Counting the Omer on the 70th anniversary of the Nakba
On the eve of the 70th anniversary of the Nakba, as Palestinians in Gaza continue to protest for their rights for over six weeks in mass demonstrations, and as the U.S. is opening its embassy in Jerusalem, JVP shares a collection of opinion pieces and commentaries by its members and leaders. The following post is by Rabbi Alissa Wise, Deputy Director of Jewish Voice for Peace.
Countdowns are a way to mark sacred space in daily life – a way to ground ourselves amidst the flurry of anticipation, while seeking to appreciate each day as it passes. The practice of counting the Omer, counting down the days between the second day of Passover and the first day of the holiday of Shavuot, when we celebrate receiving the Torah, is a time dedicated to personal growth – a spiritual journey. By counting each day of the Omer, we connect the Passover story of freedom from slavery, as told in the Haggadah, with assuming responsibility for living an ethical life as free people, with the guidance of Torah.
This year, the Jewish community faces a particular challenge – and opportunity. As we are counting the Omer, the Palestinian community is marking the days between Land Day (this year the first night of Passover) to the day of the Nakba (just five days before Shavuot). This year, Palestinians are commemorating the six-week period by launching a historic mobilization of nonviolent resistance: the Great March of Return.
What if this year, as we count the Omer, our spiritual journey led us to support the calls for freedom and liberation bursting from the 2 million besieged Palestinians of Gaza? What if we faced the hard truths about what is happening in Gaza – where Israeli snipers have already killed 31 civilians during these protests, including those running away or wearing press vests, not a single one armed – and accepted this spiritual challenge?
For if we are to truly understand the story of Passover, we will understand the universal human drive for freedom and for homeland. Not just for Jews, but for all people.
These days so many of us are pouring into the streets in unprecedented numbers to protest Muslim Bans, to defend women’s rights, to support the young people begging for sane gun control laws. We take our ability to safely engage in these protests for granted. And yet, right now, the Israeli military is shooting nonviolent protesters in Gaza who are daring to do the same. At great personal risk, Palestinians are staring down their occupiers and oppressors. And the Israeli government, emboldened and permitted by the Trump administration, authorizes the gunning down of these demonstrators.
Meanwhile Israeli propaganda, parroted by U.S. Jewish organizations from right to left, preemptively labeled the march in Gaza as Hamas-sponsored and threatening, even though the march’s organizers declared the protest politically unaffiliated and non-violent. More than ever before, this is a moment for broad American Jewish support for Palestinian resistance.
Honoring the spiritual and ethical invitation of the Omer, can we recognize this moment of Palestinian popular protest as just like those we recently attended? Can we ask ourselves if such a popular protest could truly merit such harsh violence from Israel? Can we ask ourselves to dig deeper, to ask what is it that Palestinians want?
Put simply, Palestinians want freedom. A freedom taken from them in 1948 with the founding of the State of Israel, observed in Jewish communities as Yom Ha’atzmaut in the Hebrew calendar, the 4th of Iyyar, and in Palestinian communities as al-Nakba on May 15th of the Gregorian calendar. Land Day, which began the six weeks of popular resistance, commemorates Israel’s violent crushing of a general strike and mass protest by Palestinian citizens of Israel on March 30, 1976.
The story of the Nakba – the expulsion and dispossession of approximately 750,000 Palestinians and the destruction or depopulation of 400 villages by the Zionist movement and then Israel from 1947-1949 – has been well-documented by Palestinians, as well as Israeli and other international academic sources. However, in Israel, in the U.S. and within the American Jewish community, the story of the Nakba is often disregarded or ignored, focusing, instead, on the creation of Israel as a safe haven for Jews, without acknowledging the dispossession of the Palestinian people that began prior to and with the founding of the State.
In my own spiritual journey, it took me a while to understand that the history of the Nakba is part of Jewish history. It is our responsibility as Jews to understand what happened leading up to and in 1948. And to understand that this violence was not accidental, but rather an intentional, planned effort by the Zionist movement, as proudly claimed by some of the most trusted and beloved organizations and figures in Zionist history.
Take, for example, Moshe Dayan, the Minister of Defense for the pre-state Haganah/Jewish Defense force, who went on to be Chief of Staff for the Israeli Defense Forces. In Ha’aretz on April 4, 1969, Moshe Dayan wrote:
“Jewish localities were established in place of Arab villages. You don’t even know the names of those Arab villages, and I don’t blame you, because those geography texts no longer exist. Not only the books are gone; the Arab villages are also gone: Nahalal in place of Ma’lul; Kibbutz Gvat in place of Jibta; Kibbutz Sarid in place of Huneifis; Kfar Yehoshua in place of Tal Al-Shuman. Wherever Jews built, they built on land where Arabs once lived.”
This history is not comfortable. I suffered deeply when I first learned it as a college student at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. And yet, I found meaning from it by dedicating my life as a rabbi to educating Jewish communities about this history. Supporting Jews to act in accordance with our values to realize justice for Palestinians and Israelis remains tremendously healing and life giving.
As we approach the Yom Ha’atzmaut celebrations next week, I want to challenge you to bring the history of the Nakba and the hopeful resistance happening in Gaza right now into your communities. One resource available is the Facing the Nakba curriculum I helped design, inspired by Jewish-Israeli organization Zochrot’s “How do you say Nakba in Hebrew?” curriculum.
As we count the Omer and the days between liberation and the Torah, it is our work to challenge ourselves to let our hearts break. It is our responsibility to share the sweetness of new-found freedom with those still captive. It is our choice to be inspired by 60,000 Palestinians taking nonviolent action for their freedom. As Hasan Farhat, a 20 year old student at the Islamic University of Gaza said:
“We only want to make our voices heard. We want them to know that there are human beings living here, just like everywhere else, with dreams, just like everywhere else.”
May it be that soon, and within our lives, the liberation of Palestinians and of Jews will be a celebration to which each year we will eagerly countdown.