May 2011 Archives

For Yom Yerushalayim

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Independence Day and the Nakba poison

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In honor of Israel's Independence Day, Issa Boursheh, a graduate student at Tel Aviv University who describes himself as a Palestinian Israeli, offered this op-ed in yesterday's Jerusalem Post.

MY PARLIAMENT recently passed the "Nakba Law," prohibiting state funds from being used to commemorate the Nakba. How does that fit into full citizenship? If Israel is to embrace its Palestinian-Israeli citizens, telling the Nakba story is a vital starting point for full civil participation and greater feelings of belonging.

While Jewish Israelis are honoring their heroes, Palestinian-Israelis have the right to honor theirs. I want to be able to remember my grandfather's saying, "I would rather die as a dog in my own land rather than live as a king in exile"; I want to be able to examine the relationship between Arabs and Jews in Mandatory Palestine, and I want to be able to criticize the Zionist and Palestinian leadership equally. I want to be able to visit demolished villages and have an open, honest dialogue about our past, and future. I want to be able to discuss not only the Jewish immigration to Israel, but also the exodus of my people. I want you to know about my history as much as I know about yours. I want you to know who Emile Habibi and Tawfik Toubi are, just like I know who David Ben-Gurion and Moshe Sharett are.

If we are to share a brighter future, we must learn about the aliyas to the Holy Land, but also about the exodus of Palestinians.
As Mr. Boursheh helpfully points out, the Nakba Law prohibits the use of state funds to commemorate the "catastrophe" of Israel's creation.  Specifically, the law as passed in March, provides that

any body that is funded by the state, or a public institute that is supported by the state, will be barred from allocating money to activity that involves the negation of the existence of the State of Israel as the state of the Jewish people; the negation of the state's democratic character; support for armed struggle, or terror acts by an enemy or a terror organization against the state of Israel; incitement to racism, violence and terror and dishonoring the national flag or the national symbol.
It does not "criminalize" the observance of "Nakba Day" (though a prior version -- that failed to pass -- did).  It does not prevent the memories of grandparents.  It does not prohibit the examination of any relationship or dialogue or discussion.  It does not inhibit the sharing of history.  It simply says that those organizations that wish to conduct activities designed to undermine the legitimacy of the State of Israel will have to do so without the benefit of Israeli government subsidies.

So one must suspect that Mr. Boursheh perhaps has another agenda.

A "talk-back" to this essay tries to draw an analogy to the feelings of Native Americans on the 4th of July.  Well, it's weak for any number of reasons.  Just to mention a few, European settlement didn't draw tens of thousands of Native Americans to America (they were pretty much all already here and for considerably more than 1300 years) and for a very long time they were subjected to much more virulent discrimination and coercion than Israeli Arabs have ever been.  So I find this especially interesting.

"Kill the Indian to save the man" -- that oppressive motto led to restrictions on his tribe's native language and native customs. The federal government forced Indian children to go to churches and boarding schools where they were re-educated and stripped of their cultural traditions.

So it makes sense that, growing up, the Fourth of July would be a dark day for Hudson, a sad tribute to the country that tried and tried again to exterminate its native people and their culture. But it wasn't -- for Hudson, the Fourth meant "summertime, family, fireworks. You can't wait for the fireworks. As a kid you look forward to that celebration."

Hudson was not alone. Across the Fort Berthold Reservation-- what was left of it-- people partied on the Fourth of July. Sno Cones and barbecues, weaved together with older, indigenous traditions like powwows that would last deep into the night.

At the center of the festivities was the drum. "The beat of the drum means everything in the powwow," Hudson says. "It signifies the heart beat of a people. There are different types of dances, ceremonies, give-aways, acknowledgements."

What is the Native American equivalent of "Nakba Day," anyway?  Funny, I can't find one.  In fact, there's a very stark contrast, if this account is even remotely typical.

"You know, this is the classic case of making something positive out of really desperate situations," says Matthew Dennis, a professor of U.S. history who studies the way Americans celebrate national holidays. He says we can learn a lot about ourselves as a country by looking at how the Fourth is celebrated on reservations like Fort Berthold.

"It is those who have struggled the most, and who've been forced to be the most creative, that have the most to teach us," Dennis says. "Forgiveness without forgetting, incredible creativity and resilience."

Nor is it whitewashed.

Of course, not all tribes or all Indian people have embraced the holiday in the same way. The Onondaga of upstate New York decided a few years ago to stop observing the Fourth of July altogether. Right after America declared independence in 1776, George Washington ordered Onondaga villages to be destroyed -- they were in the way of the new country.

The film "Smoke Signals" by writer Sherman Alexie of the Spokane and Coeur D'Alene tribes captured the bitterness the day can bring in a scene between a father and son who are driving home on the Core D'Alene reservation one Fourth of July: "Happy Independence Day, Victor," the father says to his son with more than a hint of sarcasm. "Are you feeling independent?"

(Of course the Onondaga, along with other members of the Six Nations Confederacy, remain an independent sovereign nation, physically encompassed within the territory of the United States and yet maintaining their own government and customs.  Interesting model.)

Compare and contrast the conclusions of these two articles.  Almost similar and yet not quite.  Issa Boursheh:

The Israeli and Palestinian narrative may never agree, but I trust that in the long term, with proper steps taken now, we will be able to reach a point of understanding. We might never celebrate Independence/Nakba together, but we may be able to have sympathy toward a hope that is not lost - to be free people in our land.

And the outlook of Michelle Singer, a member of the Navajo tribe:

But more than guilt, Singer says she felt humbled. Native Americans didn't even become citizens until 1924. And now, here she was.

"We came from homes where our parents didn't have a college education, and here we were in our nation's capital, working in some pretty influential positions, and yet we were just these Indian kids," she says.

The birth of this country came with caveats. But in the glow of those fireworks, it seemed to Singer that, somehow, both her countries -- her sovereign tribe and the place that issued her passport -- might one day figure things out.

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