A Tale of Things Remembered, and of People Trying to Forget, in 1950s Israel

Jan. 24 2019

Born, like David Ben-Gurion, in the Polish town of Płońsk, Mendel Mann (1916-1975) fled to the Soviet Union after the outbreak of World War II, eventually joining the Red Army. He came to Israel in 1948, and became a prolific writer of poetry, essays, short stories, and novellas in Yiddish. In his possibly autobiographical short story “The Encounter,” published in a 1966 anthology, he describes a chance meeting with a familiar-looking woman in the Israeli town of Ramat Gan around the year 1954. What follows is an exploration of the psychic after-effects of the Holocaust. Herewith, an excerpt from the opening scene, in Heather Valencia’s translation:

“Please don’t be offended at my speaking to you again. I wouldn’t have done so if you hadn’t just been passing by while I’m still waiting for my bus. I do know you.”

I said these words with an urgency and certainty that surprised even me. She put her shopping bag down on the pavement and looked at me silently.

“I traveled across Ukraine with the Soviet army, and somewhere in a shtetl in Volhynia I met you. It was a strange encounter. Don’t you remember the Russian soldier who talked to you in Yiddish? Have you forgotten a night journey in a truck with two armed soldiers?”

She wrung her hands and her lips began to tremble. “I don’t know you. I don’t want to know you!” she shouted. Her vehemence made me certain that she was the woman I remembered.

At last the bus came. I was grateful to the driver for saving me.

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More about: Arts & Culture, Holocaust survivors, Israeli literature, Yiddish literature

Who Changed the Term “Nakba” into a Symbol of Arab Victimization?

April 19 2019

In contemporary Palestinian discourse, not to mention that of the Palestinians’ Western supporters, the creation of the state of Israel is known as the Nakba, or catastrophe—sometimes explicitly compared with the Holocaust. The very term has come to form a central element in a narrative of passive Palestinian suffering at Jewish hands. But when the Syrian historian Constantin Zureiq first used the term with regard to the events of 1948, he meant something quite different, and those responsible for changing its meaning were none other than Israelis. Raphael Bouchnik-Chen explains:

In his 1948 pamphlet The Meaning of the Disaster (Ma’na al-Nakba), Zureiq attributed the Palestinian/Arab flight to the stillborn pan-Arab assault on the nascent Jewish state rather than to a premeditated Zionist design to disinherit the Palestinian Arabs. “We [Arabs] must admit our mistakes,” [he wrote], “and recognize the extent of our responsibility for the disaster that is our lot.” . . . In a later book, The Meaning of the Catastrophe Anew, published after the June 1967 war, he defined that latest defeat as a “Nakba,” . . . since—just as in 1948—it was a self-inflicted disaster emanating from the Arab world’s failure to confront Zionism. . . .

It was only in the late 1980s that it began to be widely perceived as an Israeli-inflicted injustice. Ironically, it was a group of politically engaged, self-styled Israeli “new historians” who provided the Palestinian national movement with perhaps its best propaganda tool by turning the saga of Israel’s birth upside down, with aggressors turned into hapless victims, and vice-versa, on the basis of massive misrepresentation of archival evidence.

While earlier generations of Palestinian academics and intellectuals had refrained from exploring the origins of the 1948 defeat, the PLO chairman Yasir Arafat, who was brought to Gaza and the West Bank as part of the 1993 Oslo Accords and was allowed to establish his Palestinian Authority (PA) in parts of those territories, grasped the immense potential of reincarnating the Nakba as a symbol of Palestinian victimhood rather than a self-inflicted disaster. In 1998, he proclaimed May 15 a national day of remembrance of the Nakba. In subsequent years, “Nakba Day” has become an integral component of the Palestinian national narrative and the foremost event commemorating their 1948 “catastrophe.”

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More about: Arab World, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, New historians, Yasir Arafat