- Nakba: Palestine, 1948, and the Claims of Memory
Published in 2007, just antedating the sixtieth anniversary of the Israeli state, this book is a timely and wide-ranging collection of essays concerning the Palestinian catastrophe—Nakba—and subsequent questions of Palestinian identity and existence. The mass-expulsion and the uprooting of 600,000 Palestinians (80 percent) in 1948 left a nation in exile, in continuous statelessness and refugee squalor. Hence, the rules that came to govern the lives of the Palestinian refugees are necessarily different from those of formal state citizens, and equally different are the tools necessary to record the modern history of the Palestinian people. In this book’s treatment of the Palestinian refugees, it juxtaposes the standard (Israeli) narrative of the cataclysmic events of 1948—afterwards the “Western” narrative—with the oral and recorded histories of the Palestinian Diaspora, and hence a direct contrast to the Israeli history of the victors.
Ever since the violent beginnings of Israel in 1948, outlets of western media have propagated the Israeli standard narrative of a “return from exile, after millennia, with people with memory of suffering redeemed in . . . their own modern nation-state” (286). This projection of a mythical past onto a contemporary state project, wherein the name of the Palestinians—let alone their tragedy—is expunged from the history, has become the standard narrative that western peoples have internalized as established fact.
Hence, over five decades, Israel and its supporters have rejected any moral/ legal culpability for the Palestinian Nakba, weaving this historical blackhole into the national myth of the Israeli state. The displaced Palestinian nation has been, comparably speaking, unable to present a counter-narrative to the Israeli national myth, since much of Palestinian history was contained in the realm of oral memory.
Until recent developments in ethno-history and the oral tradition disciplines that depend on such memories, Palestinian oral history has been reflexively dismissed as unreliable when weighed against the presumptive strength [End Page 751] of standard scholarship, particularly where embodied in pro-Israeli sectors in academia and think-tank advocacy. For the last fifty years or so, there has been a spatter of Palestinian voices within the historical/academic mainstream (e.g., the late Edward Said), but it has had little impact upon the intellectual and moral centers of the western world—particularly when, as Ben Gurion put it, the formation of the Israeli state was “Western Civilization’s gesture of repentance for the Holocaust” (298), a sentiment that now describes the western (especially American) orientation towards Israel and its inconvenient Palestinian victims.
Ahmad H. Sa’di and Lila Abu Lughod’s Nakba: Palestine, 1948, and the Claims of Memory is “neither a collection of personal reflections and testimonials nor is it a history proper; . . . it is a sustained examination of . . . the Palestinian social and cultural memory” (6–7) whose foundation is the resilient recording of the events before and after Nakba. The Nakba is the historical watershed in Palestinian collective memory, similar to, and no less morally severe, than the Jewish Diaspora. While the Nakba, for the Palestinians, marks the abrupt dispossession of national life and uprooting from national place, much like the Jewish Diaspora, it ushered in subsequent suffering for the Palestinian people, such as the 1967 war, the invasion of Lebanon in 1982, the destruction of Palestinian life and property in refugee camps, the massacres in Sabra and Shatillah, and more recently the Israeli economic blockade of 1.3 million Palestinians in Gaza. The avowed goal of the book, according to the editors, is “to examine this painful site—Nakba—of memory in light of the larger comparative literature on memory, history and trauma” (4).
A discerning reader of this book will notice its subtle perspective on the inseparability of memory, self, place, and identity, which is certainly true for the Palestinian people. As Paul Connerton observes, memory, as a process of recollection, calls back unique events, not as isolated episodes, but as parts of a...