Liberation or Catastrophe?


Last week marked 59 years of celebrating the creation of the State of Israel, and 59 years of suffering and international estrangement for the Palestinians. People often remember the good news and tend to avoid the bad.

Palestinians worldwide have commemorated 15 May as al-Nakba (Catastrophe) Day , ever since Israel ‘s declaration of independence on 14 May 1948. Nearly every Palestinian family has a nightmare story that is retold with ritualised passion during this week stories of homes and gardens destroyed, fields set alight, wells poisoned, uncles shot, fathers beaten, sisters raped.

Zionist forces expelled and intimidated over 700,000 Palestinians through a process of scaremongering and organised terror that today is legally and politically defined as ‘ethnic cleansing’ and is described as such by Israeli historians like Ilan Pappé.

The Palestinians, in an act of collective responsibility and social consciousness, commemorate this tragedy ensuring that future generations will not forget. In a net of historical irony, the Palestinians share this concern for historical memory with the very people who inflicted their suffering upon them.

No reasonable person would admonish Jews to ‘forget the Holocaust.’ Indeed, over the decades there has been an explosion of remembering, described by political scientist Norman Finkelstein as ‘The Holocaust Industry.’ Museums, books, documentaries, art galleries and blockbuster movies have all contributed to this phenomenon.

The Jewish experience, unlike the Palestinian one, is very much a public affair that engages support from far and wide. For many leaders, celebrities and politicians, celebrations of Israeli independence are fixed dates in their diaries. The Premier of Victoria, for example, has not missed any Israeli Independence Day celebration since he took office in October 1999.

In stark contrast, Bracks has not accepted a single invitation from the Palestinian community to attend an equivalent event. A few years ago, when he was invited to attend an al-Nakba commemoration, the community was told it was ‘too political’ and he would have to decline.

This response, as hypocritical and ludicrous as it was, reflects a general discourse around the suffering of the Palestinians, which acts on several levels. First, Palestinians are repeatedly admonished to ‘forget the past’ we are told that looking back is ‘not constructive’ and ‘doesn’t get us closer to a solution.’ Yet Palestinians live the consequences of the past every day it has become intrinsic to our identity much like Jewish suffering has.

As the American novelist William Faulkner put it: ‘The past is never dead. It’s not even past.’ This is particularly true for Palestinians. As exiles, refugees, prisoners, members of an oppressed minority within Israel, or as subjects of a brutal and violent military occupation Palestinians exist in a series of memories of the past. However, unlike Jewish suffering, ours continues on a daily basis.

Image of a Palestinian refugee camp  after al-Nakba, 1948

The second level at which this discourse of suffering operates is the primacy of Jewish security over Palestinian rights to education, healthcare, economic prosperity, property, freedom and security. It is the ‘security of the Jewish people’ that has rationalised Israel’s takeover of Palestinian land, abuse of Palestinian rights, and denial of Palestinian Statehood.

Thirdly, human rights are somehow nebulous whenever Palestinians vocalise injustices and demand compensation or restitution. In the case of the Right of Return (the claimed right of all Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and lands of origin, and to full restitution of all their confiscated and destroyed property) , Palestinians are regularly castigated for putting this forward as a ‘Trojan horse’ for the destruction of Israel, despite the validity of the claim under international law.

Fourth, narratives of Palestinian suffering and al-Nakba are belittled as stories of victimhood (just plucking at heartstrings). Or worse, in a clear example of al-Nakba Denial and despite the historical evidence, Australian and international Jewish leaders dismiss the al-Nakba experience as a fabrication and deception.

After years of supporting Israeli injustices against Palestinians, to acknowledge these wrongs would be tantamount to self-incrimination our legal and ideological frameworks, not to mention our moral values and principles, would be challenged if we were to accept the Palestinian experience of suffering.

For these reasons, last Sunday, Prime Minister John Howard accepted an award from the Jewish National Fund (JNF). Like Robert Menzies and Bob Hawke before him, Howard now has a forest named after him in northern Israel.

The JNF has been accused of assisting the illegal expansion of settlements, it has planted forests over Palestinian villages that were ethnically cleansed and it collects donations for these activities in Australia tax-free.

The organisation holds 14 per cent of all the land in Israel, and its statutes explicitly prohibit the sale or rent of its land to non-Jews. This means that every Jew in the world can get land from the JNF, while a Palestinian or Arab citizen of Israel cannot acquire a house or an apartment on its land.

The question that must be asked is how the Australian Prime Minister can accept an award from an organisation with such a disgraceful track record and a blatantly discriminatory Constitution.

The answer, of course, lies in the desire to pull up the warm blanket of celebration rather than acknowledge the cold suffering of an entire population.

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