Thursday, May 19, 2005

Deir Yasin

I never knew where Deir Yasin was. I knew the name well: it is the village which was attacked and its people massacred by the Irgun, a Jewish militia, in April 1948. This story appears in any history of the conflict. Observers generally agree that the terrifying news of the massacre precipitated the flight of 700,000 Palestinians from their homes in towns and villages. As often with such places of History, the real Deir Yasin, a small village of stone houses and trees, soon became a symbol, an abstraction, a metaphor. From a tiny village with little importance (militarily, economically or otherwise) it became a legendary, mythological place. I always imagined it on a barren mountain top or tucked in secret valley, somewhere in the hills west of Jerusalem. So it was quite a surprise for me to find out that it’s actually located in what is now the Jerusalem ultra-orthodox neighbourhood of Givat Shaul. On the second week of my stay in Israel I went to the memorial service commemorating 57 years to the massacre.

Deir Yasin / Kfar Sha'ul

The Deir Yasin ceremony was organised by Zochrot, a Israeli group which attempts to tell the story of the Palestinian displacement of 1948. Zochrot do a range of activities: they arrange walks to the ruins of Palestinian villages, where people tell stories and memories; they put signs (in Arabic and Hebrew) which indicate the previous names and uses of buildings and places; they hold lectures and talks about the Nakba. The group is made of Jews and Palestinians; their activities are generally made for a Jewish audience, because the story of the disaster of 1948 is rarely told in Hebrew; the Israeli public – even its ‘leftist’ side – is usually defensive and hostile when it comes to 1948.

The service was held in a little garden, overlooking the valley. It was simple, straightforward, and extremely moving. A representative of the memory committee of the village talked about their wish to build a memorial museum for the victims. She talked about the dead, who were buried in a mass grave in the valley, and how this site should be respected ‘just like the Jews are respecting and commemorating their dead victims, from Europe’; Yad Va-Shem, the Israeli Holocaust Museum, is located on the other side of the valley, on Mount Herzl. Not far from it is the State cemetery, where soldiers and Zionist leaders are buried.

Many orthodox kids gathered around us during the ceremony. There were quite a few policemen there, in case it gets unpleasant (some events of Zochrot were attacked in the past). But nobody tried to interrupt the service. They stayed there, watching quietly, throughout the songs and the speeches.

Um Salah, an old woman who survived the massacre, slowly took her place on the stage, dressed in the traditional dress. She told her story, opening every sentence by saying ‘I pray for the Prophet’. She saw her young brother Musa, 14 years old, killed in front of her eyes; then she and her family were driven out of their homes and told to go to the Arab neighbourhoods of Jerusalem. ‘They attacked us in three in the morning’ she repeatedly said. ‘We never did any harm to them. We always had good relations with the Jews, we celebrated their festivals with them and they came to visit us on our festivals’. (Israeli historians agree that Deir Yasin was not a ‘hostile’ village; it had an agreement with the Jewish forces, but this did not prove to protect it.)

Her daughter, dressed in trousers and a head scarf, spoke briefly after her, in quick sentences. ‘I just want to say that I wish we could visit the houses of the village. Everybody wants to see the place where his parents came from, she said. We heard so many stories about it … it was very different then, when people lived in villages, there was a strong solidarity between them, in times of celebration and in times of mourning. Today everybody is running around caring only for themselves’.

Some of the houses of Deir Yasin are still standing. After the war the site was turned into a mental hospital for Holocaust survivors. Yes, a mental hospital for Holocaust survivors. Whoever came up with this idea must have had an especially sick sense of humour, or an aspiration to become an existentialist playwright. It is still a mental hospital today, and the original villagers and their families are not allowed to go inside.

The exact number of the victims is unclear, but estimates run between 110 and 140. 93 names are known. ‘Worse massacres happened in Palestine’ said the woman from the village memory committee, ‘but this one was important because of its devastating effect on the whole of Palestine’. ‘400 villages fled their homes after they heard of Deir Yasin’ said Um Salah.

At the end of the service, the 93 names of the victims were read out. One of the people who read the names was Mordechai Vanunu, the famous ex-nuclear prisoner. He had a nice Moroccon accent, pronouncing ‘Hejj’ with a ‘French’ j. Other readers had a strong and unpleasant Israeli accent; this was perhaps the only moment of discord for me.

Afterwards I want with my friend Yoav to look for the cemetery. We crossed the road and jumped over a stone fence. We found a few shattered bomb stones down the slope, beneath the almond trees. ‘Astonishing, to think that this is it…’ said Yoav ‘the open nerves of the conflict are here. And see how it looks: just a piece of land, indistinctive, with no sign that something ever happened here, just an old tombstone and a pile of stones.’

I picked some green almonds from the tree and tasted them. It’s been years since I tasted fresh almonds, since school trips I suppose. The taste filled my mouth: sour, slightly bitter, juicy and refreshing. The almond trees of Deir Yasin: I wondered if they were there before 1948.

Strangely, the service made me optimistic. It was full of good intentions, of good will. It was refreshing in its non-official spirit. If only Israelis would stop and listen, I thought. The Palestinian women who talked at the service did not talk in grand words and in great historical pathos. They talked about the tragedy of Deir Yasin, which no one disputes. They did not seek revenge; they did not come to claim back their land. They talked about reconciliation, and about making the cemetery into a memorial site, about building a museum, about visiting the site of the village. Who could deny these simple, sensible words?

But most Israelis don’t want to listen. Any discussion of the Palestinian tragedy is seen to undermine the existence of Israel. Any empathy for the displaced Palestinian is seen as a denial of the right of Israelis to live on this land. As if everything that was built in a hundred and twenty years since start of Zionism – the cities, the villages – is no more than castles in the sand that can easily be destroyed at any moment. As if someone could simply pull the carpet beneath our feet. And so, terrified by the precariousness of their existence, Israelis continue to build, more roads, more fences, more walls, more settlements. But all the layers of concrete and asphalt do not give Israelis a sense of security and stability; on the contrary. Perhaps it is the suppressed memory of the displacement of Palestinians which makes it impossible for us to feel at ease.

I don’t agree with everything Zochrot say and do, but I thought the service was touching and beautiful. And I think that both Israelis and Palestinians have to come to terms with what happened in 1948. There is no way round it, if we want to live together.

When I got to Tel Aviv that night, I noticed I lost a book by Primo Levi during the service. How annoying. Not only to lose the book, but to lose it there… I hate the way stories of the Holocaust in Europe and the history of Israeli/Palestine sometimes get entangled, I think it usually just complicates things. But as I found myself, it’s difficult to avoid it.

* * *

On Independence Day, I want back to Deir Yasin to take some pictures. As I parked outside the mental hospital, and was looking through my camera, a small orthodox boy came on his bike and stopped next to me. He had orange sticker saying ‘Supporting the Gaza settlers’.

Crazy people live inside there. He said. Why are taking pictures?

It used to be a arab village, many years ago.

Are you for the Gaza settlers? He asked me.

No. I said. He wasn't sure what to make of this. Are you… secular? He said the word as if it was a strange incurable disease.


You know, I ride a bike too, I said.

‘So how come you’re in a car?’ He wasn’t stupid.

A friend of mine went on a holiday and I’m looking after her dog, so she left me her car as well.

What’s the name of the dog?

Pancha. What’s your name?


Can I take your picture?

He nodded.


At 6:56 AM, Blogger khaled said...

very touching.
-from a palestinian in exile.

At 9:33 AM, Blogger solitarioh2005 said...

(The Arabs of Deyr Yassin ) " talked about the tragedy of Deir Yasin, which no one disputes. They did not seek revenge; they did not come to claim back their land. They talked about reconciliation, and about making the cemetery into a memorial site, about building a museum, about visiting the site of the village. Who could deny these simple, sensible words?

But most Israelis don’t want to listen.".

Once again, the Demonization.

Palestinians are the good fellows.

They do not seek revenge..;
They just want to live in Peace...;

They are the innocent.
Is problem are " The Israelis".

This is not an acurate portray of the picture.

Who does not acept whom?

" Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, who live separately from Israel's Arab community, know very little about the Holocaust. It is not taught in their schools.

Mahameed, 43, believes understanding the Holocaust could help Arabs understand Israel better and ultimately resolve the Mideast conflict.".

Mahameed spent $5,000 of his own money to set up the Arab Institute for Holocaust Education and Research in his law office.

Hashem Mahameed, a relative and former member of Israel's Parliament, said that in highlighting Jewish suffering, the institute is providing justification for Israeli actions against the Palestinians.

"Even if it's not Khaled's intention, it will be interpreted that way," he said. "I proposed that he open a study center about Zionism and its relationship to the Naqba and Palestinian pain. I don't want to understand my pain through the lens of the Holocaust."

Palestinians find it difficult to sympathise with Jewish suffering, says Dr Sami Adwan, a professor of education at Bethlehem University.

"Many Palestinians feel that sympathising too much with Israelis could lead to justification for the occupation."

"And there is feeling that the Holocaust could undermine the Palestinians international status as victims - that the horror of the Holocaust is so big that it could overpower our own suffering."

You blame israelis for not acepting Deyr Yassin but ignore the fact that palestinians do not accept the holocaust.


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