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May 15, 2012

Israel now has a law that forbids empathy. Today, the historic date of the declaration of the State of Israel, Israeli Arabs and Palestinians in the territories mark the Nakba, catastrophe. In the Palestinian narrative, this day is a time for mourning the events leading to 700,000 people becoming refugees with more than 400 villages destroyed, in the process of the creation of our state. However, in this democratic country, giving voice to that narrative is now against the law. According to the Nakba Law, any public institution allowing Nakba commemoration activities will lose its state funding. If you don’t like the other’s narrative, outlaw it.

 At both Tel Aviv and at Hebrew Universities, Nakba assemblies took place. Arab students and Jewish supporters demonstrated together, hassled by counter-demonstrators who jubilantly chanted to the tune of the vintage hymn, “We bring peace to you…”, they sang, “We brought nakba upon you….” It will be interesting to watch the government confront the universities and enforce the new law.

 Paul Simon sang, “One man’s ceiling is another man’s floor…” Is the Palestinian narrative any less valid than ours? Will forbidding the expression of that narrative strengthen our claim to legitimacy? Legally forbidding free speech is a form of violence, and violence is a form of weakness. Is our grip on our right to be here so tenuous that we need a law to stop another from describing the birth of the Jewish home as he sees it?

 Here’s my narrative: The UN partition agreement of 1947 offered to divide Palestine between the Jews and the Arabs. The Jews accepted the plan, the Palestinians rejected it, initiating the first stage of the war of independence. Six months later, as Israel declared its independence, the Arab States responded, with the help of indigenous Palestinians, by attacking us.

 For us Jews, what was the significance of the declaration of independence? With the end of WWII and the holocaust, persuaded that the goyim mean business, and after 2,000 years without the protection of a home, the Jewish people jumped from the sinking ship of Diaspora into the lifeboat of the new Jewish State. In that lifeboat were living a million Palestinians. When we landed in the lifeboat, we did damage to those people. And then we built a wonderful, complex, and promising country.

Are we to blame for the suffering of the Palestinians? Wrong question. We do bear responsibility for their suffering, and it is appropriate for us to feel shame, moral shame for the hurt we have induced in so many people. 45 years of occupation. If we can’t look that straight in the eye and embrace the pain it awakens in us, we are not response-able, we are in danger of losing our empathic muscle.

And now we legislate the forced surrendering of empathy.


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