The following is the text of a radio commentary by Dr. Stephen Scheinberg, co-chair of Canadian Friends of Peace Now and an emeritus professor of history at Montreal’s Concordia University:
Those of you who have heard my editorials know that I have often expressed my sympathy for the plight of the Palestinian people and have criticized Israel for not being as vigorous in the pursuit of peace as she is in settlement construction. However, my sympathy does not extend to the commemoration of the Palestinian Nakba [catastrophe] Day which has become an annual, mass cry of anguish blaming only Israel and her allies for the Palestinian catastrophe. The occasion of Israel’s 60th anniversary was used by many writers and groups, while certainly not all, to assess her progress and reflect on where Israel is heading; important questions were raised such as whether Israel would endure as both a Jewish and democratic state.
I have seen no evidence that the Palestinians have undertaken a similarly, perhaps painful, self-assessment on Nakba day. In fact, Nakba Day reinforces the most regressive tendencies among the Palestinians, for their observance of the day represents a continuing rejection of Israel and the United Nations resolution which established it. It is also an assertion of a Palestinian victimhood which is only rivaled by some of their Israeli interlocutors, who also seem to revel in a counter-productive narrative of unrelieved oppression.
As a historian, I have often argued in other contexts that even the most oppressed people have “agency,” the ability, even within restricted circumstances, to act to alter their situations. That is, even given the reality of superior Israeli power, the Palestinians have had choices and they have too often made the wrong ones. On Nakba Day they might reexamine some of these choices and choose not just to mourn their past but to analyze their failures and move in more creative directions. [In my view, their most grievous error was in violently rejecting the UN partition plan in 1947, attempting by war to achieve one Arab state in all of Palestine, rather than accepting the existence of a predominantly Jewish state as a neighbor; the nakba resulted from their defeat in a war that they started in an ill-advised effort to destroy the Yishuv, the Jewish community in Palestine.– R. Seliger]
Professor Rashid Khalidi, a Palestinian-American who teaches at Columbia, has pointed out some of their past failures, which include: the PLO equivocation on accepting two states, their support of Saddam Hussein in the Gulf War, opting for armed conflict in the second intifadah leading to the collapse of Palestinian society, and their continuing recourse to the rhetoric of armed struggle. I would add to Khalidi’s list the manipulation of the Palestinian refugee situation, the terrible corruption in the ranks of Fatah and the encouragement, or acquiescence, in terrorism.
One could, of course, greatly extend this list but a few examples will have to suffice in order to indicate that the Palestinians have not just been powerless victims of catastrophe but have also co-authored the narrative of their current tragedy. I have no intention of excusing Israel for its settlement building, theft of Arab lands, checkpoints, unnecessary violence and the like but the Palestinians also made choices over these sixty years and they have most often been the wrong ones.
Nakba Day is the wrong choice. It sends a chilling message to every Israeli that the continuing Jewish presence is not only unjust but unwelcome. The Palestinians need to deliver different messages – first, that they accept Israel and earnestly desire a two state solution and second, that even while they will continue to denounce Israeli excesses, they will respond not with arms but with militant, non-violent resistance. The Palestinians must choose between more years of commemorating the Nakba or looking forward to celebrating the birth of a Palestinian state.