Despite threats, students to commemorate Nakba at Tel Aviv University

Man burns poster of Palestinian flag with people waving Israeli flags in background

Israeli right-wing protesters burn a Palestinian flag in front of Tel Aviv University during the Nakba day commemoration event last year.

Jack Guez AFP/Getty Images

Palestinian and Jewish activists will join together to commemorate the ethnic cleansing that led to Israel’s establishment at an event in Tel Aviv University early next week.

This will be the second year that students will mark the Nakba — Arabic for “catastrophe,” the name given to the violence by Zionist forces in 1948 — in this way.

Students will read poetry, including works by the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, and a refugee from Tantura, a Palestinian village destroyed by a Zionist militia in May 1948, will recount his story to the audience.

“Nakba continues today”

Palestinian students who tell their families’ stories “will stress the meaning of the Nakba that continues today,” said Noa Levy, graduate student and organizer. “Whether it’s the relatives in refugee camps who cannot meet them, the economic situation in the towns and villages mostly populated by refugees, or the joint struggle for rights and restitution in Israel.”

“Our event is unique [because] it is very public [in] the main square on campus,” said student organizer Dan Walfish.

Readings will be delivered in both Hebrew and Arabic, Walfish said, “in order to show that the Nakba is not only a Palestinian issue, but a subject that should be known and commemorated by Jewish Israelis as well.”

“It is not a demonstration,” stressed Walfish, noting that the event is “non-partisan and open to everyone.”

Although public discussion of the Nakba within present-day Israel has been repressed, Walfish said the organizers “do not know what kind of pressure political elements will try to force on the university [this year].”


“Without understanding the Palestinian narrative of 1948, you cannot understand the problems that Palestinians in Israel face today, and can’t understand the issues that stand between the state and the Arab citizens,” said Salah Mohsen of Adalah, the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel.

The 2012 Nakba commemoration on campus, involving approximately 500 Palestinian and Jewish Israeli students at Tel Aviv University, as well as a handful of professors, sparked uproar in the Israeli political establishment and media.

For fear of breaching the Nakba Law — discriminatory legislation that threatens to defund any organization that marks the anniversary of Israel’s establishment as a “day of mourning” — the university made the organizers pay for the event’s security and banned the use of loudspeakers.

Similar commemorations were canceled elsewhere in Israel, including one planned at Haifa University.

“Direct blow” to Israel

A week before the 2012 commemoration, Gideon Saar, then Israel’s education minister, pressured Tel Aviv University to prevent the event. Alex Miller, a member of Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, said, “It is shameful that such an event is meant to happen in public, it’s a direct blow against the symbols of the state and its sovereignty” (“Minister tells Israeli university to rethink ceremony marking Palestinian Nakba,” Haaretz, 13 May 2012).

The commemoration attracted a number of counter-protesters, including Knesset members and activists from Im Titzu, a far-right political group.

Students from Im Tirtzu reportedly confronted Palestinian students at the university protesting Israel’s attacks on Gaza last November, shouting racist slogans including “Death to the Arabs.”

Although conceding that Tel Aviv University officials have been “relatively supportive of the right to hold the event,” Noa Levy noted that university security has demanded that the students change the name of the event from “ceremony” to “protest” or “assembly” — “as if the Zionists have a monopoly on what can be considered a commemoration ceremony. We’re still trying to fight this.”


Organizers expect pressure to cancel or tone down the commemoration.

“We are continuing to organize the ceremony despite threats from right-wing parties and the attempts of the university security office to lay obstacles in front of us, whether by specifically telling us to change the name of the event or by placing arbitrary bureaucratic barriers to delay its final approval,” said Ruba Salem, a member of the student wing of Hadash, a left-wing political party in Israel.

Salem said that in 2012, organizers and affiliated activists were harassed on Facebook and other social media outlets ahead of the commemoration. Several received “threats and hate speech from people opposing the event,” she explained.

During the 2012 event, counter-protesters attacked the commemoration. “Several counter-protesters broke through the security barrier, without the policemen reacting, and tore our signs, and even used offensive language against us,” Salem added. A video of this incident — recorded by this reporter — can be viewed on YouTube.

Rula Khalaily, a student at Tel Aviv University, told The Electronic Intifada that Im Tirtzu activists emailed her before the 2012 commemoration took place. The email said that she and other organizers would “pay the price.”

Weeks later, Khalaily and three other prominent activists were threatened in a letter mailed to the dean of Tel Aviv University, declaring a spell on the students and providing their identity card numbers. The letter alleged that the activists are “promoter[s] of Nakba terror” and the “spell” was proclaimed for “incitement against Zionists.”

Following the advice of the university’s dean, the students decided against going public with the letter last year. “It was a risk; any fundamentalist could have taken it as a message to kill us,” Khalaily added.


Implanting the tradition of Nakba commemoration at Israeli universities is part of a broader movement related to the right to narrate history. “The main message is to address the Nakba as a day of mourning for the Palestinian people,” Khalaily said, “and to tell the Israeli government that they can never prevent us from talking about our history.”

Organizers also stressed the importance of shared Jewish and Palestinian participation in the commemoration. “We want to share the pain of the Nakba, openly and together, and to start a public discourse on the Nakba, [which] is still going on by preventing the refugees from returning, by taking Palestinian lands, and preventing equal rights for Palestinians,” Walfish said.

“This discourse must start from a place of humanity, human rights, memory and pain,” Walfish said. “We think that fixing the crimes of 1948 is essential for a better joint future for Jews and Palestinians.”

Patrick O. Strickland is a freelance journalist whose writing has appeared in Al Jazeera English, Al Akhbar English, The Electronic Intifada, Middle East Monitor, Palestine Monitor, and others. Follow him on Twitter @pstrickland.