Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Shoah and Nakba Are Both Atrocities, and Neither Justifies Denying the Other

Widely respected Catholic theologian Rosemary Radford Ruther has an excellent piece in the April 4th National Catholic Reporter on the seemingly endless Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She says the major obstacle to resolving it is that both sides refuse to grant validity to the other's painful past.

Ruther, a regular contributor to NCR, is the Carpenter Professor of Feminist Theology at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, CA (from which I earned my Ph.D.). She acknowledges there are legitimate historical reasons for Israelis and Palestinians to despise each other, but that neither group bears sole responsibility for that history--and the Palestinian connection is especially remote.

Today's Palestinians have no direct responsibility for the Holocaust, known in Israel as the Shoah. As Iranian President Ahmadinejad is fond of pointing out, it was a crime perpetrated against Jews by the West, directly by Germany but with the complicity of every Western country that failed to stop it, including the United States. The closest the Palestinians get to responsibility is ancestors several centuries ago who drove the Jews from Palestine, forcing them into Europe and eventually the Western Hemisphere. Today's Palestinians are beneficiaries of that history. But it's a very unreasonable stretch to find them personally liable for it.

Yet, as Ruther emphasizes, the Shoah was used "as a claim to a unique entitlement of the Jewish people to a state built on Arab land." After the 1948-49 Israeli war of independence, the United Nations, largely to assuage the guilt of its Western founders, awarded Israel 54% of Palestine. It eventually grew to 73%. The Palestinian objection, also voiced by Ahmadinejad, is legitimate: "if you (the West) have committed this huge crime, why should the innocent nation of Palestine pay for it." Thus the Muslim hatred for the West is rooted in the fact that the Palestinians have had to pay much more dearly for the West's Holocaust than any people in the West.

Ruther says the Palestinians refer to the confiscation of their land as al Nakba (the catastrophe). The Nakba refers not only to the loss of territory, but to the 800,000 Palestinians who fled for their lives or were forcibly expelled from their towns and villages during the 1948-49 war, becoming refugees in Jordon, Lebanon and Egypt or internal refugees in Israel. Palestinians see the catastrophe as on-going and escalating today, with every new expropriation of their land and strategies like the wall built around Palestinian parts of the West Bank, designed as they see it to make their lives so intolerable they will have to leave.

Some of today's Israelis would argue that they are not directly responsible for the Nakba. And those who have opposed the progressive confiscation of Palestinian land would have a point. But as descendants or beneficiaries of the Zionists who basically conquered Palestine in 1949, the majority of today's Israelis have a much more proximate responsibility for the Nakba than today's Palestinians have for the Shoah. Those most directly responsible are those who support more appropriation of Palestinian land.

The Zionists, to be sure, operated from the conviction that another Holocaust could not be prevented unless the Jews reestablished Israel as their homeland in Palestine. But it was wrong of the Zionists and wrong of the United Nations to insist that the only way to achieve a Jewish state was to confiscate half or three-quarters of Palestine. That judgment does not deny the reality or the enormity of the Shoah. It does deny that the Shoah gave the Jews or the UN an entitlement to do what was done to the Palestinians.

Of course, the Palestinians and their sympathizers have made it a point to inflict some pain on the United States and Western Europe for their role in the Nakba. But a real resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will not be possible until all of the parties stop denying the two atrocities done to Jews and Palestinians and the West's heavy responsibility for both of them. The way forward must compensate both Jews and Palestinians equitably and the compensation must come in some major way from the West.

Ruther sees the way forward foreshadowed by Khaled Muhameed, a Muslim Palestinian who has opened his own small Holocaust museum in Nazareth. It has pictures of Jews suffering in Europe during the Nazi era. It also has pictures of the Palestinian refugees from the 1948-49 war. Only when other Palestinians and Jews honestly acknowledge the suffering of both peoples can a real peace process begin.

Ruther's closing paragraph states the case exactly: "Clearly what is needed is a break-through to a compassionate sense of co-humanity in which Israelis and Palestinians can mourn each other's disasters and refuse to use one disaster to justify another."

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