveness of the Palestinian community in the years before 1948, particularly the liquidation of the opposition that existed, among elites, to the path of violence and rejectionism that was adopted—a path that left Palestinians weak and vulnerable.
And of course, while the Holocaust may have speeded the creation of Israel, it did not cause it. The dream of creating a Jewish state preceded the Holocaust and had been the main cause of conflict between Palestinians and Jews for decades before it.
The taboo against discussing this material is very strong. However, it is unofficial: There are no legal restrictions imposed on learning about or teaching the Holocaust, or even observing a memorial day for it as Israelis do. In Israel, by contrast, ever since the Israeli Knesset passed the so-called Nakba law in 2011, the Nakba has been excluded from the curriculum in Israeli institutions. This was partly a backlash against a 2007 effort by a Labor Party government to release history textbooks that included parallel accounts of the state’s founding from Israeli Jewish and Israeli Arab perspectives. The “Budget Principles Law (Amendment 39): Reducing Budgetary Support for Activities Contrary to the Principles of the State” denies funding to any organization, institution or municipality that commemorates the founding of the Israeli state as a day of mourning. This effectively has meant deleting the teaching of the Nakba from textbooks and deterring Israelis or Arab Israelis from studying, remembering or (especially) expressing empathy for the Palestinian experience of the Nakba.
Many Palestinians accused the government of trying to brainwash vulnerable minds, as one individual commented on Facebook, “by teaching them big lies and fabrications such as the Holocaust and the suffering of Jews so that they would accept the theft of their Land.” Our own efforts at empathy for the Holocaust were also set back. A Palestinian journalist called for academics to stop the “pilgrimage” to Nazi death camps, writing: “I felt pain over the visit by Palestinian university students to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Yes, we are human beings who reject genocide. But our humanity rejects any attempt to bypass the suffering of our people, who are being slaughtered every day at the hands of occupiers. Wouldn’t it have been better had our professor and students visited Yarmouk refugee camp [in Syria] or refugee camps in Lebanon to see the real suffering?”
I responded on my Facebook page that “My duty as a teacher is to teach—to open new horizons for my students, to guide them out of the cave of misperceptions and see the facts, to break walls of silence, to demolish fences of taboos. In doing so, I adhere to the verse in the Holy Quran, which says: ‘And say My Lord increase my knowledge…’ I will not remain a bystander, even if the victims of the suffering I show empathy for are my occupiers.”
Before embarking on our trip to Auschwitz in 2014, I asked myself why I was taking on this burden. Why put the students at risk of being labeled collaborators and being shunned in their own communities? Why break taboos, even when Israel’s government is creating them? The answer is simple: To do the right thing.
Mohammed S. Dajani Daoudi is the founding director of the Wasatia Movement and Weston Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.