Nakba, Occupation, and the Search for Original Sin: A Response to Wendy Somerson

Rather than focus on who is “pro-Israel” and who is not, American Jews need to be talking more about the core moral issues that lie beneath the entire question of Israel/Palestine. I want to thank Wendy Somerson for writing “The Twin Ghosts of Slavery and the Nakba” because her piece plunges us deep into that discussion.

My appreciation of Somerson’s piece may seem strange, as she is quite critical of my essay “Is it Right to Compare Ferguson to Gaza? Reflections from a Jewish Protestor” published on the Tikkun website in December 2014. But I am thankful because this is exactly the conversation we should be having in the pages of Tikkun and beyond.

A Palestinian woman carries a jug with a child.

A Palestinian refugee from the 1948 Nakba leaves her home on foot after being displaced by Israeli settlers. Credit: Creative Commons/gnuckx.

Somerson divides it nicely between Nakba and occupation, between 1948 and 1967, between circumstantial injustice and systemic moral compromise. While she and I may not agree on matters of practice, I am sympathetic with her main point, which I understand to be about the hazard of focusing solely on the Occupation, thus ignoring or effacing the Nakba (the catastrophe of Palestinian displacement that began with the founding of the Israeli state in 1948). I am sympathetic with her argument that too much focus on 1967 hides the moral dilemma of 1948 (whatever one may think of its outcome).

I want to address a few points more closely below, but first I want to clarify what I meant in my essay by “anti-Israel.” I do not think that Jewish Voice for Peace is anti-Israel. It is an organization that, unlike most other Israel/Palestine peace groups in America, is more concerned with 1948 than 1967. It supports boycott, divestment, and sanctions as a nonviolent method of protest to undo, as I understand it, Occupation and not the very existence of the state as such (but certainly the state as presently constituted). That is not anti-Israel in my estimation. Anti-Israel is a position that maintains a priori that Israel should not exist as a state that embodies the homeland of the Jewish people even if it also embodies the homeland of the Palestinian people (here, one state or two states doesn’t matter). I would also include in the anti-Israel camp those who think, for whatever reasons, that the Jewish people, unlike other peoples, do not deserve to have a state. So when I wrote “anti-Israel” in my essay on Gaza and Ferguson I was not referring to Jewish Voice for Peace and not to Wendy Somerson.

The way in which Somerson makes her case indicates the extent to which there has been a sea change in American Jewish radical progressivism. Somerson’s article is chock full of Jewish ideas such as teshuva (repentance/return), rituals (lighting the Chanukah menorah), and emotions (the feeling of reverence in a holy space). The progressive Jews of old—the universalists, the Bundists, the Trotskyites—were Jewish, deeply so, but their political ideology was not openly expressed through Judaism, nor overtly based on it. Somerson’s is. I think she is channeling a new kind of American Jewish radical progressivism, one that has been infused with the effects of multiculturalism, New Age secular religiosity, and a loose form of Jewish renewal. She is not only making a political case against Israel’s present state of being, she is making a “Jewish” case, perhaps even a spiritual Jewish case.

Responding to the Nakba

In terms of the weakness of my argument due to focusing on the Occupation while ignoring and thus hiding from the reader the systemic problems that arise from Nakba, I accept that criticism: those of us who focus on the critique of the Occupation should be more sensitive to that point.

However, Somerson and I do not agree on what one does with Nakba. Israel came into existence on the backs of the Palestinian people. In doing so, many crimes were committed and the ethos of that time has not disappeared. Even the backsliding Benny Morris would agree to that, as it was his book The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949, first published in 1988, which truly set the post-Zionist discourse in motion. Even as Morris recanted his position in the second edition of the book, now titled The Birth of the Palestinian Problem Revisited (2004), Morris would have to agree with at least some of Somerson’s assertions (since he was one of the first to assert them). His mea culpa conversion to the right did not rewrite the facts of the case but rather refocused its context.

A fence between Israeli and Palestinian settlements.

Following the trauma and injustice of the Nakba and the Occupation, how can Israelis and Palestinians move into a more harmonious and just relationship? Credit: Creative Commons/gnuckx.

As Morris stated somewhat baldy in his Haaretz interview with Adi Ofir in the early 2000s, many of the injustices he recorded were simply the messy and necessary reality of creating the state. He justifies them, he doesn’t deny them. In the Ofir interview, Morris goes as far as making the unfortunate comparison between Israel in 1948 and the U.S. treatment of the Native Americans in the nineteenth century. A similar tack is taken by the more liberal Zionist Avi Shavit in his recent My Promised Land, especially regarding the liquidation of the Arab town of Lydda in 1948. I do not justify those actions. Yet as Hannah Arendt makes quite clear in her work, most states are created in these ways—that is the nature of politics and power. As Voltaire said, “Power is making others act as I choose.”

In her book On Violence, Arendt writes, “No one engaged in thoughts about history and politics can remain unaware of the enormous role violence has always played in human affairs, and it is at first glance rather surprising that violence has been singled out so seldom for special consideration.” She, of course, was anti-state because she felt states create, by definition, stateless people, and thus the state becomes the very source of political disenfranchisement. But she also understood why states are necessary and thus remained engaged in Zionism for quite some time. She was very critical of David Ben Gurion’s decision not to allow Palestinian refugees to return immediately after 1948 (Martin Buber was as well), and by the early 1950s Arendt abandoned the Zionist discourse altogether.

This is all to say that Israel, like the United States, came into existence at the expense of another people. The United States came into being through the killing and exploitation of Native Americans and African slaves. Does this mean we should simply pull up the U.S. tent and give the land back to surviving Native American communities? One could argue as such in principle, and make a good principled argument, but hardly in practice. The case of Israel is similar but also different. For one thing, Israel hasn’t decimated the Palestinian population to the extent that U.S. settlers decimated the Native American population through massacres and biological warfare, and there are many in the progressive Jewish world in Israel and the Diaspora who are fighting to prevent that from happening.

Acting Within the Context of the Present

What Baruch Kimmerling called Ariel Sharon’s attempted “politicide” is not yet successful. So we have to also fight for our principles within the context of what is, and not only what arguably should be. Yet these kinds of conversations are difficult to have if one party lives fully outside the sitz im leben (sociological setting) of the conversation. I do not think even Hamas members in Gaza who have been to Tel Aviv really believe that one day it will disappear, or that it will be Judenrein. I know the rhetoric echoes that sentiment but I also think many Hamas leaders are more realistic than we sometimes think.

Palestinian refugees walking down a road.

“It is time to move beyond the ‘pro-Israel’ ‘anti-Israel’ binary…to a more substantive discussion about the roots of injustice and the branches they produce,” Magid writes. Here, Palestinians flee during the Nakba. Credit: Creative Commons/gnuckx.

What Hamas hopes for one can garner from its rhetoric, but what matters more is what they realistically expect. It is important to note here that Rabbi Menachem Froman, settler rabbi and peace advocate who met with high-level Hamas operatives including Sheikh Yassin, consistently wrote that he believed from first-hand experience that if a just solution were proffered, Hamas would accept it. I write this simply to say that while Nakba should indeed be part of the conversation, and the law forbidding its recognition is an embarrassment to Israeli democracy, we must think from where we are. Israel exists. How do we in the Diaspora who care, help it live up to its highest aspirations.

From my vantage point, I think the Jews, like other peoples, have the right to aspire to political sovereignty. Perhaps it could have been elsewhere, but it wasn’t. That does not necessarily make it right, although Zionists have their historical argument that is as valid as the Palestinian argument. Yet even if we say it is not right, surely not purely on principle, it is “real” and that reality also must be part of the conversation.

I sympathize with Somerson’s revolutionary position regarding both the United States and Israel, but I also support the continued existence of the United States as a sovereign nation that should strive to be truly democratic, and I support Israel’s existence as a truly democratic nation of all its citizens in whatever form that takes. In other words, like Arendt and perhaps against my better judgment, I guess I do support states because right now, the alternatives seem far worse. In that sense, while I do not contest Somerson’s focus on 1948, I choose to focus on 1967, not because 1948 is not perhaps the very crux of the problem but because I want to fight for a situation that maximizes the chances for human flourishing. Here I suppose I am a Pragmatist in the Jamesean sense.

In any case, let us continue to fight together against situational injustice and for systemic change. My approach and Somerson’s should be two examples of dueling alternatives on the American Jewish Left, hopefully beyond the Left, in search of both a correction (tikkun) and a conclusion (siyum) to the injustices of one people dominating another. This is not the place to delineate or debate practical alternatives; boycott, divestment, and sanctions, or not; one state; two states. There is certainly ample time for that. Rather, Somerson’s essay, specifically as it challenges my essay, is what we should aspire to cultivate.

It is time to move beyond the “pro-Israel” “anti-Israel” binary—and beyond the notion that Israel advocacy is the only acceptable alternative for those of us who care about Israel/Palestine—to a more substantive discussion about the roots of injustice and the branches they produce. Nakba and Occupation, 1948 and 1967. Where do we find original sin and what do we do with it? Ferguson and Staten Island are events that can and should spark the same conversation, the way Deir Yassin did in 1948, the way the murder of Medgar Evers did in 1963, the way Selma did in 1965, the way the assassination of MLK did in 1968, and the way Sabra and Shatila did in 1982. I welcome the challenge. I hope Wendy Somerson does as well.

(To read the article by Wendy Somerson to which this piece is responding, click here. To read the article that started this whole debate, click here.)


3 thoughts on “Nakba, Occupation, and the Search for Original Sin: A Response to Wendy Somerson

  1. What’s the professor’s position on the Satmars – the largest Hasidic group in America – who despise non-Jews, including Palestinians, and also demonize Zionism? The Satmars are not a negligible group: They’re admired by all Haredim and have much political power in Greater New York.

  2. Professor Magid, thank you for your very thoughtful piece! I certainly can understand the pragmatic view that the State of Israel, however it came into being, is a reality that cannot be dismissed notwithstanding moral and ethical questions around how it came into being. Arguing against Israel’s right to exist is indeed like arguing for dissolving the United States because slavery and genocide were integral elements of its early history. However, I am perplexed by the statement that the Zionist historical argument as valid as the Palestinian historical argument. Why not just accept the fact of the moral, ethical, and legal ambiguities (to say the least) surrounding Israel’s birth?

  3. The ‘nakba’ is a work of fiction, entirely debunked by all primary source evidence and British field reports. Google and read Freda Kirchwey’s memoranum to the UN, aka ‘British Record on Partition’.

    The author, of course, is fully aware of said facts. Thus, it’s quite mystifying why he would portray the refusal of Jews to be genocided by the Arab-British alliance as a ‘nakba’.

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