Engagement not Apologetics (on Ta-Nehisi Coates and the Nakbah)

Ta-Nehisi Coates has powerfully opened a conversation about reparations. Though not a new topic, it remains an explosive topic. Race is not a subject that is ignored in American discourse. As John McWhorter points out at the Daily Beast, race has not been absent from the stage of American cultural conversation. Think of Trayvon Martin, Paula Deen, Cliven Bundy, and Donald Sterling. Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow—a book which made the argument that the justice system (sentencing laws, incarceration, and the aftermath) has developed into a new system of control of black men—was on the New York Times bestseller list for more than a year. Americans have not been ignoring race.

However, what is importantly disturbing about Ta-Nehisi Coates’ argument, what will continue to be disturbing, is that Americans are still talking, or screaming about race as a passing phenomenon, a problem that will be solved. The Supreme Court almost said as much as it gutted the Voting Rights Act and declared affirmative action unconstitutional. Coates’ argument is that reparations is not just about slavery, and the economic and psychological impacts of slavery, and the economic legacy of slavery in the guise of the housing scams in Chicago. Coates’ is not advocating a wholesale payout on the order of German reparations for the Holocaust. What Coates’ is arguing for is that we must come to terms with the fact that the United States was built on slavery. Slavery was the wealth—both the bodies of the slaves and the slaves as means of production—that enabled this country to come into being. Furthermore, the history of the United States after the Civil War continued to be inextricably tied to the oppression of African-Americans. We cannot tell the story of this country without telling it within a narrative of slavery. The colonists, the founding fathers, the writers of the Constitution, and the writer of the Gettysburg address, all lived in a slave culture. FDR’s New Deal made way for compromises with the South on farmworkers and domestic workers so as to protect the “Southern way of life.”

This is what truly upsets those who are upset. What is truly upsetting, angering, is that the “peculiar institution,” as slavery was euphemistically called, was not an anomaly like, perhaps, the suspension of habeas corpus during the Civil War, or the House Unamerican Activities Committee under Joe McCarthy, from which the United States recovered, returning to its better angels. Slavery was, and will continue to be part of the warp and woof of this country’s story. This is the conversation that we must have. Until we have that conversation, the unfinished business of the peculiar institution will return in the guise of a “war on drugs” or disparities in educational allocations, or the criminalization of every day life for young black men.


In a passage worth quoting at length, Coates explicitly lays out his bottom line:

[W]e must imagine a new country. Reparations—by which I mean the full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences—is the price we must pay to see ourselves squarely. The recovering alcoholic may well have to live with his illness for the rest of his life. But at least he is not living a drunken lie. Reparations beckons us to reject the intoxication of hubris and see America as it is—the work of fallible humans. …
What I’m talking about is more than recompense for past injustices—more than a handout, a payoff, hush money, or a reluctant bribe. What I’m talking about is a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal. Reparations would mean the end of scarfing hot dogs on the Fourth of July while denying the facts of our heritage. Reparations would mean the end of yelling “patriotism” while waving a Confederate flag. Reparations would mean a revolution of the American consciousness, a reconciling of our self-image as the great democratizer with the facts of our history.

This should all sound familiar to the American Jewish community. This is the very reason that any talk of the nakbah, the Palestinian catastrophe that occurred simultaneously with and inextricably from the creation of the State of Israel, is off limits. Ari Shavit’s book My Promised Land, took one small step toward opening that conversation. He plainly admitted that Palestinian villages were destroyed and their residents exiled, some of them killed. However, the book is written from a place of hubris. “We Israelis had to do this and we should have no regrets, for without this we would not have a state.” Apologetics, though, is not an apology. The book has been accorded a mixed and suspicious reception for this very reason. Accepting the fact that the nakbah, that the idea of avodah ivrit/Jewish labor, that according preference to Jews at the expense of Palestinians were central ideas in the nascent Yishuv and inextricable from the creation of the State means rethinking the comfortable Zionist narrative we have grown up on.

However, just as we have to have the larger conversation about reparations that Ta-Nehisi Coates presents, the American Jewish community, and the Israeli Jewish community have to have the conversation about the nakbah. Neither reality is going away, we will not “get past it.” We have to face it. Honestly. Now.

7 Responses to “Engagement not Apologetics (on Ta-Nehisi Coates and the Nakbah)”

  1. Are there resources out there for educating about the Nakba within a Jewish context? I was interested by this prayer, published recently on Open Siddur: opensiddur.org/civic-welfare/calamity/injustice/a-jewish-prayer-for-nakba-day/

    Are there other resources out there? It’s a taboo subject in most professional development settings for Jewish educators, so I’m really in the dark.


    MBS · May 28th, 2014 at 12:31 pm
  2. There is the Nakba Education Project, based on an Israeli curriculum developed by the group Zochrot. nakbaeducation.com/


    Aryeh Cohen · May 28th, 2014 at 8:49 pm
  3. These discussions tend to unleash, encourage and institutionalize certain mental pathologies, such as a race for and glorification of victimhood, or alternately a kind of self-immolating worship and exaltation of eternal white-guilt.

    I’m having flashbacks of reading Teju Cole about the white savior industrial complex, and the growing importance in white circles of having emotional experiences that validate privilege.

    Yes, let’s help to make permanent the mentality of the Nakhba by celebrating it, by teaching it’s eternal impact, and woe to the Palestinian that refuses to be the poor, defeated, helpless subhuman, just as we need them to be, without agency, without a future, for our emotional fulfillment.


    Victor · May 29th, 2014 at 5:57 pm
  4. Victor, there is presumably some step between “completely ignoring and denying the Nakbah” and “obsessing over it to the point of casting Palestinians as eternal victims.” You seem to present a false choice. On the other hand, you write as if you have actually heard open discussions of the Nakbah take place in the Jewish community, which would make you far more qualified to speak about this than I am, since I have never–not once in my whole life lived in Jewish community–heard this topic broached.

    Aryeh, thank you for the recommendation, but no one there has answered my request for a curriculum. Guess I’ll keep searching.


    MBS · June 2nd, 2014 at 10:23 am
  5. I know others won’t agree with me, but I see the Nakbah as something different than American slavery in so many different ways. At the same time, I agree with Aryeh that it has to be a part of the conversation, but I would argue that it’s much easier to talk about today than it was 10, 20, 30 years ago. We all need to look, even if we end up seeing different things. For what it’s worth, I’ve tried addressing it at Jewish Philosophy Place. You can find the Nakbah related posts here: jewishphilosophyplace.wordpress.com/?s=Nakba


    Zachary Braiterman · June 2nd, 2014 at 10:44 am
  6. Short of contacting the PLO Delegation in DC, which I’m sure would love to send you a plethora of historiographically problematic materials on the subject, ask Benny Morris: bennymo@bgu.ac.il


    Victor · June 2nd, 2014 at 12:33 pm
  7. I’ve been thinking about this response to the Atlantic article. It strikes me that Coates chose to equate reparations for slavery to reparations for victims of the Shoah. Had he chosen to equate it with what you call the Nakba, I imagine many Jews (including myself) would have been pretty angry about the comparison. The fact that a Jewish person makes the comparison is unsettling—intentionally so it seems to me.
    It is an unfortunate comparison. I think that there are many ways to continue the discussion about the origins of Zionism and the State of Israel, the impact on Palestinians, the impact on Jewish settlers in pre-state Palestine.
    I have no inclination and no ability to defend the institution of American slavery. I have great inclination (as well as some ability) to defend the existence of the State of Israel. I think that most people feel no reason to defend slavery. When you compare slavery to the events related to the creation of the State of Israel, I think that many would assume that slavery and the existence of Israel are so similar that just as slavery has been dismantled, so should Israel.
    Perhaps that is what the author of this article believes–though I suspect that is not the case. If not, I think that he has not been clear about the next step of his argument.
    Americans have ‘gotten past’ slavery at least in the sense that actual slavery is gone. Of course, Coates’ point is that the effects continue to impact our society in very significant ways. But what would it mean to ‘get past’ the events surrounding the creation of Israel? Is the author asking for a discussion only? Does he see this as an issue of reparations? Or must the institution (that is, The State of Israel) be relegated to the past?
    I hate to put myself within the camp which puts conversation of the Nakba off-limits. But while asking for openness, I think that the author should explain where he would hope the conversation will take us.


    Steven Rubenstein · June 3rd, 2014 at 1:03 pm

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"I may attack a certain point of view which I consider false, but I will never attack a person who preaches it. I have always a high regard for the individual who is honest and moral, even when I am not in agreement with him. Such a relation is in accord with the concept of kavod habriyot, for beloved is man for he is created in the image of God." —Rav Joseph Soloveitchik