On September 28, Mosaic hosted a conversation between Aboubakr—the author of September’s feature essay on the role of the Nakba in the Arab imagination—and Ghaith al–Omari, a leading analyst of Palestinian affairs. If you want to understand how the Jewish state became so important to the self-conception of the Arabs, the recording of their conversation is a good place to start. Read or watch it below.
Welcome everyone to today’s conversation about Hussein Aboubakr’s sparkling and inventive essay, “The Perennial Power of the Nakba.” Nakba, of course, is the Arabic word for catastrophe or disaster, and has come to refer to the consequences of Israel’s independence for Arab residents of Mandatory Palestine. I want to begin by framing the subject of the essay and offering an explanation for why, in my judgment, it’s such an important topic for us to pursue at Mosaic.
There have been a number of serious works of historical reconstruction of this period. There’s a standard narrative that Israel defeated Arab nations in a war, in the course of which thousands of Arab Palestinians lost their homes and became refugees throughout the Middle East. The cause of their becoming refugees is, of course, a subject of impassioned disagreement over, for instance, the extent to which they fled voluntarily or were expelled.
Historians, moreover, argue over whether these refugees fled because of massacres supposedly committed by Jewish fighters, or because Arab leaders told them to get out of the way so that the Jews could be pushed into the sea by the incoming armies of the Arab states, and so on. This is a very well-developed area of inquiry at this point, and new work is published on the subject all the time. In fact, in just March of this year, Sol Stern wrote a very fine essay in Commentary in which he looked at the truth behind the Palestinian catastrophe.
Such investigations constitute what I want to call Nakba studies. Nakba studies is a well-developed field. It has schools. It has ideological turf wars and historiographical camps. I think our September essay makes an imaginative contribution to the field of Nakba studies, but it does so by focusing on a different angle of vision.
You see, all of those questions about what really happened in 1948 and why, and under what circumstances the Palestinian Arabs fled, who was justified in doing what, and why, and all of that—that is not the subject of Hussein’s essay, and it’s not the main subject of our conversation today. In the essay, Hussein traces the motivations behind the creation of the Nakba as a term and as a politically useful concept, and then its political afterlife.
His fundamental question is not what happened in 1948. His question is, what happened next? It’s about the use of the Nakba myth as an ideological tool in the subsequent political thought of Arab writers and leaders. That’s what we’ll be discussing today, and that’s why it matters so much to committed Zionists like us at Mosaic, for among these Arab writers and leaders are some of Israel’s most passionate and dangerous adversaries.
Now, Hussein Aboubakr is an Egyptian-American writer. He works as a project director at the Endowment for Middle East Truth. This is his fourth written piece for us at Mosaic and his first monthly essay. He is the recipient of the 2022 UN Watch Human Rights Award and the author of Minority Of One: The Unchaining of an Arab Mind, which tells the gripping story of his early life in Egypt, his exposure to Hebrew and Israel, his participation in the Tahrir Square protests in Egypt during the Arab Spring, and his eventual resettlement in the United States as an asylum seeker.
Joining us also is Ghaith al-Omari, the Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Foundation senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He was formerly the executive director of the American Task Force on Palestine and served in senior positions within the Palestinian Authority. We will hear from Ghaith shortly. I’d like first to have a brief discussion with Hussein about the essay, and then I’ll invite Ghaith to join us and probe a little more deeply into the essay’s main contentions and implications. After hearing from each of them, we’ll open up the questions to our audience.
My last word of introduction before I turn to Hussein is a word of gratitude. I want to thank Mosaic subscribers. I want to thank members of the Mosaic Circle who make Hussein’s work and discussions like this one possible. I want in particular to offer a note of gratitude and thanks to a member of our advisory board, Janet Doerflinger, for her encouragement.
Hussein, I want to turn to you. This is not the sort of essay that Mosaic has ever published before. It’s an unusual essay for us. I’d like to just begin by asking you how you came to think about the subject, and what motivated you to write the essay to begin with.
Well, thank you very much, Jon, for having me today. It’s a great pleasure to be talking to you, Ghaith, and all our Mosaic subscribers. I also to say that I have a world of gratitude to Mosaic for publishing this piece. I know it’s unusual for Mosaic, but I think it’s a very important step towards intellectual engagement between Zionist intellectual life and Jewish intellectual life and Arab intellectual life, especially in the spirit of the developments in the last three years, where we hope for an actual mutual history in the Middle East involving our two peoples.
Of course, as you said, I grew up in Egypt. For anybody who grew up in a country like Egypt, Palestine, the Nakba, and Israel are central concepts to your understanding of the world, your understanding of reality, your understanding of identity, your understanding of religion. I grew up really fascinated by all of the historical narratives and stories about Israel, about the war with Israel, about the victimhood of the Palestinians, and so on.
As I advanced in life, through various developments and coincidences, I found myself actually pausing to ask, well, why is that? Why are Israel, the Jews, and Palestine so central to our understanding of politics, our understanding of our modern history, our understanding of society? In trying to understand this issue, one also opens the floodgates of the problem of anti-Semitism and modern anti-Semitism in the Middle East, which is very complex. It took me years of trying to build different answers. And there are answers. Every answer can be satisfactory for only some time. But then if you live with the issue, the answer stops becoming satisfactory.
I think Bernard Lewis himself, the eminent scholar of the Middle East, expressed his puzzlement over this issue. In his book Semites and Anti-Semites, which deals specifically with the issue of anti-Semitism in Arab societies and its relationship with Israel, he puzzled over why this conflict is so different than almost any other conflict. It’s not the first time that nations have had such territorial conflicts. It’s not the first time that Muslim or Arab societies had conflicts with non-Muslim nations. He himself didn’t seem to have a satisfactory answer for it.
For some time I had different answers. I thought, “Okay, maybe the problem is cultural. It has to do with cultural issues in Arab society; it has some sort of a deep narcissistic wound that causes so many almost pathological responses to Israel, and that’s hard to get rid of.” You live with that answer for a while, and then reality hits you and it stops being satisfactory.
So I thought, “Well, it’s Islam. Islam is the problem, obviously, and its militant zeal and quest for domination.” And also, you live with that answer for some time, and then after a while it stops being satisfactory.
I decided eventually to stop examining big ideas and to try to drill down to the details of this entire way of thinking about the past. I think that was also a very fortunate because it rid me of one of the curses of dealing with the Arab-Israeli (Palestinian-Israeli) conflict, and that is this sense of that this conflict is timeless.
This sense is frequently encouraged by the media. Arabs and Jews have been, in the most vulgar expression of this, at war with each other for thousands of years. That’s obviously not true, but it shows the sense of timelessness that a lot of people are willing to believe it’s always been this way.
The reason, Hussein, that timelessness is a problem is because it fosters a sense of resignation. It’s always been this way, so it’s always going to be this way.
I think for some people it does, but I think also part of it is natural. It’s very hard to fight against this tendency. When people come into consciousness, they grow in certain conditions and certain ideas, and these do seem timeless, because in a sense they are—in the sense that they are all you’ve known since you’ve been here. Examining the changes through which the idea of the Nakba and the Palestinian cause itself developed helps us understand that it wasn’t always this way. It didn’t even start the way that we understand it today.
I mean, if you go to American university campuses—I think that’s ground zero for talking about the Nakba—you find this notion of Nakba as something roughly equivalent to the slavery of African Americans or the Holocaust. It’s a historical event that expresses some sort of cosmological victim that’s understood in humanistic terms. But the truth is it wasn’t always this way.
This way of looking at the Nakba did not develop before the 1990s. I would say the early 2000s, actually, is when this picked up in the United States. If you go in the Middle East where this issue actually belongs, you’ll see a very complicated developmental story that intersects with the intellectual and political history of Arab societies, which I do believe is very poorly understood in the United States.
Poorly understood until now, because the ambition of the essay is to shed light on that very Middle Eastern setting in which this idea was cultivated. Maybe it makes sense to go to its origins and understand how it was originally contoured and incepted, and then move to what started to happen with it.
The idea of the Nakba—and here maybe I can give an overview of the story that the essay is dealing with—did not start as a way of talking about Palestinian tragedy. The word, of course, means catastrophe in Arabic. But the Palestinian cause itself did not start as the Palestinian cause. I think the historical record attests to this perfectly; the transition from the conception of an Arab-Israeli conflict into a Palestinian-Israeli conflict with an interlude, especially in the post 9/11 years, of a Muslim-Jewish conflict.
We’ll touch on that. But you have to realize that the concept of the Nakba was born during the high tide of nationalism in the Middle East. This is when most of the modern nations of the Middle East actually came into existence.
The Palestinian-Israeli conflict began during this historical moment. The way the concept was understood, how people thought about what is happening, ultimately was related to the way that they thought about themselves politically in general. Our story thus begins with the foremost Arab nationalist intellectual of the mid-20th century, Constantin Zureiq, who was a Levantine, Orthodox Christian and a professor of history at the American University in Beirut.
He wrote the book that kickstarted Arab nationalism as we knew it later in the 1950s. It was written in 1939 and it’s called Nationalist Consciousness. That book was the first coherent articulation of an Arab nationalist project for independence from the British and the French. That book almost had no mention of Zionism whatsoever. In 1948, Constantin Zureiq wrote the book that actually coined the term Nakba as a reference to the first Arab-Israeli war; it was called The Meaning of the Nakba.
He wrote it as the war between the Arab armies and Israel was winding down. If you actually read the book, the first conceptualization of the Nakba, you start finding a nucleus of the revolutionary project that unfortunately will then get attached to the idea of Palestine from that moment onwards, which is that the defeat at the hands of Israel is empirical evidence that Arab social, economic, and political conditions are inferior and backward.
This backwardness, Zureiq argues, necessitates a total revolution in Arab conditions that can only happen through an adoption of his own version of Arab nationalism, which is pan-Arabism, Arab unity, and socialism. He basically lays out this project, and here he ties his revolutionary hope to transform Arab societies and bring them into modernity, generally understood, by using the conflict with Israel. This connection will become inherent to the conception of the Nakba itself. It will provide it with what another Arab intellectual later in the 1960s called the revolutionary potency of the Nakba.
Basically, the conflict with Israel has a potency that allows Arab intellectuals and Arab statesmen to mobilize large segments of Arab societies in order to fulfill their aspirations of renaissance, economic development, and achieving political power in post-colonial times.
In this conception, the victory of Israel is a catastrophe, but it is a motivating catastrophe that opportunistic political leaders can use to propel their societies into the future.
Right. The Meaning of the Nakba is a very interesting book because it’s the foundational piece of literature for this conception. The book starts with very ominous lines: the idea that what we have just seen is a catastrophe that’s beyond any catastrophe of our history; a very strong sense mourning from Constantin Zureiq; and inflation of the defeat to cosmological proportion. However, it still doesn’t have to do with the Palestinians or the human costs of the war, which we now associate with the Nakba.
It had to do with the humiliation of the defeat, where a small new country defeated so many Arab armies in such a very short time. And then the rest of the book is basically outlining the ideological necessities to get out of this humiliation. It was a motivating defeat. By the way, this exact format wasn’t one Zureiq invented.
It was actually very common in Europe. I would say it’s still common, especially among radical intellectuals. These political treatises start with a catastrophe, the declaration of a crisis, and then explain the author explains a way out of it. Oswald Spengler wrote like this during World War I. Even if you read, for example, radical leftist literature from the financial crisis of 2007, you find the same thing. It starts with, “Oh, this is a very terrible crisis. Let me tell you how to get out of here.”
This is the format example of Jihadist literature, by the way. The Islamist thinker Sayid Qutb’s The Milestones follows exactly the same format. The first line states that the world today stands on the brink of crisis. Of course, then he outlines his solution. Constantin Zureiq basically was following this format. “This is a major crisis, but let me tell you how this crisis will lead us ultimately to salvation.” This idea really stayed on, especially with the rise of Arab nationalism.
The problem is that, by the mid-1950s, Arab nationalism became the dominant ideology in the Middle East. Zureiq’s ideas were turned into an actionable political program.
So then what happened to the Nakba in phase two?
In the 1950s, after the rise of Arab nationalism led by Egypt, the Nakba went through two phases. Prior to 1955—when Arab nationalism takes a hard turn toward Third-Worldism—the conception of the Nakba for the now-ascendant Arab nationalists and the new revolutionary wave of military officers in Syria and Egypt and Iraq was the same as Zureiq’s: it’s a motivation.
Gamal Abdel Nasser himself said so. He wrote this very interesting revolutionary manifesto called The Philosophy of the Revolution in 1954, and in it, he says explicitly that the battle is not in Palestine. The battle against reaction, impotence, and backwardness is actually at home.
Afterwards, after he becomes a celebrated leader due to several events—the Suez Crisis, the radicalizing effect of the war in Algeria (when Arab nationalism became much more revolutionary and potent regionally), and when Arabism also became part of the Third World Liberationist movements that are more aligned with the left, anti-Western movements, anti-capitalist movements, and so on—then you start seeing a change. Nasser himself would address that. He once said, before 1955, that he didn’t think that Zionism or Israel (I’m paraphrasing) is the main enemy.
But now, says Nasser, it is the main enemy. Israel represents reaction. It represents imperialism. Here you see Zureiq’s argument is actually changed. It’s not just that the presence of Israel is a sign or evidence of Arab backwardness—that is, a result of backwardness. It’s actually the cause of Arab backwardness, because it’s an attack on the Arabs by Western imperialism. Here you have the association that will continue until today of Zionism with imperialism.
The Arabs did not develop this idea themselves. It existed among the leftist movements from the earliest days of Zionism, and even with the opposition to the ideas of Moses Hess from within Communist circles. In the Third International, after World War I, Leon Trotsky completely accepted that Zionism is a part of capitalism. And since it’s part of capitalism, it’s always going to lead to imperialism against those poor Arabs. That conception was there.
By the 1950s, as Arab nationalism becomes more aligned with the Soviet Union, becomes more aligned with Marxism-Leninism, you’ll find this conception also settling down, and then Zionism becomes imperialism. It becomes our battle against the West.
Would you say that it’s fair to summarize this first transition from Zureiq, wave one, to let’s say Nasser, wave two, as the introduction of cold-war politics and Communist ideas into the Middle East? Whereas the Nakba and Zionism moved from a motivating factor that focuses the Arab imagination inward on self-development, it then becomes a factor which turns the Arab imagination outward toward Israel as a reason for Arab suffering and shame.
I think that’s an excellent way to put it. Zureiq did write a lot of anti-Semitic screeds and libels; he had anti-Semitic articles that he wrote before 1948. When The Meaning of the Nakba was published, an anti-Semitic section was added to the book as an appendix, a kind of a supplement. If we ignore that part, a lot of Zureiq’s ideas were benign. They were progressive.
He talked about the need for secularism, the need for mass public education, the need for social development, economic development, scientific education. His idea was that the Nakba shows that we need to develop ourselves. And that idea truly stayed. I think that it was the main vision or idea until the mid-1950s. And afterwards, exactly what you said, it was almost reversed. Then it was, “We can’t develop because of Israel.” It’s no longer, “We need to develop because of Israel.”
And then you have the big anti-imperialist, anti-Zionist crusade that was spearheaded by Egypt and the Syrian Ba’ath party, and which will last until 1967, and that one will give way to a new wave. The Ba’ath and Nasser will become the Old Left, which is roughly equivalent to Stalinism, and then you’ll have a new Arab left that will pick those symbolic and revolutionary tools and take them forward in a new stage.
To me, this was just one of the most utterly fascinating sections of the essay, this third transition from the influence of what I’ll call Soviet and Communist ideas in the self-conception of Arab nationalism and the way that Nakba fits into that, to the importation of ideas from the New Left and European philosophers and critics, and the way that that changed the meaning of the Nakba in the Arab imagination. Tell us about that chapter.
The rise of the New Left was a major cultural, political, ideological, and intellectual transformation that happened worldwide. I think that context is always missed whenever we’re dealing with the Middle East. People deal with the Middle East as if it was a silo, isolated from the world, and part of that is a result of an academic division of labor.
But the truth is that the New Left was a global movement in which you had the rise of a transnational solidarity networks of academics and intellectuals and political movements that were inspired by, or themselves developed, a non-Soviet reading of Marxism, influenced heavily by Maoism and the notion of a people’s war. This created a new intellectual environment that was directly tied to a new generation of leftist radical intellectuals in the West, in Paris and London and in the United States.
That’s the time when people like Edward Said enter the stage. The rise of the New Left happens when Edward Said was a young man, a student at Columbia University and then a teacher. The Arab defeat of 1967 in the Six-Day War exasperated this process of transformation among Arab intellectuals. All of a sudden, you had the Ba’athists and the Nasserites discredited completely. They had promise to bring progress through their struggle against imperialism, exemplified and personified in Israel.
But they did the exact opposite. They brought a crushing defeat, which also exposed the political flaws of their regimes, the totalitarianism, the authoritarianism, and so on. Overnight you had the rise of a new generation of younger intellectuals who were inspired by the developments of the New Left globally and who brought a new concept of radical politics through which they sought to change these regimes themselves. They became the beginning of political opposition.
All the current political opposition in Arab countries actually traces its history to the rise of the New Left. Before that, there was no opposition. Everybody was charmed by the charismatic leadership of Nasser. This is when you get the rise of an actual Palestinian national movement individuating out of Arab nationalism. So far, the Palestinian movement, and the Palestinians themselves, were basically just conduits of Arab nationalisms being controlled by Arab nationalist regimes.
The PLO is definitely established in that way. The very suggestion that Palestinians exist as Palestinians (as opposed to generic Arabs) is antithetical to the very core of Arab nationalism itself, which is that there is one single Arab nation. The Arab New Left then sought to adopt the Palestinians as the marginalized people par excellence of the Middle East, or as the symbol of marginalization. In this way the Palestinian cause became the lever of a new revolutionary wave that sought to change the reality of the Middle East and fix all of the failures of former Arab nationalism.
This is roughly equivalent to what has happened globally as the New Left adopted the struggles of minority people or of Third World countries: thus radical New Left in the United States supported the Vietcong and Che Guevara and other Third World leaders. Yasir Arafat stepped in to adopt the persona. Early in his life, Arafat wore a suit. He did not wear a kaffiyeh, but then he adopted it, along with military fatigues. It was part of the new symbolic world of the anticolonial New Left.
And then this is when you had the beginning of building the actual Palestinian identity as we understand it today, their national symbols of the kaffiyeh, the orange groves. This is when you had the generation that actually constructed the national mythology of Palestine. The literature of Ghassan Kanafani, the poetry of Mahmoud Darwish—all of this happened during the rise of the New Left. Here, Palestine became a cause on its own, yet not entirely in its own. It’s tied to something called the world revolution, or the world revolutionary process.
We’ll see this even in the writings and sayings of Arafat, Darwish, and George Habash of the PFLP at the time. “We’re just an extension of Vietnam,” they claim. “We’re going to become the Hanoi of the Arabs. We’re going to become the base through which we revolutionary forces rise to expel the forces of capitalism and imperialism.” Thus the leftist or progressive revolutionary ideologies moved away from Nasserism into this idea of people’s war and armed struggle.
This is a key dynamic: this third revolution, this third wave, this third understanding and articulation of the meaning of the Nakba has as its polemical target not only the Zionists era and the Jews and the Westerners and all of that, but it has centrally as one of its targets the old-style Nasserite nationalism that it seeks to succeed and replace.
What we’ve spoken about up to now are the influences of Stalinist ideas and Communist ideas. We’ve spoken about the influence of European criticism and New Left philosophers. Does Islam have a role here? Is it important to understand religion?
No, actually not at all. What’s very interesting is that up until this point, we’re talking about atheistic political conceptions through and through. If you immerse yourself in that literature, it’s a whole different world than what exists today. For example, there’s a recruitment event in Palestinian refugee camps in the early 1970s in Lebanon, and the PFLP recruiter made it very clear: we do not want people to die to go to heaven. We want people to die for Palestine, or people to die for the revolution.
This was part, as I said, of the global transnational solidarity networks. It was a mostly atheistic, Marxist conception of politics and revolutionary struggle. There was a famous book that was written by a French radical philosopher in the 1960s. It was called Revolution Inside the Revolutions? The author’s name is Régis Debray. It was a book about the strategies of guerrilla warfare in Latin America. He spent some time with Che Guevara there, and the book was about this new phase of radical Marxist politics.
Here the model is no longer Stalin. It’s not about creating a big state like the Soviet Union. The focus instead is on small guerrilla groups. The Palestinians immediately adopted a lot of what came in Debray’s book. They were the revolution within the revolution. You had the original Arab nationalism as a revolution. The Palestinian movement was the revolution inside this revolution. The Arab intellectuals, even those who were not Palestinians, actually rallied around that.
For example, Nadim al-Baytar, a major intellectual figure during the time, wrote that we need to rally around the Palestinian revolutionary cause in order to transform it into a revolutionary wave to achieve the aspirations of the entire region and so on and so forth. The ideas of those New Leftist intellectuals were constitutive for the birth of Palestinian nationalism as it exists today. But Islam will not start to play a role until the late 70s.
Right. Let’s pick it up there with the Iranian Revolution now escaping the confines of the Arab world and moving into Islam more widely construed.
First of all, there were sociological developments, which we’re not going to talk about: changes in the economic formation of a lot of these Arab societies because of the move of the countryside to the city, and so on. And then there’s the failure of modern secular ideologies in general. People start returning to religion. Again, this wasn’t just happening in the Middle East. This was also a global phenomenon. Let’s remember that the end of that period, in the United States also, you have the rise of Reaganism.
People were genuinely only interested in a return of some sort of religious and spiritual life away from the very ruthless atheism that dominated since the Enlightenment. This happened also in Middle Eastern societies. This trend correlated with a rising interest in Maoism specifically. Maoism—as more of a Third Worldist Marxism that sees Leninism as an elitist endeavor that doesn’t really speak to the people—seeks to bring the revolution out of the lowest ranks of the people, to take over the cities from the countryside, not the opposite.
You had several Maoist intellectuals who were really interested in trying to bring revolutionary Islam. or the revolutionary content of Islam, to the masses. Several Arab and Palestinian intellectuals try to do this, the most notable of whom I would say is Munir Shafiq. Shafiq was PLO figure. He started his life as a committed Communist, then he joined Fatah, and then he became a Maoist, and then he converted to Islam and became an Islamist. He now sits on the board of the Muslim Brotherhood in Qatar.
I think his life actually exemplifies this story. He was born an Orthodox Christian actually. But at some point he started talking about the possibility of a revolutionary jihad. This coincided, of course, with the rise of Islamism in Egypt and Iran. And then you had the triumph of the Iranian Revolution really inflaming all of these revolutionary dreams among Arab intellectuals again, even the very secular and atheist ones.
It’s not just them. Even in the West, you had people like Michel Foucault, who celebrated the Iranian Revolution and thought is going to bring in new political spirituality. The revolution occurs just as Egypt, which was seen as the original leader of the Arab Revolutionary movement, was actually abandoning the revolution altogether through the Camp David Accords and peace with Israel, leaving the Soviet camp and joining the Western camp and becoming an ally of the United States.
The revolution in Iran seemed to Arab intellectuals like a compensation for the loss of Egypt. Here, you started to see the influence of Islamism growing rapidly. It wasn’t just Iran. The result of all this is a revolutionary conception that rested not on Arabs and the Arab nation, and not on Palestinians as Palestinians, but on Islam. And that, again, was the moment that saw the rise of al-Qaeda. There’s a very interesting book called The Bin Laden Papers, which really has a lot of unclassified material from Bin Laden’s communications that the CIA had. I think it came out last year or two years ago. If you read a lot of these papers, you will actually be amazed at how central Palestine was for even Bin Laden, even though he saw jihadism as a kind of antidote to the idea of Arab victimhood.
In that respect, Hussein, is it fair to say that it played a similar role to the purpose of the Nakba as Zureiq first expressed it? In other words, it was a motivating factor internally as much as anything else?
It was a motivating factor. The Islamist conception of the Nakba already inherited a lot of the developments that happened after Zureiq. It inherited a lot of the anti-Semitism that only increased in potency after Zureiq; the Nasser regime and the Ba’athist regime played an instrumental role in popularizing anti-Semitism regionally. It inherited the sense of victimhood and inherited the total vision of some sort of a cosmic conspiracy in which Zionism and the West join together the keep the Arabs down, except that for Bin Laden the West becomes the Crusaders, not imperialism.
For Nasser, the enemies were imperialism and Zionism; for Bin Laden, the Crusaders and the Jews. It’s my personal opinion that we don’t need to go to 9th-century classical Islam to see the origins of these ideas. I think their origins are actually quite modern, and interrelated with other modern Arab intellectual movements. In contemporary Islamism hostility toward Israel, you see basically an amalgam or a cumulative effect of that idea of Palestine whose development I’ve been discussing.
And then you start having Islamic movements like Hamas or Hizballah in Lebanon, and you started seeing this major religious turn in the conception of Palestine, in the conception of the Nakba, in the conception of the struggle against Israel, which will really last for quite some time. I think this is a conception that I grew up with personally. For me, growing up in Egypt in the 90s, the war against Israel was primarily religious. This was not the case for people who grew up during the 70s. I think Ghaith maybe can speak to that since he is more experienced than I am.
That’s a perfect time. Ghaith, let me invite you into this conversation. Let me just observe as Ghaith is coming on that it is in an honor to have him here. Ghaith, I’m very grateful for your participation and for your own questions to Hussein. But let me just observe that up until now, we have been speaking mostly about non-Palestinian Arabs. Ghaith comes as somebody who has served in the PLO and has a different point of view. Ghaith, I hand it over to you.
Thank you very much. First of all, let me start by congratulating both Hussein and Mosaic on this piece. I think it’s—unsurprisingly for Hussein—very well researched, very well written, highly informative. As someone who grew up in the 70s and the 80s, I certainly found echoes of things that I grew up with in the article. But I think it’s also, in addition to being highly educational, I think it’s very timely. I mean, Jonathan, you talked about how Nakba Studies is almost an established field.
I can certainly tell you that in the public discourse, Nakba is being used as part of this war of ideas, the zero-sum approach to Palestinians as “pro-Palestine vs. pro-Israel,” and I think a nuanced, well-researched piece that shows, as Hussein does, that these things are not timeless and how these concepts developed is a valuable introduction of nuance into what otherwise has been really an unnuanced kind of debate.
I have maybe three lines of inquiry. Two of them you’ve already touched on, so I’ll mention them briefly.
One is, as you said, Jon, the Palestinian dimension. I feel this is a piece more about pan-Arabism than it is about how the concept of the Nakba developed among Palestinians. Hussein, you did mention in the piece and in this conversation some other examples, e.g., when you mentioned the PFLP. But part of Palestinian nationalism has always involved, at least since the 1950s, this tension between, on the one hand, plugging into regional and global trends—you mentioned the New Left, etc.—but also the desire and the need to establish a unique identity.
As Arafat was flirting with Nasser, he was also fighting against Nasser’s attempt to dominate the Palestinian cause. This was in the political field. Yet in the field of development of ideas, I feel that, again, there’s not much discussion in your paper about how this developed as a Palestinian phenomenon—not one that is used for a larger political project, but one that is used for the building of a Palestinian national identity that is linked into the regional developments, yet one that is unique. How do we see that development? Do you see a parallel development on the Palestinian side or simply plugging into these wider regional developments?
That’s an excellent question, and you’re absolutely right. The piece really is the development of the idea of Palestine in all of these larger movements, whether pan-Arabism, Islamism, or progressive politics. I’m not a Palestinian myself, and that changes my perspective; I’m an Arab who’s one step removed. My own experience with Palestine is as part of big thing that is religious and nationalistic.
Another part of it that I believe has been the tragedy of the Palestinians is that they—or their intellectuals and their elites—never focused on building an independent Palestinian identity out of all of these bigger causes and bigger revolutionary waves. You see that in the works of the people who had the most influence on crafting the Palestinian image. The keffiyeh, the Palestinian fighter with the covered face, the orange groves, the olive tree, all of this romanticist nationalist imagery that all cultures have.
Jews have romantic ideas about their history. Egyptians do. Americans do. The Palestinians do. If you look at the people who actually crafted this Palestinian identity, primarily we’re talking about the 60s, the time of Darwish, Kanafani, Palestinian poets and authors. You’ll find that all of them were also committed to these revolutionary causes. During that time, Darwish, for example, was a Communist. He left Israel and he went to study in the Soviet Union, and then he couldn’t go back to Israel, so he went back to Egypt—and so on.
Now, Darwish changed later in his life. This actually happened. Later, when the struggle inside the PLO itself broke out, between Palestine the revolution and Palestine the actual possible state in the framework of a two-state-solution framework—Darwish took the side of Arafat. He took the side of Oslo, took the side of compromise, for which he was attacked vehemently by the other side, inside the PLO, as somebody who betrayed the cause.
I remember another Palestinian author, Ghaleb Halasa, who wrote a book attacking Darwish at the time, saying it was actually you who crafted that image of Palestine for us, the Palestine utopia, and you’re now the one who’s betraying it. What I want to say is that for me, sadly, the development of that Palestinian particularity in its foundational moment was so deeply caught up with these revolutionary ideologies and universalist humanistic ideologies that I think it became very difficult [to build anything distinct], even if there is a political will to do so. Let’s say that Arafat had the political will in the 90s. I think it became very difficult and it just was not achievable.
I’ll come back to your point. But on a tangent here, what you last said resonates. As a former negotiator, we always had to struggle with an understanding of what was possible from a negotiating point of view—which is obviously a compromise based on the nature of the diplomacy at that time—but also a concern of how we can sell political compromise to a public whose identity (that we shaped) was very maximalist. What you said as an intellectual thing is something that we face as a political challenge.
But again, park this thought for a minute. I want just quickly to take the conversation in the direction of Islamism for a minute. Because in the essay and in the conversation that you just had, Islamism almost entered the story in the late 1970s. And while it is that true that the moment Islamism took off was in 1979, with the siege of Mecca, [wherein a messianic Islamist group took over the city’s holy places and tried to overthrow the Saudi monarchy], and the Iranian Revolution. The reality is that Islamism has been in the conversation since at least the 1920s. The Muslim Brotherhood was created in 1928.
Just for clarification, am I to understand the idea of a Nakba and the idea of Palestine was simply absent in Islamist discourse until then? Did Islamism simply appropriate a leftist Marxist concept and bring it in to their ideology, or was there an ideological foundation in pre-1979 Muslim Brotherhood ideology and literature and discourse?
It is a great question. It’s a very complex topic. I don’t know how much we can cover it here, but I also do have my own reading of the development of Islamism. The early Muslim Brotherhood, that movement rose in starkly different conditions than the Muslim Brotherhood that became to return in the 1970s. And conditions determine ideology. They determined what an ideology seeks to do because you’re seeking to transcend conditions.
In the 1920s, we’re talking about a monarchical Egypt. Israel did not exist. The Ottoman empire had just collapsed after ruling for centuries. You had the British in Egypt. Egypt was also a very different country, and the Middle East was a very different place. By the 1970s, that world had vanished. You had a subsequent generation of Islamists who grew up not in monarchical Arab regimes like Egypt, or ruled by the British, or under British mandate or occupation. You had people who grew up in these totalitarian Third Worldist regimes of the Ba’ath, of Nasserism, and so on, defeated in multiple wars by Israel.
It’s just a very different global situation, in which you have a cold war between the Soviet Union and the United States. But chronologically speaking the roots of Islamism go far back. Some people would argue they go back to the late 19th century. But there has been major transformation in the development of Islamists and Islamism given these conditions. The Islamism of the 1970s I do believe was an . . . appropriation isn’t quite the right word. It was an Islamization of the revolutionary ideologies that now really constituted the fabric of many of these Arab societies—the way they think about themselves, the way they think about politics, the way they think about their political goals. I mean, the centrality of the idea of the revolution was just adopted by these Islamist groups. Same thing with Palestine.
Take the narrative of imperialism: for example, the narrative of Sykes-Picot, which is also another very important constitutive narrative for Arab nationalism—and which is largely a myth, at least the way that Arab nationalists and progressive authors remember it or misremember it. But the purpose of the myth is to show why Arab nationalism is important, and that those imperial powers divided the Arabs on purpose.
That’s kind of why Sykes-Picot matters. In 2016, when Islamic State came to power, they made a video to declare themselves, and the video started by saying, “This is the end of Sykes-Picot.” Here you see the inheritance of this legacy that just keeps developing and keeps moving. Yes, I do believe that Islamism, as it evolved in the 1970s, not just adopted, but inherited what already Arab nationalists had crafted.
If I may, just one last point. Let’s look to the future for a minute. I mean, in the end of your, again, amazing essay, you say basically that we’re in a post Nakba world. You see two events: the rise of ISIS is one, but what really interests me is the other, the Abraham Accords. Here maybe, I would frame it differently from the way you framed it. You say that the Abraham Accords, in effect, are basically part of the death of the Nakba idea.
Personally, I actually think that the Abraham Accords were themselves a product of a major transformation in the Arab world. I think for the first time since the creation of the modern Arab world in the 20th century, we’re moving into a post-nationalist or rather post-ideological world. I think until recently, Arab politics was always defined through big ideologies—pan-Arabism in all its stripes; Islamism, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood ideal. But now we’re starting to see the center of gravity in the Arab world shifting to the Gulf.
We see a completely different model of defining political legitimacy in the Gulf. I think the biggest example is the UAE (and Saudi Arabia is following suit) in the sense of looking at legitimacy not through these big cross-border ideologies, but through delivering to your own public personal security, prosperity, et cetera. Foreign policy is seen as an extension of this domestic thing, which is really a reversal of both Nasserites and others like them. Within this world, within the world where these big ideologies don’t matter and domestic wellbeing is what really matters, you see the idea of a Nakba movement losing its outside in, if you wish, character.
Now is it becoming a purely Palestinian issue? Do you think the conflict will become a Palestinian-Israeli conflict simply, or is it plugging into other trends? One thing you mentioned, and I personally see when I go to campuses, is how the Nakba movement fits into a discourse that I see today, intersectionality, all of these academic issues.
I mean, if you bring out your crystal ball and look at the future, do you see it becoming more national, more Palestinian, more part of a purely bilateral dynamic, or evolving? Do you see it looking at finding a house or a home in other global trends, or theological trends, that we’re seeing these days?
Hussein, before you answer that question, let me just say, my friends, it is almost time for us to invite your questions. As you answer Ghaith’s excellent question, Hussein, maybe you can just restate the argument that you made in the essay in that section about why it is that you think that Islamic State and the Abraham Accords might be the turning of the page on the Nakba story.
I don’t think that I’m the only one who think that way. I think Ghaith himself also thinks that way. I remember an article he wrote not too long ago. He was basically saying that the Palestinian leadership needs to understand that Palestine doesn’t mean the same thing to surrounding Arab countries anymore. And that was absolutely true, and I hope that lesson resonated with or that lesson was actually internalized by a lot of people in the Palestinian leadership. I think the development has to do ultimately with the Arab Spring.
In the Arab Spring, you saw a major wave of unrest, a revolutionary wave, a new one that was not really centered around the needs of some big ideological association anymore. It was not very well articulated, but it expressed a lot of frustration about very bad economic, political, and social conditions in a lot of these societies; very high unemployment traits, bad economies. The world’s global economy developed at a very fast rate, especially with the high-tech boom since the 1990s, and most Middle Eastern countries saw none of that.
There was a huge youth bulge and no prospects for the future. I think the Gulf countries basically saw that this is what was happening, and this is why what they are offering today in response is exactly that: economic opportunity, prosperity, and so on and so forth. Both IS, which came out of the Arab Spring, and the Abraham Accords show that there are now a larger number of Arabs—whether statesmen or intellectuals or segments of the population—who really no longer think in the same terms.
They don’t see the word politics through the prism of Palestine. Palestine doesn’t have an influence on political legitimacy the way it once did in these societies, and they’re really focused on the other problems. Now, I wouldn’t exaggerate how much of a change that is. I know that there are still large segments of the population in countries like Libya and Egypt, who still act as if they live the same political culture, or have the same political imagination about Palestine and Israel.
But definitely among the circles that matter, that move things, that’s very openly and conspicuously not the case anymore. I’m not a prophet or the son of a prophet, so I don’t know what’s going to happen in the future. But what I do see, one of the big takeaways from that way that I think about politics in the Middle East is that politics in the Middle East is just always revolving in the orbit of international developments. Whatever happens, it’s not really isolated. When revolutionary ideas develop globally, they hit all places, including the Middle East.
As you said, Ghaith, the Nakba and Palestine—the Palestinian cause—while no longer serving as an ideological purpose in the big political movements in the Middle East, does serve this function among the rising waves of Western political activism and Western progressive politics. I would say you will find Arabs or young Arabs who adopt a Western—I don’t think you can even call it Western anymore, it’s just international—progressive view.
You’ll find them focused on Palestine, focused on the Nakba as exemplifying the main flaws of the world order that is managed by the United States and international capitalism, and so on and so forth. I think the progressive ideology is continuing in a way what the previous Arab revolutionary waves have done. The more these progressive ideologies affect other populations, including the Middle East, you’ll see that happening. I see that actually happening in the Gulf.
You have the Gulf leaders and the Gulf elites moving in a certain way. But if you have a young man or a woman who’s an intellectual from the Gulf, who then travels to get a master’s or a PhD from an elite Western university: follow their writings, follow their social media, and you’ll find that basically they became progressive. They oppose their own regime, so they likely can’t go back to the UAE or Bahrain or Saudi Arabia or wherever they’re from, and they write about how those regimes are betraying the Palestinians and so on from a progressive American perspective which became theirs.
That is what I’m seeing. I hope that the Palestinian leadership, if that progressive wave grew, does not fall into the same temptation again, which is putting all of its bets on this new wave of a radical political movement globally, thinking that it will achieve its goals for it, because I don’t think that that will happen. My hope is that we don’t repeat that again, and that truly the idea of the Nakba, first of all, needs to get moderated. I don’t know if there are active Palestinian intellectuals right now who actually are dealing with these questions.
The Nakba needs to become a more Palestinian memory—because there was displacement. You can’t deny that these families had to leave home. Yes, the establishment of Israel did transform the lives of so many people, but this memory has to be transformed into a Palestinian memory that serves the building of something new other than the maximalism and the revolutionary ideologies of the past.
I’d like to invite our audience to pose their own questions. Let me just say, as a preparatory remark, something maybe I ought to have said earlier on, the claim of this essay and the supposition of this conversation is not that all those other factors don’t matter, that war doesn’t matter, that economics doesn’t matter, that the regime type and political developments don’t matter. That’s not the claim of the essay. Instead, it’s that if you narrow your vision and focus on the role of intellectual history, that illuminates something unique too.
What we’ve been trying to do is trace that thread throughout this complicated story. Yes, the wars of 1967 and 1973 and other big events in the Middle East have also had a gigantic influence over what’s happened in the region and in Israel. This time we’re focusing on intellectual history.
There are a number of questions. I think our readers are eager to get a chance to talk to people who know what’s happening on the ground, so some of these questions are more about contemporary affairs. One person asks if you have any thoughts about what will happen after the death Mahmoud Abbas (a/k/a Abu Mazen) and whether the idea of the Nakba could be repurposed in that event to mean something else. Is that one bellwether, one way to try to anticipate the future direction of Palestinian activism?
I think Ghaith should answer that.
There are two ways to answer this question. I do, first of all, think that the idea of what happens after Abbas is the main policy question facing Palestinian politics for a reason, and the reason is almost historic. If I look at the health of Palestinian politics today, it reminds me very much of the health of Palestinian politics just before 1948, meaning in very bad shape. Today, this is a deep domestic question.
Some of the issues that we were talking about—Identity, how we relate to it, how we relate to world development—are simply questions which are not even unanswered. They are unasked. Today, we see a very dangerous mix of fragility and volatility in the Palestinian scene, by the way, not held by policies of the current Israeli government. To my mind, this is all heading towards the collapse of a national movement, and national movements do collapse. Usually following these collapses, you’ll have a generation or two that is lost.
But also these are moments where identities and ideologies also get transformed. However, they don’t tend to get transformed in a pragmatic, reasonable, accommodating direction. Usually following these kind of collapses, these kind of traumas, the concept of nationalism that emerges is very maximalist. I worry. I worry, frankly, that at least from a Palestinian angle—forget the region for a minute—a collapse post-Abbas, et cetera, would lead us back to some of these very inflexible positions.
As to what we’re talking about, the Nakba I think might be becoming a bigger myth than it already is, unlike what Hussein hoped earlier. It won’t be an event that is dealt with in a more nuanced way, but in a much starker way.
Hussein, a question for you, and here I’m weaving together any number of questions that I see because I’m detecting a common thread, which is a very pregnant and important one. We’ve been talking about different expressions, different transformations, that the concept of the Nakba has undertaken in history.
The Nakba has sometimes meant this and it sometimes meant that, but we should not abstract away from the fact that no matter what idea it carries, it has had the practical effect of anti-Semitism and inciting violence against Jews and attacking Israel and attacking Israel diplomatically and inciting international groups against Israel on campuses and so on. Can you focus your remarks on that part of it, and what should this mean for Jews and for Israelis?
I agree. We should not abstract away. Those are real results. Ant-Semitism played and continues to play an instrumental role in a conflict that includes a lot of anti-Semitism and hatred for and delegitimization of Israel, that extend now beyond Israel to college campuses and to the lives of American Jews today. I’m not denying any of that. I’m focusing on an aspect of this about how that idea of Palestine operated within emerging Arab and Muslim political culture in modern times, not touching on these issues other issues.
I think the best way to look at any difficult issue is to try to begin by trying to understand its different dimensions, one at a time. We need to be able to look at this from all of these perspectives and then hopefully we can bring them together and maybe shed light on a lot of developments.
For example: with a better understanding of the Nakba—how it’s a nebulous political concept that Palestinians and intellectuals repeatedly transformed for their political purposes—maybe then we can have a better understanding of anti-Semitism, and its spread and prevalence among Arab societies in the 20th century. Where is the line between political opportunism and real hatred that we know, sadly, became internalized? And how much can that hatred be reversed? I think these questions are not just a historical curiosity. I think they’re becoming more pertinent today, especially with the issue of anti-Semitism that is sadly always at the center of political development. The organizing of politics against Jews is now also another danger that I think requires us to look at from different perspectives in order to reach a better understanding.
If I may, I’d just like to offer a quick couple of reactions. First—just to echo what you both said—when I read the article, I did not see it as taking sides in the debate. I saw it as a badly needed history of ideas, which can have an extremely positive effect in, again, de-mythologizing the whole concept of the Nakba. That said, I don’t believe that the Nakba as a concept is inherently anti-Israel or anti-Semitic, keeping in mind that it’s very often and actually overwhelmingly used in that way. But inherently, I don’t see it as that.
It is part of the ongoing Palestinian experience. Much of what I was implying when I was asking some of the question, what happens next, how we develop, is the fact that I think we as Palestinians need to develop our own way of dealing with our past, the traumatic past, the ugly past, as well as the more positive aspects of it.
I think in this sense, both Palestinians and Israelis understanding the traumas of both sides, understanding the narrative of the other side—not buying into it, but understanding that each side holds a narrative shaped by its own history, its own experiences—is key to moving beyond the conflict. I think in that sense, Nakba 1948, call it what you want to call it, is a formative part of the Palestinian experience.
It is our challenge as Palestinians how to understand it in ways that do not deny Israel’s right to exist. But at the same time, I think it’s a challenge to the Israelis and their supporters who also look at an expression of a real experience, that shouldn’t be dismissed or argued away.
If I may say something. Ghaith, I agree with you in principle. However, I don’t think that this is possible before Palestinians reflect on their own development and their own history and have honest, tough conversations about what actually happened. The problem is that it hasn’t been happening. And something similar needs to happen among Arabs more broadly. It’s actually a source of a lot of disappointment that I have because what I’d like to do with Arab intellectual history is explore these topics.
But I don’t think it’s happening yet, and that’s a big problem on the Palestinian side. Look at the Israelis. All the time you get historical revisionists, right? Some of them are wrong, some of them are right, but you see that urge to constantly reexamine, to ask, “What have we been doing? What have we been telling ourselves?” This is not happening amongst the Palestinians. You go to a lot of Palestinians and they are still living in the romanticist poetry of Mahmoud Darwish.
Before this actually happens—and I agree with you 100 percent that the Israelis and the Palestinians need to come together to recognize each other’s stories—the Palestinians need first to work on their story. You see what I mean?
This is not only a Palestinian problem. This is the problem that we are facing throughout the Arab world. We have to look at our history, deal with our ugly side. Anti-Semitism, as you more than anyone else know, is rampant throughout the Arab world. It’s part of our culture and many, many, many other issues. I fully agree.
By the way, this is why I the one wish I have is that this article gets translated into Arabic. Because important as it is to have this conversation with an English-speaking audience, this is the conversation that we need to be having in the Arab world on this issue and many, many other aspects of our modern Arab history.
I want to press back, Ghaith, against the contention that you just made with a question. I can tell the Zionist story with a religious valence. I can tell it with a political valence. I can tell it in a revolutionary-messianic secular way, and I can tell it ten other ways, and not one of those ways have any necessary referent outside of the Jewish people and its history in the Land of Israel. There are a dozen ways that the Zionists tell themselves the story of Israel’s existence. What would a not anti-Semitic Nakba look like? Can you articulate or draw the contours of what that would be?
First of all, the idea is not well developed yet. Like Hussein said, I’m not aware of anyone who’s articulating this idea in explicit terms, but yet we’ve seen recent attempts to create something along these lines. The key part of it is how do you create an identity that is forward-looking?
For example, for a brief period in the Palestinian authority, we had as prime minister Salam Fayyad, who actually tried to present a new political discourse based on looking towards the future, to what kind of a Palestinian state we want, and dealing with everything that relates to us as Palestinians with no reference to the Israelis’ governance: corruption, choosing an economic model, etc. I think that’s one part of it: starting to develop these conversations among Palestinians that do not initially need to be stated in highly theoretical terms, but developing political agendas that can take us where we need to go.
Looking forward, I think this is key. And here I’m a bit more optimistic. I want to zoom out a little bit and say that nationalisms throughout the Arab world have been contested and unclear until today. We talked about pan-Arabism. We talked about Islamism. But we didn’t talk about nationalism that relates to nation-states as we know them today. We have not talked about Saudi nationalism or Iranian nationalism.
Egypt might be different, etc. Well, today things are changing. Today, look at the core developments developments happening in the Gulf—look at Saudi Arabia, the most dynamic place today in the Arab world. The whole core of it is developing a national identity, policy, and narrative based on a Saudi identity. I am hoping that if these trends continue to be prevalent in the Arab world, and this is, I repeat, the center of gravity; the Palestinians will not be immune. We need a combination of both.
We need help from the international community too. Here I’m being political or, I mean, diplomatic. We need the world to stop treating the Palestinians as lacking agency. I think often the image of Palestinians as victims had allowed a lot of the international politics coming from Europe, coming from the Arab world, to give the Palestinians a pass and in a way, make it easier for them to avoid some of these difficult questions. I suspect a bit of tough love will help push the Palestinians in that direction.
But as I said, I see a regional trend going in that direction, and I hope the Palestinians will be part of it. I think that at least beneath the surface, there are some Palestinian intellectuals who are thinking of this maybe not in intellectual terms, but at least in programmatic terms.
We’ve been going for just over an hour. Hussein, I want to give you the last word.
Thank you very much, Jonathan, and this was a great conversation. I enjoyed it quite a bit. And I want to thank Mosaic. I’m a person who exists between multiple worlds, like many of us, and it always pained me how there is no conversation between Zionism, and between Zionist thinkers and intellectuals, and between Middle Eastern and Arab societies. A big part of that Arabs are to blame for, to be honest—the historic boycott, avoiding not even seeing Israel as a Zionist entity.
But I think we all have to recognize that we moved on. We’re not there anymore. Today, there are a lot of Arab societies that are open to Israel. There are a lot of Arab—including Palestinian—intellectuals, who are open to Israel. I think now is the time to reconstruct a common vision of who we are, a historical narrative that harmonizes all of us, including the Palestinians and the Israelis and the Egyptians and so on, that is more truthful, but is more constructive as well to the future.
Hopefully examinations like this, an article like this that treats Arab intellectual history—which I suspect a lot of readers were not familiar with—can make a difference. For a lot of people, sadly—and this is perhaps my word of criticism aimed at Jewish circles, Zionist circles, or Western circles in general—Arab political history is almost like this monolithic block. There’s something called Arab politics that has its own logic, as if we don’t also have our own struggles between knowledge and power, intellectuals who get inspired, people who read Marx and get mesmerized by him.
We live in the world and our politics and our political thought is extension of the world. Hopefully this will serve as inspiration for more people to start asking new questions and see how we can see things in a new way. Other than that, I hope that these examinations will help Arabs and Jews to come together better and to end the period of anti-Semitism, the hatred, and the meaningless conflicts that a lot of us have been managing.