The ‘Nakba’ Narrative: A History of Deception and Arafat’s War Against Israel
by Chaim Lax
“The Nakba” is repeatedly invoked in the media, academic literature, politics, and popular culture surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Its appearance is so ubiquitous at this point, that it seems like it has always been part of the general lexicon.
However, that is not the case.
Here, we’ll look at the significance of the term “Nakba,” the history of the term from 1948 until the present, how this Arabic term gained popularity around the world, and the new adoption of the term to refer to anti-Jewish persecution by the Arab and Muslim worlds.
The Nakba: Israel’s Founding as a “Catastrophe”
In Arabic, the term “al-Nakba” means “the catastrophe.” In the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the catastrophe that the “Nakba” is referring to is the founding of the State of Israel in 1948, and the disintegration of Palestinian Arab life in Israel.
For those who adopt this narrative, the Zionist movement and Israel are solely responsible for the displacement of Palestinian Arabs between 1947 and 1949, while the Arabs themselves are the exclusive victims of the conflict.
By failing to take into account the Palestinian and Arab refusal to accept a two-state solution in 1947 and the subsequent military attempt to destroy the Jewish state, the Nakba narrative advances the claim of perpetual Palestinian victimhood and serves as a historical basis for the Palestinian “right of return.”
The Nakba Narrative: From 1948 to 1998
The term “al-Nakba” first entered the political lexicon of the Arab world in the late 1930s as a reference to the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire and the creation of the modern Middle East in 1920.
The term first became associated with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in August 1948 (as the Israeli War of Independence still raged on) when Constantine Zurayk, a Syrian academic and diplomat based in Beirut, published a slim volume entitled “Maana al-Nakba” (The Meaning of the Catastrophe).
In this work, Zurayk blamed Arab leaders for the Nakba (due to their military failures and urging of Arab civilians to flee until after the fighting) rather than an alleged grand premeditated Zionist plan to displace the local Arab population (which later became a standard component of the Nakba narrative).
Zurayk’s Pan-Arab ideology also meant that he did not consider the Nakba to be an exclusive Palestinian catastrophe, but one that primarily affected the larger Arab world.
In the 1950s, some Palestinian writers such as Aref al-Aref began using the term “Nakba” in their writings while others preferred to use different terms. In a 1956 work, Haj Amin al-Husseini, the former Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, used the term “al-Karitha” (meaning catastrophe/disaster) since “al-Nakba” had a connotation of the fate of Palestinian Arab society in 1948 being self-inflicted.
In the decades following Constantine Zurayk’s introduction of “al-Nakba” to the Palestinian political lexicon, the term evolved to refer to a narrative that focused exclusively on the Palestinian Arabs (instead of the greater Arab nation) and gradually began to ascribe all blame for the dissolution of Palestinian Arab society to Israeli actions.
In the 1980s, the Nakba narrative gained a significant boon with the appearance of the “new historians,” a group of up-and-coming Israeli scholars who challenged the traditional Zionist account of the events of 1948 and adopted the portrayal of the Israelis as violent aggressors and the Palestinian Arabs as forlorn victims.
However, in 2008, Benny Morris, considered to be the “dean” of the “new historians,” decried the fact that his work was being used to prop up the Nakba narrative. In a letter to the Irish Times, Morris claimed that the events of 1948 were much more nuanced and complex than the simplistic interpretation put forward by this narrative.
Even with the advantage gained by the emergence of the “new historians” in the 1980s, the Nakba narrative would not possess the prominence it does today were it not for Yasser Arafat’s declaration of Nakba Day in 1998.
The Nakba Narrative Post-1998: From the Sidelines to Center Stage
In 1998, as Israel was celebrating its 50th independence day, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat declared May 15 (the day after Israel’s independence) to be “Nakba Day.”
As part of his announcement, Arafat declared that the ultimate goal was the return of millions of Palestinian refugees and their descendants to Israel and the establishment of an “independent Palestinian state on our land.”
According to observers, there are a number of reasons that Arafat chose to officially establish May 15 as Nakba Day in 1998:
- The fear among older Palestinians that, 50 years later, the memory of the events of 1948 would be lost among the younger generations.
- A desire to provide a counter-narrative to that being put forward by Israel on its 50th birthday.
- 1998 marked five years since the Oslo Accords, when Israel and the Palestinian Authority were supposed to begin final status negotiations. By declaring Nakba Day and emphasizing the right of return for Palestinian refugees, Arafat was siding with hardliners in the Palestinian national movement and indicating his refusal to budge on the issue of the refugees (effectively torpedoing the negotiations before they even began).
The first Nakba Day was marked by violence, as four Palestinians were killed and 71 were injured in clashes that Israel claims were encouraged by the Palestinian Authority.
Since then, some Nakba Days have passed peacefully while others have been violent and deadly.
Whether a Nakba Day is relatively peaceful or violent usually depends on the political atmosphere prevailing at the time. For instance, the Nakba Days of 1999 and 2000 were relatively peaceful, but the Nakba Day of 2001, the first to take place during the Second Intifada, was marked by the deaths of four Palestinians and one Israeli.
Since the establishment of Nakba Day in 1998, the Nakba narrative has gained greater prominence in both the Israeli and Palestinian discourses as well as on the international stage. In 2001, the Arab youth organization Baladna was founded in Israel. It promotes a worldview steeped in this narrative and promotes the Palestinian right of return.
Similarly, in 2002, the highly-politicized Israeli NGO Zochrot (Remembering) was founded. Zochrot aims to “raise public awareness of the Palestinian Nakba” and promotes the Palestinian right of return. In 2014, Zochrot released “iNakba,” a smartphone application that provides users with a map and photos of Palestinian Arab villages that were depopulated in 1948.
In 2007, Israeli Minister of Education, Yuli Tamir of the Labor Party, allowed for a textbook that featured aspects of the Nakba narrative to be included in the curriculum for Arab-Israeli elementary students. This led to a vociferous debate within the Knesset. Then, in 2011, the Knesset passed an amendment to the Budget Principles Law. Nicknamed the “Nakba Law,” this amendment allows the government to reduce funding to any organization commemorating Israel’s independence as a “day of mourning.”
One of the first major instances of the Nakba narrative being accepted on the international stage occurred in 2007, when UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon conveyed his empathy to PA president Mahmoud Abbas on the occasion of “Nakba Day.”
Since then, other instances of the Nakba narrative appearing on the international stage include:
- The Canadian Museum for Human Rights considered hosting a special exhibit on the Nakba in 2021.
- The introduction of the congressional bill H. Res. 1123, “Recognizing the Nakba and Palestinian Refugees’ Rights,” in mid-2022 by Representative Rashida Tlaib (D-MI).
- The streaming of the movie “Farha” on Netflix in late 2022. The film is heavily steeped in the Nakba narrative (including a 15-minute scene purporting to depict an Israeli massacre) and has been criticized for being historically inaccurate.
- The United Nations General Assembly’s decision to host an event in May 2023 to commemorate “the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Nakba.”
Since 1998, the acceptance of this narrative has also spread within Western academic institutions as well as the global media.
This trend is easily observable through a search of both library catalogs and newspaper archives.
A search of the WorldCat catalog of library materials shows that before 1998, there were only three English-language books that had the term “Nakba” in their title. Since 1998, that number has ballooned to over 100.
Similarly, a search of The New York Times archives shows that between 1948 and 1997, the term “Nakba” only appeared once in an article. Since 1998, it has appeared over 200 times in a wide variety of pieces.
Clearly, Yasser Arafat’s declaration of “Nakba Day” in 1998 has had a far-reaching effect, not only solidifying the Nakba narrative within the Palestinian Authority, but also legitimizing it and institutionalizing it on the international stage.
The Jewish Nakba: A Disregarded Catastrophe
In recent years, both Israeli and global Jewish leaders have begun to commemorate what is termed the “Jewish Nakba.”
The “Jewish Nakba” refers to the persecution and displacement of 850,000 Jews from their homes in the Middle East and North Africa. It also memorializes the Jewish areas in the Land of Israel that were depopulated by Arab forces in 1948.
The term “Jewish Nakba” is meant to rectify the historical record by disproving the narrative that Palestinian Arabs were the sole victims of the events of 1948, as well as to convey the complexity of the situation that arose with Israel’s independence (as opposed to the simplicity of the Nakba narrative).
However, some oppose the use of the term “Jewish Nakba” as it legitimizes the use of the term “Nakba” and also seems to equate the persecution of Jews living in far-flung Arab and Muslim lands with the consequences of Arab rejectionism and the subsequent invasion of the nascent Jewish state.
Nevertheless, the fact that some feel the need to rectify the historical record by resorting to the terminology of the Palestinian narrative proves how successful and influential the Palestinian propaganda machine has become in the Western world over the past 25 years.
The author is a contributor to HonestReporting, a Jerusalem-based media watchdog with a focus on antisemitism and anti-Israel bias — where a version of this article first appeared.