It is one of the cruel ironies of history that the Holocaust and the Nakba of 1948 occurred less than a decade apart. Today, both seem formative events, burned into the collective consciousness of millions. At the center of the Zionist narrative is the tale of persecuted Jews fleeing the irremediable anti-Semitism of Europe for a fresh start in a country of their own. For Palestinian nationalists, 1948 marks the beginning of dispossession, but national struggle must wait another twenty years. While appealing, and not entirely false, these perceptions are problematic. In particular, they represent attempts to appropriate significance to tragic events, after the fact, which are not fully congruent with reality.
As Tom Segev skillfully illustrates in The Seventh Million, the relationship of Zionism and the Holocaust tends toward the schizophrenic. Zionism was constructed, at least ostensibly, to save the Jews from anti-Semitism. All Zionism, but especially Labor Zionism, depended upon the mass migration of Jews to Palestine. From this perspective, the Holocaust was an affirmation of Zionist beliefs. Unfortunately, Zionism’s other goal, creating a ‘new Jew’ who was strong, fearless and tied to the land did not fit nearly as well. Zionism clearly had little desire for an influx of psychologically traumatized individuals representing the weakness, not only of the Jews, but also of the Yishuv that had been powerless to stop the Holocaust.
Zionism’s wariness of Holocaust survivors was more or less reciprocated. Most Holocaust survivors who were offered a choice preferred emigrating to America or Britain rather than Palestine. Most Holocaust survivors had not been Zionists before the war. Most Holocaust survivors were not in love with socialist ideology unlike the Yishuv’s governing elite. Perhaps most problematic, most Holocaust survivors were worn out, physically, and mentally, and were far more disposed to worry about personal survival than abstractions like ‘conquest of land’ and ‘conquest of labor.’
The result, clearly portrayed in Savyon Liebrecht’s “Excision”, is not particularly pleasant. There we see a woman who is clearly still troubled by her experiences at Auschwitz, living with her son and his family in Israel. The family, presumably raised as Israelis, cannot understand her. Further, her strangeness excites anger, not compassion. In a young country that is focused on raising its young people in a new mould, an old grandmother troubled by ghosts of the old world does not fit. She is an unwelcome reminder of the world they hoped to leave behind.
Liebrecht’s Henya is not alone in her strangeness. Segev describes many cases of dislocated survivors of the Holocaust who had varying levels of difficulty adjusting to life as Israelis. Ben Gurion wanted people for Palestine, but he was hoping for young idealists, not old broken pragmatists. Survivors were blamed for lacking proper motivation and for failing to contribute their share to society. Amidst all this, the Holocaust survivor was often blamed for failing to fight against the Nazis.
Equally importantly, the political implications of the Holocaust were present from the get-go. Vicious squabbles between Labor Zionists, the Orthodox community, and Revisionist Zionists took place from before 1939 to long after. They squabbled over who was worth saving, over how much should be spent and so on. Early on, they even fought over custody of the survivors. Ben Gurion was concerned about the implications of reparations from Germany as early as 1943. Segev argues that by the time thousands of Mizrahi Jews had begun to flood into Israel, a political consensus on the Holocaust was reached. Until that point, however, the Holocaust’s position in national mythology and practical affairs was at best uncertain.
From the Palestinian angle, Ghassan Kanafani’s “Return to Haifa” captures key ideas. Said and Safiya are victims of the Nakba. The 1948 war not only forced them to abandon their home in Haifa, but also their eldest son, Khaldun, a baby of less than year. By 1967, they live in Ramallah. When they go back to Haifa to visit their house, it is to achieve some form of closure. 1948 does not make them nationalists.
Said is not a good nationalist. He does not play the heroic role of a PLO freedom fighter. He returns to Haifa not for national reasons but for personal ones. His occupation is not described, but given that he threatened to disown his son Khalid for even thinking of joining the fidayin, one can assume he is not engaged in any sort of resistance activities. He returns to Haifa to come to grips with the past, not to reverse it.
Once in Haifa, Said’s mixed-up meeting with Dov betrays further ambiguities. Dov is most likely their son. Yet Dov is currently a proud member of the Israeli army, raised Jewish by his adopted mother, a Holocaust survivor from Poland. Dov was born Palestinian Arab, yet he now identifies only with Israeli Jews. Said and Dov share nothing aside from blood.
Further Said and Safiya both show weakness. To Dov’s charge of cowardice for abandoning their infant son, twenty years before, Said pleads guilty. He does not make excuses about the past. He does not excoriate the present. Although he argues for resistance, he also implies that him and his generation, those who last lived in an undivided Palestine, do not truly know what it is. “What is homeland?” he asks repeatedly.
Truly, how can one be a committed nationalist if one concedes that one does not have a good idea of what ‘homeland’ consists of? In the conventional narrative, it is never the victim who makes mistakes. It is Said that asks, “What will you do if we stop making mistakes?” The sadness, the personal relationship to one’s home, the lack of articulated patriotism, the willingness to admit mistakes and agree that ‘homeland’ is a term of as yet undetermined meaning. All this does not make the case for nationalism.
Where then is 1948 to fit in the Palestinian national narrative? As the Nakba, it inaugurates exile. But as Kanafani clearly indicates, it does not inaugurate meaningful resistance. Indeed, his conclusion is that if there is to be any hope for Palestine, it lies with those who were born in exile, after 1948, and who fight not for lost homes, but for lost dignity and lost nationhood. In short, ideology must solidify before national redemption can occur.
What is key in both cases are the components of the original events that go missing. Take the case of the Holocaust survivors first. Contrary to the rosy pictures given in Otto Preminger’s “Exodus,” they do not integrate seemingly effortlessly into the new society. As Tom Segev indicates, the society’s elite melting pot, the kibbutz takes in proportionately fewer new arrivals than the rest of the country. Many of those are accepted only grudgingly. Those who were accepted often did not fit well. Others were not happy to have their language, culture, and identity remolded to serve the emerging Israeli state. The Holocaust survivor was anything but a national hero in those early days.
The other case is that of the Palestinians. Where was the Palestinian national movement from 1948 to 1967? Palestinians were certainly active during this period. Raids into Israel, attempts to sneak across the border and political activities definitely did occur. Yet Kanafani’s narrative makes the period seem empty and lacking in significance. Things did happen between the Nakba and the 1967 war, but somehow they are not mentioned at all. What Kanafani does is turn the Nakba into the disaster that lies at the heart of not only Palestinian exile, but also political quiescence that lasts for two decades. The Nakba, Kanafani implies, was to blame for twenty years of no progress for the Palestinian nation.
What make these two cases remarkable are their similarities. In both cases, there is a tendency toward blaming the victims. Kanafani’s Said was too weak to fight so it is his son who must set things to rights. Segev’s Holocaust survivors are accused of failing to ‘fight honorably’ and so maintaining the Jewish tradition of weakness and persecution. In either case, the perception of failure delegitimizes the other claims of the victims.
The compromises reached on the interpretations of the Nakba and the Holocaust also bears curious resemblance. From the perspective of Israel, if the survivors were willing to use their story for Zionism, then their stories were legitimate. From the perspective of Palestine’s nationalist movement, the Nakba has been mainly used to assail western colonialism as well as a variety of corrupt and inept Arab leaders in neighboring states. These are not false claims, but they are also not a complete representation of the events as they actually happened.
Neither of these compromises were accidents. According to Segev, Zionists did precious little to aid the Jews of Europe during WWII. It is therefore not surprising that co-opting the tragedy of the Holocaust would be useful to Zionism. By using the Holocaust as a weapon against critics and indeed against all gentiles, as Segev notes, Israel can avoid its own less than fully comfortable relationship with that event. For Kanafani, and no doubt others, restarting the narrative of Palestine in 1967 while cutting off the 1948 generation allows an avoidance of blame on the part of current Palestinian leaders and a heroizing of the exploits of the PLO, while situating the Palestinian movement away from the by then compromised Pan-Arab movement.
I don’t think national myths are constructed because people enjoy writing their own history. Rather they are constructed because they need to appeal to people, and to fit the exigencies of the day. What Segev’s description of Israel’s relationship to the Holocaust shows is that realities tend to be generally messier and less clear-cut than myths. Equally important, although the construction process is not arbitrary, it is clear that the Holocaust, had it not been appropriated by Zionists, would certainly be perceived in a somewhat different fashion. The same is more or less true of the Palestinian nationalist movement’s relations with the Nakba and what followed. It is not so much that the certain parts of the story were ignored, as that the tale was simplified to the point that all heroes and villains were obvious. The process of making the past serve the present is ongoing.