Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Chutzpah of Linguistic Denial

At last May's Independence Day celebration in Israel, we saw, for the first time, promising signs that, where the question of relations between Israelis and Palestinians are concerned, the voices of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the rest of his Administration did not necessarily represent significant portions of their country's population. As had been reported in Roane Carey's blog post to The Notion, the evidence emerged through a series of phases. It began with the effort of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman to ban Palestinian citizens of Israel from commemorating the anniversary of the Nakba. As I observed around the time of the 2008 Independence Day, this word, which is Arabic for "catastrophe" and therefore reflects the losing side of the Israeli War of Independence, was virtually non-existent not only in Israel but in just about all media coverage of the Middle East. The fact that Lieberman had to invoke it, even for the sake of banning it, was a sign that a linguistic camel's nose was now under the tent.

More surprising, however, was how little time it took for the rest of the camel to follow. Nakba rallies proliferated, not only in Palestinian communities but in Israeli cities seeking better inter-cultural relations. This culminated in a two-day workshop organized by Arabs and Jews as the main event of an "Independence Day/Nakba Day" gathering outside of Haifa. This may have been the first time that the Israeli government had drawn such a defiant line in the sand and large sectors of the population were equally defiant in crossing that line. It was almost enough to remind one of Paul Newman's rather contrived speech over the joint funeral of an Arab and an Israeli in the final scene of Exodus.

That film, as well as the novel it depicted, was, in many ways, a celebration of Jewish stubbornness, best captured in the strategy to get the Exodus ship out of its harbor on Cyprus. It should therefore be no surprise that the Netanyahu administration has responded to this grass-roots defiance with their own version of stubbornness. That response was reported in a dispatch released by Reuters this morning:

Israel will remove from school textbooks an Arabic term that describes the 1948 creation of the Jewish state as a "catastrophe," the Education Ministry said on Wednesday.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said when he was opposition leader two years ago the word "nakba" in Israeli Arab schools was tantamount to spreading propaganda against Israel.

The term, which is not part of the curriculum in schools in Jewish communities, was introduced into a book for use in Arab schools in 2007 when the Education Ministry was run by Yuli Tamir of the center-left Labor party.

The book was aimed at children, aged 8 and 9.

Arab citizens make up about a fifth of Israel's population of seven million. The term nakba is used by Palestinians to describe the founding of Israel in a war when some 700,000 Palestinians fled or were expelled from their homes.

"After studying the matter with education experts it was decided that the term nakba should be removed. It is inconceivable that in Israel we would talk about the establishment of the state as a catastrophe," said Yisrael Twito, a spokesman for Education Minister Gideon Saar.

A passage in the textbook, describing the 1948 Middle East war at the time of Israel's creation, said: "The Arabs call the war the nakba -- a war of catastrophe, loss and humiliation -- and the Jews call it the Independence War."

Jafar Farrah, director of Mossawa, an Israeli-Arab advocacy group, said the decision to remove the term only "complicated the conflict." He called it an attempt to distort the truth and seek confrontation with the country's Arab population.

Reading this I was reminded that George Orwell chose his 1984 title by permuting the digits in 1948; and the job of his protagonist was basically one of rewriting history books in government-approved language. If Orwell's spirit is still with us, it is hard to imagine whether he would be laughing or crying at this embodiment of his nightmarish vision.

There are times when stubbornness can be viewed in a positive light. There are other times when it should be acknowledged as a primary characteristic of chutzpah. I tend to shy away from giving Chutzpah of the Week awards to Israelis, perhaps because chutzpah is so much a regular part of their culture in both its negative and positive connotations. However, because it reflects what may be the most interesting culture clash to have taken place since Israeli was constituted as a country, it is hard to pass up this particular episode. It thus seems appropriate to grant the award to be shared by Netanyahu and Saar, who, respectively, embodied the theory and practice behind this episode.

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