I grew up in the south and I’d never seen racism like I had in Israel. I was totally shocked. Putting aside all of the incredible racism exhibited by the occupation, on that side of the wall, I’d never seen little boys spit at Muslim women and drag their fingers across their throat. There was a public lynching in West Jerusalem last year. I’d never before in my life seen armed soldiers harass innocent people on the street because of their race – and in Tel Aviv, no less.
Yet this racism – and not even the systemic racism as exhibited by the gargantuan proportion of non-Jewish people in prison, the refusals to rent or sell to non-Jewish people, the differences in schools – this racism among Israelis of Jewish heritage is never properly cited as something that reflects so much on Zionism.
Nakba denial is one of the ideas that blossoms in such casual, everyday racism. The recent review in the English-language Jerusalem Post of a book that is about the Deir Yassin massacre explores this mentality:
It [the Deir Yassin battle] became a basic founding myth in the Palestinian consciousness, and therefore in Palestinian culture. It serves as a fundamental example for the claim that the Jews committed genocide against the Palestinians in 1948, and expelled, knowingly and intentionally, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians…
The Jerusalem Post review exists not to review a book so much as to actively denigrate what it calls the “founding myth” of Palestinian nationality. As if it could make a difference to those in Haifa, who were either rolling lit bombs into Palestinian neighborhoods or escaping in boats. As if it could make a difference to those in Yalo, who were dispossessed of their villages and turned into refugees nearly 20 years later. The Nakba denier focuses on stories, disproving individual accounts, shaking fists at publishers and blacklisting academics. They never step back and let their eyes rest on the giant concrete wall that splits the land like a raised scar. They invade Lebanon to kill “terrorists” and wheel their tanks right by the refugee camps. They focus more on the light of the beautiful flares over Sabra & Shatila instead of on the slaughter going on below.
When they look at the Nakba, they see cowards and simple villagers, stupid fools who take to the road in bare feet. The denier’s history cuts off as the dust settles in the village and then, not hours later, a new dust rises from the tires of trucks bringing in new people that find abandoned food on the table and bedding still warm.
The foundation of Israel is the Nakba just as much as it would be the for the Palestinians. Both people commemorate the Nakba on the same day, though the Israelis have given it a new name. Palestinian flags are not allowed to fly on the other side of the wall. Those who speak the language of Mahmoud Darwish are forced to twist their tongue to Hebrew in order to find jobs as day laborers. They live in enclaves with poor utilities servicing, and occasionally you can find a doctor who is unwilling even to treat them. They are called Arabs.
The Arabs of the Mandate territory were for years attempting to define themselves as a separate national group was Porat’s historical contribution whereas Milstein retorted that his frame of reference was difference. The fact that the Arabs needed a story of a “massacre” in order to cover their unwillingness to fight was proof that they were not a nation because a nation fights.
What Zionist reads this whose face does not burn with shame?
Yet this is the callous mentality that supports an ongoing occupation and brutal subjugation of millions. Tel Aviv is not even forty five miles away from the Gaza Strip, an open air prison where children go to sleep nightly with drones in their ears. Israelis can go see the occupation with their own eyes – a visit to a friend or relative in a settlement can show you the lush green lawns and swimming pools next to the scorched earth of what was once a people who had pride and hopes for the future.
I used to work on a very tall hill, and when I walked home down that hill I could see the vista before me of a settlement, the wall, Tel Aviv, and then beyond, the ocean. I thought to myself when I saw this, surely it would drive me insane if I saw this every day for my whole life. Yet the Israelis have no such consciousness – they have a “free press” and “freedom of speech”, but in spite of this ignore the constant brutal suppression of the truth of their situation. Forget the view on the drive home to Shilo from work; pro-Palestinian Israeli journalist Amira Hass is currently under investigation while Kahanists hand out copies of “Nakba Bullshit” on university campuses. How is it that the racist atmosphere of Israel and Israel’s history more generally not been challenged by those who think it is a refuge, strong, safe and humane?
I saw an anti-Zionist Israeli once at a conference. She was saying that it is impossible to attempt to break the back of the occupation by appealing to Israeli society to change its ways. She said that she was part of a minuscule proportion of those who believed the land they lived on was not their own. What, then, is to be done? While the BDS campaign has laudable aims, it is appealing to the wrong sector; to expect that the people of Israel will suddenly wake up and hand themselves over to justice in the spirit of equality is to deny the deep roots of racism that anchor the Zionist dreamscape in place. There is no denying the racism held by the governments, the press, the education system, the former Prime Ministers and by the settlers in Hebron necessarily also acts to anchor the Israeli national identity in place as it stands. The distance tolerated between Tel Aviv and Gaza is proof enough.
Palestine persists whether 300 people or 100 people were killed in Deir Yassin. It persists because Palestine is not founded in myth, but rather by “facts on the ground”, as every day of their lives they are forced to identify with the national duality imposed on them by a racist occupation and traumatic displacement. Refugees will wake up refugees whether or not they have a founding myth.