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Israel: There’s no avoiding the dark legacy of 1948

Thursday 30 June 2022, by siawi3


Ben Reiff

There’s no avoiding the dark legacy of 1948

A minister in the soon-to-be-disbanded Israeli government sparked a media storm earlier this month for comments he made to a class of high school children in the occupied West Bank settlement of Efrat. In a video clip that went viral, MK Matan Kahana, from Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s right-wing Yamina party, can be heard saying: “If there were a button you could press that would make all the Arabs disappear, that would send them on an express train to Switzerland… I would press it.”

The remark sparked backlash from Palestinian and left-leaning Jewish MKs alike, who were unconvinced by Kahana’s need to indulge in expulsionist fantasies in order to argue that the Palestinians actually aren’t going anywhere. But Kahana also had critics on the right, including MK Eli Avidar from the nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party — whose leader, Avigdor Liberman, proposed nearly 20 years ago to strip Israeli citizenship from hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in the northern “triangle” region, in parallel with Israel annexing the settlements.

In response to the backlash, Kahana admitted that his comments were “poorly worded.”

Most observers failed to pick up on the irony here: not only that some of Kahana’s critics represent parties that have for decades advocated “population exchange,” but also that, in the context of Israeli society, Kahana’s comments were entirely unremarkable; a 2016 Pew poll found that around one half of Jewish Israelis support the expulsion or transfer of Arab citizens. Kahana was merely rebuked for saying out loud what millions of others quietly believe.

The specific remark that generated outrage was only a small part of a longer speech that Kahana delivered at the high school, a version of which he had already published on his Facebook page a month earlier. In it, he made the case that there will be no peace between Israelis and Palestinians because of the latter’s insistence on their right to return to the villages from which they and their ancestors fled or were expelled in 1948 at the hands of Zionist forces.

“We dreamed and prayed for 2,000 years until we succeeded in returning to our land,” Kahana wrote. “For them, it has only been 74 years. Let’s not underestimate them by thinking that they will give up so quickly.” Given that Palestinians maintain this aspiration to return, he argued, Israelis must suffice with finding a way to “manage the conflict” with those who occupy the same land as them.

Kahana didn’t even offer a philosophical rejoinder to the right of return; for him it goes without saying that the return of Palestinian refugees doesn’t merit consideration — even as he notes that Jews returned to the Land of Israel after 2,000 years of exile, and while lamenting that there cannot be peace so long as Palestinians maintain this aspiration.

Kahana’s preoccupation with the legacy of 1948 reflects a growing trend with regard to how both the left and the right in Israel are approaching the conflict. Last week on +972 Magazine, we published two articles exploring both sides of this development.

In their article looking at the shifts taking place on the right, Meron Rapoport and Ameer Fakhoury analyzed the wave of recent statements by high-profile right-wing Israeli leaders who, as opposed to Kahana, actually explicitly advocate mass expulsion of Palestinians. Whereas for many years the Israeli right denied the Nakba entirely, today prominent figures on the right are “reminding” Palestinians of their catastrophe, by way of a threat that such an event could occur once again, if they’re not careful.

The Israeli left has also begun talking more openly about the Nakba — something that I explored in my own article published last week. Left-wing and human rights groups that were once focused exclusively on the post-1967 occupation are increasingly grappling with the legacies of 1948, out of the growing understanding that there will be no just peace between Israelis and Palestinians without resolving the issues at the heart of the matter.

Not all who are willing to talk about the Nakba are willing to talk about redressing it through the right of return, however, and there are indications of what Zochrot’s Rachel Beitarie described to me as a “worrying attempt to bypass all the difficult questions and go straight to the era of reconciliation.” But in contrast to Kahana, for whom the right of return is something so unfathomable that it doesn’t warrant even a moment’s consideration, small pockets of the Israeli left are beginning to contemplate such a future.

All those who are invested in peace and justice between the river and the sea must face up to the legacy of 1948. And thanks in large part to a new generation of Palestinian citizens of Israel who are speaking up without reservation about the injustices that befell their families, the Nakba is no longer something that Israeli Jews, on the left or the right, are able to ignore.