Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
6 - 12 April 2000
Issue No. 476
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Denial and the future of peace

By Ghada Karmi*

The final stage of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process is imminent. Top of the agenda and most difficult of all will be the future of Palestinian refugees. This was very much on my mind when, last month, I attended an Oxford Union Debate entitled, "This House believes that Holocaust denial should be made a crime," a subject made topical by the on-going court trial here of the British historian David Irving, who is accused of Holocaust denial. Oxford University is famous for these prestigious events where students aspiring to high office in Parliament or at the Bar traditionally cut their debating teeth. The subjects of debate are usually controversial and the form is that both proposer and opposer are students, who are then supported by specially invited, prominent speakers. The whole event ends with attendees voting, just as happens in Parliament, by walking through two doors respectively marked "Ayes" and "Noes." The Oxford Union Debate is a charming institution, redolent of all that is most attractive in the English tradition. It is no wonder that it has been the training ground for the vast majority of Britain's political elite.

What drew my attention in this particular debate was a remark made by the student proposer from Christ Church. She made an eloquent case against what she saw as the inherent anti-Semitism of Holocaust deniers. Speaking with passion, she asserted that Holocaust denial be made a crime because it constituted an assault on a whole people's history. She said: "Imagine how it must feel for a Holocaust survivor to be told: you are a liar, your sufferings never happened, you have invented it all. Imagine your pain at knowing that not only did you suffer that horror but that it is denied. You still remember what happened, but you are told your memories are false." Irresistibly, the refugee issue came into my mind: without the term "Holocaust survivor," her sentence would have applied with equal force to the parallel issue of what may be called "Nakba Denial." The point of resemblance here is not between genocide and dispossession -- they are of course not equivalent -- but of denial that either event had ever happened.

I recalled that Palestinians who were expelled from their homeland in 1948 and again in 1967, and who are still alive to tell the tale, are nevertheless told it never happened. Thousands of others who have since died went to their graves without seeing their homeland again, denied even the dignity of having a valid history. The ordeal of displacement, of the refugee camps, of eking out a living in alien countries, of separation from loved ones -- all this was ignored. Their collective memories counted for nothing. The physical evidence of their presence in their homeland -- deeds they held to their property, keys to the houses they had owned, photographs and mementos of their country -- were worthless. Their social, personal and political history in the land which was called Palestine before 1948 was of no importance.

These matters are of course well known to Arabs. "Nakba denial" is an exclusively Jewish and Western phenomenon, depressingly familiar to those of us who live in the West. No one, I am sure, listening to the Oxford Union Debate that evening, remotely remembered the Palestinians. The Israeli version of history -- that the Palestinians left voluntarily or under orders from their leaders and that Israelis had no responsibility, material or moral, for their plight -- has been successfully marketed to the world community for decades. At a recent conference of world leaders in Sweden on the Holocaust and the need to compensate victims, a Swedish journalist asked the Israeli prime minister, Ehud Barak, if Palestinians driven from their homes by Israel should be compensated; he replied that "there was no moral or legal claim against Israel."

Given the staggering degree of documentation of the Palestine tragedy in official archives, film footage, personal histories, legal records and international proceedings, we must conclude that the Israeli refutation of what really happened is denial on a massive scale. In recent years, this monolithic picture has begun to change in Israel, though not yet for the mass of Jewish faithful who live outside. In the 1980s, several Israeli "new historians" like Benny Morris and Ilan Pappe, published versions of the events of 1948 derived from official archives which showed that many Palestinians had been expelled. In 1998, the Israeli TV film Tkuma gave explicit evidence of the 1948 massacre at the Palestinian village of Deir Yassin by Jewish forces, always strenuously denied by Israel. Last year, the Israeli education minister approved the teaching in (secular) Israeli schools of another Israeli-perpetrated massacre at the village of Kufr Qassem in 1956. Likewise, changes were introduced in the school curriculum, correcting the official version of a helpless nascent Israeli state attacked by overwhelming Arab forces in 1948, and evidence of some Palestinian expulsions included. In the last month, Israel's education minister has suggested (to enormous protest) that selected verses of Palestine's foremost resistance poet, Mahmoud Darwish, also be taught in Israeli schools.

These changes are promising, but they are not all they seem. In a study I carried out in Israel/Palestine on Palestinian-Israeli reconciliation at the end of last year, I found that Nakba denial had merely taken new forms. Forty per cent of my 63 Israeli interlocutors accepted that "some" Palestinians had been expelled -- two people even thought that Israel should compensate them -- but most thought this was not pre-planned but rather the unfortunate consequence of war. No apology was owed by Israel. Amongst academics at the Hebrew and Tel Aviv Universities, I found another version of denial, namely that Palestinians bore the blame for their own expulsion. Had they accepted the UN 1947 Partition Plan which divided Palestine into Jewish and Arab states, I was told, war and hence the Palestinian exodus would have been averted.

Without doubt, however, the most effective type of Nakba denial has come through the special importance accorded to the Holocaust. This has become increasingly central in Western and especially American life, as evidenced by the myriad of US Holocaust memorials and museums. In Britain too, there is now to be a Holocaust Memorial Day every January; the Imperial War Museum is to have a Holocaust section; the film Schindler's List has become staple education for schoolchildren all over Britain. Last month, the French premier pledged to support the publication and circulation of a Holocaust textbook for all French schools and the creation of an institution devoted to Holocaust teaching. Holocaust denial is a criminal offence in several European countries. The campaign for Holocaust victim compensation and restitution constantly gains momentum.

The point here is not to comment on this phenomenon in Western society, already cogently done by such writers as Peter Novick and Norman Finkelstone, but to show how effectively such considerations have drowned other claims. There is a dominant view that to compare Palestinian suffering with Jewish persecution is almost risible, for the Holocaust is regarded as unique. The needs of its victims override all others'. Yet the Holocaust should always have been a separate issue and the underlying logic suggesting a link with the Palestinians is self-evidently unfair -- but against such a background, denial of Palestinian history becomes even easier.

And yet, in the present situation, the time has passed for such psychological luxuries. The refugee issue is foremost in the current peace process and, if not properly dealt with, likely to scupper its success. A just -- not merely expedient -- solution must be found. My research revealed that no Palestinian I interviewed had accepted for a moment the loss of the homeland or Israel's denial of what had happened. Until Israel admitted its culpability and made amends, there could be no forgiveness and no reconciliation; a peace based on denial of the truth would never last, they vehemently asserted.

In a historic speech on 12 March the Pope begged for the forgiveness of those whom Catholics had wronged in the past. He mentioned particularly sins committed against the Jews, a theme he continued during his recent visit to the Holy Land. Since then, several observers -- amongst them the Israeli journalist Gideon Levy -- have commented on the need for a comparable Israeli action towards the Palestinians. This is a challenge for Israelis, but one they can no longer afford to ignore. They could do worse than start by considering the gross contradiction inherent in a people who fight so staunchly against the denial of their own history while still condoning their own denial of others'.


*The writer is a Palestinian academic and associate fellow of the Royal Institute of International Affairs, London.

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