On May 18, DAWN hosted a panel discussion online on the 75th anniversary of the Nakba, or the "catastrophe" of 1947 to 1949 when more than 750,000 Palestinians were forcibly expelled from their homes during the war that established the State of Israel. As Adam Shapiro, the Director of Advocacy for Israel-Palestine at DAWN, said in introducing the panel as moderator, "The Nakba was not a one-time event, and it continues to this day, both in terms of intergenerational trauma and as a consequence of the unyielding effort by Israel's Zionist ideology to take as much of the land of Palestine with as few Palestinians as possible. The United States, as the main security, diplomatic, economic and political supporter of Israel, has enabled, financed and excused what is now widely understood as an apartheid system, even as it has also documented and understood that Israel's policies and practices have been devastating."
The panel included three expert contributors to Democracy in Exile's recent roundtable on how the denial of the Nakba has long shaped Western policy on Israel-Palestine: Diana Buttu, a Palestinian lawyer, writer and analyst based in Haifa, who is a former adviser to the negotiating team of the Palestine Liberation Organization and a non-resident fellow at DAWN; Yara M. Asi, an Assistant Professor in the School of Global Health Management and Informatics at the University of Central Florida and a visiting scholar at the FXB Center for Health and Human Rights at Harvard University; and Michael Schaeffer Omer-Man, DAWN's Director of Research for Israel-Palestine. They were also joined by DAWN's Advocacy Director, Raed Jarrar, in a wide-ranging and often personal discussion of the Nakba and its continued legacy today.
What follows is a transcript of most of that conversation, lightly edited for clarity and length. The full audio of the event is also available on Twitter Spaces.
It's not just that they deny the existence of Palestinians, or they deny that the Nakba was perpetrated, but they excuse it. They'll say, 'Well, it's just something that had to be done.'
- Diana Buttu
Adam Shapiro: Today we will discuss how the denial or suppression of the history of the Nakba and recognition of it as an ongoing lived experience shapes U.S. and Western policy toward Palestine and Israel. I'm so grateful to our speakers for making time today, and to you, our audience for joining us.
Yara, you were a participant in DAWN's roundtable on the Nakba, and in your contribution, you noted that the lack of acknowledgement of Palestinian suffering, at the very least, means denial of Palestinian identity—and from that denial, the further lack of consideration of Palestinian rights. How do you see that manifesting, both in terms of U.S. policy, even in the way American politicians and officials in the media respond to the killing of Palestinians, and what does that mean for any Palestinian who might challenge that position?
Yara Asi: Thank you, that was a big question, so I'll try to tackle parts of it. But in essence, a big part of what motivates, or in their mind I would say justifies, Western policy towards Palestinians is this idea that this is a protracted conflict: There's one side that wants one thing, there's another side that wants a different thing, and they just can't figure it out. And so that explains everything, right?
But when you put that into the context of the Nakba and what happened then, and what has happened since, I think you have to reckon with a much more uncomfortable reality that this is not a conflict that is just waiting for a peace resolution to end.
This is—and has been made exceptionally clear, especially in the last couple of months with Israel's new government—a plan to establish a settler colony throughout the Palestinian territories, and we're seeing action of that every single day.
And so if you look at it as a conflict, you don't need to reckon with the Nakba, because that's the past and, you know, we have UNRWA for the refugees. But if you look at it as an ongoing project of settler colonialism, then not only do you have to reckon with the Nakba, but you have to put into context all the other violations that we see—from the home demolitions to the raiding of civil society organizations, to the bombing of Gaza, to the raiding of cities in the West Bank, and on and on and on.
And the only way that you don't put the puzzle pieces together, and see what is obvious there, is if you deny that there is a historical precedent that not only precipitated all of this, but continues to motivate the actions of the Israeli government—and in my mind, pretty explicitly.
Adam Shapiro: If you see some of the videos coming out today [on the far-right "flag day" march in Jerusalem], it's quite explicit. Not just the settlers and the folks who are marching in Jerusalem today, but also the state forces, the security forces, which are beating Palestinians in the street, in front of their shops and their homes right now.
Let me turn it over to you, Michael. In your contribution to the Democracy in Exile roundtable, you wrote that "the Western world has been able to treat the Israeli-Palestinian situation with the same levels of cognitive dissonance as Israelis themselves." Can you explain that a little bit more, and how you think that manifests in terms of practical policy by the United States, as well as other Western countries?
Michael Omer-Man: I would just answer the last bit first, to tack onto what Yara was saying, that you can't look at it as one thing. There's no specific policy that you can attribute to it. It's an attitude, it's an approach, it's an understanding of facts. It's the understanding of reality that frames everything you do.
So the dissonance, it's multifaceted but it's also quite stark in that you obviously have Palestinians; they exist and the West is treating it as this two-sided conflict. But at the same time, it buys into this Israeli narrative—not the denialism that says there is no Palestinian people, sometimes the West doesn't go that far—but they certainly do adopt and parrot, if not fully buy into, this Israeli myth that Israel was a land without a people for a people with no land, that there were no Palestinians there, that Israel "made the desert bloom."
And, at the same time, the West has been funding UNRWA and treating the Palestinian situation as a refugee issue for so long without being willing to even discuss the origins of that refugee situation. And for my entire lifetime, the past 40-something years, certainly not willing to discuss any genuine or just resolution to that refugee situation.
So, in looking at Nakba denialism in the West and how that affects policies, it removes the element of domination and expulsion and replacement—which, as Yara mentioned, is the foundation of the new lexicon that we're starting to see being used, which Palestinians have been using for many, many years, since the beginning really, of apartheid and settler colonialism. The definition of apartheid is acts meant to create or preserve—and I'm paraphrasing here—the systematic oppression or domination of one racial group over another, right? And then there's settler colonialism, of settling in order to replace, not just to extract resources. And that specifically is really difficult to get to if you don't acknowledge that there was a Palestinian people that existed beforehand in this land.
Adam Shapiro: Diana, we've been starting to engage a bit on what this means, the denial of the Nakba as a lived reality and experience of Palestinians. You have been someone who has actually been an adviser to negotiations and in meetings with officials from all over the world, articulating the Palestinian position in various frameworks. And I just wonder if you could talk a little bit about what it's like, as Diana going into those meetings and going into spaces with [Israeli and Western] officials who in some ways can hold the fate of the Palestinian people and, of what is happening on the ground, in their hands? And going into those spaces knowing that they not only don't know about your own and your own family's and your own people's history, but they actively are working to erase it or deny it. What do you have to go through mentally and even psychologically in order to enter those spaces and try to engage on behalf of Palestinians?
Diana Buttu: Where do I begin? Look, it's not just a question of Nakba denial, which is rampant, but there's also something more than that, which is the Nakba apologists. These are people who tell us that they had to do it because there was no other alternative. It's not just that they deny the existence of Palestinians, or they deny that the Nakba was perpetrated, but they excuse it. They'll say, 'Well, it's just something that had to be done.'
And what that does is it prioritizes some lives over others. And that is about Jewish supremacy, about prioritizing the lives of people who are Jewish over the lives of everybody else. And for me, as a Palestinian, it's not just me as a Palestinian. My father, who has since passed away, himself was a Nakba survivor. He was somebody who, when he was nine years old, not only witnessed the Nakba, but had his whole world—his whole world—turned upside down.
And what I mean by that is in 1948, the town that he was from, al-Mujaydil, which is right next to the city of Nazareth, was completely wiped off the map. The entire 2,200 residents of the town fled. And what that meant for my father was that it wasn't just the destruction of his home, and the homes of his uncles and his cousins and his aunts. But it was the destruction of an entire society—an entire community. His schools, the cemetery, his friends, they were all thrown out, never to return again.
And so going into these spaces with people who are Nakba deniers or Nakba apologists, the fact that I have to humanize myself and put a personal face to the Nakba by describing what my father, my grandfather, my grandmother, my aunts, what they went through, is horrifying. They view Palestinians just in terms of a limited humanitarian issue. You always have to humanize yourself. It's everything from being forced to humanize yourself, which nobody should have to endure, to then being dismissed and told that the Nakba either didn't happen or that it had to be done.
For an average youth in Palestine today, they have lived entirely under occupation or blockade, in the case of Gaza. Their parents maybe lived through 1967. They certainly lived through the Oslo process and the failure of that. And their grandparents in some cases, if they're still alive, lived through the Nakba.
- Yara M. Asi
Adam Shapiro: The necessity of having to humanize yourself in order to have value and validation in those kinds of spaces, being forced into that situation—that alone is trauma-inducing. And that is something that has to be taken into account when we consider the disparity of power between Israelis and Palestinians, and of course, the United States and the Palestinians when it comes to anything resembling a negotiation or talks.
That leads me to my next question for you, Yara, as a global health practitioner and professional in your academic work. I was struck by a recent article following the cease-fire announced in Gaza, on Al Jazeera, where the headline is, "Children in Gaza experience 'trauma beyond their endurance.'" Which is just an incredible concept to even have to try to wrap your mind around in the context of Gaza, where over 80 percent of people are refugees—people who were forced into Gaza effectively from villages across the southern part of Palestine in 1948 and who have been trapped in what has been described as an open-air prison.
I was wondering if you could speak, from your own experience working in that field, about this idea of generational trauma and how that manifests for Palestinians, and also in terms of Palestinian politics and what that might mean for the struggle to end apartheid and end occupation and achieve liberation for Palestinians?
Yara Asi: Absolutely. In my field, in health, one of the most studied indicators in Palestinian populations, whether they're in the West Bank or Gaza or refugees elsewhere, is mental health—A., because it's easier to study than some other issues of health, but B., because it's such a unique circumstance that it's not just a current generation experiencing a trauma. And it's not just their parents' generation. Literally, for an average youth in Palestine today, they have lived entirely under occupation or blockade, in the case of Gaza. Their parents, depending on their age, maybe lived through 1967. They certainly lived through the Oslo process and the failure of that. And their grandparents in some cases, if they're still alive, lived through the Nakba.
So you have this compounding trauma, over generations. And, you know, Palestinians are often lauded for their sense of resilience, their ability to persist despite obstacles, their high education rates, all of these things. But I think we fail sometimes to connect what that actually means in terms of outcomes. And that's part of why health is the center of my work, because when people feel despair, when they feel hopelessness… You know, many Palestinians have never had their voice heard. Most Palestinians are very young, and have never voted for anyone.
It's so simple, I think, for external people to say, 'Well, just get some elections and see what happens.' Or, you know, 'Well, if only the Palestinians could get it together or their government could get it together, the impetus is really on them and look how much they've rejected this and that,' and all this other misinformation.
When such a highly traumatized population is dangled this carrot, again, for generations—that if you just do this, things will get better, just form this and things will get better, sign this and things will get better—and they never do. And in fact, they seem to be getting increasingly worse. And so, many young Palestinians, when you go there and talk to them, they say, 'Even if there were elections tomorrow, why vote? It's not going to matter. It's not going to make a difference.' If it's not Abbas, it's probably going to be someone like him who is going to enrich themselves and who is going to do what it takes for the Palestinian Authority to survive and not for Palestinians to achieve liberation—and those are two separate goals. This generational trauma, this generational hopelessness—some studies have even quantified it as feelings of being broken or destroyed inside—think about what that means. It's obviously going to influence the imaginations of what Palestinians think is possible.
And that trickles into politics. And when you couple that with this calcified Palestinian Authority and the oppressive regime of Hamas, you get what we have now, which is a lot of hopelessness and a lot of stagnation and no pushing really in any direction to get things to change, because the West wants it this way. They want the PA to keep things cool, calm and collected as far as the West is concerned, and outcomes for Palestinians are secondary or tertiary to that.
Adam Shapiro: Mike, the Anti-Defamation League has put out a position paper for the U.S. government, calling for anti-Zionism and the suppression of anti-Zionism to be top priorities for the enforcement of the International Holocaust Remembrance Association's definition of antisemitism, which is used by the United States in combating antisemitism. The ADL is effectively trying to squash out all forms of critique of Israel and its policies.
This is happening at the same time as efforts to squash Palestinian speech and free speech on Palestine, including efforts to hold Israel accountable through BDS. It's also happening as Israeli and other academics are gaining access to archives and publishing new information about the Nakba, on how different massacres and atrocities against Palestinians were not all happenstance or by accident, but were actually organized and ordered by Israeli commanders who were political leaders at the time. We have also Israeli documentary films coming out giving testimony about what soldiers did and what they saw in 1948, which is overwhelmingly confirming Palestinian accounts that have existed for decades.
I just wonder how you see that juxtaposition and how that ultimately ends up affecting policy elites, especially in Washington, and the media landscape?
Michael Omer-Man: It's exactly the dissonance that I was speaking about, and that I wrote about. On the one hand, it's what Diana was calling the Nakba apologists, right? Where they're saying, 'Yes, it happened, but we had to do it.' And this idea has never been hidden. It's not a new idea. There's a quote from Moshe Dayan, Israel's mythological defense minister from the early days of the state, that, "We are a generation of settlers, and without the steel helmet and gun barrel, we shall not be able to plant a tree or build a house." Meaning, obviously, there's somebody who is fighting back and resisting Zionist settlement.
And with the work of Israeli historians and others, as you said, there's plenty of evidence. It's not easy to deny the facts, so Nakba deniers and apologists try and control the context. And by doing that, by preventing those facts from being used in a way that challenges the following 70 years, the ongoing Nakba and the kind of state that Israel became, which is designed to sustain Jewish supremacy over the land—the two don't compute. You can't have it both ways.
The result is that it creates this sort of zero-sum equation around challenging the narrative of Israel. Because if Israel was a land without a people for a people without a land, and if the desert was empty and they made it bloom—which, you know, does not comport with the Dayan quote and the facts that we know from historians like Benny Morris and Ilan Pappé and others who have been very prolific. We know that Israelis came in, Zionists came in and expelled the Palestinians. They took over the land.
But if you accept that, then you can't give the moral benefit of the doubt to the Israelis, which is an understatement of how the West treats Israel, particularly vis-à-vis the Palestinians. You have to give that same moral stance to the Palestinians, which the world is not willing to do.
I think it is that dissonance that you see being used particularly with the IHRA and its definition of antisemitism, and it is tragic. It used to be, just a few years ago, that the biggest fight against antisemitism was against Holocaust denial. And here we are: You have to deny another people's tragedy in order to not be antisemitic. It's very troubling, and it really is harmful to the path toward Palestinian liberation and justice. It makes it much more difficult, again, because it's the zero-sum game where you're saying that if Palestinians come back, it destroys what Israel has become, while trying to deny that Palestinians were there in the first place.
Adam Shapiro: Raed, your family were made refugees not in 1948 during the Nakba, but in 1967 in what is known as the Naksa, which is translated as "setback," and as a result, you were born and grew up in Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Iraq, and you were the first in your family not to be born in Palestine. I was hoping you could tell us a bit about how the Nakba impacted you and your family, and what the subsequent experience of being a refugee has meant for you as a Palestinian.
Raed Jarrar: Actually, my family was displaced twice. My grandparents were in Haifa in 1948, and they were displaced back to our hometown of Jenin. And then in 1967, they were displaced again out of historic Palestine. So for those who are familiar with the whole UNRWA cards, we have both—we have cards of refugees and of IDPs. I have both of them, although I wasn't obviously born at the time, but my grandfather made sure that I am registered in the U.N. system as a refugee and as an IDP, because he thought about preserving our right of return. Whether he couldn't make it back, whether my father would not make it back, that his grandchildren will one day make it back to Palestine.
So we grew up with those memories, like other millions of Palestinians in the diaspora. We grew up with memories and with the promise to go back home at one time. In the past 50 or so years, almost half of the Palestinian refugee population live outside of historic Palestine, and I am one of them.
I grew up in other parts of the Middle East. My family lived in Lebanon and Jordan and Saudi Arabia and Iraq and Egypt. I did visit Palestine three times while working with U.S. or international organizations using my U.S. passport. And then I was denied entry five years ago, when I worked with Amnesty International USA, because Amnesty was accused of supporting BDS.
I think my two cents for this moment is a point that was raised earlier by Mike, on the ongoing Nakba. I know that we are meeting today because we are discussing something that happened 75 years ago, but unfortunately the displacement and the killings of Palestinians and the crimes against humanity that were committed against Palestinians 75 years ago, they continue today—in the form of excessive state violence and bombardment and extrajudicial killings in the streets of Palestine. They continue by barring people like myself from going back to Palestine to visit family. And they continue through a system of apartheid that treats Palestinians as second-class citizens or maybe not even humans.
And unfortunately as Americans, we are not just audiences watching these atrocities take place from afar; we are participants in these atrocities with our tax dollars. Our government continues to send billions of dollars of weapons to Israel on an annual basis, breaking U.S. law by supporting violations of human rights. Although existing U.S. law prohibits the United States from contributing to any human rights violations or supporting crimes against humanity like the Israeli practices on a daily basis, the United States is an active participant of attacking Palestinians every day. We have to do a better job in making sure this stops immediately.
Adam Shapiro: You've worked in DC engaging in advocacy, talking to officials at the State Department, talking to officials at the Defense Department, talking to members of Congress and their staffs, trying to shape and shift U.S. foreign policy towards one that is more respectful of human rights. Diana talked about the idea of having to sort of prove her humanity, because Palestinians have been so dehumanized, when she enters into those spaces, that she almost has to validate her own humanity as an individual and as a Palestinian. I'm wondering how you have experienced that in those kinds of spaces in Washington?
Raed Jarrar: I think that the experience that you described is common among Palestinians or Arabs or Muslims working on issues that are close to us. Fighting to be recognized as a human is definitely a part of the dynamic, but also fighting to be recognized as an objective person who is coming with policy recommendations is even harder, because just coming to a space with a foreign accent and a beard and a Palestinian last name, there are so many assumptions made, that will not be made about, let's say, a white or Jewish person speaking about Israel-Palestine in the same space. There is more leeway given to non-Palestinians or non-Arab Muslims speaking about Israel-Palestine as objective observers, or being able to come up with policy recommendations that are "more serious" or should be taken into account.
These are very difficult experiences, and I think 2023 is much easier for us because we do have many people who have led the path for Palestinian Americans to have our space. Now, I would say having a member of Congress who is a Palestinian-American, of course, makes it much easier to be seen as a human, to be seen as someone who can engage in policy discussions. There are many congressional staffers who are Palestinian and Arab and Muslim in high positions who have established a foothold in Congress to question anyone who suggests otherwise, who suggests that just by the mere fact that you are a person of color, or a Palestinian, or an Arab or a Muslim, that your views are somehow tainted by personal biases or that you are not someone who is objective and capable of presenting rational policy recommendations.