The "Nakba": A Driving Force Behind U.S. Anti-Israel Activity in 2008


Surrounding the celebration of Israel's 60th anniversary, groups intent on criticizing its founding and existence have organized anti-Israel events around the United States.  These groups have focused on the notion that it has been 60 years since the "Nakba," an Arabic word meaning 'catastrophe' or 'disaster' that many Palestinians and Arabs use to refer to the 1948 war and the establishment of the State of Israel.


Although the "Nakba" is officially commemorated on May 15th, the start of Israel's War of Independence, "Nakba" events have been organized throughout the year, many focusing on the notion that the "Nakba" was not an isolated event in 1948 but a term that describes the current status of the Palestinian people.  


For example, at a panel during "Palestine Nakba Week" at Columbia University, which was held from April 28-May 1, 2008, the moderator, a member of the Arab Students Association, explained that the panel was titled "60 Years of Nakba" because the "ghost of Nakba haunts every Palestinian's existence," and therefore, "we need not look at what happened yesterday to look at crimes perpetrated today."


Many "Nakba" and other anti-Israel events in 2008 have been marked by accusations of Israeli "apartheid" and "ethnic cleansing," and have invoked offensive comparisons between Israel and Nazi Germany.  In addition, celebrations of Israel's 60th anniversary have been targeted in some parts of the country for counter protests.

"Nakba" Commemorations

"Nakba" commemorations in 2008 have been organized by some of the more vocal and active anti-Israel groups, as well as by smaller local groups throughout the country. At these events, speakers have revitalized classic anti-Israel rhetoric by presenting it under the guise of commemorating the "Nakba."


Al-Awda's Sixth Annual International Convention, which was labeled a "Nakba" commemoration and held from May 16-18, in Anaheim, California, featured speakers who vocalized particularly virulent anti-Israel rhetoric. Al-Awda co-founder Salman Abu Sitta referred to the "Nakba" as the "largest, longest operation of planned ethnic cleansing in history" and compared Gaza and the Nazi Holocaust by referring to Gaza as "the new Auschwitz." A Jerusalem-based bishop, Atallah Hanna, spoke about the need for Palestinian Muslims and Christians to unite against the "one enemy [Zionism]."

Several professors also spoke at the convention, including Ilan Pappe, author of the The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine; Ghada Karmi, a British-Palestinian professor; UCLA professor Saree Makdisi; and As'ad Abu Khalil, a Political Science professor at California State University at Stanislaus who has a political blog called "Angry Arab News Service." 

Karmi and Makdisi advocated a one-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. During his speech, Makdisi said, "Zionism represents exclusionist claims and separations. We must keep repeating to people that Israel is not a secular state and does not treat its citizens equally." Abu Khalil recommended that commemorating the "Nakba" should be an "opportunity for the assertion of Palestinian and Arab struggle against Zionism." He also blamed Palestinian internal fractiousness on those who are sympathetic to Israel: "now we have in Palestine a collaborationist regime set up by the Israelis."


The convention was endorsed by a wide array of groups, including ANSWER, International Action Center (IAC), and the Southern California-based Campaign to End Israeli Apartheid (CEIA).  Arguing that all of Israel should be returned to the Palestinians, IAC representative, John Parker, said, "From the river to the sea, we will not stop until all of us are free."


Earlier this year, a two-week-long tour entitled "Acknowledging the past; imagining the future: Palestinians and Israelis on 1948 and the Right of Return," was held under the banner of a "Nakba" commemoration. Organizers used the tour to allege that Palestinians have been in a state of "dispossession" and "exile" for 60 years in an attempt to illustrate the severity of the Palestinians' situation and the need for immediate return.


The tour, which visited seven major US cities in March and April, was organized by the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), a non-profit Quaker organization that is often involved in anti-Israel activity, and Badil, a Bethlehem-based organization that supports the Palestinian intifada and the abolishment of Israel as a Jewish state. At the Philadelphia stop, Muhammad Jaradat, a coordinator for Badil, referred to the State of Israel as a "racist entity" and argued that Palestinians must disarm this racism in order to live like human beings.


The US Palestine Conference Network (USPCN) is planning to host a "Nakba" conference in August in Rosemont, Illinois. The conference has had preparatory meetings since June 2006 that included the following individuals: Mazin Qumsiyeh; Hatem Bazian, a professor at UC Berkeley's department of Near Eastern Studies, director of Berkeley's Al-Qalam Institute of Islamic Sciences and president of the American Muslims for Palestine (AMP); Noura Erakat, a former grassroots organizer/legal advocate for the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation; and Will Youmans, a co-founder of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and frequent contributor to Counterpunch, an anti-Zionist radical left newsletter.  Keynote speakers at the conference are scheduled to include Azmi Bishara (by videoconference), Bishop Atallah Hanna and Salman Abu-Sitta.


At the initial meeting, held in Detroit, organizers drafted and endorsed the Detroit Declaration, which called on the Palestinian community to "rise up once again as it did in the heyday of the Palestinian American activism and organizing of the late 70s and 80s" and "empower the Palestinian community across the US by…focusing on three campaigns in the US-BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and sanctions), breaking the siege, and media advocacy." This conference is being heavily promoted, including YouTube promotional videos, an article in Left Turn magazine and frequent announcements to pro-Palestinian list serves.



Numerous rallies organized around the country commemorating the "Nakba" were marked by denunciations of Israel's existence. For example, on May 16, a "Nakba" commemorative rally that took place at Dag Hammarskjold Park in New York City featured demonstrators holding signs that read, "Palestine Peace not Ethnic Cleansing," "Free Palestine from the River to the Sea."  A banner signed by Al-Awda read, "Return Resistance Liberation/ By Any Means Necessary." One particularly egregious poster read, "Zionism is Nazism" and had a drawing of a Star of David juxtaposed to a swastika. Throughout the rally, participants repeatedly chanted "Free Free Palestine" and "From Yaffa to Deir Yassin: Ethnic Cleansing is Obscene."

The rally was sponsored by Arab Muslim American Federation, National Council of Arab Americans (NCA), Palestinian American Congress (PAC), Adalah-NY: Coalition for Justice in the Middle East and Al-Awda.

Speakers at the rally included Cynthia McKinney, a Green Party presidential candidate; Ora Wise, a co-founder of Palestine/Israel Education Project (PEP), and member of International Solidarity Movement and Jews Against the Occupation; and Phyllis Bennis, a co-founder and steering committee member of US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation (USCEIO). During her speech, Bennis argued that "Palestinians were made to pay the price of European anti-Semitism that they had nothing to do with." Other speakers at the rally referred to Israel as a "pariah state" and an "apartheid state." One speaker even charged that the "Holocaust" being committed in Gaza was "more pernicious and profound than the Nazi Holocaust."

Another rally on May 16 was held across from the White House in Washington, DC and was organized by the Muslim American Society (MAS), American Muslims for Palestine and ANSWER. Participants held signs that read "US-Israeli War Machine is the Real Terrorist;" "Palestine Will Be United" and "End the Occupation Now." One speaker, Brian Becker, the co-director of International Action Center (IAC), accused Israel of being a Zionist colonial project that is guilty of terrorism.

On May 17 in Colorado, Friends of Sabeel in North America (FOSNA), the Muslim Students Association (MSA) of University of Colorado and the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center sponsored a rally to commemorate the "Nakba" outside the State Capitol in Denver. The event, "Remembering al-Nakba: Palestine 60 Years Later" included a ceremony to commemorate the "catastrophe of the dispossession of the Palestinians' homeland by the founding of Israel."

At another rally, which was held at the Federal Plaza in Chicago on May 23, participants held signs that said "60 Years of Palestinian Dispossession;" "Boycott Apartheid Israel" with a crossed-out picture of the Israeli flag; and "60 years of exile, 60 years of ethnic cleansing.


Local anti-Israel groups have formed coalitions to organize "Nakba" commemorations as well. The Philadelphia "Al Nakba Coalition," which argues on its Web site that "the Israeli government's policies toward the Palestinian people manifest both racism and state terrorism," pledged to have 60 days of "Nakba" commemorative events from mid-March to mid-May. Many of these events were unrelated to the "Nakba" anniversary and simply provided the opportunity for participants to accuse Israel of apartheid, ethnic cleansing and human rights violations.  


The coalition also sponsored lectures by Columbia University professor Joseph Massad and Sara Flounders, co-founder of International Action Center (IAC); hosted a Palestine Film Festival that included anti-Israel films such as Occupation 101 and Peace, Propaganda and the Promised Land; and helped organize Students for Justice in Palestine's (SJP) Palestinian Awareness Week at Penn State University, which featured protests against "Israeli apartheid" and a speech by anti-Israel professor Norman Finkelstein.


The Seattle "Al-Nakba Coalition," comprised of Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), Palestine Solidarity Committee (PSC) and Palestinian Concerns Task Force of the Church Council of Greater Seattle, among others, organized an appearance by Ali Abunimah, co-founder of Electronic Intifada, at the University of Washington on April 23, 2008. In his speech, "One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse," titled after his controversial book, Abunimah advocated a one-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. According to The Daily, the University of Washington's student newspaper, he also compared the situation in Israel to South African apartheid, noting that "There's nothing new or different here. There's people who are in power and don't want to give it up." 

On May 10, the "Local Nakba Committee" of San Francisco hosted a "Free Palestine Peace and Solidarity Festival." The event, which was sponsored by Al-Awda, had been advertised as an opportunity to stand in solidarity against "Israel's occupation, apartheid-wall and illegal settlements."  Tents were set up depicting themes of "Israeli occupation" and a card included in the program warned participants to "Respect the concert – don't engage the Zionists!" and, "We are here today to come together to enjoy the concert and commemorate the Nakba.  The Zionists will try to distract us from this…Talking to or arguing with the Zionists will only help them to disrupt things and distract" us from the event.

Demonstrations Against Celebrations of Israel's 60th Anniversary

Demonstrations organized specifically to counter celebrations of Israel's 60th anniversary have been widespread.  When Radio City Music Hall in New York hosted the kickoff "Israel@60 Celebration" on May 7, Al-Awda protested the event.  Organizers of the protest called the event a celebration of a "legacy of oppression" and demonstrators were instructed to "counter and drown out the concert celebration of the Zionist state" because of an ongoing "genocide against Gaza and ethnic cleansing of Palestine."

A group of self-described anti-Zionist Jews called "No Time to Celebrate: Jews Remember the Nakba" also protested this event. They handed out fliers, carried a banner with the slogan "Jews Honor Palestinian Resistance" and held up signs that listed different Palestinian villages with the words "Jews remember" scrawled on the top.

The group, which formed specifically to protest Israel@60 celebrations and to promote "Nakba" commemorative events, has protested several other celebrations of Israel's 60th anniversary around the country. These include a speech by Alan Dershowitz at Rutgers University on May 8 and a celebration of Israel's 60th anniversary at the Jewish Community Center in San Francisco also on May 8. At that event, twenty protesters interrupted the program and were arrested for trespassing.

In Seattle, the Al-Nakba Coalition protested an event on May 7 celebrating Israel's 60th, organizing its supporters to conduct a silent procession that would serve to "witness not only to the bloodshed and the terror that accompanied the founding of Israel, but also to the ongoing human rights tragedy that has resulted from the events surrounding the 1948 war and from Israel 's continuing occupation of Palestinian land." Protesters carried masks, coffins and banners to further illustrate their message of alleged "Israeli terror."

In Los Angeles, Al-Awda, International Action Center (IAC), the National Council of Arab Americans (NCA) and the Campaign to End the Israeli Apartheid (CEIA) were among several groups that organized a protest of an Israel@60 celebration at the Kodak Theater on May 10.  The event announcement urged participants "to mark sixty years of Nakba; to demand an end to US support of Zionist oppression; and to demand an end to Zionism!" At the protest, speakers accused Israel of being an agent of US imperialism, of illegal occupation and of practicing genocide and ethnic cleansing.

The Philadelphia Al Nakba Coalition protested a celebration of Israel's 60th anniversary on May 18.  Protesters chanted "Occupation is a Crime! Free Palestine!" and released black balloons into the air. This protest was the conclusion of the Coalition's planned 60 days of action to correspond to 60 years of the "Nakba." According to an announcement for the protest, its intent was to "cast a shadow of mourning" on the Israel celebration.

The US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation (USCEIO) has also engaged in efforts to discredit celebrations of Israel's 60th Anniversary. The group placed 1000 posters about the "Nakba" along the route of the "Salute to Israel" parade in NYC, which took place on June 1. Josh Ruebner, the national advocacy director of US Campaign, described the Campaign's goal thusly: "Participants in the Salute to Israel Parade will see our ads and be forced to confront the reality which they deny, namely, that Israel's continued existence as a Jewish state is only possible by refusing Palestinian refugees' their right of return home" and "that the establishment of Israel in 1948 was accompanied by the widespread and purposeful ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from their homes and lands."

College Campuses

Anti-Israel activity related to the "Nakba" has been particularly widespread on college campuses. For example, anti-Israel groups at Harvard University, Columbia University, the University of Washington and the University of California - Irvine, a campus that has an extensive history of anti-Semitic activity, have organized "Nakba" commemorations to memorialize the "Palestinian catastrophe." At Harvard, a week-long series of events called "Nakba 1948: 60 Years of Palestinian Dispossession," held from April 28 to May 2, included a candlelight vigil, panel discussions and several film screenings, as well as speeches by Mazin Qumsiyeh and MIT professor Noam Chomsky.


Columbia's "Palestine Nakba Week" included a panel discussion on "60 Years of Nakba" that featured Joseph Massad. At the discussion, he charged that the mere "presence of Palestinians" is what "provokes Israelis to expel them" and those whom Israel cannot expel are placed "within an apartheid wall."
In response to a question about Massad's desire for Israeli coexistence with Palestinians despite
Hamas's charter, Massad countered that although Hamas's charter calls for the destruction of the Jewish state, Israel "does destroy Palestine and continues to destroy Palestinians." He also echoed the moderator's claim that the "Nakba" is a current reality for Palestinians, arguing that "Israel continues to inflict the Nakba on Palestinians because of laws [that discriminate on the basis of race and religion] it established."


At UCLA, the Palestine Coalition, headed by Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and Muslim Students Association (MSA) hosted Palestine Awareness Week from May 12-18, 2008. The week-long series of events, titled "To Exist Is To Resist: Live Free," included speeches by Anna Baltzer, an author who is highly critical of Israel, Ilan Pappe, author of The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine and a presentation by Craig and Cindy Corrie, the parents of International Solidarity Movement (ISM) activist Rachel Corrie, who was killed by an Israeli bulldozer in March 2003.


UC Davis and UC Santa Cruz also had Palestine Awareness Weeks from May 19-22, 2008.  At UC Davis, the week-long series of events included an appearance by Ghada Karmi, who spoke about "Israel's Dilemma in Palestine," and culminated with a "Palestinian Remembrance" night that was held in recognition "of those Palestinians that have been murdered, oppressed, made to be refugees and ethnically cleansed by Israeli Occupation in the last 60 years." At UC Santa Cruz, As'ad Abu Khalil, a Political Science professor at California State University at Stanislaus, spoke about "major misconceptions about the Israeli-Palestinian crisis" and anti-Israel cartoonist Khalil Bendib gave a lecture titled "Palestine in our Media."


Aside from events that have been framed as "Nakba" commemorations, anti-Israel magazines have produced articles and publications in honor of the "Nakba."

The May/June issue of The Washington Report for Middle East Affairs, for example, was titled "60th Anniversary of the Nakba." The magazine included a "Palestinian Appeal to International Civil Society" to boycott celebrations of Israel's 60th anniversary, which is signed by approximately 100 organizations, including Adalah-NY, the National Council of Arab Americans (NCA) and the Palestinian American Congress (PAC). The appeal refers to Israel as a "settler-colonial project" that discriminates against Palestinians in a way that is "strongly reminiscent of the defunct apartheid regime in South Africa." The article states that any participation with celebrations of Israel's establishment will be regarded as "collusion in the perpetuation of the dispossession and uprooting of refugees, the prolongation of the occupation and the deepening of Israeli apartheid." The article argues that celebrating Israel's anniversary and even Israel's "guest of honor" status at the recent book fairs in Turin and Paris is "tantamount to dancing on Palestinian graves."

The April/May issue of Left Turn: Notes from the Global Intifada, an anti-capitalist magazine, was called "We Cultivate Hope: 60 Years of Palestinian Struggle" and included several articles that accused Israel of ethnic cleansing, apartheid, occupation. Rafeef Ziadah, a member of the Toronto-based Coalition Against Israeli Apartheid (CAIA) and former media coordinator for
SUSTAIN (Stop US Tax Aid to Israel Now!), contributed an article called "60 Years of Israeli Apartheid and Occupation" in which she argued that Israel, "a settler-colonial project that closely resembles features of South African apartheid," committed ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians in 1947-1948. She also claimed that Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation can only occur after "racism and occupation is dismantled," echoing a claim made by Azmi Bishara in South Africa at the launch of the 4th annual International Israeli Apartheid Week.

Badil produced "Nakba" materials to be distributed at "Nakba" commemorations and a 92-page-long "Special Nakba 60 Issue" of al-Majdal, the organization's quarterly magazine. Electronic Intifada, an online publication, published several "Nakba"-related articles on its Web site, including an article by Hannah Mermelstein.  Mermelstein is the co-founder of Birthright Unplugged, a program that counters the Taglit-Birthright Israel trips by bringing tourists into Palestinian cities and villages and providing a distinctly anti-Israel view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In her article, titled "This Land was Theirs," Mermelstein claims that in 1948 "the land was stolen" from Palestinians and peace cannot be brokered without Palestinian right of return.

Other Anti-Israel Activity

In addition to the focus on the "Nakba," many anti-Israel events in 2008 have been marked by accusations of Israeli "apartheid" and "ethnic cleansing," and have invoked offensive comparisons between Israel and Nazi Germany.  Israel's treatment of the Palestinians has been compared to Nazi Germany's policy toward Jews, including events held under the banner of "Holocaust Awareness," which included references to Gaza as a "ghetto" and claims that Israel is in the process of committing a "Palestinian genocide." Additionally, anti-Israel groups have continued to draw parallels to South African apartheid and referred to the security barrier/fence as an "apartheid-wall."

The Muslim Student Union at UC Irvine hosted a "Never Again? Palestinian Holocaust" week from May 7-15, featuring a wide range of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic speakers, including Amir Abdul Malik Ali, Mohammad al-Asi and Ilan Pappe, professor at the University of Exeter in the UK and author of The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine.

MSU released an official statement to explain the purpose of the "Palestinian Holocaust" week and attempted to reassure the university that the event would not be one-sided because of Pappe's involvement: "A
s an Israeli, he will provide a balanced perspective that sheds light on both sides of the issue." During his speech, however, Pappe told the audience that "the real ambition of Israelis at large and Zionists is to get rid of all the Palestinians who live in Israel.  That is the Zionist formula – you get it from cradle to grave." He also charged that Zionists "used Europe's guilt after the Holocaust" and "used ethnic cleansing to get more of Palestine."

Several other speakers at the week-long event advanced harsh anti-Israel agendas. Mohammad al-Asi referred to Israel as a "hateful and an expansionist militant nation state" and spoke about how Jews left ghettos in Europe only to create ghettos in Israel: "You began to build a wall, a barrier, around the country you are living in, isn't this a grand definition of a ghetto!" He also blamed the hostility of neighboring Arab countries as "a reaction to all the misery and all the hostility" that Jews brought from Europe.

Amir Abdul Malik Ali argued that Israel is bound to be defeated because "Israelis have suffered major losses when they went up against Muslims…Every time we fought for Islam, we won."

During "Holocaust Awareness Week" in late April at Emory University in Atlanta, demonstrators accused Israel of committing a Holocaust against the Palestinian people. Signs and banners around campus included slogans like "Free Palestine" and remarks by Israeli Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai that had mentioned the word 'shoah.' A letter was passed around that thanked the organizers of "Holocaust Awareness Week," noting that this week should serve as encouragement to avert the "next Holocaust." The letter also claimed that Palestinians in Israel face "similar conditions" to what Jews faced in ghettos in Nazi Germany.

In February, the Muslim Student Union at UC Irvine also held an event called "From Auschwitz to Gaza: The Politics of Genocide" that featured a presentation by the anti-Semitic Imam Mohammad al-Asi.

The fourth Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW), an annual week-long series of events to increase awareness about Israel as an "apartheid regime," was held concurrently in multiple U.S. cities and around the world in February. This year's IAW was held under the banner of "60 Years of Nakba: End Israeli Apartheid." Among IAW's main sponsors in New York were a host of anti-Israel groups, including New Jersey Solidarity (NJS), Al-Awda, and Adalah-New York. The opening panel was titled "60 Years of Exile" and included Azmi Bishara and Musa Al-Hindi of the Palestinian Popular Conference Network.

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