This article was added by the user Anna. TheWorldNews is not responsible for the content of the platform.

Between the Holocaust and the Nakba, two histories – and maybe a shared future

“There are two different nations here in this land, each of which is deserving of self-determination and of a homeland. And their stories are interwoven with each other.” (Amos Goldberg, in an interview)

It has for some time been an unquestioned axiom, at least in polite society, that the words “Holocaust” and “Nakba” have no place in the same sentence (for many Israelis, there’s no place for “Nakba” in any sentence), and that suggesting they have a connection is akin to equating them. But it can be argued, as the psychoanalytic thinker Jacqueline Rose does in her afterword to Israeli scholars’ Bashir Bashir and Amos Goldberg’s book “The Holocaust and the Nakba,” that “unless we can hold these two moments in our hearts and minds as part of the same story, there can be no moving forward in the seemingly unmovable conflict that is Israel-Palestine.”

Of course, the Holocaust and the Nakba (Arabic for “catastrophe,” as Palestinians refer to the consequences of Israel’s founding for them) are not comparable – not in their nature, not in objectives and not in scale – and neither Bashir, a Palestinian-Israeli political philosopher, nor Goldberg, a Jewish-Israeli historian of the Holocaust, are suggesting that they are. But they do argue that it is delusional to deny that the two events are connected – objectively and also subjectively – in the two peoples’ respective collective memories.

Israelis talk about the Jewish people having gone from “Shoah to tekumah” (from Holocaust to rebirth), and this rebirth took place in the Land of Israel. Between 1932 and 1939, some 250,000 Jews fleeing Europe found refuge in British Mandatory Palestine, and following liberation in 1945, another 70,000 survivors made their precarious way there. Of them, thousands were immediately compelled to take up arms against their new Arab neighbors and the armies that joined the fight against the emerging Jewish state. For some of those new arrivals, what they did or witnessed in the war stirred up disturbing memories of what they had been through in Europe.

Whatever the ultimate necessity or justice of Israel’s creation, it was the Palestinians who paid the principal price for it, and who still do to this day. Seven hundred thousand of them went into exile, having fled or been driven from their homes and homeland in the period leading up to and during the 1948 war.

In the minds of both peoples, the Holocaust and the Nakba are inextricably intertwined, and the fact that there are those who treat that idea as taboo may only just prove the point. For many, the Shoah has an almost mystical or sacred significance: It is unique, and comparing it to other atrocities is an insult to its victims, or worse. But an important school of thought says the Holocaust should be studied and compared with other genocides.

Prof. Amos GoldbergCredit: Tamar Abadi, Multimedia Van Leer

Prof. Bashir BashirCredit: Tamar Abadi, Multimedia Van Leer

Bashir, a political theorist at the Open University of Israel, and Goldberg, a Holocaust historian at the Hebrew University – both men are also senior research fellows at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute – published “The Holocaust and the Nakba: A New Grammar of Trauma and History” in 2019. In addition to the lengthy introduction they co-wrote, the book includes another 17 essays that contemplate different aspects of the two events, most of them by either Jewish or Palestinian thinkers.

Earlier this year, on Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Day, I heard the two scholars speak about the book in an online event sponsored by Clark University in Massachusetts. Even the academic lingo couldn’t conceal the powerful, even radical, nature of their arguments. They begin with proposing a new way to relate jointly to the Holocaust and the Nakba, but this is really just a springboard to a new approach to the conflict itself, and its resolution. That approach is not likely to be adopted by the politicians or public on either side in the near future, but radical ideas, if they are worthy, have a tendency eventually to find their way into the light of day.

The reception to Bashir and Goldberg’s ideas has been quieter than one might have expected. The type of angry public scandal that might have developed on social media, for example, hasn’t materialized, perhaps because the editors haven’t sought popular publicity for their project. But there are certainly those who don’t accept Bashir and Goldberg’s basic assumptions.

One of them is political scientist Shlomo Avineri, perhaps the most respected and senior person in his field. When I asked him for his opinion of “The Holocaust and the Nakba,” he was curt and unconditional in his response.

Shlomo AvineriCredit: Emil Salman

“The analogy” between Holocaust and Nakba, declared Avineri, “is both historically and morally false. The Nakba is an outcome of an ethnic war, a war between two states or more, with consequences for the losing side. If one wants to look at a parallel, it would be, after World War II, 10 million ethnic Germans were driven out, or had to flee, or left, Eastern European areas where they had been living for centuries. This was an outcome of German aggression in 1939, and the Nakba is an outcome of the Arab aggression after refusing to accept partition.

“The Holocaust was a planned attempt to exterminate an ethnic or religious group. It had nothing to do with what this group was doing. I mean, German Jews were good German patriots; they never attacked Germany. They never questioned the legitimacy of the German state.”

For Avineri, it was clear that Goldberg and Bashir were equating the two events, not just comparing them. Of a similar opinion was Adam Raz, a historian at the Akevot Institute for Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Research and a frequent contributor to these pages. Raz has been a pioneer in documenting the details of the Nakba and of the subsequent military government that Israel’s Arab citizens were subjected to during the first two decades of statehood.

In his 2017 political biography of Theodor Herzl (co-written with Yigal Wagner), Raz quotes, disapprovingly, from the introductory essay by Goldberg and Bashir for the 2015 Hebrew-language edition of their book: “Even if the Shoah and the Nakba are two events of different scale that are not in any way comparable, in certain senses, they share the same sort of dangerous political logic that explains many other historical phenomena.”

Adam RazCredit: Tomer Appelbaum

Raz argues that Goldberg and Bashir are claiming equivalence even as they protest that they are not. And he believes that such talk doesn’t advance the cause of reconciliation. As he writes in his book: “The keyboard warriors who are convincing the Palestinians that the ‘Nakba’ of 1948 is the equivalent of the destruction of the Jewish people by the Nazis have closed the door to the Palestinians undertaking the self-examination that is necessary for the victory of a sane, peace-loving policy among them. It’s hard to believe that such people don’t understand that their work serves the enemies of peace – both among the Jews and among the Palestinians.

“It’s a very unusual type of intelligence that doesn’t see that such a claim is a precise replica of the Israeli policy that won’t consider any talk of peace until the Palestinians recognize Israel as the state of the Jewish people. The latter ‘recognition’ is distinguished of course in its content from the delusional recognition that Nakba=Auschwitz, but politically, both positions have the same mission: provocation that will limit the possibility of dialogue.”

An Israeli soldier, armed with a rifle, stopping some Arabs in Nazareth, July 17, 1948.Credit: AP

More than suffering and Jewish history

Bashir and Goldberg make for an unlikely team. The former is gregarious and loquacious, his thoughts converted into words so rapidly that he moves on to a new sentence before finishing the last one. He exudes confidence. Goldberg, in contrast, is soft-spoken and hesitant, cautious to the point of suspicious, going to lengths to avoid making any generalizations. These varying temperaments make their collaboration all the more striking, as their intellectual agreement was clearly arrived at through a painstaking process for each of them.

It started in 2008 with a workshop initiated by Goldberg and others, at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute, for Jewish and Arab educators, with the hope being, he said, to “create a dialogue about [the Holocaust] between Jews and Palestinian citizens of Israel that was egalitarian and not oppressive.”

"The Holocaust and the Nakba: A New Grammar of Trauma and History," edited by Bashir Bashir and Amos Goldberg.Credit: Columbia University Press

By then, the Shoah had become a subject of universal study, based on a common belief that it had human-rights lessons relevant to all of humanity. Yet it at times can be used as a tool for Israelis to discourage criticism of the country, the implication being something like, “Haven’t we suffered enough?”

Lea David, an assistant professor in the sociology department at University College Dublin, is the author of “The Past Can’t Heal Us: The Dangers of Mandating Memory in the Name of Human Rights” (Cambridge, 2020). She told Haaretz how the Holocaust became, in recent decades, “interconnected with human rights, and became understood as a measure of human rights. So, if you want – as a person, as an institution, or as a state – to show that you promote human rights, you need to play this Holocaust card.” This could explain why, she says, there are some 300 Holocaust museums around the world, “in places that had nothing to do with the Holocaust – in China, in Japan, in Africa. This is kind of a measurement of your morality.”

But, she continues, “once you have this, something interesting happens.” Call it a backlash. “In many places, many people feel that this has been imposed on them. That it is something they have to perform. But there is nothing about their own histories in this event. It’s something about ‘those Jews.’” Being told to identify with the Holocaust, says David, “leaves them feeling marginalized, left out – that their voices are not being heard. They don’t have those institutions in place. And they actually relate to the Nakba.”

And indeed, recounts Goldberg, at the end of the Van Leer teachers’ workshop “the Palestinians said, ‘This is all very nice, but you said that you wanted to have an egalitarian discussion. But it can’t be egalitarian when the subject is just a Jewish one.’ There had been some moving moments. But it almost always revolved around Jewish suffering and Jewish history. It was clear that if the two sides wanted to talk about history together, they had to find a way to talk about the Holocaust and the Nakba.”

Jewish youngsters on their way to British Mandatory Palestine after being released from Buchenwald concentration camp, June 5, 1945.Credit: U.S. ARMY / ASSOCIATED PRESS

Asymmetrical power relationship

The idea arose to solicit articles for a book on the connection between the Holocaust and the Palestinian catastrophe. The Hebrew version in 2015 was followed by an English-language volume, with very different contents, in 2019. Both volumes start with lengthy introductions (also not identical) co-written by Goldberg and Bashir, who by now had signed on to the project.

Bashir says he was initially reluctant to tackle the topic. “I wasn’t interested in the group – not because what it was doing was necessarily bad, but for me it was a very calculated and fairly unpersuasive attempt that didn’t distance itself enough from the often-celebrated conversation and dialogue of coexistence in Israel … and it did not go far enough down the road for it to be transformative and boldly critical.” Bashir has little patience for “coexistence” sessions, which he sees as intended to make Israeli Jews feel good without affecting any substantial change in a status quo that privileges them.

“Master and slave can coexist,” he says. “The emphasis ought to be on rights, equal rights. Or more precisely, the focus should be on egalitarian (bi)-nationalism, a principle that is premised on equality, parity, reciprocity and mutual legitimacy.”

For him, a worthwhile dialogue about the Holocaust needed to be linked to the Nakba and had to be “very aware from the beginning of the asymmetrical power relationship, of the existing colonial conditions, and of the fact that Israeli Jews come to the conversation far more privileged by all measures.”

Bashir, 51, grew up in the Arab city of Sakhnin, in the Galilee, and he too was educated at the Hebrew University. After finishing his B.A. there, in political science and sociology, he went abroad, completing both his master’s and Ph.D. in political theory at the London School of Economics, followed by post-doctoral fellowships in Canada and Germany.

He was on his way to forging an academic career outside of Israel, and was focused on philosophical and theoretical issues like liberalism, democratic theory and multiculturalism, without any connection to Palestine. But when he returned to Israel, in 2009, for a fellowship at the Hebrew University, he recalls now, unable to conceal his rage about the status quo, he found that he “could not bear talking about, teaching and researching political philosophy in isolation from the very brutal, colonial, oppressive racist regime that I would experience every time I went through [Ben-Gurion] airport or crossed checkpoints and drove by the monstrous separation wall.”

Veiled Arab women and men receiving their first allotment of blankets from the UN Palestine Relief Organization, January 1, 1949, just north of the Egyptian border.Credit: AP

The dissonance in his life pushed him, says Bashir, to move from purely theoretical work into “applying my knowledge in political theory to the context of Israel/Palestine. ... This shift reenergized me and restored my faith, partially, in intellectual and research activity.”

Since his return to Israel, he has devoted his academic work to examining the Israel-Palestine question from several different vantage points, such as alternatives to partition and the Holocaust and the Nakba, always with a view to identifying the principles that could pave the way to possible solutions that would be equitable on both the individual and national levels.

“Amos and I tried to do two fundamental things,” Bashir says “The first was to attempt, in light of the mess and the impasse in which the country finds itself, to offer an alternative to the traditional way of approaching the question of Israel-Palestine, including the conditions inside Israel itself. This is why we insist on calling this a ‘new moral and historical grammar.’ Secondly, under no circumstances was I willing to get into an enterprise that speaks about coexistence or the type of ‘equality’ that is often proposed by parties like Meretz or Labor,” by which the fundamental asymmetry between Jews and Arabs is preserved.

Several of the essays in “The Holocaust and the Nakba” serve to demonstrate the interconnectedness of the two historical events. One, by the historian Alon Confino, presents the poignant tale of Genya and Henryk Kowalski, Holocaust survivors who came to Palestine and in 1949 received from the Jewish Agency a key to an apartment in Jaffa – much of whose Arab population had fled or been driven out during the 1948 war. The Kowalskis arrived at the apartment but, as Genya recounted decades later in a video installation created by their daughter Dvora Morag, “we didn’t even enter the house because in the yard there was a round table set with plates, and as soon as we saw this ... we were frightened. ... It reminded us how we had to leave the house and everything behind when the Germans arrived and threw us into the ghetto. ... I did not want to do the same thing that the Germans did. We left [and] returned the key.”

The intentions and methods of the Nazis vis-à-vis the Jews did not need to be remotely similar to those of the Zionists for Genya and Henryk Kowalski to have that association. It was natural, just as it was natural that, as Confino writes, “the mention of the two events in the same breath has always aroused fierce opposition and profound resentment [in Israel]. And yet this opposition is part of the cultural tradition that by connecting the events confront their memory and give them meaning.”

Similarly, as Goldberg points out in a phone interview with me, during the period immediately after Israel’s founding, when Arab residents of the mixed cities of Lod and Ramle were held in fenced-off zones, “Jews, survivors of the Holocaust, as well as Israeli officials and following them also the Palestinians, referred to the camps as ‘ghettos.’”

The Shoah and the Nakba, Goldberg continues, “are two events that are so connected that, in the continuity of Jewish history, and the continuity of the survivors, you can’t separate them. ... I could talk about the psychological aspect, for example, the desire for revenge that almost got no expression vis-à-vis the Nazis but took form vis-à-vis the Palestinians, who became substitutes of a kind. You can see this in the writing of Haim Gouri, you can see it in the diaries of fighters. These are just two examples, but there are many other connections and continuities that we mention in the book between the two events – without undermining, of course, also the great differences between them.”

The latter include the partisan and Vilna Ghetto fighter Abba Kovner, who survived the Holocaust and came to Israel, where he fought in the War of Independence before settling into a career as kibbutznik poet. During the 1948 war, he wrote motivational “battle pages” for his fellow soldiers that, Hannan Hever writes in an essay in “The Holocaust and the Nakba,” “were known for the extreme terms in which they described the Egyptian enemy, regularly displaying the caption ‘Death to the Invaders!’ – the very same caption Kovner used on the leaflets he wrote for the Jewish and Polish resistance in the Vilna ghetto, in which he called on them to rise up against the Nazi occupiers.” But Hever, through a careful reading of both Kovner’s battle pages and postwar poetry, concludes that he distinguished between the Egyptians he fought and the stateless Palestinians, and “ultimately chose the path of solidarity with the Palestinian refugees.”

Jewish immigrants crowding the deck of the Theodor Herzl as she arrives in Haifa Harbor, British Mandatory Palestine, April 14, 1947.Credit: AP

Unequivocal parallel

In their introductory essay to the collection, Goldberg and Bashir also cite the Israeli poet Avot Yeshurun (1902-1994) and prose writer S. Yizhar (1916-2006), both of whom made direct comparisons between the Holocaust and the Nakba. Yeshurun, in the 1958 poem “Hanmakah” (“Reasoning”), wrote about “The Holocaust of European Jewry and the Holocaust of Palestinian Arabs, a single Holocaust of the Jewish People. The two gaze directly into one another’s faces.” Yizhar, in two well-known early short stories, “The Prisoner” and “Khirbet Khizah,” “employs language that creates an unequivocal parallel between the Arabs and the Jewish victims of the Holocaust, and between Israeli and German soldiers.”

Whereas such mental associations were natural for members of the founding generation, they became taboo with the passage of time. As Confino writes, “The history of forgetting the Nakba is complementary to the history of its remembrance. There is no memory without forgetting, or better, without the sustained social and political attempt at forgetting. For the attempt to erase the memory of the Nakba in Israeli Jewish society has itself been an active social force, a result of enormous mobilization of political, economic, and cultural effort, from the physical destruction of Arab villages to the symbolic silence of memory in history books and public expressions. The erasure of memory is the result of an all-too-wakeful consciousness.”

The book also includes essential contributions by and about Arab writers that reveal a similar consciousness. Most notable is a foreword by Elias Khoury, the Lebanese novelist who has a long identification with the Palestinian cause and people.

Khoury opens his essay with a description of a 1996 installation by Palestinian artist Mona Hatoum in Paris. Khoury writes that Hatoum “created a cartographer’s map from 2,400 blocks of the famous Nablus soap, clearly etched with the borders of the Israeli occupation in Palestine.” For Khoury, the “heady aroma of the Nablus soap … made from Palestinian olive oil” evoked a dream “that the smell of the land should ultimately be able to overcome the violence, the borders, and the occupation.”

Yet Khoury recalls that some Israeli viewers were outraged by Hatoum’s work because they understood it as a reference to the (apocryphal) use by the Nazis of the fat of Jewish victims to make soap. “The astonishing reaction from some Israelis to this installation,” Khoury reports, “was that using soap was a racist sanctioning of Nazi crimes.”

Khoury says he was flabbergasted by the association, leading him to ask rhetorically, “If the Palestinian artist is not to be allowed to use Nablus’s soap for fear of stirring up a Zionist interpretation of her art that destroys the very essence of its humanity, how then are Palestinians to express their tragedy? Or must their tragedy be obliterated because a more tragic narrative was crafted in the gas chambers of a racist Europe?”

Khoury’s own work is an outstanding example of Palestinian awareness of the vexed interconnections of Jewish and Palestinian suffering, and of the need to keep them both “in our hearts and minds,” per Jacqueline Rose. In Khoury’s 2000 novel “Gate of the Sun,” which takes place in Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, the narrator, Younes, rhetorically asks a Palestinian fighter who lies unconscious and dying why he remained silent as the Jews were being murdered in Europe:

Palestinians taking part in a Nakba Day rally in Ramallah four years ago. Credit: Majdi Mohammed,AP

“You and I and every human being on the face of the planet should have known and not stood by in silence, should have prevented that beast from destroying its victims in that barbaric, unprecedented manner ... because their death meant the death of humanity within us.”

Younes reassures his unconscious interlocutor that, “I believe, like you, that this land must belong to its people, and there is no moral, political, humanitarian, or religious justification that would permit the expulsion of an entire people from its country.” Yet he insists, “Tell me, in the faces of the people being driven to slaughter, don’t you see something resembling your own?” (Translation by Humphrey Davies.)

In their book, and in discussions, Goldberg and Bashir introduce two concepts that may well be the principal contribution of their work. The first is “empathic unsettlement,” a term borrowed from the psychoanalyst Dominic LaCapra; it expresses an inherent contradiction at its center. While on the one hand, Goldberg and Bashir write, this calls for recognition of the “radical and ineradicable otherness of those who experience trauma,” at the same time, it “compels us to react empathetically to others while being fully aware of their otherness.”

Empathic unsettlement is not intended to lead to closure, but rather to “disruption.” “As such,” write the editors, “empathic unsettlement disrupts and constantly undermines every ‘redeeming narrative’ of suffering that offers a melancholic pleasure, and this is the source of its considerable political value.”

The second concept at the heart of Goldberg and Bashir’s project is “egalitarian binationalism,” which comes off the tongue only slightly more trippingly than “empathic unsettlement.” It describes, if only very generally, the only solution they think can work in Israel-Palestine. Without dictating a specific blueprint, the principle of egalitarian binationalism insists on both Jews and Palestinians being able to enjoy respective rights to national self-determination, but in all of the Land of Israel/Palestine. It is not partition, it is not cantonization, but it also not a “one-state solution.”

‘The land was not empty’

I am sitting with Bashir Bashir and Amos Goldberg in the mezzanine at the Van Leer Institute, asking them to explain their idea and help me understand how it is different from “a state of all its citizens” or a “one-state solution.”

Says Bashir: “There were two critical claims underpinning Jewish nationalism: One, to be treated like a people like all other peoples; and, two, that the solution needs to be in Palestine. Our frame somehow answers both of these claims: It accommodates self-determination of Israeli Jews, and it accepts, under conditions of decolonization and historical reconciliation, the realization of this self-determination in historical Palestine.”

However, he continues, their proposal also says, “this land was not empty, and it says that this project [the State of Israel] was cutting through the flesh of the Palestinians, at their expense, resulting in ethnic cleansing. So we need to see how we can realize these two claims while respecting the individual and collective rights of the Palestinians – all Palestinians; dismantling all forms of Jewish exclusivity and supremacy; and coming to terms with the ongoing Nakba and its disastrous consequences.” And yes, that includes the question of Palestinian refugees and their right of return.

A Holocaust survivor showing the tattoo of her concentration camp inmate number.Credit: ARIEL SCHALIT / AP

Goldberg offers the following: “This project seeks a way to tell the story in an egalitarian way in a reality that is not egalitarian; to seek a political solution that is egalitarian, truly egalitarian, in a reality that is not egalitarian. And to describe the connection between the two things.

“There can’t be privileges to only one of the parties, not in the telling of the story – and the symbolic capital that they can get from it – and not from the political solution. In this sense, it’s a binational historical project.

“Here, because of the lack of equality between Jews and Palestinians, the party that has to give up the most privileges – symbolic, practical and political – is the Jews.”

‘Why did you teach us this?’

As noted above, I undertook a very limited survey among scholars whom I thought could be counted on to give objective opinions on the Bashir-Goldberg project. The responses were refreshingly unpredictable.

Avner De-Shalit, a Hebrew University political science professor, whose specialty is democracy and human rights, said he welcomed the book, which he has used as a text in a class he taught called “Us and Them.”

“Instead of saying, you can’t compare one thing with the other, the book helped us listen to how the other one says how he feels,” he says. “It’s mind-blowing. We were trapped in an endless effort to avoid discussing the [Holocaust and the Nakba together]. Jewish people feel that, if we compare the two, then we are not treating the victims of the Holocaust respectfully.”

De-Shalit says he observed that the essays in the book had different effects on different groups. “You could immediately see how less-traditional, more-secular students would immediately open up to this idea, whereas most of the religious students – and of course I’m generalizing here – were more likely to object. I had to go into the text and show them that the writers weren’t saying that the two things were the same. ... I remember that at the end of the course once, I got an email from a settler who said: ‘I don’t know what’s going on with me, why did you teach us this?’” 

Prof. Becky Kook, a political scientist at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Be’er Sheva, whose interests include national identity and memory, hasn’t read the Bashir-Goldberg book in its entirety, but says that from what she has read, she likes the idea of promoting “empathic unsettlement.” Her concern, however, is that putting symbolic measures and attempts to achieve reconciliation ahead of practical ones can end up leaving intolerable conditions in place.

As time goes on, says Kook, “I find myself wondering just how important it is to the larger picture to acknowledge narratives of the past.

“I teach a seminar on commemoration as an arena of political change. We look at a lot of examples of how different societies have dealt with violent pasts. There’s the whole truth and reconciliation path, the criminal justice approach, and now there’s the whole ‘Fallism’ kind of movement – with ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ [a campaign at the University of Cape Town in South Africa that focused on a demand to take down a statue of Cecil Rhodes]. ... I might be wrong, but I kind of have a feeling that – is it the most important thing? I don’t think so.

“Look at the truth and reconciliation commissions in South Africa. There’s a lot of convincing work done that says, instead of having a truth and reconciliation commission, they should have given out land. They should have done some economic restructuring and redistribution. Look at the U.S. and look at issues of race: How important is it to eliminate symbols of the Confederacy, rather than paying reparations, or implementing different kinds of socioeconomic policies that would level out the playing field?”

Lea David is also of two minds about the “Holocaust and the Nakba” project. “People should have empathy,” she says, “but how do you make them have it? There is such a huge gap between what they are suggesting and what the situation is now.

“I’m going to state an unpopular opinion: I don’t think that people need to reconcile, or at least I don’t think it’s the most important thing. They need to live together, they need to be good neighbors. They don’t need to reconcile. Build together, be good neighbors, try to have something that is common to you. But not more than that.

“The fact that the Dayton agreement in 1995 made this kind of … two entities – one is Serbian, the other is Bosniak and Croat – the fact that it’s working [is] only because all three sides think the other parties got a worse deal than them. I’m not kidding. This is a very strong motivator. ‘It may not be good for me, but for them it is worse.’

“There are many ways that people can live together,” she adds. “We don’t necessarily need to be besties.”

Twitter: @davidbeegreen