Saying Farewell to the Soviet Union

March 12 2019

In this excerpt from his forthcoming memoir, Boris Fishman describes the liminal state of his family’s home in the weeks leading up to their departure from the Soviet Union for America. The year is 1988, and the author is nine years old:

It was like one of my father’s strange fairy tales: little by little—for free, for favors, for pay—the apartment began disappearing. The vanishing of the television, taken by one of my mother’s co-workers, caused me special grief. . . . My bookshelves were attached to the wall, so I believed they were safe, but one day they were gone, too. Then the Persian rug on which, on all fours, I read the sports pages. Then my bed.

The kitchen went last. A friend of my mother’s hauled away everything in it. They agreed on a price, but the woman gave us no money; she had a relative in America, and since each emigrant could take the equivalent of only $90 in currency (and $250 in possessions), the woman’s relative would pay 50 percent of the agreed-upon price when we got to America—for us, a way of getting out more currency than was allowed. Our position was weak: who knew if the phone number the woman scrawled on a piece of graph paper corresponded to an actual human? . . .

You can sleep on the floor, but you can’t eat the air; how to survive without a stove or a fridge? For the first time in my life, I experienced the dread of not knowing from where the next meal would come. No one had explained that those relatives and friends who did not fear associating with us—“men would not come to our plague-stricken house, but sent their wives instead,” as Nadezhda Mandelstam, the condemned Soviet poet Osip Mandelstam’s wife, wrote in more severe circumstances—would come with everything from utensils to foldout tables. My aunt brought braised beef with cubed potatoes and marinated peppers; blintzes stuffed with ground beef and caramelized onion; and a chicken stuffed with crepes and more browned onion, then roasted. All of this disappeared quickly. Departures like ours meant more helping hands, but also more mouths.

Though my grandparents’ home never lacked for guests, this was a different kind of assembly. The smartest people congregated in the kitchen, where the constant replenishment of the foldout table turned the day into a single, unbroken meal. But there were people standing—with glasses, or arms folded, or consoling hands atop grieving wrists—in every room, even mine. (Evidently, its emptiness had re-registered it as common property.) . . . The apartment hummed with festiveness, nerves, and anticipation. . . .

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More about: Arts & Culture, Immigration, Soviet Jewry, Soviet Union

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