Dispatches From Judea and Samaria: first in a series
How does a passionate, religious Zionist who is also committed to Israel-Palestinian reconciliation and dialogue deal with nakba, the Arabic term for the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians during the founding of Israel?
On one hand, I feel no guilt whatsoever over the displacement of more than a half-million Palestinians during our War of Independence. I have no doubts about the justice of the Jews’ return to our historic national land, as promised throughout the Torah and dreamt about by generations of Jews. Yes, the events of the 1948-49 war were indeed tragic — for both sides. But they occurred in the context of a war — a war started by the Arab states, lest anyone need reminding, and they occurred alongside another human tragedy similar in kind and scope: The destruction of millennia-old Jewish communities across the Arab world.
Furthermore, the whole proposition of nakba is problematic insofar as it sets up Israel’s creation as a zero-sum game: Israeli independence as a disaster for the Palestinians. When Palestinians say the “disaster” of 1948, they do not mean the disaster caused by a series of poor decisions made by Arab leaders to attack the nascent state, or the years of abuse Palestinian refugees have suffered at their hands ever since. Good for Israel equals bad for Palestine and vice versa.
WATCH: Palestinian activist Ali Abu Awad and West Bank settler Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger tell their stories of personal transformation.
That construct leaves little room for connection or relationships between Zionists and Palestinians, and no room for me. For all Israel’s faults, I think Israel has done a pretty good job in the areas of democracy, economic advancement and even human rights, an area in which Israel is routinely singled out for criticism. I am proud of our accomplishments over the past 67 years, made in the face of difficult circumstances, and make no apologies for living here.
But in recent years, I’ve left that discussion behind. As I’ve built relationships with Palestinians, I’ve tried hard to replace the traditional Israel-Palestinian discussion — justification, accusation, debate, argumentation — with a new conversation, one based on empathy, connections, relationships. In contrast to my previous attempts to reach out to Palestinians, over the past year I have made good friends on the other side of the separation wall, individuals with whom I share values, hopes and fears, and especially a love of this land.
What, then, is the right way for an unapologetic religious Zionist — and a settler to boot — to balance the unmitigated joy I feel over the return of our people to the Land of Israel with the Palestinian experience of May 14, especially if just two weeks ago I asked my Palestinian friends to share in my celebration of Yom HaAtzmaut?
My friend Ali Abu Awwad does not describe the events of 1948 with his mind. He describes them with his eyes.
Although 15 years have passed since he dedicated his life to reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians (that transformation happened after he was shot by a settler in 2001, a month before his brother was killed during an oral altercation with an Israel Defense Forces soldier at the height of the Second Intifada), Abu Awwad’s description of his years as a rock- and Molotov cocktail-throwing activist during the First Intifada conveys the heat and intensity of his teenage hatred for everything Israel.
But that sense of fury is absent when the topic of conversation moves to his father’s departure from al-Qubayba, a village of about 1,200 people near the present-day Israeli town of Lachish, where Ali’s grandfather served as imam. Instead, he talks about the events of 1948 with a tangible sense of personal history and a wistful sense of deep longing for the family home that was destroyed long before he was born in 1972.
“My dad was about 22 at the time, and they walked from there to Tarkumiyeh, near where the military checkpoint is today, a distance of about 10 miles. They thought they would be gone for only a few days, but they realized quickly that they couldn’t go back. After a few weeks, they moved farther toward Hebron, and eventually settled in Beit Ummar, near where the bodies of the three yeshiva students were discovered last year,” he says.
“[To many people], accept[ing[ the term nakba is not only to accept the fact, but is also to accept the notion of who was guilty. Therefore, even to mention the word nakba as part of the Jewish vocabulary is basically to accept a narrative that undermines the legitimacy of the State of Israel to exist,” says Rabbi Donniel Hartman.
That is a tough mental barrier to get around, but an essential one if we are to reset the rules of engagement between Israelis and Palestinians. Israel’s birth was not synonymous with disaster for the Palestinians, but by opening up to Palestinians’ collective memory, we pave a two-way path for Palestinians to create receptiveness toward our celebration of our return to the Land of Israel.
Palestinian activist Ali Abu Awad and West Bank settler Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger will tell their stories of personal transformation at Pico Union Project on May 28 at 7:30 p.m. Free. For more information, visit www.picounionproject.org
Andrew Friedman is a member of Shorashim/Judur, a grass-roots movement of local Israelis and Palestinians creating relationships and friendships in Judea and Samaria, as well as of the Interfaith Encounter Forum.