On Sunday April 1st 2012, after an absence of five years, Deir Yassin Remembered will be commemorating the massacre at Deir Yassin.
This inauguration of deLIBERATION is an important occasion and I would have loved my first contribution to be my own. But in light of the above, I can think of no better response than to offer the story of Deir Yassin which has never been told better than in this seminal text by my friend and DYR colleague Dan McGowan.
I read this first in 1998. Since then, I’ve read and re-read it many times and so many times I’ve tried to improve on it – But I never could.
Deir Yassin Remembered
By Dan McGowan
Early in the morning of April 9th 1948, commandos of the Irgun (headed by Menachem Begin) and the Stern Gang attacked Deir Yassin, a beautiful Arab village with cut stone houses located on the west side of Jerusalem. It was several weeks before the end of the British Mandate and the declaration of the State of Israel. The village lay outside the area to be assigned by the United Nations to the Jewish state; it had a peaceful reputation; it was even said by a Jewish newspaper to have driven out some Arab militants. But it was located on high ground in the corridor between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, and with the knowledge of the mainstream Jewish defence force, the Haganah, it was to be conquered and held.
In spite of being better armed, the two Jewish gangs were at first unable to conquer the village. But after they elicited the help of a small band of Palmach troops (the elite fighters of the Haganah), Deir Yassin soon fell. The Palmach soldiers left; it was then that the massacre began. That evening over tea and cookies, in the neighbouring Jewish settlement of Givat Shaul, gang members told foreign correspondents that over 200 Arabs were killed and forty taken prisoner. This was reported in the New York times the very next day (4/10/48, p.6). The terrorists claimed to have lost four of their own forces. They boasted of the “battle” but made no mention of the male Palestinians whom they had loaded onto trucks, paraded through some Jewish sections of Jerusalem, and then taken back to a stone quarry between Givat Shaul and Deir Yassin and shot to death. On April 13th the New York Times reported that 254 Arab men, women, and children had been killed at Deir Yassin; there was no mention of prisoners.
The official Zionist leaders of the Haganah denounced the dissidents of the Irgun and the Stern Gang accusing them of massacre, robbery, looting and barbarism. Ben Gurion even sent an apology to King Abdullah. But this horrific act served the future state of Israel well. As Begin said, “Arabs throughout the country, induced to believe wild tales of ‘Irgun butchery’ were seized with limitless panic and started to flee for their lives. This mass flight soon developed into a maddened, uncontrollable stampede.
The political and economic significance of this development can hardly be over estimated.” (The Revolt, p.164) While modern historians argue that Begin’s claims were exaggerated and that the actual number of Arabs killed was closer to 100, they all agree that the massacre at Deir Yassin marked the beginning of the depopulation of over 400 Arab villages and the exile of over 700,000 Palestinians.
In spite of protests by Martin Buber and other noted scholars, within a year the village was repopulated with orthodox Jewish immigrants from Poland, Rumania and Slovakia. Its cemetery was bulldozed and its name was wiped off the map.
Deir Yassin Today
Although virtually all six million Palestinians in the world know of Deir Yassin, few have ever been there. The site is not identified on post-1948 maps of Israel. But it is not difficult to find. The central part of Deir Yassin is a cluster of buildings now used as a mental hospital. To the east lies the industrial area of Givat Shaul; to the north lies Har Hamenuchot (the Jewish cemetery), to the west, built nto the side of the mountain on which Deir Yassin is located is Har Nof, a new settlement of orthodox Jews. To the south is a steep valley terraced and containing part of the Jerusalem Forest. On the other side of that valley, roughly a mile and a half from Deir Yassin and in clear view of it, are Mount Herzl and Yad Vashem.
While not difficult to find, Deir Yassin today is not easy to visit. There are few places to park. Admittance to the mental hospital grounds is understandably restricted. There are no signs, no plaques, no memorials of any kind. The cemetery is largely gone; the ruins of the deir (monastery) are unmarked; and the quarry from which the residents made a living and in which the bodies of those who were massacred were piled up and burned is likely buried under a fuel storage depot on the south side of the mountain. The orthodox Jews living in the area are not friendly to outsiders and either do not know or refuse to acknowledge any history of Deir Yassin. Not surprisingly, picture taking invites suspicion and criticism.
It is unfortunate that Palestinians do not visit Yad Vashem. They argue that they were not involved in the Holocaust and resent hearing again about Jews as victims of Nazis when the whole world has so long failed to recognise Palestinians as victims of Zionists. They also believe that the Holocaust was (mis)used as a justification or rationalisation for the creation of the state of Israel and for the conquest and confiscation of their homes and villages. Nevertheless, it is unfortunate because from Yad Vashem, looking north is a spectacular panoramic view of Deir Yassin. The Holocaust museum is beautiful and the message “never to forget man’s inhumanity to man” is timeless. The children’s museum is particularly heart wrenching; in a dark room filled with candles and mirrors the names of Jewish children who perished in the Holocaust are read aloud with their places of birth. Even the most callous person is brought to tears. Upon exiting this portion of the museum a visitor is facing north and looking directly at Deir Yassin. There are no markers, no plaques, no memorials, and no mention from any tour guide. But for those who know what they are looking at, the irony is breathtaking.
On Sunday April 1st 2012, after an absence of five years, Deir Yassin Remembered will be commemorating the massacre at Deir Yassin.<