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The Holocaust and the Nakba. A New Grammar of Trauma and History

Bashir Bashir and Amos Goldberg
Columbia University Press, 2018

Edited by associate professors Bashir Bashir and Amos Goldberg, from Open University and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem respectively, The Holocaust and the Nakba: A New Grammar of Trauma and History (Columbia University Press, 2018) is a collection of 15 essays exploring the relationship between the Holocaust and the Nakba. Most of the essays in this book, which contains a foreword by the Lebanese novelist Elias Khoury, are by either Jewish or Palestinian thinkers.

Comparing the Holocaust and the Nakba is unimaginable to many. Where the Jews see salvation and return, the Palestinians see destruction and exile; where the Jews see the end of a devastating war, the Palestinians see the beginning of it. Moreover, for many Jews, the Shoah cannot be compared with anything, least of all the sufferance of the Palestinian people. Yet, the Holocaust and the Nakba are deeply intertwined, at the point of almost mirroring each other. Among others, the Israeli poet Avot Yeshurun (1902-1994) and prose writer S. Yizhar (1916-2006) – both quoted in the introduction to this book – made direct comparisons between the Holocaust and the Nakba. But, as a recent article on Haaretz says, whereas “such mental associations were natural for members of the founding generation, they became taboo with the passage of time”. The Holocaust and the Nakba: A New Grammar of Trauma and History is an attempt to sew up this wound, promoting reconciliation and a shared narrative of the past.

The book contains accounts and testimonies that cast light on compelling and often-overlooked facets of the interaction between the Jews and the Palestinians in Israel and Palestine. The historian Alon Confino, for example, recounts the story of Holocaust survivors Genya and Henryk Kowalski, who were given a key to an apartment in Jaffa when they came to Palestine in 1949. When they arrived at the apartment and they saw a table set with plates, they left and returned the key to the Jewish Agency: what they saw, they said, reminded them how they had to leave their house when the Germans arrived to throw them into the ghetto. Another essay talks about the partisan and Vilna ghetto fighter Abba Kovner, a Holocaust survivor who came to Israel and fought in the 1948 war, writing motivational “battle pages” for his fellow soldiers against the “Egyptian enemy”, often containing the line “Death to the Invaders!”, as he did in the Vilna ghetto against the Nazi occupiers. The essay goes through Kovner’s battle pages and postwar poetry, finding that he made a distinction between the Egyptians and the Palestinians, with whom he displayed empathy and solidarity.

Taken together, these stories offer a multifaceted and lesser-known portrayal of the tragic nature of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict while at the same time evidencing the complexities and problematic nature of a reconciliation that is often seen as impossible. For example, in this respect, the Lebanese novelist Elias Khoury recalls an episode that occurred in 1996 at the Arab World Institute in Paris, when the Palestinian artist Mona Hatoum presented an installation in which 2,400 blocks of Nablus soap reproduced the map of the Israeli occupation of Palestine. On that occasion, the Israeli viewers of the installation were outraged by the installation because they saw in Hatoum’s use of soap a reference to the narration of the Nazi’s practice of making soap out of Jewish corpses. “If the Palestinian artist”, Khoury wonders, “is not to be allowed to use Nablus’s soap for fear of stirring up a Zionist interpretation of her art that destroys the very essence of its humanity, how then are Palestinians to express their tragedy? Or must their tragedy be obliterated because a more tragic narrative was crafted in the gas chambers of a racist Europe?”.

The Holocaust and the Nakba: A New Grammar of Trauma and History tackles the Israeli-Palestinian issue through the two theoretical notions of “empathic unsettlement” and “egalitarian binationalism”. A term borrowed from the psychoanalyst Dominic LaCapra, “empathic unsettlement” indicates the ontological contradiction of being able to empathize with the trauma of the radically unfamiliar other. On the other hand, “egalitarian binationalism” describes the principle on which an imagined solution to the conflict shall build. Namely, not a sharp partition nor a “one-state solution”, but an equal coexistence of two peoples into the same land, both enjoying their right to self-determination.

Looking at the Israeli-Palestinian issue through this lens was, for sure, a courageous and difficult endeavor, which fostered different reactions. To begin with, the book got a frosty reception in part of the Israeli community. The Israeli political scientist Shlomo Avineri, for example, said that “the analogy” between Holocaust and Nakba “is both historically and morally false”; of a similar view is Adam Raz, a historian at the Akevot Institute for Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Research. Both these scholars see Bashir’s and Goldberg’s work as a straightforward equation between the Holocaust and the Nakba. In the reality of facts, the book aims at bringing together testimonies and at drawing similarities between the Israeli and Palestinians perception of their common history: “such a grammar”, the authors write in their introduction, “may lay the groundwork for a language of historical reconciliation between the two peoples”. Other scholars have instead appreciated the book, although they highlighted the complexities behind such a difficult reconciliation. Avner De-Shalit, a Hebrew University political science professor, said he had used this book as a text in his classes; prof. Becky Kook, a political scientist at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, said she liked the idea of promoting an “empathic unsettlement”, though she is concerned that “putting symbolic measures and attempts to achieve reconciliation ahead of practical ones can end up leaving intolerable conditions in place”; similarly, Lea David, an assistant professor in the sociology department at University College Dublin, suggested that this book offers quite a utopistic view of the Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation. “I’m going to state an unpopular opinion:”, David said, “I don’t think that people need to reconcile, or at least I don’t think it’s the most important thing. They need to live together; they need to be good neighbors. They don’t need to reconcile. Build together, be good neighbors, try to have something that is common to you. But not more than that”. “We don’t necessarily need to be besties.”, she added.

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