How to Teach “The Nakba”

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Notwithstanding the title, maybe that is actually not the question. In a world where information is at our fingertips (almost literally), educators should think more about howthey teach, and less about what they teach. Instead of guiding our students towards what they should think, we can guide them regarding how they can think. Information, facts, history, and general knowledge are important, but Sivan Zakai notes that when it come to Israel education, “there’s a big difference between knowing facts about Israel and knowing how to participate in its present and future.”

Ultimately, we want our students to be stakeholders in Israel’s future, not just ticket holders. We want them to be passionate about Israel without sacrificing empathy for the other. We want them to be thoughtful Zionists, not automaton Zionists.

Therefore, in a world in which our students, the youth, will invariably come to hear about Nakba Day, or the day commemorating what Palestinians call “the Catastrophe,” the question should be how should we teach about this event.

Critical questions include:

  1. Should we discuss Nakba Day in our classrooms?
  2. Should we mark this day each year and discuss the implications?
  3. Should we provide our students with arguments for why the Palestinians should or should not have Nakba day altogether?
  4. Should we wait for our students to get to campus and learn about Nakba day there? (This questions is rhetorical; I hope we can all agree that we should be the ones teaching them about it — before college)

How should we teach about the day the Palestinian community calls Nakba Day? That is the question.

What Happened

Last Wednesday, May 15, Palestinians marked the day of Nakba, or “catastrophe,” of the establishment of the State of Israel on May 14, 1948. More than 10,000 Gazans rioted on the Gaza border throughout the day. A Hamas leader, Fathi Hamad, said in a speech:

“The day of your slaughter, extermination and demise is approaching. We came to tell the Zionist enemy, its men, army, government and Knesset: ‘Go away from us.’ All of you should look for a place in Europe…hell, the sea, the ocean or the Bermuda Triangle. There is no place for all of you in Palestine. There is no place for you in the land of Jerusalem.”

While Israelis celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut around this time, Palestinians remember May of 1948 as the beginning of a 71-year-and-counting struggle to repossess their rightful land.

Our question this week is: how should we discuss this day with our students?

How to Teach the “Nakba”

Zoom in. Provide context. In Jewish memory, May of 1948 stands out as a miraculous, momentous occasion during which Jews became sovereign in their homeland for the first time in 2,000 years. Jews fled centuries of persecution and the atrocities of the Holocaust and recreated the Jewish state in an unprecedented way. We mark the day in Israel and in Jewish communities around the world with celebrations. This is our story, and we have every right to take pride in it. On the other hand, we know that present-day Israel is wrapped up in complexities. Part of understanding the issues at hand, and hopefully solving them, involves understanding the different sides of the Arab-Israeli and Palestinian-Israeli conflict. We will all be the wiser, and kinder, for it.

Zoom out. Provide more context. It is certainly true that nearly 700,000 Palestinian Arabs left the area (either fled or expelled in some cases), and it is also true we should widen the lens. Read Ben-Dror Yemini’s What about the Jewish Nakba and ensure your students think through whether or not the Jewish Nakba should be acknowledged. Israel began commemorating the Jews who were expelled from Arab and Muslim countries. Should Jewish educational communities begin to mark this day? Should Arab countries recognize this?

Zoom out again. For nearly 2,000 years, Jews did not live as a majority and were always minorities in various lands. Jews had not lived as the authority in power for thousands of years. Harvard professor Ruth Wisse discusses this idea and challenges us to consider what it means for Jews to have power, and how American Jews are typically uncomfortable with this idea in a way Israeli Jews are not. For centuries, Jews lived in Arab countries as the minority, and now Arabs began to live in Israel as the minority. Jewish power and the usage of it, as well as the new position the Arab community faced, should be considered.

“Nakba Day” matters to grapple with:

Practical, not just academic

Michael Oren notes that “Great wars in history eventually became great wars about history.” Although other historical disputes vie for space on bookshelves, in the context of the Arab-Israeli dispute, the ferociousness of the debate for what happened has a “profound impact on the lives of millions of people: Israel’s security, the rights of Palestinian refugees, the future of Jerusalem.” That’s why Geoffrey Wheatcroft has described this as “The single most bitterly contentious communal struggle on earth today.”

This conflict seems to be unlike any other. How? Is that true?

The impact on Palestinian Identity

Raja Shehadeh, in Where the Line is Drawn, writes, “Israel had succeeded in forging a national identity and Palestine had not. The Nakba had effectively dismantled Palestinian identity.” Living under Jordanian regime from 1948-1967, Shehadeh notes that Palestinian culture and identity were suppressed, and they were told to be loyal subjects to the Hashemite king. He continues by saying:

“I grew up feeling only hostility toward the Jordanian regime. Even when I didn’t know what it meant to be a Palestinian, I knew I was not Jordanian. Meanwhile, the Israeli army was forging a nation identity for the youth. I wished we had an army that could take the burden of having to create my own identity off my hands. How comforting it would be to have an institution like the military to mould our self-image and national identity…”

Compare and contrast how Israeli and Palestinian identities were shaped during Israel’s early years.

Israel’s role?

As Daniel Gordis notes in his book, Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn, that at the end of Israel’s War of Independence, “The biggest losers in the conflict were Palestine’s Arabs” (190). Whether or not Israel played a major role in their displacement is subject to serious historical dispute, which often becomes more about ideology than objective history, but Gordis concludes, “Israel, had, without doubt, played a role in their displacement.”

Should Israel acknowledge this? If so, how? If not, why not?

The role of Arab countries?

Gordis continues, “the decision of the new host countries to deliberately perpetuate their homelessness to foment international condemnation of Israel” is what turned the Palestinian plight into a “genuine human tragedy.” When one contrasts how Israel treated homeless Jews, hundreds of thousands of whom were exiled from Arab countries and contrast it with how Palestinian Arabs were treated in Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, and Jordan, one can easily understand how these different responses led to a difference in the future of both populations.

Can Arab countries admit their role?

Understanding The Other’s Perspective – Classroom Tips

  1. Start with a quote: The Kotzker Rebbe said, “He who thinks he is finished, is finished.” How does this quote relate to the idea of learning new ideas, ideas they had not considered before?
  2. Have your students read these two accounts of Palestinian families’ experiences in 1948. Ask them to write down their reactions, feelings, and reflections on the pieces, and then have some students share with the class.
  3. In the Ask Project, Canadian-Israeli filmmaker Corey Gil-Shuster interviews Israelis and Palestinians about all sorts of touchy subjects, based on fan-driven questions. Watch as he interviews Israelis and Palestinians about the Jewish State. What differences of opinion did you hear? Were there any similarities? Does this give you more or less hope for peace?
  4. Play Jerusalem U’s video about differing Israeli and Palestinian narratives and unpack it using the accompanying educational materials.

Discussion Questions

  1. Ask your students themselves: Do you think we should be learning about this in school? What value is there in doing so?
  2. Should Palestinians be expected to see the establishment of the State of Israel in a positive light? If so, why?
  3. Can two peoples with such conflicting historical narratives live peacefully side by side?
  4. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote “For most of us, life is a series of evasions, pretensions, substitutes, and rationalizations. We do not see the world as it is but as a projection of ourselves, and so we are prisoners of delusions that hold us in their spell even after we become aware of their deceptiveness.” Do Israelis suffer from this? Do Palestinians? How can this be remedied?

In Other News…

  1. The Netherlands emerged victorious at the 64th annual Eurovision Song Contest that took place in Israel over the weekend. Israel came in 23rd place with its not-too-popular song “Home.” Madonna performed during the contest and stirred controversy because two of her dancers sported Palestinian and Israeli flags on their costumes, in defiance of Eurovision rules.
  2. An Israeli man spat at the Polish Ambassador to Israel after being reportedly being called a “Zhid” inside the embassy. Read more here.
  3. Netanyahu, struggling to form his government coalition, asked for and received a negotiation extension until May 29.

Noam Weissman

Dr. Noam Weissman is the Senior Vice President of Education at Jerusalem U. Noam holds a doctorate in educational psychology from USC with a focus on curriculum design. Before joining Jerusalem U, he was the principal of Shalhevet High School in Los Angeles, where he spent 9 years actively engaging and empowering students to find meaning in their Jewish learning.

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