Friday, May 16, 2008

The Language of "Nakba"

This is the first year that I can recall general media recognition of the Arabic word "nakba" in conjunction with the anniversary of the founding of the State of Israel. The word, which means "catastrophe," has been part of general Palestinian vocabulary ever since so many of them were driven from their homes in 1948 as a consequence of that founding. The fact that it has taken sixty years for this word to emerge in media coverage of the ongoing contentious debate over the plight of such Palestinians is an indication of the extent to which those media have elected to tunnel their vision on Israel and its development. Evidence of just how contentious the debate is can be found by visiting the "Israeli-Palestinian history denial" entry in Wikipedia, which explicitly warns the reader, "The neutrality of this article is disputed," exercising a level of understatement traditionally associated with the British. (This is probably a case where Powerset Factz are most useful in helping the reader keep track of just how many points are being contested, and I have to wonder whether or not the debate might be assisted by providing such Factz for the Talk page.)

The good news is that things are changing. Both yesterday and today, Amy Goodman devoted all of the discussion portion of Democracy Now! to Nakba-based perspectives, which included those of Israelis. An example of the extent to which dialog over Nakba could be shared by Jews (including Israelis) and Palestinians can be seen in the biographical sketches for today's guests:

Benny Morris is seen as one of the most important Israeli historians of the 1948 war. From his first book 20 years ago, Morris has documented Israeli atrocities and the expulsion of the Palestinians. He was considered part of a group of so-called ‘revisionist’ historians who challenged conventional Israeli thinking about 1948. However, unlike his critics to the left, Morris did not consider the expulsions to be part of a systematic Israeli policy of transfer. His latest book published this March by Yale University Press is called “1948: A History of the First Arab Israeli War.” He joins me now here in the firehouse studio in New York.

We’re also joined by Saree Makdisi from Los Angeles. Saree Makdisi is a professor of English and comparative literature at UCLA. His latest book is called ‘Palestine Inside Out: An Everyday Occupation’ out this month from Norton. His most recent op-ed in the Los Angeles Times is titled “Forget the Two-State solution: Israelis and Palestinians Must share the Land Equally.”

And joining us on the telephone from Brussels is Norman Fimnkelstein [sic]. He’s the author of four books including “The Holocaust Industry, Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict” and “Beyond Chutzpah.”

It was not long after this broadcast that I found myself reading an interview with Lila Abu-Lughod on SPIEGEL ONLINE (rather more mainstream than Democracy Now!), Professor of Anthropology and Gender Studies at Columbia University, whose father was the "well-known Palestinian political scientist Ibrahim Abu-Lughod." Abu-Lughod's perspective is a bit more nuanced than Makdisi's. Thus, she provides an excellent perspective on just how narrow, and therefore counterproductive, American policy has been in trying to defuse attitudes which, on the occasion of this anniversary, have risen to a very hot temper:

It's not a simple choice between one or two states. The original UN Partition Plan in 1947 that called for two states also called for much more equal ways of sharing the land of Palestine, for forms of economic union and for Jerusalem to have international status. People now look at the extent of Israeli control of Palestinian territory and resources, including water, and realize that any solution will have to involve more creative thinking.

In its own ironic way this discourse emphasizes my ongoing discontent with our distorted thinking about innovation: If we can only think about innovation in terms of new technologies and their contributions to economic growth, then we are allowing the sort of "creative thinking" that Abu-Lughod has in mind to atrophy. If ever there were data points that demonstrate the folly, if not peril, of trying to sweep inconvenient truths about the social world under the rug, so that they don't interfere with innovating new technologies, Palestinian Nakba provides them to us at their most persuasive.

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