In America, Jewish Leaders Deny the Nakba. In Israel, They Celebrate It.
Our Zoom call this week, for paid subscribers, will be at our regular time, Friday at Noon EDT.
Our guests will be Jeremy Kalmanofsky, Rabbi of Ansche Chesed, a conservative synagogue in Manhattan, and Eva Borgwardt, political director of If Not Now. Rabbi Kalmanofsky recently made news for responding to Israel’s new government by deciding his congregation would no longer say the prayer for the State of Israel common in many American synagogues. But he remains a staunch liberal Zionist. Eva works for a movement that opposes “any policies that privilege one group of people over another, in Israel/Palestine.” They differ ideologically and embody a generational split among non-Orthodox American Jews. I heard Rabbi Kalmanofsky and Eva talk on a recent panel in Chicago and was impressed by their thoughtful and clarifying disagreements. So, I invited them to continue the conversation with us. I’m grateful they both agreed.
As usual, paid subscribers will get the link this Wednesday and the video the following week. They’ll also gain access to our library of past Zoom interviews with guests like Thomas Friedman, Ilhan Omar, Omar Barghouti, Maggie Haberman, Noam Chomsky, and Bret Stephens.
Sources Cited in this Video
Yehuda Shaul reminds American Jewish leaders that Israeli politicians don’t deny the Nakba. They applaud it.
My Jewish Currents essay on the prospect of another mass expulsion of Palestinians.
The ADL’s letter to Kevin McCarthy decrying a Capitol commemoration of the Nakba.
After McCarthy tries to cancel the commemoration, Bernie Sanders saves the day.
Things to Read
This discussion of Professor Shay Hazkani’s book, Dear Palestine: A Social History of the 1948 War, is a couple of years old. But it’s fascinating— and reveals how much the myths of that war conceal.
Shalom Auslander encounters Palestinians in Australia.
How Palestinians got to Paraguay.
See you on Friday,
Our guests this Friday are gonna be Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky and Eva Borgwardt. Kalmanofsky is the Rabbi of Ansche Chesed, which is a prominent synagogue in Manhattan. Eva Borgwardt is the political director of If Not Now, which is a group of younger American Jews who fight against the American Jewish establishment’s complicity and support for occupation and apartheid in Israel-Palestine. I saw Jeremy and Ava, both of whom I know a little bit, on a panel at the University of Chicago, and I was impressed by how thoughtful they were in expressing their disagreements. And their disagreements really very much represent the different generations that they hail from. Rabbi Kalmanofsky is a strong opponent of this Israeli government, but a liberal Zionist who strongly believes in Israel’s existence as a Jewish state. And Eva, I think, is a critic, or at least a skeptic of the notion that a state that privileges Jews could truly be a liberal democracy and provide equality for Palestinians. And so, I wanted to ask them to kind of continue that conversation because I enjoyed listening to it, and to delve deeper into the way they think about Jewish statehood, and also to talk a little bit about the generational experience that has led them to their views. That’ll be Friday at noon ET, our normal time for paid subscribers. And, of course, for paid subscribers, they also get access to all the library of conversations we’ve been having over the last couple of years or so.
I wanted to say something about the debate that’s been taking place over the last few days in United States about the 75th anniversary of the Nakba. I can’t remember a time when there was this much conversation about the Nakba. It’s partly, of course, because it’s the 75th anniversary of both Israel’s creation, and the 75th anniversary of the expulsion of 750,000 Palestinians between 1947 and 1949. That’s part of the reason. I think the other reason that there’s been more discussion about the Nakba is because Palestinian voices are gaining more influence in the American public discourse. And in particular, we now have one member of Congress, Rashida Tlaib, who is really dedicated to bringing the Nakba to public attention. I’m not sure there has been such a politician like that, a member of Congress like that in my memory. And so, she booked a room, as many of you may know, in the House of Representatives to do a public commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the Nakba, which led Speaker Kevin McCarthy to cancel the room. And then she did it in the Senate because Bernie Sanders provided a room there. But that itself, it seems to me, is a marker of progress because in the past I don’t think there would have been a politician who would have stuck their neck out to try to hold a public commemoration to begin with. So, the fact that it produced this backlash was a sign of the fact that the issue is kind of more on the table for discussion in Washington than it was.
But the way it’s on the table, or the way that American politicians, pro-Israel politicians and kind of pro-Israel American Jewish organizations respond to this conversation of the Nakba I think is really telling. And what’s telling about it is that it’s very different than the way the Israeli government talks about the Nakba. And this is a symptom I think of something really significant about the moment we’re in, which is that on a whole range of issues, the way the Israeli government speaks cannot be taken and adopted by its defenders in the United States. Because the language of the current Israeli government is so explicitly racist, so explicitly kind of outside of liberal democratic norms that American Jewish organizations and pro-Israel politicians essentially have to come up with their own completely different discourse in which to try to delegitimize Palestinian claims. They can’t simply borrow what the Israeli government is saying because what the Israeli government is saying doesn’t fit within the terms of American Jewish and pro-Israel discourse, which tries to kind of justify things within a liberal democratic and humanitarian framework.
And so, what you saw was that the response from American politicians, and from Jewish establishment organizations to the discussion of the Nakba, was to essentially erase the Nakba. And the way that politicians did this—and my Jewish Currents colleague Ariel Angel notes this in her excellent essay, where she quotes Nevada Sen. Jackie Rosen. She quotes Jackie Rosen as saying, ‘calling the establishment of the world’s only Jewish state a catastrophe is deeply offensive.’ Of course, Nakba means catastrophe. So, what Jackie Rosen does is she completely ignores the fact, right, that 750,000 Palestinians were expelled or fled in fear, that Palestinian society was destroyed. That she erases, and she says how outrageous it is, and how offensive it is that these people are calling Israel’s creation a catastrophe, as if somehow, they’re only upset because it’s not that Israel did anything that would have made them upset, right? When you get rid of the expulsion part, and you say they’re calling Israel’s creation a catastrophe, then you make it seem as if Palestinians are either completely irrational because what reason would they have to be upset at a Jewish state, or that they’re just antisemitic, right? They just hated the Jewish state because they hate Jews, which is the kind of general tenor of establishment Jewish and much Washington discourse. So, the Nakba is erased. Many, many different Jewish organizations essentially made this move. They just disregarded the whole expulsion part, right, which is what the Nakba is about, and said: how antisemitic you are for calling the creation of a Jewish state a catastrophe. It must mean that you really just don’t like Jews. That was essentially the main cause of set of arguments.
But the Israeli government’s leaders are not saying that at all. And my friend, Yehuda Shaul, from Breaking the Silence, noted this in a tweet, which I put in the text of the newsletter. But it’s also something I noted in a piece I wrote recently in Jewish Currents, which is that the leaders of this Israeli government are not denying the Nakba. They’re not doing the thing that their American Jewish defenders are doing. They are saying something quite different, which is: yes, there was a mass expulsion in 1948. It was good. And, if you’re not careful, we might do something like that again. Bezalel Smotrich, the Finance Minister who oversees the civilian administration in the West Bank has been very explicit about the idea that there might need to be another mass expulsion. Itamar Ben-Gvir, the National Security Minister. But not only them, as Yehuda points out, but also, I point out of my piece: Yoav Gallant, the Defense Minister; Tzachi Hanegbi, the National Security Advisor; Avi Dichter, former head of Shinbet, who’s now the Agriculture Minister. All of these are Likud members, right? All of them have in recent years essentially used the idea of a Nakba as a threat. They’ve basically said to Palestinians: if you don’t clean up your act, if you keep resisting in ways that we don’t like, we might do another Nakba. Which, of course, acknowledges that there was a first Nakba—there was a mass expulsion event in 1948—and essentially backhandedly celebrates that and says: we might need to do that again.
The American Jewish establishment organizations, and figures like Jackie Rosen, can’t say that, right? That’s kind of outside of the bounds, I think, of kind of mainstream pro-Israel discourse, which is still based on the idea that Israel is a thriving liberal democracy, which shares all these liberal democratic humanitarian values with the United States, and that people just don’t recognize that because they’re antisemitic. So, if you’re operating in that framework, you can’t very well say: yes, Israel was born with an act of mass expulsion, and it was good, and Israel might need to do it again because the Palestinians are not accepting their lack of basic rights. That’s something which is really difficult to say. Maybe on the far right of the Republican party. But it’s not easy for establishment American Jewish organizations or Democratic Senators like Jackie Rosen to say. So, they have to make this other move, which is essentially basically to kind of pretend that the expulsions didn’t take place at all.
And I really do think this is a feature of this moment, which is that the Israeli government and its supporters are operating in a very different ideological universe than the ideological universe that kind of has long defined pro-Israel discourse in the United States. There’s just a kind of open racism that they are comfortable with in their language, and a kind of a frank, you know, understanding that Israel was in the past and does now need to potentially to expel Palestinians to continue to function, in their view, as a successful Jewish state. And these are things that are really difficult for American Jewish leaders to say. And so, this is the kind of disconnect that we have. And I think that one of the things that I would be worried about—if I were someone like Jackie Rosen, or a group like the Anti-Defamation League, or the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, all of which kind of were extremely angry at Rashida Tlaib for trying to do this Nakba commemoration, and congratulated Kevin McCarthy for shutting it down—I would be worried about the fact that Americans are able to hear what the Israeli government is saying for itself. And, therefore, the sanitized arguments that are being made in the United States are actually undermined and contradicted by what the Israeli government is saying itself. Again, on Friday, we’ll be having a conversation with Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky and Eva Borgwardt from If Not Now, and I hope many of you will join us. Take care.