A few years ago, I was asked to write a curriculum on the history of the Jewish people, the wars against Israel, and anti-Semitism. In this professional field of Israel Education, dominated mostly by youth programs, social media influencers, summer camps, and non-profit Israel advocacy groups, I encountered educational leaders calling for teaching the Palestinian narrative. Claiming that the American Jewish establishment was guilty of raising an entire generation of Jews to blindly love Israel, the pedagogical intervention, they argued, is to teach the Palestinian narrative. And what is this narrative? The Nakba, a word which in Arabic means “catastrophe.”

What was the catastrophe? According to Al Jazeera, an international news channel which amplifies Holocaust denialism, the Nakba is the “Palestinian experience of dispossession and loss of their homeland” in 1948. Every year, Palestinian Arabs around the world commemorate “the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians.” In sum, the catastrophe is the creation of Israel. 

On the “Nakba,” a plethora of material exists online, in scholarly articles, and books. But becoming an Israel educator meant becoming, to the best of my abilities, an expert on the history of Israel and the Middle East. And what I found is that the entire Nakba narrative is built around lies and manipulations created by… wait for it: Israeli Jewish academics.   

I began to trace the history of the Nakba and found that the term was first used by Syrian historian Constantin Zureiq. But for Zureiq, Nakba meant something entirely different. In his book, Ma’na al-Nakba (The Meaning of the Disaster), Zureiq described the flight of the Arabs from the region as a direct result of the pan-Arab attack on the nascent Jewish state. “We [Arabs] must admit our mistakes,” he wrote, “and recognize the extent of our responsibility for the disaster that is our lot.” The mistake Zureiq is referring to is that instead of accepting the 1947 U.N. partition plan to divide the British Mandate for Palestine into a Jewish country and another Arab country, the surrounding Arab countries waged a war, thus putting Arab civilians on the ground in direct danger. Years later Zureiq doubled down in his book published after the Six Day War, The Meaning of the Catastrophe Anew, once again employing the term “nakba” to mean the pan-Arab inability to “confront Zionism.” At that time, Dr. Raphael G. Bouchnik-Chen writes, “the term ‘Nakba’ was glaringly absent from Arab and/or Palestinian discourse.”

“We [Arabs] must admit our mistakes,” he wrote, “and recognize the extent of our responsibility for the disaster that is our lot.”

The shift from blaming the Arab world for the Nakba to Israel occurred in the 1980s. And it was orchestrated by Israeli Jewish academics who called themselves the “new historians.” That’s right. The Nakba narrative was crafted by Israeli Jews ashamed of Zionism, which they saw as a form of racial nationalism. At the helm of this new movement was Ilan Pappe, whose book The 1948 Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, shifted the blame from the Arabs to the Jews. Unearthing what he believed to be the motherload of dirty secrets, known as Plan Dalet, Pappe revealed that “Zionism’s ideological drive for an exclusively Jewish presence in Palestine” led to ethnic cleansing and expulsion of the Palestinian Arabs. To this day, Plan Dalet is much debated. And applying common sense, any rational people create a plan to defend themselves and secure a majority country.  

Israel educators well-informed on the origins of the first Arab-Israeli War will tell you that the war did not begin in 1948. Before the five Arab countries attacked the fledgling Jewish state, violence had been erupting in British Mandate for Palestine for years. The Arab Liberation Army, whose logo is a sword which cuts through a Jewish star was formed in 1947 and wreaked havoc on the streets of Jerusalem and Jaffa. 

Arab Liberation Army logo
Arab Liberation Army logo

Understanding that all-out war was imminent, David Ben-Gurion, then the leader of the Jewish Agency, put together a plan in preparation for war. We know now that Ben-Gurion was neither delusional nor wrong. A full-scale war did break out. This is important. Any country or people who embark on legally forming and declaring a country when hearing of imminent war or confronted by a deluge of violent attacks would put together a plan for self-defense. One would have to be a complete moron not to take violence seriously and not have a plan of action. Plan Dalet was just that: a plan of action to safeguard a country legally secured to the Jewish people by the League of Nations San Remo in 1920.

Furthermore, any honest and well-versed Israel educator would also teach that when deliberating on a name for the modern Jewish country, David Ben-Gurion was vociferously opposed to the name Judea. Why did Ben-Gurion veto the name Judea? Understanding that a modern Jewish country would inherit many Arabs civilians, the name Judea which means “Jew,” would automatically exclude future Arabs citizens. The irony is that in his desire to be inclusive to all minorities of a re-established Jewish country, Israeli Jewish academics would accuse Ben-Gurion and his advisors of colonialism and ethnic cleansing. 

It did not take long for Palestinian Arabs and most notably, for PLO chairman Yasser Arafat to appreciate the gift that lay before them. In 1998, Arafat proclaimed May 15 to be a National Day of Remembrance of the Nakba. Twenty-five years later, the United Nations held a commemoration for the 75th anniversary of the Nakba at the UN Headquarters in New York, and Democratic Representative Rashida Tlaib is pushing for the Nakba to be recognized by the United States. 

Heeding calls from Israel educators to teach the Palestinian narrative and talk about the Nakba, I do not shy away from recognizing that such a narrative exists, but I challenge students to apply their critical thinking skills to it and most importantly, to the history surrounding its design. To do this, I begin by asking if truth exists; that is, is there something that is true no matter if I am in Bangladesh, Singapore, or New York? After the first Arab-Israeli War, were there 700,000 Arab refugees? Yes, there were. Next, I tell students two stories:

Version 1: My house was flooded. I woke up and found that my kitchen cabinets are in water and my fridge doesn’t work. We’ve been having horrible rain and last night, there was a very big rainstorm. I am so upset. How will I fix this? I immediately call my home insurance company and begin to ask what, if anything, they will cover. 

Version 2: My house was flooded. I woke up and found that my kitchen cabinets are in water and my fridge doesn’t work. We’ve been having horrible rain and last night before we went to bed, I went outside and meddled with the pipes and unscrewed the pipe that goes into the washing machine. I hate my kitchen and for a long time have been asking my husband for a remodel. He refuses. Now he will have no choice but to change the cabinets and that old fridge!  

In the first scenario, students feel terrible for me. In the second scenario, they are shocked at my scheming. I tell them: but in both scenarios, there was a flood. This is undeniable. Of course, it does not take them long to figure out that we are speaking about the flight of the Arabs to neighboring Arab countries during the war in which those same neighboring Arab countries attacked the fledgling Jewish country. Arabs did flee their homes, some because they were running from war zones—but most because the local Arab leaders encouraged them to leave, ensuring a swift victory. It is therefore undeniable that Arabs became refugees, even though prior to 1947 they were not citizens of a sovereign Arab-Muslim country. It is also undeniable that had the Arabs of the British Mandate for Palestine accepted the 1947 U.N. Proposal and had the five Arab countries not attacked the Jews, there would not be an Arab refugee problem. 

Arabs did flee their homes, some because they were running from war zones—but most because the local Arab leaders encouraged them to leave, ensuring a swift victory.

It is educational malpractice to teach a narrative built on omissions and present it as an impermeable truth. So why is this being done? It made me mindful of a conversation I had with a senior Israel educator. “We must teach from empathy,” he instructed me. Here, we arrive at the heart of the matter: learning objectives. Are we teaching history? Do we pursue truth? Or is the goal to foster empathy? Many would say, why does this have to be an either-or scenario. Can we not be empathetic to the plight of the Palestinian Arab refugees while remaining true to the history? But here we run into a dilemma: the “Palestinian narrative,” predicated on the Nakba, is being used today as a weapon against Israel’s very existence. So why teach it and more importantly, how will it remedy the predicament of “loving Israel blindly?”

It is educational malpractice to teach a narrative built on omissions and present it as an impermeable truth.

In the end, it is all rather simple and comes down to the recurrent tension born of the diasporic Jewish experience: discomfort with Jewish particularism, with a majority Jewish state, with borders and by extension, Jewish nationalism. Under the aegis of tikkun olam and mind you a very progressive reading of it, we have eschewed Jewish particularism and gravitated toward universalism. Feeling personally responsible for the catastrophe of forming a Jewish majority country, Israel educators who call for teaching the Nakba in many ways parrot teachers in the United States who advocate for the 1619 Project, a revisionist history of America that seeks to undermine the significance of America’s founding fathers and unearth the original sin of the United States as being founded on chattel slavery. 

Teaching the “Palestinian narrative,” as such, may lend empathy for the Palestinian Arabs but at the cost of delegitimizing Israel by acknowledging two lies: that the creation of the Jewish country was founded upon the sin of expulsion and ethnic cleansing. Used as a vehicle to demonize and delegitimize Israel, how exactly would teaching it solve the problem of “loving Israel blindly?”

“I know the facts, I know the truth, we know the truth, but how about all the students and my peers who are not knowledgeable and will encounter this propaganda defenseless?” asks UCLA student Natalie Masachi, who attended the UCLA Center for Israel Studies’ screening of “Israelism,” a movie whose singular aim is to undermine the Jewish people’s claims to their ancestral and legal homeland. Masachi’s question reveals exactly the pedagogical intervention needed in Israel education: a robust education steeped in facts and driven by the pursuit of truth. American Jewish youth do not need to learn a narrative centered around manipulation of history deployed by anti-Jewish movements to demonize the sole Jewish country on this earth. The only reason they should know it is to be able to fully discredit it. 

What do they need? They need to know about Constantin Zureiq; they need to know about the Arab Liberation Army and their anti-Jewish logo; they need to know about Plan Dalet and its true purpose; they need to know that Palestine was never a country nor a kingdom and that the word comes from the Roman renaming of Judea to Palestina; they need to know about the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem and his ties to the Nazis; they need to know that the Arabs would never become refugees had they accepted the 1947 U.N. Proposal; they need to know that the Arabs would never become refugees had the five Arab countries not launched a genocidal war against the Jews in 1948; they need to know that the PLO was established, in part, by the Soviets in order to fight the Americans during the Cold War; they need to know that in addition to Israel, five Arab countries (Jordan, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon) were created out of British and French mandates, and that none of them are asked to provide their country’s legal or ancestral right to exist. 

They need to become truth seekers.