The Perennial Power of the Nakba

How generations of Arab thinkers and leaders tried to turn the humiliation of their losses to Israel into a springboard to launch their nations into an enchanted new age.

September 11, 2023 | Hussein Aboubakr
About the author: Hussein Aboubakr is an Egyptian-American writer.
General Mohammed Naguib, center, and Gamal Abdel Nasser, left, ride through Cairo in a cavalcade celebrating Egypt’s change from a monarchy to a republic on June 20, 1953. Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images.

With every rekindling of hostilities between Israel and Palestinian armed groups, world news is flooded with stories about refugee camps, statelessness, and the Nakba—the now-settled term for the Palestinian narrative of the origins of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The term is usually explained as the word for the Palestinian catastrophe of 1948, in which the establishment of the state of Israel caused the destruction of traditional Palestinian society, the loss of Palestinian lands, and the displacement of 700,000 Palestinians from their homes. The term has become a reservoir of historical memory, structural guilt, and calls for justice.

Indeed, there is little doubt that the term is one of the foremost successes of Palestinian activism. Not only has it managed to enter most European languages, it has managed to establish itself as a sign of the destructiveness of not just Israel but of capitalism, colonialism, and racism too. Its mention sometimes brings with it a pantheon of associations and allusions, among them crimes against the environment, women, and indigenous people, committed by Western men, in which category Zionist Jews are subsumed.

Yet at one point the Nakba, as both word and concept, existed before these wider connotations. In fact, before the Nakba became the founding myth of Palestinian nationalism, and before it became a progressive call for human rights, justice, and equality, it was meant for something very different. It was meant neither to refer to Palestine as a lost territory nor to the Palestinians as a displaced population in need of basic human rights. It was meant for nothing less than the formation of the vanguard of Arab revolution—and then world revolution too.

This essay aims to trace the history of that idea, of how Arab thinkers and leaders settled on the Nakba and on opposition to Zionism as a way of mobilizing a post-Ottoman, post-colonial Middle East to construct new, independent, industrial societies. It aims to demonstrate how the Palestinian cause became the great rallying cry of Arab revolutionaries in the wake of 1948, how that cry echoed on long after the revolutionaries’ ideology faltered, how it developed in time into one of the most catastrophic forces in the Middle East—not so much for Israel but for the Arabs themselves—and why it might finally be losing its centrality. There have been four revolutionary waves in the Middle East over the 75 years, and all but the last have made Palestine their motivating engine. So great is the totemic power of Palestine that the history of Arab political thought since World War II can only be understood through its lens.


I. Constantin Zureiq and The Meaning of the Nakba


This history begins in August 1948, with a book called The Meaning of the Nakba by Constantin Zureiq, the most important Arab nationalist intellectual at the time. The Meaning of the Nakba was a polemic condemning the technological inferiority, social backwardness, and economic immobility that, in Zureiq’s view, were preventing the Arabs from historical self-realization. In it, he made one of the earliest and loudest calls to use the struggle against Zionism as a tool for Arab self-transformation, as a springboard into a new and brighter future.

As Zureiq employed the term, the Nakba referred to the shocking defeat—still in progress as he wrote and published the book—of seven Arab militaries at the hands of the army of the newly established state of Israel. He opened The Meaning of the Nakba with a statement of mourning. “The defeat of the Arabs in Palestine is not a small setback or a transient evil, but it is an unequivocal catastrophe,” he wrote. “Seven Arab states declared war on Zionism in Palestine, yet they stood impotent!” For Zureiq, the Arab defeat was the truest revelation of the backward and inferior conditions of modern Arabs, a revelation that called for a “fundamental transformation in the Arab conditions, and a total revolution in our thought, our action, and the totality of our life.”

To understand how Zureiq ended up at this point, and the ways subsequent Arab thinkers and politicians used his ideas, it’s helpful to take a wider look at the historical conditions from which he emerged.

Zureiq (1909–2000) was born in Damascus to a Greek Orthodox family during the last years of the Ottoman empire. He received his primary education in Christian religious schools and then studied at the Syrian Protestant College, later known as the American University of Beirut (AUB). From there he traveled to the U.S., where he obtained a Ph.D. in Arab history from Princeton, before returning to AUB as a full-time professor of history. There he became politically active, gave lectures, and convened discussion groups from which the organized Arab Nationalist Movement later emerged. Already in 1937, in the pages of the Levantine revolutionary magazine The Vanguard, Zureiq described his student group and its project of a “liberationist awakening in the Arab world.”

He later expanded on that project in his 1939 book Nationalist Consciousness. It was the first clear, coherent, and modern articulation of the Arab nationalism that soon came to dominate the Middle East. Inspired by German Romantic nationalism and by socialism, Arab nationalism sought to unify the fractured Middle East into a single pan-Arab state that could wield power on the world stage. Mostly forgotten in America, it was one of the most potent ideologies in the 20th century and radically transformed Arab culture, the Arabic language, and the world’s political map.

Zureiq’s book took pride of place in the movement for two reasons. First, it’s quite well-written, full of captivating prose and structured as a sort of emotional escalation that culminates in a call to a great struggle, a call that creatively secularizes Islamic motifs and symbols:

At the dawn of Arabs’ nationalist awakening, the voice of [Mohammad] their unifier called them to bind their struggle in war with their inner struggle for the self. . . . An inner struggle to purify the self from materialism and selfishness and replace them with sacrifice and selflessness that are able to liberate [Arabs] from domination and humiliation and let them cast their shadow on all of the earth. . . . And we, today’s Arabs, are awakened by the new forces of life and called for renaissance and work. . . . We should not worry about our minor struggle for liberty and independence if we triumph in our major struggle of transforming the self.

The second reason for the popularity of Nationalist Consciousness was its timing: it appeared at the outbreak of World War II, when the initial German victories over France and England imbued Arab intellectuals and Arab masses with a sense of revolutionary hope and nationalist fervor. Egged on by German propaganda, most Arabs hoped that a Nazi victory over the Allies would end the rule of France and Britain in the Middle East and lead to Arab political independence. It would not be an overstatement to say that the only Arabs who didn’t support the Axis were the minority of pro-Soviet Communists and pro-British liberals.

Two facts are forgotten today about Arab nationalism. First, the Arab nationalism of the 1930s was meaningfully different from an idea of the same name that was popular in the years before World War I. Pre-World War I Arab nationalism was primarily a literary movement, more concerned with the revival of Arab culture, the modernization of the Arabic language, and, most of all, combating cultural Turkification than it was concerned with any political program. In assuming continuity between these movements, the majority of historians take at face value the mythmaking of the later nationalists themselves.

The reason Arab nationalism looked different by the 1930s was simple: nearly all the social, political, and economic conditions against which pre-World War I Arab nationalism militated, most importantly Ottoman rule, had vanished. Likewise, increased colonial control of the Middle East integrated the region into the West-centered world economy. New changes in trade, consumption patterns, education, and culture created an educated class for whom the idea of nationalism meant something different: political independence in a world of nation-states rather than cultural independence within the framework of the Turkish-dominated empire, especially after Turkey’s own modernization as a nation-state under Ataturk in the 1920s.

The second forgotten fact about Arab nationalism is that until the 1950s, it imagined an Arab nation extending from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean coast—and no further. Very few, if any, nationalist writings considered a homeland that included Egypt or other parts of Arab North Africa. For their part, Egyptians had little interest in Arab nationalism, thanks to the European (and especially British) obsession with ancient Egypt, which nurtured a sense of proud, distinctive identity among Egyptian intellectuals. It was only in the early 1950s that, in large part thanks to more than a decade of effort by Constantin Zureiq, Arab nationalism left the Levant and made its way into the minds of North Africans.

Indeed, before Zureiq’s Nationalist Consciousness, Arab nationalism was less a coherent ideology than an ambiguous sentiment popular primarily among Levantine Christian intellectuals, the group in the region most interested in the question of a post-colonial political future. The main active political movements in the Levant at the time were Lebanese nationalism, pan-Syrianism (which aspired to a single state in what is now Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel), Communism, and Zionism. Zureiq intended to launch an Arab nationalist competitor. Notably, Nationalist Consciousness contained no mention of Palestine or Zionism. Composed of disparate essays propagandizing a romantic sense of Arab history, Arab struggle, and Arab independence, the book was such a sensation that multiple editions were published in less than a year. It also generated a number of derivative works. (The most notable were those of Zaki Arsouzi, Michel Aflaq, and Salahudin al-Bitar, who would unite in 1947 to form the Ba’ath party, which would later rule Syria and Iraq for decades.)

The Meaning of the Nakba, published in 1948, was a very different kind of book. By then, Zureiq had developed a much more concrete political program. The latter book outlined the triple goals of Arab nationalism, pan-Arab unity, and socialism as the prerequisites for national revival, and for defeating Israel. (This had a notable whiff of Hegelian if not Marxist historical dialectic: a synthesis of Arab Spirit moving forward in a metanarrative of the formation of a national consciousness. In general, the profound influence of German philosophy on the Middle East is distinctly under-recognized; charting it is a project I hope to pursue in the near future.)

As with the difference between pre-World War I Arab nationalism and 1930s Arab nationalism, the difference between the Arab nationalism of Nationalist Consciousness and that of The Meaning of the Nakba is largely due to another transformation of the region. In 1939, the target audience of Zureiq’s writings was Arab colonial subjects ruled and controlled by warring European powers without any clear path to their political future and distracted by a bevy of ideologies. Nine years later, when Zureiq wrote The Meaning of the Nakba, major events had again transformed the political reality of the region. Britain and France were on the way out, and new states were being born: Lebanon in 1942, Jordan and Syria in 1946, and Israel in 1948. His audience were no longer colonial subjects but citizens of their own nations—which meant that Zureiq did not need to create an Arab political reality but instead to transform an existing one.

This was the aim of The Meaning of the Nakba. It was no easy task; it required a powerful, emotional engine.

Zureiq found that engine in the Arab defeat by Israel. “Those who follow the history of nations and civilizations will note that its emergence and evolution are dependent on the challenges and difficulties they must pass,” he wrote. “Challenges, difficulties, and catastrophes are motivators for people and a cause of their renaissance and awakenings. . . . Thus, the catastrophe that we [Arabs] are facing today is a test for our internal and external conditions. If reaction and impotence are our prevailing conditions, then this catastrophe will make us weaker, more impotent, and more disunited.” The defeat had made evident Arab technological inferiority, lack of unity, and disorganization. Further, according to his view, the creation of the states of Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan did not represent a series of Arab triumphs, but rather the very lack of solidarity that led to the defeat. If they were truly capable and unified, they’d be one country.

After diagnosing these problems in the first two chapters of Meaning, Zureiq declared the solution to be nothing less than “an essential change in the Arab condition and a total revolution in our thought, action, and all our life”: nationalism, socialism, technology, secularism, and scientific education for all. From this he moved into the main preoccupation of the book: a systematic program for the mass mobilization of the Arabs by a committed revolutionary vanguard. The Zionist “will to survive and to struggle cannot be defeated but with a stronger will,” he proclaimed. “Zionist national solidarity cannot be conquered but with an even stronger national solidarity. . . . Our efforts will not be fruitful unless we tie this struggle with the inner total revolution.”

Some aspects of Zureiq’s argument would seem benign, even blandly progressive—if it weren’t for several darker factors interwoven into it. Most notably, there’s the prevalence of anti-Semitism. Meaning includes lengthy anti-Semitic diatribes, among them an appendix addressing Levantine Christians and reminding them of the Jews’ rejection of Christ. “The Zionist Jews migrating to Palestine today are entirely unrelated to Semitic Jews but are a different race altogether,” he wrote. “They belong to the Khazar tribes. . . . Zionist Jews claim Palestine to be their land promised by God and the prophets, and some Christians believe them because of the Bible. But those Christians forget how Jews completely rejected Christianity.” Then he suggested that the Jews must have provoked the Holocaust and that Jews used their “international political, financial, and cultural power” to manipulate world governments.

There was also the fetishization of the concept of the Nakba. The word became a proper noun and, for many, the event that started the modern Arab political calendar. It is almost impossible to exaggerate Zureiq’s influence. Without his book—read by almost every subsequent Arab intellectual—the term Nakba may have never made it into Arab political discourse. Its core ideas have been echoed endlessly, even until today. It is no coincidence that Mahmoud Abbas hit on precisely the same points about Zionism in his speech of August 24, 2023.

Yet completely absent from The Meaning of the Nakba is any concern for Palestinian refugees or for Palestinian nationalism, both of which came to define the Nakba only much later, as we’ll see. This was for the simple reason that the very idea of a distinct Palestinian identity was antithetical to Zureiq’s vision of Arab nationalism. The Nakba of Palestine was at once the cause of the Arabs, their awakening, and their revolution.

Looking back, it makes perfect sense why the Nakba and the struggle against Zionism was the perfect tool for Zureiq. Following the departure of the Ottomans after World War I, and the British and French after World War II, only Zionism offered a non-Arab antithetical force that Arabs could join together to fight. Or, to put it in the terms of the era, the military conflict with Zionism offered a field for unified effort and struggle that would help dissolve inter-Arab contradictions. On top of this, the legacy of anti-Semitism, which was inflamed during the war thanks to Nazi propaganda, provided a rich and popular vernacular that lent itself easily to revolutionary mobilization. Thus, the struggle against Zionism appealed to the statesman, the intellectual, and the man in the street alike.


II. The Vanguard at the Helm


The first major real-world consequence of Zureiq’s hope to use the Nakba for Arab transformation came, appropriately, with a move not against Israel but against the Arabs’ own leaders. In 1949, the Syrian army chief of staff Husni al-Za’im overthrew President Shukri al-Quwatli, inaugurating an age of Arab military revolution. In a few short years, the likes of Gamal Abdel Nasser, Hafez al-Assad, Moammar Gaddafi, Saddam Hussein, and Omar al-Bashir rose to power—leaders who dominated the second half of the century, whose shadows the region is still struggling to emerge from. The Syria coup provided the formula: a gang of officers would capture the military headquarters and the main radio station and announce the overthrow of the regime due to the defeat in 1948 and failure to liberate Palestine. The junta expressly accused President Quwatli of mismanaging the Syrian armed forces in a way that led to the defeat.

Zureiq’s ideas—his secular Arab nationalism, his view of the Nakba as motivating engine for widespread revolution—had sprung to life. And with their adherents in power, no longer were they limited to the politically engaged reading public; they were now a mass-media message broadcast to the street and representing the popular will of the new nationalist republics. The vanguard of which Zureiq had dreamed was finally at the helm.

If Syria kicked off the trend, the rise of revolutionary Egypt after 1952 was the watershed moment for all revolutionaries in the Middle East, whether nationalists or Marxists. Of all the Arab nations, Egypt had the largest population, the most modern and refined culture, and the most advanced state apparatus. Arab intellectuals eager for revolution and influence saw Nasser’s “Arab Prussia”—a reference to Prussia’s role in unifying Germany in the 19th century—as their leading light. Levant intellectuals called for “the necessity of the connection to Egypt as the base of the new unifying consciousness.”

Under Nasser, Egypt stepped into the role outlined for it—the role of the revolutionary vanguard leading the Arabs in the struggle against imperialism and Zionism, the struggle that would cure the Arabs of their woes and bring about a single, modern nation. In his 1955 manifesto Philosophy of the Revolution, Nasser outlined this grandly: “As long as it’s one region, with the same conditions, problems, and future,” he wrote, “as long as it is the same enemy with different masks, why should we distract our efforts? . . . I began to see the great obstacles that obstruct the path to one struggle, but I started to believe these obstacles must dissolve, for that very enemy makes them, and finally, I began my political effort to unify the struggle no matter how.”

The revolutionary wave, legitimated by the idea of Palestine, was then filtered to the Arab masses through Egypt’s mass propaganda campaign in radio and print. The state mobilized many of the region’s artistic and literary talents to work on the revolutionary project. Of course, the mass circulation of anti-Semitic material, such as the 1957 edition of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, published and widely circulated by the Egyptian regime, was part of this revolutionizing process.

Among intellectuals, this period corresponded with a hard turn towards the left. Various forms of Marxism, Leninism, Stalinism, and Maoism were, in the 1950s, blended to form Third Worldism, a worldwide movement of anti-imperialist socialism for which the Algerian War of Liberation of 1952 served as a catalyst. Then came the 1955 Bandung conference—the first large-scale meeting, in Indonesia, of newly independent countries seeking to discuss the challenges of navigating a postcolonial world, the cold war, and decolonization—and the 1956 Suez Crisis, both of which pushed the Arab revolution harder toward the left.

In particular, the intellectuals of the region came to embrace a Marxist-Leninist analysis of capitalism, imperialism, and the Third World. Israel was a form of settler colonialism, created under the aegis of Western imperialists, that sought exploit the heart of the Third World; and the Nakba was the result. Such a project obstructed, it was believed, not only the progress of the Arabs but of Third World societies in general and kept them locked in a global division of labor that relied on their impoverishment to maintain capitalism in the West. Thus, any solution to the Jewish problem within the framework of capitalism would always and necessarily result in imperialism. The Jewish question, it turned out, could only be addressed under socialism, which was a convenient way of not addressing it at all.

Certainly, such views of Zionism had been common since the 1930s; Leon Trotsky held them, for one, and the idea could be found in Arab Marxist writings during the period, like those of the veteran Palestinian communist Raif Khouri, who annexed Zionism to the Leninist idea of imperialism. But it wasn’t until the 1950s that Zionism-as-imperialism became the main position of the Arab progressive movement. At the end of this reasoning lay the conclusion that the Arab destruction of Israel was—indeed, had to be—part of the emancipation of humanity. The best way to resist the exploitative structure of Western imperialism was to attack the nearest and latest outpost of its expansion: Israel.

Again this message was disseminated by Egypt’s propaganda apparatus. As the Voice of the Arabs, Egypt’s pan-Arab radio broadcast, put it, “When we confront Israel, we are confronting the three enemies of Israel, imperialism, and international Zionism.” Yet concealed in this message is a meaningful change in how the conflict with Israel was understood. Such a change can be clearly found in the speeches of Gamal Abdel Nasser himself, the unchallengeable leader of the Arab revolution.

In Philosophy of the Revolution, Nasser made clear that his conception of the Nakba and Arab defeat was nearly identical to Zureiq’s: the defeat in 1948 was proof that the Arabs were backward and needed a revolutionary transformation. He explicitly stated that the real battle was “not in Palestine, but at home” against the forces of reaction. Yet by 1957, Nasser had changed his mind, as he happily admitted: “Before 1955, we didn’t think a lot about the danger of Israel. At that time, we considered the threat of Israel to be our race with time to modernize our societies. We thought that the threat of Israel was Arab weakness, and without such weakness, there would have been no Israel. But [Israel’s actions] revealed the monumental truth that Israel is not just the stolen lands behind armistice lines; Israel is the spearhead of imperialism and the concentration of forces more dangerous than Israel, imperialism, and international Zionism.”

In 1959, Nasser succinctly captured this new version of the nationalist narrative: “The purpose of founding Israel was never the establishment of a homeland for the Jews as they claimed, but it was a conspiracy between imperialism and Zionism for the sake of the destruction of Arab nationalism. The goal is the destruction of the Arab world and the atomization of the Arab world.” In nearly every speech from the time, Nasser repeated the same message.

In this, he was again anticipated by Zureiq, or at least his line of thinking can be seen as a natural outgrowth of Zureiq’s argument in The Meaning of the Nakba. But the argument that the backwardness of the Arabs had caused the Zionist victory and the establishment of Israel turned out to be quite easily flipped into claims, far more congenial to the mind of the defeated if less logical, that the establishment of Israel had caused the backwardness of the Arabs. This argumentative move was satisfying but deadly—not to the Israelis but to the Arabs, as we’ll soon see. It effectively condensed the grand and varied intellectual project of revolutionary Arab self-improvement into the simple elimination of Zionism and Israel. No longer would Arabs need to change themselves and build themselves up; all they would need to do is kick out the Jews and change would happen on its own.

Such a reversed position meshed perfectly with—indeed, is sometimes indistinguishable from—common anti-Semitic conspiracy theories that blamed all Arab social, political, and economic problems on Israel. After all, if the lack of Arab historical progress is a crucial underpinning to Israel’s existence then it makes sense that Israel would constantly work to prevent such progress. This idea has force, even in the present day, in the form of arguments heard across the region that Israel and the imperialists behind it are responsible for the lack of democracy in the Arab world.

Such views soon spread beyond the Middle East. The Western left, while supportive of Arab nationalism in general, had been reluctant to take the Arab side against Israel, largely due to the pro-Jewish sympathies generated by the Holocaust. But, by the late 1960s, the Arab and Soviet insistence that Israel was a form of settler-colonialism and a crucial outpost of Western imperialism found a ready home in the New Left, which is how it then came to become a commonplace idea in Western universities.

One of the earliest formulations of this position in the West came in the 1965 booklet Zionist Colonialism in Palestine by the Palestinian-American New Left intellectual Fayez Sayegh. Here Sayegh explained in leftist terms why Israel is a “settler-state” that “apart from its vital link with imperialism and its inescapable status as a total stranger to the Middle East, in the heart of which it has chosen to plant itself, the political embodiment of Zionist colonialism (namely, the Zionist settler-state of Israel) is characterized chiefly by three features: (1) its racial complexion and racist conduct pattern; (2) its addiction to violence; and (3) its expansionist stance.” Sayegh would go on later to become the principal author of the famous 1975 “Zionism is racism” UN resolution.

In the same year, the Syrian intellectual Nadim al-Baytar published a seminal book, The Revolutionary Potency of the Nakba, in which he rigorously laid out a Marxian theoretical framework for the new historical conception. Al-Baytar contended that the Nakba was the single historical event that could generate enough energy to activate the revolutionary dialectic among Arab societies. This claim took Zureiq’s argument a step further. For Zureiq, the Nakba was the evidence of the need for a self-transforming Arab revolutionary change. For al-Baytar, the Nakba was the foundation for that change itself.

Inspired by Marx’s dictum that “shame is a revolutionary sentiment,” al-Baytar argued that defeat was a precondition to Arab revolution. The deeper the sentiments of humiliation and defeat, the more powerful the revolutionary potential. Such intense feelings, in al-Baytar’s view, would eventually cause a revolutionary explosion that would completely transform the Arab condition. Throughout his life, al-Baytar kept expanding this argument and using it to reject any possible peaceful settlement with Israel. After all, according to this theoretical framework, defeat is preferable to compromise; compromise will simply erode revolutionary resentment, while defeat will deepen it.

By 1967, the revolutionary fantasies of the Arab intellectuals, the utopian dreams of the Arab masses, and the visionary promises of the Arab leaders had faded; all that remained was the struggle against Israel. And then, that year, another humiliation struck: the loss in the Six-Day War.

The standard historical narrative is that the humiliation of the loss inflicted a psychological trauma in the Arabs. In the resulting delirium, new revolutionary forces rose to replace the failing strength of what had become an Arab nationalist establishment. This narrative, while it contains some grains of truth, overlooks a crucial fact about the development of these new forces. Their appearance didn’t happen only in the Arab world but across the globe. This was the rise of what came to be called the New Left. In other words, the 1967 defeat did not create new realities but rather accelerated processes that were already in motion: an Arab New Left and a coherent Palestinian, rather than pan-Arab, movement.


III. The Arab New Left and a New Purpose for the Nakba


The rise of the New Left, and the adoption of its ideas by a new generation of Arab intellectuals, gave birth to a new set of revolutionary movements in the Middle East, and a new set of uses for the Nakba. The New Left maintained faith in the basic principles of Old Left socialism, but believed that previous revolutions had failed to realize these principles. As intellectuals in Paris and London became disillusioned with Stalin and his successors, they looked to the movements of marginalized groups like black Americans or the indigenous populations of European colonies in search of a new vanguard of the revolution.

Arab New Leftists responded in a similar way to their disillusionment with Nasserite Arab nationalism, which had failed to unite the Arabs, improve the material wellbeing of Egyptians, or defeat Israel. The shocking military defeat of 1967 crushed whatever remained of Arab intellectuals’ faith in Nasser, who was no longer the hero who overthrew King Farouk, drove the British out of the Suez, and simultaneously faced down London, Paris, and Jerusalem in 1956. Instead, they put their faith in their own repressed and marginalized people: the Palestinians. Put simply, Arab nationalism withered away, but its enmity to Israel lived on.

The rise of the Arab New Left had concrete political results. In 1964, the Arab League created the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in Cairo under Nasser’s auspices, with “Arab unity” as one of its declared objectives. Eight years later, Yasir Arafat became its chairman and wrestled it out of the hands of the Old Left. Arafat—a classic Third World revolutionary who always wore fatigues and a pistol on his hip—quickly became the living symbol of the Arab New Left. This is the era in which most of the revolutionary ideas, slogans, and symbols of the Palestinian movement familiar today were introduced. Palestine connected the Arab New Left to the global network of New Left movements.

Three thinkers stood out as the pioneers of the new turn in Arab thought: Sadek Jalal al-Azm, Yassine al-Hafiz, and Abdallah Laraoui. In 1967, each published a book responding to the defeat of the Arab revolutionary movement and calling for a new one: Self-Critique After the Defeat, Defeat and the Defeat Ideology, and Contemporary Arab Ideology, respectively. With these writings, they reimagined the Palestinian cause as the engine of a second Arab revolution. Laraoui, Hafiz, and al-Azm sought to replace Zureiq and his peers in the realm of ideas, while Yasir Arafat, George Habash of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), and others would take over Nasser’s political position.

Inspired by the Viet Cong and Latin American guerrillas, the new leaders hoped to use terrorism and irregular warfare to defeat Israel instead of the large-scale conventional wars that had failed in 1948 and 1967. Al-Azm thus called for “the emergence of new revolutionary forces which are ultimately committed to the fulfillment of the [aspirations] of the absolute majority of the Arab masses, . . . shouldering the responsibility of transforming the Palestinian [guerrilla] action into a real populist and comprehensive liberation war.” Al-Hafiz argued that Palestinians should inherit the leading role once played by Jews in internationalist Communist politics. And Laraoui—whose work had a profound impact on Edward Said, among many others—insisted that the Palestinian problem could not be disconnected from the broader need to modernize not just Arab society but the Arab mind. This revolutionary philosophical transformation, conceived in then-fashionable Marxist terms, was a prerequisite to liberating Palestine, and naturally involved the overthrow of the existing Arab regimes. In this way, the Palestinian cause ceased to be the exclusive tool of Nasser and other rulers and became the rallying cry of those hoping to overthrow them—just as Nasser and his generation had done to their rulers decades before.

For their part, Palestinian Marxist groups, such as Habash’s PFLP—which was more explicitly Leninist than Arafat’s vaguely socialist Fatah—crafted a theoretical framework for the idea that Palestinian resistance was the engine of the new Arab revolutionary forces. The PFLP’s official strategy document called for:

the mobilization of all forces of the revolution on the Arab and world levels because it is only through such mobilization and concentration that we can create the power capable of confronting Israel, Zionism, world imperialism, and Arab reaction. The Palestinian revolution, which is fused together with the Arab revolution and in alliance with the world revolution, is alone capable of achieving victory. To confine the Palestinian revolution within the limits of the Palestinian people would mean failure. (Italics mine.)

In other words, for Habash and his cohort, the struggle against Israel was the means to the salvation of the Arabs—and a means to the salvation of the world.

Thus, when questioned about targeting civilians in terrorist attacks in a 1970 Life magazine interview, Habash declared, “The Palestinian revolution is a stage in the world revolution.” And Palestinian leaders weren’t the only ones who thought so. The new understanding of the liberation of Palestine was part and parcel of the emerging sense of transnational solidarity among revolutionary movements around the globe. The PLO became part of an informal New  Left analogue to the old Communist International, bringing together Castro’s Cuba, Ho Chi Minh’s Vietnam, the Black Panthers, Maoist China, Western radical feminists, and many others. Just as Che Guevara’s defiant visage became a symbol of revolutionary change for younger generations of Western leftists, the keffiyeh-clad Arafat became the embodiment of the hopes and aspirations of the Arab New Left.

Palestinian leaders eagerly embraced their newfound symbolic status. They immersed themselves in the writings of Régis Debray, a French philosophy professor who joined Guevara’s militants in Bolivia and whose 1967 Revolution Inside the Revolutions?—based on his experience with Guevara—became a handbook for guerrillas and terrorists around the world. It was quickly translated into Arabic, and its influence on the rhetoric of the nascent Palestinian movement is evident. Imbued with a sense of his place in world history, Yasir Arafat, frequently declared his movement “part of the world revolution which aims at establishing social justice and liberating mankind.” The Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish summed up this thinking perfectly when he wrote that “the torch has been passed from Vietnam to us.”

During this era Palestinian literature began to develop in a utopian vein, depicting pre-Zionist Palestine as a lost paradise, and a liberated Palestine as its restoration. Combining this utopian vision with Communist eschatology, young writers turned Palestineinto a global salvific mission. This trend introduced a dangerous paradox, similar to the one floated by Nadim al-Baytar, into the Palestinian national movement: if revolution is the ultimate goal, then any sort of peaceful compromise becomes anathema. Besides, if a revolution has achieved its goals, what use are revolutionaries? The leaders of Fatah and other guerrilla groups rightfully concluded that the establishment of a Palestinian state meant the liquidation of their revolution, and that only the survival of militancy could constitute real victory. Thus, in October 1967, Fatah shelled the house of Hamdi Faruq al-Taji, a Jerusalem resident involved in negotiations with the Israeli government aimed at establishing a Palestinian state.

When, in 1970, the PLO staged an actual revolution, it was not against Israel, but against the “reactionary” monarchy of Jordan, a move that recalled the wave of coups in Arab states two decades earlier. The result wasn’t the overthrow of the Hashemite dynasty, but a bloody Palestinian-Jordanian war known as Black September that drew in Egypt, Syria, Israel, and the Soviet Union and culminated in the expulsion of the PLO to Lebanon. And at that point, Lebanon became the second Arab country to experience the corrosive potency of Palestine.

Lebanon is a small country, but one deeply divided along, social, political, economic, and sectarian lines. As armed factions set up shop in various refugee camps, they and their allies in the Lebanese radical left started to eye the Palestinians as a tool to detonate their country’s powder keg of sectarian and tribal conflicts.

If, for Arab nationalists, Palestine was the cause that could dissolve various inter-Arab contradictions and unite the Arab nation, for the Lebanese left, it was the corrosive agent that could unite Lebanon’s many sects, bring about the disintegration of the Lebanese state, and replace it with the revolution. In the words of one Lebanese Communist intellectual, the Palestinian resistance seemed the perfect way to “revolutionize the Lebanese situation.” “Rallying around Palestinian military action,” he explained, “was a decisive factor in uniting the [Lebanese] factions.” Gun-toting Palestinian militants seemed to embody the revolutionary ethos to which Lebanese leftists aspired. As the veteran Lebanese Communist Fawwaz Traboulsi explained, “We wanted to reform by way of the gun, . . . using the Palestinian stick to force the bourgeoisie to reform.”

In this way, Constantin Zureiq’s idea of using opposition to Israel as a lever to Arab self-improvement took many new forms. But it was no more successful at uniting the Lebanese in the 1970s than it was at uniting the Arabs in the 1950s. The alliance between Lebanese leftists and Palestinian militants against the political establishment nevertheless managed to bring about a revolution, of a sort. In 1975, a civil war broke out and the state collapsed, leading to fifteen years of conflict among a variety of heavily armed militias and invasion by Israel and Syria. Lebanon still hasn’t recovered.


IV. Islam Joins the Party


By the late 1970s, the Middle East was ready for yet another revolutionary tide, this time not under the banner of Arab nationalism or of Marxism but of Islam. In 1979, Ruhollah Khomeini did what Arab Islamists had only dreamed of since the Muslim Brotherhood was founded in 1928: overthrow an established regime and create an Islamic state. Khomeini discovered what in retrospect seems obvious: religious symbols and loyalties could mobilize Middle Easterners on a far greater scale than any Western ideological import. Still, the Arab New Left—along with European leftists like Michel Foucault—greeted the successful overthrow of a U.S.-backed monarchy with glee. To many Arab intellectuals, the Iranian Revolution felt like compensation for the loss of Egypt, which in their view had abandoned revolution at the Camp David Accords a year earlier.

Khomeini and his imitators naturally adopted the Palestinian cause, not as an Arab one but as a Muslim one. In Iran, Quds Day (i.e., Jerusalem Day) became a national holiday, held during the holy month of Ramadan, and equated by the current supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, with Islam and humanity itself. The regime’s elite paramilitary was named the Quds Force, and Khamenei declared the struggle for Palestine “the most important cause of the revolution.” Since then, the Islamic Republic codified in its official documents the position that the conflict against Israel is “the key to defeat all the enemies of Islam” and the “primary axis of Islamic renaissance.” Once again, the Palestinians themselves were secondary to their symbolic and emotional use in other places.

Following Iran’s example, anti-Israel propagandists—whether Persian or Arab, Sunni or Shiite—drew on religious phraseology, symbolism, and texts to articulate their position. Hizballah, originally named the Islamic Revolution in Lebanon, worked toward a Khomeinist takeover of that country under the banner of fighting Israel—doing both with deadly effectiveness. Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Hamas emerged to exploit this shift, and quickly became leading forces in Palestinian politics.

These groups were aided by Arab Maoist intellectuals who sought to use Islam—or, perhaps, to exploit a version of Islam reinterpreted through Marxist categories—as a revolutionary vehicle able to mobilize the masses in ways traditional Marxism couldn’t. In their hands, the religious significance of Jerusalem and traditional hostility to Judaism combined with modern anti-Semitism (largely imported from Nazi Germany in the 1930s and 40s) to form new expressions of the revolutionary struggle. Beginning in the 1980s, large parts of the Palestinian liberation movement grew apart from Third Worldism and global leftism, and instead became part of what would become international jihadism.

For al-Qaeda and the other jihadist groups that emerged around the end of the cold war, Palestine was a natural point of departure. The failure of secular regimes and movements to destroy Israel was evidence of their corruption and illegitimacy, and of the need for politically salvific Islam. Even in the eyes of those who were not especially devout, such criticism could not be lightly dismissed. Arab secularists were being defeated using the very tool they had ingeniously crafted.


V. Despair


Among the Palestinian themselves, cracks began to appear in the PLO as early as the 1970s, when members of the clique around Yasir Arafat started floating the possible acceptance of a two-state solution. For the committed revolutionaries, this seemed like a betrayal of the cause, and the suggestion of peace led to a civil war inside Fatah lasting well into the Oslo years. This revolutionary logic echoed what Nadim al-Baytar had argued in the 1960s: that defeat is preferable to peace, for defeat keeps the revolution alive while peace ends the struggle.

This intra-Palestinian debate, the signing of the Oslo Accords, and the growing clout of Hamas and other Islamist groups resulted in a major resurgence of interest in the Nakba in the 1990s. Only then did the term take on the meaning familiar today, that is, to quote the United Nations, “the mass displacement and dispossession of Palestinians during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.” This was entirely different from what Zureiq had in mind when he coined the term half a century before: the humiliating defeat of the Arab alliance at the hands of the Jews. The new Nakba wasn’t an Arab catastrophe, but a specifically Palestinian one. Yet, as it had been in Zureiq’s hands, the term was employed for a very particular purpose: not the modernization and unification of the Arabs, but the undermining of Oslo. If the goal was ending the occupation or fulfilling Palestinian aspirations to national determination or safeguarding Palestinian human rights, then the creation of a Palestinian polity in Gaza and the West Bank would mean victory. If the problem that needed solving was defeat and displacement that occurred in 1948, the only solution could be the defeat and eradication of Israel.

In this long history of the Nakba and Palestine, there is a common denominator: that struggle against Israel is always part of—indeed, the engine of—some greater struggle against the status quo. The revolutionary power of the Palestinian cause also explains something that this essay has only touched upon thus far: the actual policies of Arab states. So long as Israel continues to exist, Arab regimes are vulnerable to the criticism that they have failed to destroy it. These regimes have therefore sought to prevent the Palestinian cause from affecting their domestic politics in any real way, while simultaneously trumpeting their support for it.

From 1948 until the present day, Arab rulers have also instrumentalized the Palestinians in their feuds with one another. Thus, during the 1948 war, Egypt sought to play the nascent Jewish state off against Jordan. And since 2000, Qatar has used Al Jazeera to undermine its Arab rivals by criticizing them for being soft on Israel. Turning the revolutionary weapon of Palestine into a conservative tool to uphold the status quo occasionally worked—but never succeeded in neutralizing the revolutionary tendencies permanently.


VI. The End of the Nakba?


Turn on Al Jazeera today, or scroll through Arabic-language social-media accounts, and you’ll find no shortage of coverage of the Palestinian plight, or of Israel’s wickedness (not to mention old-fashioned anti-Semitism). The Arab Spring suggested to outsiders that the Israel-Palestinian conflict was not the central problem facing the Arab world. But, for Arabs, it hasn’t lost its symbolic valence entirely.

One of the most prominent figures of the generation of liberal Arab youth at the center of the Arab Spring is Lina Attalah, an Egyptian journalist named by Time magazine one of the 100 most influential people in 2020. Born in 1983, Attalah is a young, secular, and liberal Arab who faced imprisonment and detention multiple times due to her opposition to successive Egyptian regimes. She is an icon of the new, highly educated Arab youth on whose shoulders hopes of democratic change lie. In 2021, she published a long autobiographical essay in which she recalled her first attempt to write seriously. She was at the time a student at an international high school in Italy, where, she recounts, she first learned to think critically. And what was the subject of this essay, which began her journalistic career? The Israeli occupation of Palestine, of course.

The story is freighted with symbolism: of Attalah herself, of writing, of being in Europe, of learning from the West how to be critical in a way traditional learning in Egypt couldn’t teach, and of Israel and Palestine as the foundation of her new consciousness. In fact, the subject matter of the essay is overdetermined. It is evidence that Palestine maintains its revolutionary potency and symbolizes a new generation’s dreams of progress.

Yet, more than 75 years after the Nakba, there are two recent and radically different developments that suggest this potency may be finally fading: the rise of Islamic State and the Abraham Accords. The very fact that the first is the darkest form of revolutionary suicidal nihilism and the other a radical peace initiative makes the case stronger for the possibility of an epoch-ending development.

Islamic State was politically radical not in terms of its objectives or murderous practices but in its abandonment of Palestine as a cornerstone of Arab and Muslim revolutionary thought. Needless to say, its leaders believe Israel should be destroyed and its citizens slaughtered, and its propagandists employ the usual anti-Semitic fantasies. But Palestine has never been central to its ideology. It considers Israel just one problem among many. Nothing makes this clearer than a 2016 article in its main publication, castigating al-Qaeda and Hizballah for their obsessive focus on the Jewish state:

For decades, the issue of Palestine and its occupation by the Jews has dominated the lives of Muslims the world over. The exaggerators have exceeded in stressing its importance, and the merchants have traded in it—to the point where most people came to believe that Palestine is the Muslims’ primary cause. This is after the nationalists declared it to be the Muslims’ top priority, and [vowed] that no other issue should be raised until Palestine was liberated. . . . After nearly seven decades of empty slogans, Palestine is still ruled by the Jews. [But] Allah ordered worshippers to fight all the infidels, without exception. . . . [R]estricting jihad to the Jews alone . . . is an alteration of Allah’s law. (Translated by the Middle East Media Research Institute.)

Here Islamic State’s ideologues make quite clear that they are breaking with previous forms of Arab revolution. They will no longer be bound by Palestine. The same point was made, very differently, in a darkly funny video created by Palestinian parodists to mock Islamic State. In this sketch, a group of hapless jihadists murder Arabs unable to demonstrate their piety sufficiently, but cluelessly let an Israeli go. Its implied argument is in effect a rejoinder to the abovementioned article: Islamic State is so blinded by its religious fanaticism—depicted in the video as absurd—that it has its jihadist priorities all wrong.

The Abraham Accords are equally radical in removing the Palestinian cause as a determining factor in the domestic and foreign policies of Arab countries. The governments that signed them have made clear that they are still concerned about the condition of the Palestinians, but—like Islamic State—are committed to viewing this as one issue among many. They will not allow it to hold their entire diplomatic posture hostage. By normalizing their relations with Israel, they are trying to make Palestine into a normal issue; rather than coopt it, they are trying to remove its revolutionary potential. And given the history of how Arab leaders and thinkers have used the issue over the last 75 years, that’s a step that’s truly revolutionary.