It goes on mattering, decade after decade, that most U.S. students never encounter the word Nakba. It matters that Israel was created in 1948 through war/terrorism, through massacring families, driving some 750,000 people out of their homes, demolishing over 400 villages. It’s not difficult to know. Many books — even comic books — have been published, films have been made, apps for your phone can locate vanished villages, etc. But a massive industry promotes unknowing it, substitutes other stories and myths, warns you not to read those books and not to use those apps.
I’ve recently read a powerful book by someone who lived through the Nakba without knowing it, and came to be aware of it over the following 75 years. The book is called Tracing Homelands: Israel, Palestine, and the Claims of Belonging by Linda Dittmar. The author will soon be participating in an online book club for those who want to discuss it.
The idea sounds impossible. How do you live through a massive ethnic cleansing and not know it? Well, Dittmar was 10 years old when it happened. She was closer geographically to the horrors than U.S. residents typically are to the actions of the U.S. government, but that doesn’t change much. As this book relates, Dittmar grew up in a society with stories and songs and heroic mythology about rescuing an uninhabited land. Some of that, by the way, like the new segregation laws of the apartheid state, drew on U.S. models. Empty houses were explained by suggesting that the former residents had simply left. Dittmar suggested to her parents acquiring an “Arab house” in the country as a second or vacation home, and she was given many good reasons why they wouldn’t — none of which mentioned the Nakba. It went unsaid, and saying it not only required sabotaging childhood memories and popular culture and nationalistic myths, but also a willingness to be treated absolutely viciously by a society that forbid saying it. It’s worth learning from Dittmar’s account of what ever-so-slowly allowed her to say it, to know it. She, of course, has managed the feat more swiftly than have millions of others.
Can you imagine finding out what was happening in Gaza right now in 2023, only in 2098 or so, despite having been alive right now? If humanity exists in 2098, it is certain to happen.
This week, I happened to visit Natural Bridge, here in Virginia, and to have someone tell me that it had been discovered by George Washington. That it had been known to and important to Monacans for centuries before Washington was born both can and cannot coexist with such a claim. The Monacans can be thought never to have existed, or can be acknowledged but the story stretched to include the idea that they’d never shown the thing to the British, allowing Washington to discover it. There’s a “GW” carved into the rock, but the state park signs admit they have no evidence George Washington carved it, though they claim as fact that he surveyed the area, and don’t mention the claim that he threw a rock over the bridge using his superhuman powers. But there are no facts involved. The state park also claims that the land, including the Natural Bridge, was sold off as part of Thomas Jefferson’s estate, Jefferson having bought it and 157 surrounding acres many years before. This is both true and not true. Jefferson “bought” the land from King George III for pocket change just two years before listing that king’s alleged crimes in the Declaration of Independence. But what made it the King of England’s to “sell” or give away? The same Natural Bridge was until recently (I don’t think it’s any longer true, though Wikipedia claims it is) sometimes lit up with a light show telling the Genesis story of God creating the world in 6 days some 5,000 years ago. This could be shown on rock with a hole through it that probably took hundreds of thousands of years to be created by mindless water, but not in a society dedicated to truth and accuracy.
Notice that I don’t even think to point out that the Natural Bridge State Park, like most or all other State Parks in Virginia, never mentions ethnic cleansing at all, never mentions that the native people of the place existed and called George Washington Conotocaurious, meaning Town Destroyer. The simple fact is that the British colonists did a better job of it than the Israelis, and they did it longer ago. But we know it’s there. You can read about Jefferson giving birth to archaeology by properly recording and measuring the layers of a Native American burial mound, but with never a mention of the fact that this was the grave of human beings he was dissecting. And the mound is now gone, as almost all of them are, utterly erased with no marker, not even a historical sign at the nearby soccer field complex.
Israel is awash in archaeology, but beneath many a demolished Palestinian village is an older village, with an older one still below that. And only those older than the villages eliminated by the Nakba are legally protected or professionally deemed of any value. So, one digs right through the Nakba to unearth acceptable artifacts. This is possible because 1948 is deemed so recent. And yet it is also treated as irrelevantly ancient. And not just in Israel. In 1947, Nazi doctors were put on trial. An important witness provided by the American Medical Association was Dr. Andrew C. Ivy. He explained that Nazi doctors’ actions “were crimes because they were performed on prisoners without their consent and in complete disregard for their human rights. They were not conducted so as to avoid unnecessary pain and suffering.” Also in 1947, the U.S. government was experimenting on people in Guatemala by giving them syphilis without their knowledge. U.S. doctors would continue human experimentation for decades, arguing that ethical codes for barbarians could not be applied to the United States. Even when it was happening it wasn’t happening, as Harold Pinter might say.
Today in Israel there are children singing songs in support of genocide. Today in the United States there are Hollywood actors demanding that Gaza be allowed no food or water. Top officials in Israel and the United States are openly and shamelessly engaged in a new Nakba — not that the first one ever ended — and yet it isn’t happening. Right now. Right before our eyes. The crimes of Hamas, real and imaginary, and the saga of hostages are substituted. Concern for those being slaughtered can get you censured in Congress, fired from your job, removed from media coverage, your club eliminated, your face put on a billboard with the label “Antisemite.” Is it possible in these conditions for a grown adult to choose not to know what’s happening? Of course it is. Never mind a 10-year-old.
In fact, for decades I have had a hard time finding many people when I speak in the United States who know the most basic facts about their government, that it is the leading supplier of weapons to the world, including to governments it deems the most oppressive on earth, that it has over 90% of the world’s foreign military bases, that it spends more than half of income taxes on a military that costs about as much as the rest of the world’s combined, etc. Right now, in this moment, almost everyone in the United States is actively unknowing what the U.S. government is. So, we need to figure out how people stop unknowing things, not just out of morbid curiosity, but as a basic civic duty.