At the start of a new week, I’d like to award the best and worst discussions of history in the past week in Israel.
The best take on the past came from Yoram Kaniuk, writing at Ynet (in Hebrew and English translation). Kaniuk writes about the government’s intent to legislate against commemorating the Nakba and Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar’s plan to revise a history textbook for Israel Arab children to erase a sentence about 1948 war saying, “The Arabs call the war the Nakba – a war of catastrophe, loss and humiliation – and the Jews call it the Independence War.”
Kaniuk, who fought in the War of Independence, writes,
I remember the Nakba. I saw it to a much greater extent than the education minister, who apparently only heard about it. It was a harsh, merciless campaign of young soldiers who spilled their blood while fighting a determined enemy that was eventually defeated. Yet the enemy that was defeated is not a geometrical unknown, but rather, a people that still exists. Its parents and grandparents fought well. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have suffered so many casualties.
I was wounded in battle, but I believe that the education minister must educate our young people to be heroes by teaching them that this war had losers too, and that they too have a narrative. They don’t have the country that was theirs but they have a history… The Nakba fighters fought heroically, but we fought better.
Kaniuk is not sorry that his side won in a terrible battle. The victory was creation of the state. It must not be the attempt to erase the history, and therefore the dignity, of the side that lost.
At the start of his poetic article, Kaniuk describes the fortress architecture of the Knesset. His description is accurate; the Knesset belongs to a period of Israeli design in which universities, synagogues, even a legislature were built, unconsciously, to look like fortifications. The Nakba law is an attempt to build fortifications against recognizing the past and the price that another people paid for our independence, he says. He concludes:
While inside the Knesset fortress I thought that maybe it is still possible, before my death, to turn this state into a Jewish State – not one populated by zealous masses called Jews, but rather, Jews like we used to be; a state where we respect those who fought against us and were defeated. When that will happen, we will see the establishment of an Arab state alongside us, and the city of Jerusalem, also known as al-Quds, will become the capital of two states, one Jewish and one Arab. And then peace will come to Israel. Amen.
To be Jews, Kaniuk suggests, we must be able to see history in more than one way, and to recognize the humanity of those who were our enemies, and to be able to look at truth without flinching. This is neither an ethnic nor a religious definition of being Jewish, thought it is rooted in our religious and national history. Were that we could adopt it as a common denominator, the highest common denominator, let us say, for Jewish identity here.
The most foolish take on history in the past week came from Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who ordered Israeli diplomats to circulate a photo of Hajj Amin al-Husseini meeting Hitler. The picture is meant to counter international criticism of plans to turn a hotel inside the Palestinian neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem into a housing project for Jewish settlers. According to various reported versions, the hotel or the land it is on was owned by al-Husseini – the best known Palestinian nationalist leader of the pre-1948 period – or his family.
Somehow the photo is supposed to convince foreign diplomats and leaders that the spot can only be redeemed from the stain of al-Husseini’s support for the Nazis by turning it into a Jewish housing development intended to prevent a political compromise in Jerusalem. An explanation of the connection has not been forthcoming from Lieberman. I won’t claim this is the most absurd exploitation of the Holocaust for political purposes – the competition is so intense – but it deserves dishonorable mention.