To my father, the nakba never truly ended. But whether out of fear or brutal realism, he refused to bequeath it to his son. He believed that third-generation Arabs in Israel could survive only through ignorance of what had come before. This was his mantra, one I heard repeated by him and other Palestinians of his generation.
As a youth I was educated in Arab schools in a small village near Jaffa, where I tried to make sense of the internal chaos my history teachers bred in my mind. The word nakba was omitted from Arabic textbooks, not to mention Hebrew textbooks. My teachers never dared mention it. I recall Jewish officials coming to our school around Independence Day—in retrospect, they may have been trying to monitor for use of the n-word, though if that was the goal it was an absurd effort. At the time the students there had no idea that such a word even existed. If anything, we thought that nakba was Arabic for the Holocaust.
The word “Palestine” and its derivations were equally absent. The history of Arab Palestine that had vanished in 1948 was passed over in silence among families like mine in Israel. The dream of a future Palestinian nationhood also went undiscussed within our schools and homes. We saw no such thing as a Palestinian people. Palestinians across the border were “West Bankers” and “Gazans” but never Palestinians; they, not the Israelis, were our “other.” We, the Palestinians within Israel, were simply “Arabs”—neither Israeli nor Palestinian, but a nebulous species devoid of national character, identity, and memory.
Meanwhile, I was overfed with lectures about Israel’s independence, Zionist pioneers and peace doves, and the “Promised Land.” Israeli national myths—for instance, that Palestine was “a land without a people for a people without a land”—masqueraded as historical facts. Decorating the classroom walls were modern maps that labeled the West Bank as “Judea and Samaria,” a biblical designation used by Israelis who support the settlement enterprise. Zionist mantras, ranging from “God promised the land to the Jews” to “The Zionists made the desert bloom,” were repeated over and over, and Zionist platitudes were engraved deep in my Arab mind, even if some seemed mutually contradictory: “The Arabs fled because they were cowards.” “The Arabs attacked Israel first.” “Palestine was an empty land before the Zionists.” “Israelis have lived in the Land of Israel for 3,000 years.”
Indeed, I believed that Israel had existed in Palestine from time immemorial. I remember asking my history teacher, “From whom did Israel gain independence in 1948?” He hummed, gazed out into the distance, and said nothing. I gathered from his silence that Israel was a biblical miracle, somehow both eternal and created, like a national “big bang.”
I vividly recall those Independence Day moments when we Arab kids were herded into the schoolyard and ordered to stand still in memory of fallen Israeli soldiers. A long, torturous minute would pass before the siren died out and we burst into celebration, surrounded by fluttering Israeli flags and the melody of Hatikva, the Israeli national anthem. It’s no wonder Arabs in Israel continue to call Israel’s Independence Day “Independence Holiday.”