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Israeli Arabs torn on country’s Independence Day

Head of the Arab Joint List party Ayman Odeh explains that for Israeli Arabs, Independence Day is cause for mourning.

Knesset member Ayman Odeh, the chair of the Arab Joint List party, recalls childhood memories of Israel’s Independence Day in the Mount Carmel neighborhood in his hometown of Haifa. His parents used to say, "This is not our day" and "We are staying home." “So we simply sat at home,” he told Al-Monitor on April 20, the morning after Israel’s 70th Independence Day celebrations. "I also remember the personal sadness in my family, of the uncles uprooted from their homes in 1948, who would return there on that day, cry and mourn their tragedy, the loss of their homeland, of the lands and the lives they had. In our city of Haifa, there were 70,000 Arabs; only 2,000 were left after 1948. Hundreds of villages were destroyed. This is what is known as a national tragedy.”

This gap between the joyous outpouring of the Jews celebrating their statehood and the personal tragedy of the Arabs is encapsulated in Nakba Day, marking the catastrophe of the Palestinian citizens of Israel. Over the past two decades, Israeli Arabs have been holding events expressing broad political awareness and a collective national memory.

The first Nakba Day was marked in 1998 when the State of Israel celebrated its 50th year of independence. The annual commemoration is perceived as an act of defiance on the very day the Jewish majority celebrates its freedom. This year, too, on Israel’s 70th birthday, the Nakba Day events only merited a mention on the margins of the news by most media outlets.

While Palestinians in the West Bank mark Nakba Day on May 15, some Israeli Arabs commemorate the day on Independence Day alongside Israeli celebrations.

During the daylong, countrywide Independence Day festivities, fireworks and aerobatics on April 19, Odeh was busy touring the villages of the “uprooted” — once the homes of hundreds of thousands of Arabs suddenly displaced by the 1948 War of Independence — among them, the village of Al-Birwa in the western Galilee, the birthplace of national Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish. Odeh wound up his day at the “March of Return” in the Mediterranean coast town of Atlit, along with 20,000 other participants, mostly Israeli Arabs.

“There’s no doubt [Palestinians are] a stubborn people determined to have [their] tragedy recognized, and they will never give up. This is the deepest thing. This is our DNA,” Odeh summed up his experience of the Atlit event. “It takes years to process such a national trauma and to see it in a broader context than the personal one. There’s one line by Mahmoud Darwish, "Move away so that you can be seen,’ and it’s exactly like that.”

In the days leading up to the state’s 70th anniversary, Odeh penned two pained, harsh articles in Haaretz and The New York Times, in which he sought to explain why Israeli Independence Day is a national and personal tragedy for the Arab citizens. “I Cannot Be Partner to Your Joy” was the Hebrew-language headline of Odeh’s Haaretz piece. “Your Independence Day also marks 70 years of our catastrophe, and even as you deny the Nakba, it is alive and kicking in our memory, our awareness and even in our daily lives,” he wrote.

There was something powerful, cutting and thought provoking in his words for the celebrating Jewish majority, all the more so because they were neither defiant nor aggressive. They reflected painful facts. Odeh does not negate Israel’s independence, but explains that while one can argue about politics, about who started that [1948] war and who was justified, one cannot argue with the fact that it was a national catastrophe “and it is even immoral to argue about it.” Honing his point, Odeh added, “This is an unparalleled situation, with a majority celebrating on the same day the minority views as its tragedy.”

Odeh is undoubtedly referring to two annual events occurring back to back, which are so special for Israeli Jews and which they mark automatically: Remembrance Day for the country’s fallen soldiers — which occurred April 17 this year — and Independence Day. The blaring sirens calling for moments of silence in memory of the fallen are an annual source of tension in mixed Jewish-Arab towns. So is the singing at official events of the national anthem, Hatikvah, with its lyrics replete with Jewish and Zionist themes and with which one-fifth of the state’s population cannot identify.

Odeh is right in seeking empathy and recognition of his people’s catastrophe as a basic desire unrelated to banal political arguments. “The classic Israeli argument goes like this: 'They [the Arabs] refused to accept the Partition Resolution [the 1947 UN decision dividing Palestine into Jewish and Arab states]. They started it. War broke out because of them, so who cares about anything else,’” Odeh explained. “One can argue a lot about politics or about whether the Arab leadership played or did not play a role in the war and its consequences, but you have a catastrophe and there is no argument about that. It is immoral to argue about it.”

Knesset member Odeh tries to convey a message that the duty he has to mark the Nakba rather than rejoicing on Independence Day is not only elementary and natural. More so, it is also a moral imperative of values for Israel’s Arab society. As far as he is concerned, it does not come at the expense of the Jews and is not supposed to detract from their happiness, as long as they also manage to see its other side.

“I am aware of the fact that this is a very sensitive issue,” he told Al-Monitor. “If I oppose the crimes carried out in conjunction with its establishment, that does not mean that I oppose the state. I want a state alongside a state; I want a Palestinian state and official recognition of the historic injustice committed against us. In my view, a state that wants to take a moral and wise step should recognize our national injustice and think how to build joint citizenship here.”

Odeh envisions two steps paving the way to normalizing relations between Jews and Arabs and between the state and its Arab citizens: “The establishment of a Palestinian state — because this is the only remaining people without self-determination — and official recognition by the State of Israel of the historic injustice. I think the fact that I am perceived as a provocateur, as though I’m the problem, is immoral. Until such a time, Independence Day will not be a happy day for me; it will always be Nakba Day. When the State of Israel recognizes the historic injustice, I will be happy to have a day of joint citizenship for all of us that would express a desire for co-existence and a true and loving commitment to building a government of Arabs and Jews here.”

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