A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Friday, May 15, 2009

Nakba Day

Today is the day Palestinians traditionally observe as a day of mourning — the yawm al-nakba or "Day of the Catastrophe" — marking the creation of Israel in 1948. Because Israel celebrates its Independence Day (yom ha-atzma'ut) according to the Jewish calendar, the two dates do not normally coincide (Israel has already celebrated its independence day on April 29), but both mark the same events of May 15, 1948. In the Palestinian Authority, the ceremonies held in Ramallah were held yesterday so as not to interfere with Friday prayers.

This year Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu Party, which has said some provocative things about Israeli Arabs (who make up about a fifth of the population of Israel proper), now wants to make marking the nakba illegal, threatening a penalty of three years in prison. This has little chance of being adopted (how do you ban mourning?) but it is a reminder of the two very different ways Israelis and Palestinians perceive the events of 1948, and of the quandary of Israeli Arabs who are citizens of Israel but who also see those events as a disaster for their own community. It is probably just as well that Israeli Independence Day and Nakba Day are celebrated according to differing calendars and rarely coincide; a common date might exacerbate the conflicting narratives of 1948.

One delicate issue this year has been the fact that May 15 coincides with the last day of Pope Benedict XVI's visit to the Holy Land. The Pope has already addressed Palestinian aspirations by meeting with Abu Mazin and speaking at the Palestinian Refugee Canp at Aida near Bethlehem, in sight of the separation barrier. He has also said Mass in Nazareth, the biggest Arab city in Israel proper (though the fact that it was Jesus' home town was the controlling factor of course). But on Nakba Day itself he is scheduled to visit the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem's Old City, which does not carry a lot of Palestinian-Israeli baggage (though the church is a traditional scene for intra-Christian denominational turf battles).

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