Why Did the Arabs Suffer "Nakba" (Disaster) in 1948 and Every Day Since? The Surprising View of the Man Who Coined That Term

Also please read my article “Egypt Et Cetera: When the Moderates are Radicals You’re in Trouble.”

By Barry Rubin

It’s ironic how the West has adopted the narrative of the very people who caused so much disaster in the Middle East. There are two reasons: The ignorance of the Western “experts” and the domination of the radical interpretations that made the mess in the first place.


Here’s a example. In a paper just published by Harvard, somebody named Neil Lewis (where do they find these people to write about Middle East issues who know nothing about them?) argues that the idea the New York Times is biased against Israel is a myth. Not just a partially right or exaggerated claim. Oh, no, it’s completely ridiculous! If anything, he writes, the  New York Times–as a radical-controlled British university think tank did a while ago regarding the consistently anti-Israel BBC–is really too biased in favor of Israel! No doubt Mr. Lewis is destined for a fine, well-financed career. Look for his future articles featured in…the New York Times. Oh, wait, what a coincidence! He’s already a New York Times writer! Ah, brave new world that has such people in it!

Isn’t this a conflict of interest? After all, if Lewis criticized the newspaper he would be criticizing himself and his colleagues, even conceivably endangering his future. Who suggested getting a New York Times reporter to analyze the fairness of that newspaper? And yet there is something fitting about it since mass media journalists believe only they can judge the aptness of their coverage. Some decades ago perhaps that was conceivable but in those days there were such things as professional ethics, the belief in the effort to be as objective as possible, the idea that reporting should be to present the news rather than opinion and an ideological agenda, and all those other “old-fashioned” ideas.

Having written scores of specific articles documenting this bias in great detail, I know the Harvard one is one more triumph of ideology over serious scholarship. Some have pointed to the things that Lewis’s paper ignored and twisted but my attention was drawn to a wonderful example of special pleading and historical ignorance so common when it comes to bashing Israel and apologizing for Palestinian intransigence. And there’s a big surprise and irony here that I’ll explain in a moment.


Lewis writes:

“The anniversary of the founding of Israel is an occasion for official joy in the country. But for many Arabs, it is instead commemorated as the `nakba’’ or catastrophe, the time when half the region’s Arab population—estimated at between 700,000 and 800,000—had fled or were driven out. Exactly what happened remains a heated debate.”

“‘Part of the appeal of the term `nakba’ for Arabs is certainly the hope that it may provide some rhetorical and moral counterweight to the emotive terms `Holocaust’ and `Shoah’ (Hebrew for “catastrophe.’’). It has been in use among Arabs since 1949, according to one expert.”

“The word does not, however, make its first appearance in The Times until 1998 in an article that was part of a series examining Israel on its 50th anniversary. `Nakba’ which has become a familiar term on university campuses because of the considerable support in such places for the Palestinian cause, subsequently appears in The Times’s news pages only a few dozen more times.”

Lewis’s footnote about that expert reads: “The term `nakba’ was used beginning in 1949 by Arabs after it was part of the title of a book by Constantine Zurayk, a professor at the American University of Beirut, said Rashid Khalidi, the Edward Said Professor of Arab Studies at Columbia University.”

Thus, Lewis implies that because it didn’t use the word “nakba” until 1998 that proves the Times was pro-Israel and ignored the Palestinians’ plight. Like so much said about the Arab-Israeli conflict it is remarkable how absurd this argument can shown to be in less than 150 words. Here they are:


Everyone who ever lost a war is unhappy about it and suffered. Does the Times discuss the “nakba” of the Confederacy, the Germans in World War One and Two, the Japanese in World War Two, and so on through every modern conflict? Should it speak of Communists’ mourning at the fall of the Soviet bloc? Lewis implies that the Times never discussed the fact that the Arabs were unhappy they lost in 1948 or that there were Palestinian refugees or that they claimed all of Israel. Every week, perhaps several times a week, for a half century or more this information has been published in the Times. The only thing the Times didn’t do–but has “corrected” for quite some time by using the “nakba” concept–is to present Israel’s creation as a tragedy and to imply Palestinian suffering was totally due to Israeli actions.  Finally, Palestinian  “nakba” commemorations are relatively recent, designed by the PA as propaganda exercises. Why recent? Because the PLO would never seek pity from the West but rather presented itself as heroic warriors headed for victory.

But the man who coined the use of the word “nakba” in this context had views quite different from Lewis, the Times, the PA, the campus anti-Israel demonstrators, and the revolutionary Islamists.

Constantine Zurayk was vice-president of the American University of Beirut. His book was entitled The Meaning of the Disaster. Here’s the key passage:

“Seven Arab states declare war on Zionism in Palestine, stop impotent before it and turn on their heels. The representatives of the Arabs deliver fiery speeches in the highest government forums, warning what the Arab states and peoples will do if this or that decision be enacted. Declarations fall like bombs from the mouths of officials at the meetings of the Arab League, but when action becomes necessary, the fire is still and quiet, and steel and iron are rusted and twisted, quick to bend and disintegrate.”


This is the old style of Arab discourse.  Zurayk openly acknowledged the Arab states rejected all compromise, made ferocious threats, and invaded the new state of Israel to destroy it. For him, the “nakba” taught that they needed to modernize and democratize their system. Only thoroughgoing reform could fix the shortcomings of the Arabic-speaking world. What happened instead was another 55 years of the same thing, followed by this new era opening last year which will probably also bring a half-century of the same thing. Nakba has become the opposite of what Zurayk wanted it to be: Blaming your opponent rather than acknowledging your own shortcomings and fixing them.

What was a cry for reform and moderation has now become a call for revenge. If the Palestinian Arab forces had not begun preparing to launch war in 1946, led by the mufti, Amin al-Husaini, freshly returned from Berlin where he had been Hitler’s biggest non-European collaborator  (details in the new book by myself and Wolfgang Schwanitz coming later this year) and using hidden Nazi-supplied weapons (1942) there would have been no nakba.

Oh, and does the “nakba”–using Zurayk’s own account–compare to the Holocaust murders of six million Jews by the Nazis and their willing collaborators? Well, the Jews didn’t have a state and they didn’t declare war on Germany and invade it with armies, nor did they threaten to wipe Germany off the map, bomb them, and commit genocide on the Germans.

If Arab states had made some compromise either to prevent Israel’s creation through flexible diplomacy or to accept a two-state solution there would have been no nakba.


If the Palestinian Arabs and the Arab states had accepted the partition plan in 1947 there would have been no nakba. Instead of mourning Israel’s creation they would have been cheering Palestine’s creation.

The true “nakba” was the rejection of partition that would have created a Palestinian Arab state in 1948. Such a state would have already celebrated its sixtieth anniversary. No 1956, 1967, 1973, or 1982 wars; no refugees; no terrorism. Even today, this point has only been discussed in Arabic by a handful of brave, isolated, and ignored people.

In reality, the nakba resulted from an attempt to destroy Israel and yet is now used as the rationale for continuing to try to destroy Israel.

Yet the nakba concept of which Zurayk wrote was much broader, the Arabic-speaking world’s failure to embrace modernity, science, real democracy, and other such things. In that respect, every day is a nakba and 2011 was not the year of the “Arab Spring” but the year of renewing the nakba strategy. It is a self-inflicted nakba and the victims are the Arabic-speaking people themselves.

Like so much said about the Arab-Israeli conflict it is remarkable how absurd this can be shown to be in less than 150 words. Here they are:

So because a Syrian writer produced a book whose title was ignored by Palestinians until the last few years, the West is guilty for not taking up its title decades before the Palestinians did!  And because a liberal modernizer analyzed the defeat as the internal failure of Arab states, this should be to the benefit of nationalist dictators and Islamists who rule these states today.


What did Zurayk think about Zionism and its triumph? Here’s what he wrote:

“The reason for the victory of the Zionists was that the roots of Zionism are grounded in modern Western life while we for the most part are still distant from this life and hostile to it. They live in the present and for the future, while we continue to dream the dreams of the past and to stupefy ourselves with its fading glory.”

“To dream the dreams of the past and to stupefy ourselves with its fading glory.”  Isn’t that precisely what the Nakba concept is used for today? To say: we cannot make a compromise peace because those horrible Israelis were so mean to us more than 60 years ago. We are victims. We want revenge. We dream of total victory.

And those dreams and that stupefying guarantees failure for the Arabs, and most of all the Palestinians, today.

If Zurayk were alive today he’d be an Arab liberal fighting radical Islamism. Zurayk wanted the Arabs to learn from their mistakes. How does that stand in the context of 2012?  How soon will it be before we’re hearing of the Egyptian, Lebanese, Libyan, Syrian, and Tunisian “nakba”? Or how about the Palestinian nakba when Hamas took over the Gaza Strip in a coup? One day we might even hear about the multiple “nakba” pattern caused by the refusal of the PLO and PA to make a compromise agreement with Israel leading to a two-state solution and full peace.

PS: Here’s a more serious study of New York Times bias based on actual scholarly criteria.







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