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Sultana's Dream
May 2013


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Censoring Palestine: the Nakba Law  

An edited extract from a speech given by Randa Abdel-Fatteh
to Sydney PEN on 15 November, 2012 on the International Day of the Imprisoned Writer.

In 2010, a member of Israel’s parliament gave me a gift: a booklet entitled Letter from Israel, produced by the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Fifty-nine pages long, the booklet purports to provide a history of Israel and the Land of Zion and covers topics such as ‘The Land, History, The State, People, Culture and Leisure’. 

I carefully read every page. Not once is the word ‘occupied’ used. Under the history section the following statement appears: “Inspired by Zionist ideology, thousands of Jews began to arrive in the Land, then a sparsely populated and neglected part of the Ottoman Empire. The early pioneers drained swamps, reclaimed wastelands, afforested bare hillsides, established industries and built towns and villages.” 

Palestinians are absent from the booklet, unless they appear as demographic statistics. 

This is an example of the Israeli version of terra nullius. In Australia, the historic 1992 Mabo case rejected the mythology of Australia as an ‘empty’ land, but claims that the land of Palestine was, in the words of writer Israel Zangwill, “a land without a people for a people without a land”, remain an enduring part of Israel’s grand narrative. 

In Ghada Karmi’s book, Married to Another Man, she writes about how, following the first Zionist congress in Basel in 1897, at which the idea of establishing a Jewish state in Palestine was proposed, the rabbis of Vienna dispatched two representatives to “investigate the suitability of the country for such an enterprise.” The men reported back in a cable to Vienna and said: “The bride is beautiful but she is married to another man.” This statement has always struck me as an elegant rebuttal of the claim that Palestine was ‘empty’.

Palestinians in the occupied territories, Israel and in the diaspora, traditionally mark Israel’s official Independence Day on 15 May as a national day of mourning: the day that represents the loss of 78 percent of their historic homeland. 

The creation of the state of Israel resulted in a catastrophe, a Nakba, for the indigenous Palestinian population. Israeli historian Illan Pappe is one Israeli historian (neither the first nor the only one) who has meticulously documented the carefully planned campaign to expel the majority indigenous Palestinian population from their land. In his book, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, he writes: “Plan D or the Plan Dalet in Hebrew, detailed the methodology that was employed to achieve the Zionist plan of creating an exclusively Jewish presence in Palestine. The orders given by the architects of Plan Dalet, the Hagana, included, ‘large-scale intimidation; laying siege to and bombarding villages and population centres; setting fire to homes, properties and goods; expulsion; demolition; and, finally, planting mines among the rubble to prevent any of the expelled inhabitants from returning. Each unit was issued with hit lists of villages and neighbourhoods as the targets for this master plan’.”

In six months almost “800,000 Palestinians were uprooted and became refugees, 531 villages were destroyed, and eleven urban neighborhoods emptied of their inhabitants”. 
The denial of this catastrophe has resulted not only in denying the right of return of the Palestinian refugees as required under UN resolution 194, but signifies Israel’s refusal to concede the ethnic cleansing committed in 1948. 


In 2011, an Israeli law was enacted that strives to censor commemorations of the Nakba. This Act perpetuates the mythology that casts Israel as the state that ‘made the desert bloom’, a state founded on noble, lofty principles, a peace-loving state, and the ‘only democracy in the Middle East’.

This so-called ‘Nakba Law’ authorises the Finance Minister to reduce state funding or support to an institution engaging in an “activity that is contrary to the principles of the state”. These include:

  • Rejecting the existence of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state;

  • Commemorating Independence Day or the day of the establishment of the state as a day of mourning. 

The effect of the law is wide-reaching.
In March 2011 the Israeli Knesset passed amendment no. 40 (2011) to the Budgets Foundations Law (1985) - Reducing Budget or Support for Activity Contrary to the Principles of the State, otherwise known as the ‘Nakba Law.’

“The law is about the politics of fear,” I was told last year by Salah Mohsen, a lawyer with Adalah, the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel. “We have argued that the law creates a chilling effect. Schools, theatres, municipalities, teachers are afraid to be politically active because it may affect their funding or, in the case of individuals, employment opportunities. There is a fear that the Shabak [the Israeli Security Service] will use their authority to mark institutions or individuals as seditious.”

The Nakba Law represents an assault on the collective memory, free speech, history, equality and dignity of Palestinians. After 1948 Israel took steps to erase all traces of the Arab presence in the newly formed state. In 1949, Ben-Gurion instituted an official policy to rename the Arab place names, changing them to Hebrew, using “ancient or biblical equivalents for the Palestinian towns and villages” and producing a Hebrew map of Palestine. The policy continued after 1967, with Muslim and Christian sites in the Old City of Jerusalem renamed. The appropriation of Palestinian culture can be seen in the Israeli National Library’s handling of 70,000 valuable books looted from Palestinian homes in 1948. They were declared the ‘property’ of the library and hidden in the National Library’s storerooms until in the 1960s, when about 6,000 of these books were labeled ‘AP’: “Abandoned Property”. 

The Nakba Law simply codifies what Israel has had the power to do since 1948, which is to censor Palestinian citizens of Israel, forbid them to study their cultural inheritance and, for those who attend Israeli schools, compel them to learn about the so-called “heroic establishment of the modern Jewish state” with no mention of the tragedy that befell the indigenous Palestinian society of which they are a part. 

Talking to Salah Mohsen, another lawyer at Adalah, I learnt that: “ The education authority is teaching the Zionist narrative to Palestinian children: that this was an empty land, that the Palestinians ran away and were not expelled and therefore have ‘nobody to blame but themselves’…. Their very identity and history is denied.”

On 4 May 2011, Adalah (the Association for Civil Rights in Israel), five parents of school children who study at a joint Jewish-Arab bilingual school, and an NGO of alumni from the Arab Orthodox school in Haifa, filed a joint petition against the law to the Supreme Court, requesting that it be found unconstitutional. 

Their petition argued that the Nakba legislation “is an ideological law aimed against the national identity of Arab citizens in Israel and against their collective memory. It harms their legitimate status as equal citizens and punishes them for having a different identity and being the 'other'. The incitement and racism against Arab citizens, and their alienation in Israeli society, stand to increase as a result of this law”. Legal counsel for ACRI argued that the law “harms the public interest of the society as a whole. For a democratic and open society to flourish, free speech must be upheld particularly when sensitive and political issues are at hand. Silencing the minority stands in clear contrast to basic democratic principles”.

A mother of a student at the Arab-Jewish school, Galil, argued that their petition was “about education without censorship. There were people who suffered when the state was founded, why should we hide it? … acknowledge the pain and heal it."

The Supreme Court rejected the petition in January 2012, ruling that the case was premature, as the law had not yet been used against any specific institution. 

One can understand why Israel claims that commemorating the Nakba undermines and undoes its Jewish character. But how does awareness and commemoration of the historical truth undermine and undo democracy? The introduction of the Nakba Law reflects a peculiar Israeli version of democracy: a version of democracy that promotes censorship and stifles freedom of speech. What is a democracy if it isn’t a space in which the right to be critical is upheld? There is a curious Alice in the Looking Glass logic that pervades Israel’s notion of democracy. 

Randa Abdel-Fatteh