Memorial Day II: Independence Day/Nakba Day / by Sophie Schor

An art installation: "What's Nakba?"

An art installation: "What's Nakba?"

A few days ago, it was Independence Day in Israel.

I had an entire post prewritten  in advance ready to share with you about independence day in Israel--I've described this moment in the past to friends as the microcosm of the entire conflict. On this one day, two narratives collide and clash. Israelis celebrate the glory of their struggle and fight to establish an independent nation-state and home for the Jewish people. For Palestinians, it is a day marked as the beginning of the end. Called al-Nakba or The Catastrophe; the Israeli Declaration of Independence announced a return to a land for one people, and an expulsion of another people from that same land. Over 700,000 Palestinians fled, or were expelled during the events of the war.

Prepared as I thought I was, the actual experience of Independence Day in Israel was more than I expected; I was overwhelmed, and what I had written no longer felt adequate. 

The silence of the morning memorials and the poignant remembrance of lives lost to this conflict was suddenly interrupted at sundown by massive patriotic partying. The nationalism of the people around me struck me as offensive. The manipulation of  our powerful feelings of grief towards political  and nationalistic ends was frightening. 

I was in the city center of Jerusalem as this shift took place. Bars had set up large screens to display Israeli television  broadcasts of the Independence Day programming, replete with hundreds dancing the hora in pulsating concentric circles and Air Force flyovers. I walked home, basically fleeing, from the commotion and the crowds who were amassing to drink and celebrate and smack each other with balloon blow up hammers covered with Israeli flags. The full 360-degree shift from a nation in mourning to a nation in celebration left my head spinning.

I had spoken with my great-aunt earlier that day. She moved to Israel with her husband in 1953 as part of a  group that established a kibbutz in the Negev desert. One of the original Jewish pioneers, she came here with an ideological dream. We talked about the impact of memorial day,  of the six graves in the kibbutz cemetery of soldiers who had died in various operations and wars, dating all the way to 1948.

She told me how pleased she was to see so many generations come to the memorial that morning to pay their respects. I asked her what she thought of the fact that Independence Day celebrations were so close to the Memorial Day silences, she told me that that is the only way to live here. We have to celebrate and live our lives fiercely for those who died for us, she told me.

I then spoke with my mom, who lived in Israel during the 1970s-1980s. In 10th grade, she was living on a Kibbutz up north and I asked her, what was Independence Day like for you then? She told me it was a barbecue, and there was Israeli dancing, a big bonfire, everyone was outside on the lawn and was wearing their nice, white shirts. At age 15, she was mostly concerned with where her friends were. It was a big party. Then she got quiet; we didn't know about what else was going on then, she tells me. Or what would happen next. 

I recently watched the film Khirbet Khizeh, based off a book written by a soldier in 1949 of the events of the War of 1948. In the film, produced in 1978, a troop of  young Israeli soldiers takes over a Palestinian village and kicks out the inhabitants.  The book is translated into English and worth reading. The film takes place at a simple, almost slow pace--boredom and heat determine the soldier’s actions more than politics or ethnic superiority. The film toys with the irony of the creation of a new community of refugees in the name of giving a home to Jewish refugees from Europe. I was haunted by shots of the houses left abandoned, kitchen counters still covered with food for tomorrow's meal, pictures hanging on the wall; by the few sentences stated by the soldiers that could have been said yesterday. The parallels were left lingering in the room long after the film ended. I was left with the notion that what started in 1948 still isn’t finished; Palestinians are still being forced out of their homes via evictions and demolitions. It's still not over, and any attempt to live a life of normalcy here is forever underlined by the consequences of 1948.

If you're interested in the history of the conflict and the War of 1948, check out the best history of Palestine and Israel that I have yet come across,  A History of Palestine: From the Ottoman Conquest to the Founding of the State of Israel by German scholar Gudrun Krämer. She focuses on the collision of Zionism and Palestinian Nationalism in the beginning of the 20th century, the historical context leading to those interactions, and the complex ways in which "social grievances were intertwined with national aspirations." Well worth the read.

I lift my glass today, not to celebrate the end of the War of Independence, but rather to a fight that is not yet over. To the struggle that hopes to end with both a safe-home for the Jewish people and a home that honors the dignity of the Palestinian people. Call me naively optimistic, but if we don't linger in a world with slight traces of optimism, what else do we have left?