A few days ago, on 27 January, it was Holocaust Remembrance Day, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. A week earlier, on 20 January 2022, the UN General Assembly adopted, without a vote, a draft resolution entitled “Holocaust denial”, tabled jointly by Israel and Germany and cosponsored by more than 100 Member States. Rejecting and condemning Holocaust denial, the resolution urged Member States to develop educational programs that will inculcate future generations with the lessons of atrocity to prevent acts of genocide. It also calls on Member States and social media companies to take active measures to combat antisemitism and Holocaust denial or distortion in cyberspace.
The annual commemoration and the resolution rightly remind us that we should never forget, let alone deny, the Holocaust. One must also not blur the fact that it was primarily directed against the Jewish people. But, to use the words of Gideon Levy, one of Israel’s most courageous journalists, “precisely for this very reason, one must not ignore the conduct of its victims towards the secondary victims of the Jews’ Holocaust, the Palestinian people. Without the Holocaust they would not have lost their land and would not be imprisoned today in a gigantic concentration camp in Gaza or living under a brutal military occupation in the West Bank.”
One day after the adoption of the resolution, on 21 January 2022, a documentary by Alon Schwartz, another courageous Israeli, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah. It explores the massacre at the Palestinian village of Tantura during the 1948 Arab Israeli War, and how it was subsequently covered up by the Israeli establishment. The killings were first exposed by historian Teddy Katz for a master’s thesis that he submitted to Haifa University in 1998, with hundreds of hours of recorded interviews providing background evidence. But as Schwarz’s film reveals, Katz, who initially received high marks for his research, was sued for libel by certain interviewees in what felt like a deliberate attempt to cover up a massacre. Just as “the village was erased” during the war, as one witness puts it, so the story of Tantura was erased from the record by the powers-that-be.
The documentary immediately drew lots of publicity in Israel, Palestine and beyond, inter alia highlighting how widespread denial of the Nakba, the term used for the catastrophe that befell the Palestinians between 1947-1949, in Israel - and amongst Israel’s friends - continues to be, even after the ground-breaking work of Israel’s ‘new’ historians’. It also resulted in a call for a probe into the massacre by the Palestinian Authority.
In response to the release of the documentary, one of the most preeminent amongst those new historians, Professor Ilan Pappé, who has been a strong supporter of Katz, wrote on his Facebook page:
In 2007, with the insistence of the ministry of education I had to resign my position at Haifa University (despite the fact that I had tenure); one of my “crimes” was insisting that there was a massacre in the village of Tantura in 1948 as was exposed by MA student, Teddy Katz. I did my own research and categorically stated that this was one of the worst crimes committed by the Israeli army in 1948 – even after Katz under immense pressure and intimidation retracted his findings.
I am not sorry for a moment and am grateful that I was able to continue the struggle against the Nakba denial at the university of Exeter in the last 15 years and I still hope to establish in London a center against Nakba denial.
Not only does the Nakba continue to be vehemently denied by successive Israeli Governments and most of the Israeli establishment, the policy of systematic displacement of Palestinians both inside Israel and in the occupied Palestinian territory (oPt) of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, has continued unabated since 1948. In addition to the 750,000 Palestinians who were displaced to neighboring countries during the Nakba, some 400,000 Palestinians, including some 150,000 refugees from 1948, were displaced from the Gaza Strip and West Bank as well as from the Golan Heights, during the Six-Day War in 1967, also referred to as the Naksa. The great majority sought refuge in neighboring countries, notably Jordan.
These refugees, which at present number over 7 million, are not a mere accident of war. As Palestinians have steadily denounced and as confirmed by Israeli archival revelations that were made accessible through the writings of the Israeli‘new historians’, mentioned earlier, amongst others, the expulsion and ‘ethnic cleansing’ of much of Palestine’s Arab population as of early 1947, their subsequent mass denationalization, dispossession, and denial of refugee return, were sustained by Zionist leaders and then Israel’s interest and design: that of realizing as much as possible a Jewish only state; i.e. with a minimum non-Jewish population.
As set out in minute detail in our book Palestinian Refugees in International Law (Francesca P. Albanese and Lex Takkenberg, Oxford University Press, 2020), according to the applicable norms of international law in force in 1948 – including legal principles which had just been reaffirmed by the Nuremberg and Tokyo war crimes tribunals – these facts amounted to crimes against humanity and war crimes, triggering not only individual criminal responsibility upon the perpetrators, but also the duty upon Israel to provide remedies to the victims. Arab states’ involvement in the 1948-1949 war – in response to and in defense of the mass exodus of the Arab population – by no means exonerates Israel from this responsibility.
The Palestinian displacement did not end with the Nakba and the Naksa. Since 1967, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians have been forced into secondary or tertiary displacement, because of Israeli actions in the oPt. The many threatened evictions in Sheikh Jarrah and beyond – the latest of which is that of the home of Mahmoud Salhiyeh, whose family originated from Ein Kerem, on the outskirts of Jerusalem – and the recent threats of evictions of Palestinian Bedouin in the Naqab, the Negev desert in Southern Israel, are some of the latest examples of this ongoing Nakba. The London-based International Centre of Justice for Palestinians announced on 25 January 2022 that it will bring Salhiyeh’s case to the International Criminal Court, which is currently conducting a formal inquiry into alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity perpetrated by Israel and Hamas.
Other Palestinians got uprooted because of tensions, poverty, discrimination, and conflict in countries in the Middle East and North Africa. Today, of the 13 million Palestinians worldwide, over half are refugees from 1948 or their descendants.
In a groundbreaking book, The Holocaust and the Nakba – A New Grammar of Trauma and History (edited by Bashir Bashir and Amos Goldberg, Columbia University Press, 2018), leading Arab and Jewish intellectuals examine how and why the Holocaust and the Nakba are interlinked without blurring fundamental differences between them. Whilst the book does not seek to draw a parallel or comparison between the Holocaust and the Nakba or to merely inaugurate a “dialogue” between them, it searches for new historical and political grammar for relating and narrating their complicated intersections.
This important scholarship, combined with daily reminders of both the rise of antisemitism and renewed focus on Holocaust denial, as witnessed by the UN resolution on the subject adopted last week on the one hand, and the ongoing Nakba against the Palestinian people, as manifested by the many threatened and actual evictions in Sheikh Jarrah and beyond, and its widespread denial by the Israeli establishment on the other, should prompt us to not only to do everything in our power to combat antisemitism and Holocaust denial but similarly to firmly reject and condemn denial of the Nakba.
Only when the parties and the world at large are committed to fully confronting both foundational tragedies, will it be possible for power to shift and a world of justice and equality to be created between the two peoples.