The UN’s “Nakba” misrepresentations
May 24, 2023 | Shany Mor
On May 15, the United Nations General Assembly held a special event for Nakba Day, including a “special commemorative event” in the General Assembly Hall. Coined by the Syrian intellectual Constantine Zureiq, Nakba – Arabic for “disaster” – is the word used to describe the events of 1948 leading up to the creation of the State of Israel, and is synonymous today with perceptions of Israeli cruelty and the fracturing of Palestinian society.
The Nakba Zureiq describes in his 1948 book The Meaning of Disaster, however, was the failure of the Arabs to defeat the Jews – far from the misleading potted history the UN’s website provides.
“Seven Arab states declare war on Zionism, stop impotent before it, and then turn on their heels,” Zureiq writes. Regarding displaced Palestinian Arabs, it’s notable that his concern is that they might be “forced to return to their homes, there to live under the Zionist shadow.” He laments that “dispersion has become the lot of the Arabs rather than of the Jews.”
This is no longer how the word Nakba is used today. The Arab defeat has been recast as a Palestinian tragedy, the conflict as a one-sided historical crime, and the Jews’ perilous war of survival as a colonialist endeavour of racial supremacy.
The late German historian Wolfgang Schivelbusch explained how a traumatic defeat can come to be reimagined as a great moral victory.
The canonical case was the American Confederacy, an act of treason against the United States created for the preservation and further spread of the enslavement of Black Americans, which transmogrified into the “Lost Cause” of Southern heritage battling a rapacious and exploitative capitalist North.
The political evolution of the word Nakba in the decades following 1948 is the story of how a defeat was refashioned into an injustice. The high point of this process was 50 years later in 1998, when a newly formed Palestinian Authority turned the date most associated with the Nakba, 15th May, into an official national day of commemoration, eagerly adopted by pro-Palestinian partisans.
The transmutation of the Arabs’ failed effort to wipe out the Jewish state into their own cosmic tragedy, together with the adoption of this counter-narrative by intellectuals and self-styled humanitarians in the West, is noteworthy in itself. But for the UN, and the General Assembly specifically, to play along is particularly ironic for a number of reasons.
The Arab war against Israel was a war against a landmark resolution of the UN General Assembly (181) calling for the peaceful partition of British Palestine into an Arab and a Jewish state. For the General Assembly itself to be marking this defeat as a “disaster” to be mourned is curious, to say the least. It was also the first major violation of Article 2 of the United Nations Charter, which forbade the “use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state.”
In violating the UN Charter and violently seeking to prevent the implementation of Resolution 181, the Arab coalition in 1948 was also attempting to block the first major UN effort at peacemaking in an international conflict. What’s more, in fighting to prevent partition, Arab armies were also violently resisting the UN’s first notable endeavour in decolonisation. The partition resolution, after all, held out the prospect of creating sovereign self-governing nation-states in land vacated by a European imperial power.
The UN’s commemoration was for only one aspect of this war, the mass displacement it caused, and for only one side. And here too another irony is buried.
Displacement in war wasn’t unusual then, just as it isn’t now. In the late 1940s tens of millions were displaced by war, including defeated Germans and hundreds of thousands of Jewish Holocaust survivors in central Europe, but also Hindus and Muslims following the partition of India. None except for Palestinian Arabs had an entire UN agency created for them, dedicated to maintaining their refugee status rather than rehabilitating them. This, though, is precisely what UNRWA, the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees, does.
The decision to mark May 15 as Nakba Day shows just how much the mythology of the Arab defeat in 1948 has evolved separately from the obsessive attention to the Palestinian cause at the UN. After all, the UN already sets aside another day every year to commemorate the Palestinian struggle. In 1977, the General Assembly proclaimed November 29, date of the original partition resolution in 1947, as International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People, and it remains one of the organisation’s most notable annual events.
The two dates chosen speak volumes about the tragedy of the Palestinian cause. Accepting partition would have resulted in the first-ever Arab state in Palestine 75 years ago. The Arab rejection of partition and subsequent wars against Israel were, for the Palestinians, the real disaster.