Rep. Tlaib, the Nakba and Israel’s Independence

On May 10th, in a Senate room secured with the help of Bernie Sanders, Rep. Rashida Tlaib hosted a commemoration of the Nakba — the “Catastrophe” for over 700,000 Palestinians who became stateless refugees as a result of the 1948 war for Israeli independence. This great human tragedy has long cast its shadow over a peaceful resolution in the region.

The Nakba would likely not have happened if the Palestinian leadership had accepted the UN Partition Plan of November 1947 and not immediately initiated a full-scale effort to destroy the Yishuv.  Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem were besieged, civilian traffic throughout Palestine subject to ambush, Jewish communities directly attacked, some kibbutzim evacuated and others destroyed. Atrocities — veritable war crimes — were committed by both sides, but more by the eventual victors.

Several Arab states joined the battle immediately after Israel proclaimed its independence on May 14, 1948. Jewish forces recovered from the initial shock of Arab attacks and struck back decisively and brutally in both phases of the war. This has been documented in minute detail by Benny Morris and other historians, and in testimonies recorded by numerous Jews and Arabs present at that time.

The Nakba Happened

The Nakba happened, a fact that cannot be ignored.  Over 400 Arab villages were destroyed, large urban homes confiscated, and former inhabitants prohibited from returning. This refugee problem festered, with their statelessness exploited and made permanent by most Arab countries in decades (until recently) of anti-Israel enmity. It also prompted the mass expulsion of over 800,000 Jews from communities going back centuries, if not millennia, in the Arab and Muslim-dominated countries of the Middle East and North Africa.

Nora Berman, The Forward’s deputy opinion editor, wrote a very fair-minded analysis of the Tlaib controversy last week. Berman specifically criticized the ire expressed by Sen. Jackie Rosen and Jonathan Greenblatt, the executive director of the ADL; Greenblatt publicly sticks to the line that all expressions of anti-Zionism are antisemitic.

What should one expect of a person who was not permitted to visit her grandmother in the West Bank?  She’s clearly an anti-Zionist who believes in a one-state solution, which I regard as impracticable, a likely recipe for ongoing conflict and the possible destruction of Israel, a Nakba in reverse with ten times the human cost. 

But she’s not an antisemite; she’s enthusiastically embraced the recent prospect that Bernie Sanders could become the first Jewish President.  (Sen. Sanders is outspoken in his criticism of Israel, but he’s also defended his time spent on a kibbutz during his youth, and defends Israel’s right to security and sovereignty, hopefully alongside an independent Palestinian state.)  

Difficult and Complex Truths

A recent JTA report has revealed that in a Zoom call with Jewish high school students on May 8th, Rep. Tlaib expressed compassion for settler families in the West Bank:

“Some settlements have been there for so long, right?” she said. “And just the idea around taking families that — that’s been their home — it’s just completely uprooting, forcibly displacing. It’s something I struggle with because, like, we’re doing it all over again, right? This happened during the Nakba.”

There are difficult and complex truths that are almost never articulated together.  To wit: the editor of Jewish Currents wrote a powerful piece defending Tlaib, and NPR aired an effective and affecting segment on the Nakba, but neither mentioned Israel’s precarious situation in 1948.

We may draw some solace from Tlaib’s sensitivity for the ostensible enemies of her people today. Perhaps this marks an openness toward a binational confederation in which the settler population might not pose an obstacle to peace, and the chasm between one state and two could be bridged.