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May 19, 2002
Phil on Nakba Denial




I can tell you feel strongly about this. (today's "Peace as Cold as Ice")

I think you've laid out the educated Arab line of reasoning better than I've ever seen it. I see the more complex fabric of the Palestinian position better now because of your detailed exposition. As I got into it I saw that one particular point needs to be highlighted.

Nakba Denial.

This is fascinating. Much of my thinking and the thinking of many I know actually hinges on Nakba Denial. When I reread things I write and look at my line of reasoning, inherent in all of it is a viewpoint that legitimately would be regarded by you and most Arabs as denying that the 1948 war was a cynical, forced expulsion of Palestinians from their land.

I think you've pointed out the real sticking point. I have looked in great detail at the population figures for 200 years, the political games played in the region, the provocations and responses on specific days between WWI and 1949. These "details" are constantly the fodder for debates back and forth. But I can definitely see how the result of the war resulting in the State of Israel would make the Palestinians see the Nakba the way you do. Nevertheless, the history that I--and most Americans not already aligned with Palestinians--trace inherently sees the same war a different way.

Thinking about it--the idea to "give" Jewish people this land by "taking" it from the Arab lands liberated from Ottoman rule--this idea means that everything the Jews and Americans and others have done all this time is "forcing" people from their land. I definitely agree that this policy was NOT God leading his people back to the land, despite what most of my friends believe. And the way Britain and the Hashemites and other corrupt leaders rampaging through the region behaved simply took a very bad plan and made it infinitely worse. If we look through a microscope at these parts of the history, then we really OUGHT to see things the way the Palestinians think is obvious. But we don't.

So why do we deny the Nakba so easily, feeling little or no inclination to reevaluate our beliefs?

There are many reasons usually given, often attempting to paint a rational process. But one reason has to do with the broader context of world history before and after WWII.

Both before and after WWII the world was accustomed to massive population transfers as a matter of course. Poland, for example, was deftly shifted west by 50% of it's width. It's not that Americans even slightly supported such transfers; it's just that in the grand scheme of things they were a fact of life. Our population estimates for Palestine in 1919 show 70,000 Jews and around 380,000 others living in the land. The current Palestinian published figures for that same time are about 56,000 Jews and 600,000 others. In either case, these numbers are dwarfed by the populations affected by other international conflicts at the time. A list of population groups to "worry" about throughout the century has many headings that dealt with tens of millions of people.

Also, both before and after WWII the rise of Communism was a genuine and serious threat to freedom in the world. In addition, monarchies and colonialism were still forced on Americans as realities which we had to accept. We even had to "officially" keep our thoughts to ourselves about them. A list of governments we had to deal with even though they violated our principles of freedom and democracy included virtually every other nation on earth.

When I was a student in Germany in 1972, almost all Europeans I met regarded the US and the USSR as balanced equals. Each one was thought to be as likely to oppress them as the other. Such a concept was and still is absolutely incomprehensible to mainstream Americans. The idea that the Soviet Union's amoral government and businesses could be seen as "alternatives" to American values was and is beyond belief. I've since learned that our minorities and immigrant populations sometimes tend to think like these Europeans, however. But, for discussion purposes, I think there is a somewhat homogenous group identifiable as "most Americans". And this group of Americans has fairly predictable and indelible beliefs. And our self-image as being morally superior to communists will probably be fairly hard to dent.

So I'm suggesting that these "Americans" were and still are acutely aware of the close brush the "free world" had with totalitarianism. We still can't believe any group of people would voluntarily choose to embrace communism unless they, too, were of the same evil character. In the midst of all this, who throws themselves in line with the Soviets and adopts their methods of "revolutionary" political action? The Syrians and Iraqis and Egyptians.

So now in the context of all this, we are asked to stand back and repent for our denial of a historical event--the first Arab/Israeli war--that America had almost nothing to do with. We did actively decide at the outset to diplomatically "freeze" the internationally determined status quo which was essentially a "two state" solution. But that's hardly something to feel very bad about when Communists were torturing people and violently destroying whole cultures.

Now we fast forward over 50 years and try to decide if there aren't some gestures of good faith that can be made to help start a healing process. You suggest that the "insult" of our denial of the Nakba is one issue that should be addressed. For Palestinians, this event was clearly the inauguration of a generation of abuse. It, indeed, would be "everything" that is important to them. For the rest of the world, it wasn't even that noteworthy as far as instances of national and personal injustice are concerned.

It never would have occurred to me that this "denial of the Nakba" would be insulting to anyone. And, even trying hard, I can't quite come to believe the same things about that time in history as the Palestinians believe. And I'm quite certain that most Americans will also be unable to change their beliefs that far. We have our own "pride" thing and sense of insult going on. It's interesting to try to come to grips with the psychology and emotions of our worldviews.

On a side note, there is a trend now among Americans to agree that the 1967 war "occupied" some area that ought to be given back. Probably this is because returning the "occupied territories" leaves the impression of a win-win solution in their minds. I don't think either the Israelis or the Palestinians feel the same way. But in any case, the 67 war really does block out our awareness of 48.

So I'm guessing that we are stuck with the problem of how to view the Nakba.

One thing that's often struck me in Middle East politics is the concept of what is "unacceptable". Several prominent Arab politicians and spokesmen have recently used the word "unacceptable". President Arafat, Crown Prince Abdullah and an Iraqi minister come to mind most recently. There's this idiom they use that "It is simply unacceptable for so-and-so to say this-and-that". Usually repeating the word unacceptable again a time or two afterwards. I know Hebrew and Arabic can linguistically use repetition as the superlative form, meaning "most" or "very". But I sense that the speakers say this when they are feeling "insulted".

But what strikes me as odd is that they usually say it when there is no genuine rebuttal possible for whatever the insult was. In other words, when others say something untrue or easily corrected isn't felt to be an insult. But to say something that makes a person look bad publicly and for which there is no clear defense, THAT is insulting. The Soviets were forever complaining about these insults. The Chinese, also.

So, one of the things that I'm looking at with regard to international relations, especially with participants in the Arab/Israeli conflict, is how to anticipate and avoid saying something "unacceptable"; in other words, how to avoid insulting the participants on all sides.

My wife would laugh, since she thinks I go out of my way to insult some of our dinner guests. Looking back, I can see that I simply stumbled into topics where my thoughts were inevitably insulting to our guests. Talking about child-raising to people who have brats, for example.

I'm afraid I haven't deleted something annoying or provocative to you in this memo--intended to be very brief. I've actually deleted more material than what is left above, partly because I was venting and partly because I digress way too much.

You made many other important points in your article and I may discuss them sometime with you. I think it is important to know that many people on the "other" side agree with many of the assessments you make and the standards you wish to hold all of us accountable to. But when we disagree on maybe some emotional side issue neither of us can discover the common ground.

Unfortunately, even if a majority on both sides agree to a peaceful two-state solution, there are too many extremists poking each other's wounds. That's why I'm looking at an educational "bypass" that may gradually help to change the percentages over a generation or two. (This is just an idealist's version of "Please be patient". Hardly a comfort in times of crisis like this.)

Thanks for your careful and thorough writing.


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