Middle East conflictShoah and Nakba – two interlinked catastrophes
Shoah is the Hebrew term for the Holocaust, the Nazi genocide of Jews. Nakba is the Arabic term used by Palestinians to describe their flight and displacement from the land in the Arab-Israeli War of 1948. Even at a linguistic level, there is a parallel between the two terms, because both words mean "catastrophe" in the respective languages.
Nevertheless, it became evident as far back as 2007, when the Jerusalem-based Van Leer Institute invited Jewish and Arab educational theorists from Israel to discuss the issue of the Holocaust, that Israelis and Palestinians have great difficulty relating to the trauma experienced by the other. The meetings, which took place over the course of a year, received financial support from the Heinrich Boll Foundation, a German think tank with close ties to the German Green Party. In the summer of 2009, part of the group met for a workshop at the memorial and educational location known as the House of the Wannsee Conference in Berlin.
The meetings also brought together Israeli Holocaust researcher Amos Goldberg, who was part of the team running the dialogue group, and Palestinian political scientist Bashir, who lives in Israel. When Bashir gave a lecture at the Van Leer Institute about Arab attitudes to the Holocaust and mentioned the Nakba in his lecture, Arab Palestinian participants from Israel insisted on discussing the Palestinian catastrophe too.
The controversial nature of the discussions that ensued spurred Goldberg and Bashir to consider another form of dialogue. They drew up a draft paper that compared the Shoah and the Nakba (without equating them with each other), reflected on their comparable importance in the collective memory of the respective groups, and called for mutual empathy.
Asymmetry of national catastrophes
On the basis of this paper, Jewish and Palestinian intellectuals were invited to write contributions for a book, a collection of articles, which was published in Hebrew in Jerusalem in 2015 and immediately triggered protests from the Israeli right wing. Bashir and Goldberg's introduction to the book translates as "Reflections on memory, trauma and nationalism in Israel/Palestine". They had previously published a shorter version of this introduction in English in the Journal of Genocide Research in 2014.
The authors' wanted first of all to discuss in detail the differences in attitudes. They said that the Shoah was, in terms of its scale, not comparable with any other event that as such is considered singular. However, because the Holocaust has become – not only for Jews but also now for large parts of the Western world – the ultimate symbol of evil, any attempt to connect it even loosely with other chapters of the history of violence is quickly suspected of being an attempt to trivialise the Holocaust.
They went on to say that while the Shoah is over as an historical event and the Jewish people has, despite the trauma, been able to get back on its feet again, the Palestinians are to this day, in a position of political, military, economic, and cultural weakness because of the consequences of the Nakba.
According to Bashir and Goldberg, there is also asymmetry in the national catastrophes of both peoples from a moral point of view: the Palestinians were not to blame for the Holocaust, but the Israelis were responsible for the displacement and flight of the Palestinians and for their discrimination in Israel and oppression in the Occupied Territories.
Integrating the other’s catastrophe in one’s own narrative
According to Goldberg and Bashir, a rapprochement between Israelis and Palestinians, who both see themselves as victim communities, is made more difficult above all because the Shoah and the Nakba are used equally to legitimise national claims. Nevertheless, they feel that it should be possible to integrate the catastrophe experienced by the other into one's own narrative without having to abandon the "ultimate claim to justice" derived from the national traumas.
Both scientists considered American historian Dominick LaCapra's concept of "empathic unsettlement" to be helpful in this context. When applied to the Israeli-Palestinian case, this would entail developing empathy for the sensitivities of the other, without having to adopt the other's positions.
The Hebrew-language anthology, which was published in 2015, brought together contributions that responded to the call for dialogue on an equal footing and those that criticised this approach. One of the articles in the first group was written by the Israeli professor of literature Hannan Hever, who used several poems by Israeli poet Avoth Yeshurun (1904–1992) to show that in the early years of the State of Israel, there was indeed sympathy among Israel's literary figures for the fate of the Palestinians.
Yeshurun was of the opinion that genuine understanding for the Palestinians' experience of being victims could only come from the perspective of Jewish victimhood and that both should be seen as equally important. Hannan Hever even saw in this the seeds of "multidirectional memory" (2009), a concept developed decades later by Michael Rothberg.
Several Israeli Arab authors who contributed to the book recapitulated that as Palestinians, they knew about the Holocaust long before they were in a position to focus on the Nakba and its consequences. One reason for this was the curriculum taught at Arab schools in Israel where there were lessons on the Shoah, but not on the Palestinian catastrophe of 1948. What's more, families did not talk about the Nakba for fear of reprisal from the state. Journalist and writer Marzuq al-Halabi and journalist and translator Antoine Shalhat both wrote that it was only after 1967, when they met acquaintances and relatives from the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories, that the Nakba became a theme for them.
The Arabs and the Holocaust
Al-Halabi's knowledge of the Holocaust made him to a certain extent immune to the Arab and Palestinian defensive attitude which, in his opinion, has less to do with the Shoah as an historical event, than with the way the Israeli side presents it and uses it politically to evade responsibility for the Nakba. He also says that on the Arab side, the Holocaust is denied or played down. A common claim, he says, is that the Palestinians had to bear the consequences of the Holocaust – albeit only indirectly – although they were not responsible for the crime.
Their assessment that the issue of the Shoah was being used for anti-Zionist propaganda on the Arab side – for example the accusation of a Zionist "collaboration" with the Nazis – corresponded with the observation made by Samira Lahyan, a Palestinian educationalist living in Israel.
She searched in vain for a reference to the Shoah in school books used by the Palestinian Authority. The authority issued a statement saying that a change in policy would only be conceivable if the Nakba were to be taught in Israeli schools.
Philosopher Elhanan Yakira wrote about the Israeli attitude of refusal in the book: he said that a "universalisation" of the Holocaust as a Jewish gesture of dialogue must be rejected because such a gesture blurs the fact that the Nazi's primary objective was to annihilate the Jews.
No one, he pointed out, was asking the Palestinians to sacrifice the "Arab character of the Nakba" in return.
In 2018, Goldberg and Bashir published their second collection of contributions, The Holocaust and the Nakba. A New Grammar of Trauma and History (Columbia University Press).
In their introduction, they examine the current debate about the competition between Holocaust and colonial memory. According to Goldberg and Bashir, in the Israeli-Palestinian case, the two narratives collided with particular force.
They said that the Palestinians see Zionism, the State of Israel and its occupation practices as a continuation of the European colonial movement in the form of "settler colonialism" – a perspective that is rejected by the official Israeli stance, which is based on the experience of the Holocaust.
Nevertheless, Bashir and Goldberg believe that a rapprochement of the two "metanarratives" is indeed possible. The post-colonial narrative would have to consider Zionism as an answer to the growing calamity facing European Jews at the time, among other things. And when talking about the Holocaust, awareness should be raised that the Shoah is part of a long history of ethnic cleansing that also includes the Palestinian Nakba.
British historian Mark Levene expanded on this idea in his contribution to the book. According to Levene, the toleration of displacement and genocidal ethnic cleansing in Europe in the first half of the twentieth century made the idea of a "transfer" of the Palestinians seem feasible in the eyes of the Zionist leadership of the Yishuv in Palestine – the consequences of which are known to us all.
Elias Khoury: take the Jewish trauma into consideration
The competing "metanarratives" are barely mentioned in the remaining 14 contributions to the book. Instead – especially in the contributions from Israeli Jewish authors – very personal, sometimes biographical reflections on the Shoah/Nakba field of conflict and reports of fictitious and real individual stories in which the victim images of both sides overlap dominate. Palestinian anthropologist Honaida Ghanim found this dynamic – the frequent change of perspective between Shoah survivors and Nakba victims – in particularly succinct form in the story "Return to Haifa" by the left-leaning writer Ghassan Kanafani, who was killed by the Israelis in Beirut in 1972.
Israeli historian Alon Confino told the exceptional story of two married Holocaust survivors who upon their arrival in Jaffa refused to be billeted in a house abandoned by Palestinians because it reminded them of their own experience of being displaced and persecuted.
A first step towards the historicisation of the attempts to reflect together on the Shoah and the Nakba was taken by the Palestinian political scientist Nadim Khoury, who teaches in Norway, who traced the origins of these attempts to the years following the conclusion of the Oslo Accords.
One entire section of the book was devoted to the Lebanese writer Elias Khoury, who also wrote the foreword. Bashir and Goldberg were inspired by his novel Gate of the Sun in which a Palestinian calls on his compatriots to take the Jewish trauma triggered by the Shoah into consideration. The last three contributions in the book focused on Khoury's novel Children of the Ghetto: My Name is Adam, which was published in English translation in 2018.
The journal Central European History (Vol. 54, 2021, Issue 1 / Cambridge University Press) devoted six review essays to the book, to which Goldberg and Bashir have responded. Because they, among other things, called for a wider, flexible concept of Israeli-Palestinian binationalism – from a federation via a condominium to a binational state or a cooperative two-state structure – Shoah researcher Laura Jockusch accused them of "political activism" at the expense of a scientific approach.
Goldberg and Bashir countered by saying that it must be possible to think about ways in which dialogue could be accompanied by an egalitarian, binational political theory that considers a process of decolonisation to be a prerequisite for an historic reconciliation of both peoples. Moreover, they said, the obvious overlap of Shoah and Nakba is suitable as a scientific object for a number of reasons, for one because the two are to this day closely intertwined in the collective memories of Israelis and Palestinians. They also pointed out that the two are interlinked as historical events too.
Goldberg and Bashir said that at political level, the shock of the Holocaust conclusively cemented within the Yishuv leadership the endeavour to found a Jewish state with a Jewish majority, which was only made possible by the displacement of the Palestinians in 1948. They also said that the interlinking is also illustrated by the numerous biographies of the one third of Israeli soldiers involved in the war at the time were Holocaust survivors.
In response to the objection expressed by several people, including Philipp Ther, that Zionism cannot be seen as just another version of colonialism, the two researchers replied that for them too, in this context, settler colonialism is not the only explanatory approach. The complaint – voiced by a number of reviewers – that there was a lack of historical analytical depth to the book's contributions, which addressed more literary, philosophical and artistic issues, Goldberg and Bashir explained that it had been exceedingly difficult to find authors willing to write about this very difficult subject. Both men hope to continue the debate they have started.
© Qantara.de 2022
Translated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan