As Israelis look towards the future in their celebration of the nation’s 60th birthday, some Palestinians cling to the past by commemorating what they call the “Nakba” or “the catastrophe.” A faculty panel discussion held at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) last month and titled, “60 Years of Nakba—The Catastrophe of Palestine 1948-2008,” was one of many similar lamentations held worldwide.
The tone from the outset was grim. Speakers acknowledged that another “Nakba” anniversary was confirmation that combined Palestinian and Arab attempts to eliminate the Jewish state have not succeeded.
Despite this, Columbia's controversial associate professor of modern Arab politics and intellectual history, Joseph Massad, was upbeat. According to Massad, the Israelis have won military victories, but the “Palestinian resistance” has successfully rebranded them. Through 60 years of tireless propaganda efforts, the Palestinian term, “Nakba,” has replaced “Israel’s war of independence”; “apartheid” has replaced “Jewish sovereignty”; the “plight of the Palestinians” has replaced “the return of the Jews to their ancestral homeland”; the “Palestinians” has replaced “the non-Jewish community of Palestine.” And even in the culinary world, Massad claimed, “Palestinian Maftool” has replaced “Israeli couscous.” (Like many of Massad’s claims, the couscous issue is debatable. A recent visit to Whole Foods Market proved that Israeli couscous is still the preferred nomenclature.)
Massad’s concept of victory reframed the event. It was no longer a dirge-like recitation of perpetual victimization, but rather a showcase—a preview of new trends in “resistance” propagandizing.
So what’s “in” this season? Using the “renaming” strategy to make the destruction of Israel more palatable to the West was the faculty panel’s primary theme. Portraying the only democratic state in the Middle East as a brutal, non-democratic “Jewish supremacist and racist state,” as Massad once put it, was the secondary theme.
Sociology professor Lila Abu Lughod described a homeland that was “buried, erased, and rewritten by Israel.” She told the audience about her father’s return to Israel and how he kept “getting lost because he couldn't read Hebrew, and was afraid to ask.” It wasn't clear why, since Hebrew and Arabic are the official languages of Israel and it is legally required for all road signs to be in Hebrew, English, and Arabic. But why let facts stand in the way of a good story?
Given the audience’s reaction, comparative literature professor Gil Anidjar seemed to be on hand for comic relief. Anidjar’s proclamations, such as “the separation between Jew and Arab, uh, Muslim is indicative of the way we think, and the way we don't think,” evoked puzzled looks. But he won laughter and cheers when he concluded a disconnected string of philosophizing with, “but anyway, I digress, uh, I digress….”
Both Massad and assistant professor of Arabic literature Noha Radwan portrayed Palestinian resistance as an artistic, pro-democracy movement seeking only equality with Jews. Massad spoke about challenging Israeli military might “with art, poetry and dance.” Radwan claimed that “destroying Israel has never been a part of the Palestinian itinerary.” Neither mentioned the most commonly-used weapons of this “resistance”: the suicide bombers and the thousands of Kassam rockets relentlessly targeting Israeli civilians.
The word “Hamas” went unspoken until the question and answer period, when a student wearing a kippah brought up the Palestinian terrorist group/government. When the student asked the panelists if they saw a possibility for long term co-existence for Israelis and Palestinians despite calls for Israel’s destruction in the Hamas charter, they looked confused, as if he were speaking gibberish. Radwan said that she didn't understand what he was asking. When the student repeated the question, Radwan, seemingly unaware of the hadith that concludes article 7 of the Hamas charter calling specifically for the elimination of Jews, claimed that the Palestinians’ goal was only to eliminate the discrimination she alleged exists in the Jewish state, not the Jews themselves. Massad claimed that Israel has already destroyed Palestine and the Palestinians and then added, “whatever the Hamas charter may have said, it is something of a future that has not yet come.”
Another student asked the panelists why they were accepting what he called the “Faustian bargain of a two-state solution?” Massad responded that a two-state solution was a “non-starter” because it wouldn’t change what he called Israel’s “twenty racist laws” and that Palestinians do not have the right of return. He called the Palestinian Authority a “collaborationist authority.” The student asked the panel if they were unanimous on this condemnation of a two-state solution. They appeared to be.
Incredibly, while walking out of Schermerhorn auditorium, a student remarked that this was the most polite talk he ever heard Massad give.
So now we know what’s “in” this season: old hate wrapped up in a new package. But what’s “out?” Apparently, mentioning Sharia law in the Palestinian constitution, Hamas’s use of children’s shows to recruit toddler-martyrs, the significant Palestinian suffering caused by Hamas’s mismanagement and Palestinian infighting, and the massive ethnic cleansing of Jews from Arab/Muslim areas of the Middle East. In short, this spring season offers little that’s new.
Mary Madigan wrote this article for Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.