Today, Tuesday, May 15, is the 59th anniversary of the day Israel was established. For the Palestinians, this day is Nakba ("Catastrophe") Day. That is, the "catastrophe" is not Israel’s conquest of the West Bank and Gaza in June 1967, nor even its victory in the (1948-1949) Independence War and the emergence of the Palestinian-refugee issue, but the creation of Israel itself on May 15, 1948.
That event remains, for the Palestinians, the quintessential catastrophe despite two facts. First of all, according to the UN Partition Plan (November 29, 1947), the Israel that was supposed to arise on that day would have been a tiny, chopped-up country consisting of a strip of land along the Mediterranean coast, the eastern Galilee, and the Negev desert, with Jerusalem an international city. Second, according to that plan the rest of the land would have been the proverbial Palestinian state—which the Palestinians (along with the rest of the Arab world), not for the first time or the last time, rejected hands-down, preferring instead to join five Arab armies in an attempt to wipe out the nascent Israel.
Last Thursday the Israeli political scientist Shlomo Avineri published some reflections on the upcoming Nakba Day in a Haaretz op-ed. Avineri, who has been on the Left, an initial fervent supporter of the Oslo process and an advocate of Israeli territorial concessions, has moved more toward the Center, and he has criticisms of the Palestinians:
With all due understanding and empathy to the Palestinians’ suffering, the way Nakba, the "catastrophe," is presented in the Palestinian and pan-Arab narrative raises several questions. It is portrayed as something terrible and evil that happened to the Palestinians. There is not even an iota of introspection, self-criticism and readiness to deal with the Palestinians’ own contribution to their catastrophe.
We can understand—without justifying it—the Palestinians’ rejection of the partition plan…. But most of the Jewish community accepted the idea. And if most of the Palestinians had accepted it, then an independent Palestinian state would have risen on part of Mandatory Palestine in 1948, without war and without refugees.
Although basically sensible, this passage sounds a theme—comparisons between Palestinians and other Arabs on the one hand, and Jews on the other—that recurs a few times in the short article. Here, again:
After 1948 quite a few books were written in Arabic about the Arabs’ defeat in their war against Israel. To this day no book has raised the question of whether, perhaps, the Arabs erred in rejecting the compromise—painful as it may be—of the partition? Perhaps they would have done better if, like the Zionists, they had gritted their teeth and accepted the half-full glass?
While the language Avineri uses is categorical—"not even an iota of introspection, self-criticism . . . ," "To this day no book has raised the question of whether, perhaps, the Arabs erred…."—he still sounds puzzled, disappointed, exasperated, and a bit supplicant. Nowhere in the op-ed does he even raise the possibility that it is something in Palestinian and Arab culture that accounts for this seemingly perverse, stubborn, maddening behavior. Indeed, nowhere in the article do the words "Muslim" or "Islam" so much as make an appearance.
Instead, Avineri draws an even more embittered contrast, referring to "the Palestinians’ customary comparison between the Nakba and the Holocaust" as outrageous. Did the Jews of Germany and Europe declare war on Germany? Were the world’s Jews offered a compromise that they rejected? Europe’s Jews were murdered by the Nazis because they were Jews. What does that have to do with the Palestinians’ decision to refuse the UN’s compromise proposal and go to war?
What, indeed—and why would people still be drawing such an obscene equivalency over six decades after World War II ended when the facts of the industrial-scale mass murder of entirely innocent, helpless civilians in Auschwitz, Treblinka, and the rest are well known? Another way of putting the question: why is Avineri still addressing and supplicating the Palestinians, and what sort of reasonableness and sensitivity toward Jews does he still, at this late date, hope to elicit from them?
If he never mentions the Islamic dimension of the problem, it is not because Avineri, a sophisticated writer, does not know about it but more likely because—as an Israeli still clinging to the hopes, equivalencies, and pieties of the Left—its implications are still too grim for him. If the ongoing Palestinian and Arab self-righteousness, rejection of compromise, and viciousness toward Israel stem ultimately from deep-lying cultural factors of Islamic supremacism, then the siege on Israel is likely to continue and dialogue is likely to be fruitless.
And what, for Avineri, may be even more problematic than the unpleasant implications of that reality is that recognizing it would mean crossing over to the Israeli Right, which regards the siege as a given, and deterrence, rather than dialogue and compromise, as offering the best chance of mitigating it.
It is difficult, of course, to question whether one’s whole approach has been wrong and to rethink a political, and sociocultural, identity going back decades. So instead Avineri goes on upbraiding the Palestinians as people who are just maddeningly perverse, referring to their complete unwillingness to acknowledge that in 1948 they and their leaders made a terrible historic mistake—of both political and moral proportions—by rejecting the international compromise they were offered.
But if that compromise entailed, for the Palestinians and other Arabs, violating a central precept by accepting the permanent existence of a non-Arab, non-Muslim, sovereign state of lowly Jews on land—however abjectly tiny, discontiguous, and indefensible—that their whole tradition and ethos tells them is exclusively theirs, then rejecting this "compromise" was no more a "mistake" than it would be a mistake for an Orthodox Jew to "reject" driving to a concert on the Sabbath.
It is for that reason that May 15 is and will remain, in Palestinian and Arab eyes, a day of catastrophe, of Nakba. Changing this would require a cultural change and not a political one.