Yes, there was a Nakba, but it was not about Arabs.

May 15 is the day the Arabs mourn the ‘catastrophe’ of Israel’s establishment, but the real Nakba was that of the Jews of Arab lands.

A Yemenite family walking through the desert to a reception camp set up by the American Joint Distribution Committee near Aden. Copyright: Israel National Photo Archive

My organization, Im Tirtzu, has become famous (some would say infamous) for our calling out the lies, misrepresentations and deliberate distortions attached to marking “Nakba Day.” Palestinian and other Arabs use May 15, the secular calendar date of Israel’s Independence, to bemoan the “Nakba” – literally, the catastrophe – the so-called heartless uprooting and displacement of Arabs.

Our book, Nakba Nonsense, has become a standard reference piece for those seeking the facts about this turbulent time. Conveniently missing from the distorted Palestinian Arab narrative is the massive evacuation of wealthy Arabs way before May 15, followed by the widespread voluntary flight of Arabs who were advised by Arab leaders to leave their homes temporarily, so as to not get in the way of the massacre of the Jews.

As befits most Palestinian Arab commemorations, Nakba Day is typically marked with riots and violent protests. This in and of itself should shed some light on the claims of a “peaceful people brutally uprooted.”

This year, however, is likely to be a bit different, thanks to the Coronavirus. As much as the Palestinian leadership would love to throw darts at Israel, however they can, even they might feel a sense of responsibility to mute the activities of the day in the name of public health considerations.

Of course, nature abhors a vacuum, and it would seem just downright wrong not to mark Nakba Day. In that spirit, let me propose an all weather, virus-resistant form of marking the Nakba.

The real Nakba: the Nakba of the Jews of Arab lands.

In one of the most cruel, calculated and ultimately self-destructive acts of modern history, the declaration of Israel’s Independence was universally accompanied by the mass persecution of the Jews in Arab lands.

credit: The Iraqi Jewish Association of Ontario

Most egregious was the expulsion of the Jews of Iraq, the oldest Jewish community in the world outside of the Land of Israel. True, Iraqi Jews suffered a barbaric pogrom known as the Farhud during Shavuot 194, in which 180 Jews were murdered in Bagdad, but the Jews of Iraq saw themselves as integral to and integrated in their society. They played an essential economic and social role.

So strong was their attachment to Iraq that thousands denounced Israel and pledged their allegiance to Iraq following the 1948 Declaration of Independence.

However, it was all to no avail once the Baathists seized power. In early 1951 the entire community was deprived of their citizenship, their property and civil rights and were told to leave the country with severe limitations on what they could take with them.

Within a matter of weeks, some 150,000 were deported. So severe was the tide of expulsion that the Government of Israel actually appealed to Iraq, in vain, to delay and to stagger the expulsion so that the huge number of deportees could be accommodated.

The Nakba of the Jews of the Levant is simultaneously a largely ignored human rights catastrophe, and a great but difficult validation for the raison d’etre of Israel, as a haven for Jews throughout the world.

To Israel’s credit, it did not wallow in accusations of victimhood of those cruelly displaced, but sought to provide a new home for them.

In contrast to the flight of the Arabs from mandatory Palestine, there was no voluntary leaving by Jews. There was no attempt to have Jews of thousands of years of standing in their countries temporarily depart to wait out the anger and hostility prompted by the creation of Israel.

There was only deprivation and expulsion. In all some 850,000 Jews were displaced and uprooted from Arab lands.

credit: Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs

There was a famous quote attributed to the Ottoman Sultan at the time of the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, referring to King Ferdinand, who inexplicably was known as Ferdinand the Wise: “Who is this king who they call wise who so impoverishes his country and thus enriches mine?”

This quote resonates greatly in the saga of Mizrachi Jews. Yes, they were the victims of an actual Nakba. Yes, they suffered untold persecution, humiliation, displacement. Yes, they fell from the highest levels of their native societies to being highly dependent, disoriented and often frowned upon members of their new society.

But theirs has been one of the greatest success stories of modern times, a story of bootstrapping, of achievement and of finding their seat at the table, even when not invited, of Israeli society.

So here is a suggestion to our Palestinian and other Arab neighbors: learn from your former fellow citizens and residents. Learn how to move forward, rather than donning the mantle of hapless victimhood. Learn how not to be daunted by the tides of history, but to turn adversity into success.

The great irony is that Mizrachi Jews, the true victims of a Nakba, have shown the world, and themselves, that it is truly nonsensical to wallow in a largely fictitious narrative of victimization. Far better was it to take a punch, and get back up.

Thankfully, we do not hang our heads about the real Nakba, because the real victims became the real heroes.

——

Douglas Altabef is the Chairman of the Board of Im Tirtzu and a Director of the Israel Independence Fund. He can be reached at dougaltabef@gmail.com.

Im Tirtzu is a Zionist non-governmental organization based in Israel.  Its name is derived from an epigraph appended to the frontispiece of Theodor Herzl’s novel Altneuland, ‘if you wish it, it is no fairy-tale,’ rendered into modern Hebrew in Nahum Sokolow’s translation in 1903, as Im tirtzu ein zo agadah.   imti.org.il/en

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