My family were ordinary folk – ‘twice-a-year Jews’ we used to call them. But like most of us second and third generation, upwardly mobile, North London Jews, our Jewishness filled our lives and at that time, that meant Zionism and the Holocaust. For me, my family and our friends, a post-Holocaust Israel meant quite simply ‘never again’.
But, while seemingly ordinary, my family were at the same time, quite extraordinary. Both my parents were, in their respective ways, unusually tolerant and free-thinking. My father was naturally tolerant – of colour, of creed, of persuasion, of everything – and even to those not always accorded tolerance by men of his generation and background. Long before the word “gay” saved us from the choice between intolerance and pomposity, my father accorded homosexuals precisely the same tolerance he accorded to everyone else. None of this: “I don’t mind what people do in private but….” For my dad there was no ‘but’. And my mother too was unusually lively in her thinking. A born rebel who laughed at all pomposities, there was nothing she loved more than to burst a balloon.
As for me, I was the family dissident-intellectual – if my father and brother wantedOxfordto win the Boat Race, I was forCambridge. So, by the 1990s you would have found me somewhere on the Zionist left – unquestioning in my support for the Jewish state but wishing it would not behave quite so badly and stop embarrassing me in front of my friends. But when it came to the question of Jewish suffering my faith was unwavering.
Here’s me in 1978 at Yad Vashem:
Then through the museum and its unfolding narrative: Concentration, Deportation, Selection, Extermination. It wears you out, it really does. Like countless others, we stand dumb in front of the little slave-labourer’s shoe in the glass case and also like countless others, we know we’ve had enough.
Then to the shrine itself: The bunker with its dulled metal floor, off-centre the smoky flame flickers, through the hole in the roof, a trickle of black smoke, a world destroyed. Then outside, from the gloom into the brilliant Mid-Eastern sunshine and up the few steps, and there it is: after the fall, redemption and the future – the blazing panorama of Jewish Jerusalem. We Jews really do do these things awfully well.
From “We Stand byIsrael” by Paul Eisen
That was in 1978 and I didn’t know what I now know: that as I came out of that bunker – the widely known symbol of Jewish suffering – and took in that perfect view, I was looking straight at the completely unknown symbol of Palestinian suffering, the village of Deir Yassin. Of course, I didn’t then know about Deir Yassin and even if I had known, I probably wouldn’t have much cared.
Thinking back I suspect my response would have been something like: Ah yes, Deir Yassin, the one stain on an otherwise unblemished Zionist record (The line had come, pretty much verbatim from my reading (age eleven) of the blockbuster Exodus). And anyway, I would have reasoned, was not the fevered anguish of the Zionist leadership (later referred to by me as Jewish breast-beating)yet more evidence of an essential Jewish moral grandeur?
Sure, I’d known about Deir Yassin – both the village and the massacre – but I had not known, nor probably wanted to know, about the close to five hundred other destroyed or depopulated Palestinian villages or about the seventy known massacres which accompanied the ethnic cleansing of Palestine.
Like a child who does not, cannot, or will not see the lamb chops on his plate as skipping round the farmyard so, for now, I did not, could not and would not see those refugees, terrorists or biblical shepherds on my TV screen as the self-same folk, those safely de-personalized and de-humanized ‘Arabs’ who had lived in what was, and as far as I was concerned, had always been, Israel.
But I must not blame myself. I do not blame myself. Even after digging through the accumulated layers of indoctrination to which any Jewish child could expect to be subjected, this was still some story. After two thousand years of exile, an ancient people return to their ancient homeland – a land given to them by God, (or, for the more secular amongst us, by History).
Because mine was no run-of-the-mill Zionism. What was claimed by so many Jews (particularly of the anti-Zionist, Marxist variety) to be an essentially political ideology, just a Jewish version of imperialism or an add-on, an essentially practical solution to an ever-present anti-Semitism was for me (and I now know, deep-down, for most Jews), a deep, emotional, spiritual, even religious affiliation. For my Zionism was a true sense of my Jewishness – a feeling that came deep from within Jewish history and even destiny – a feeling that, I, with all Jews had stood at the foot of Mount Sinai and, also with all Jews had marched through history – a history which, at the time, I had not yet dreamt of questioning.
But question it I did. Here’s me again in 1996 on the phone to the first name listed under “Palestine” – PSC: the Palestine Solidarity Campaign.
“Hello, look, I’m doing a bit of research, trying to find the name of a Palestinian village on the site of a particular kibbutz…I used to stay there….”
“Yad David. It’s in the north, about five miles from….”
“Hang on…..” Then fifteen seconds later…
“It’s al Zawiyyeh”
“How did you do that?
“We’ve got a list… It’s from a book. It lists all the villages…”
“Can I get a copy?”
“Well, you may get it in a couple of bookshops… Try Al Hoda on theCharing Cross Road.”
One hour later I arrived at the Al Hoda Islamic bookshop in theCharing Cross Roadand headed for the shelves markedISRAEL(OCCUPIED PALESTINE). This is heady stuff, and there’re some interesting things too, “The Zionist in Literature” is one, with an intriguing essay on Ari Ben Canaan, which I really must read sometime, but nothing really on the villages. Most of it is about this-way-to-peace or that-way-to-peace, so I’m there about three quarters of an hour before I find what I came for. It’s been misplaced on the wrong shelf – so that’s why I missed it, and it looks like it’s been there for quite a time. Not surprising, when I see the forty-five pound price tag. But it is what I’ve come for, All That Remains by Walid Khalidi, with the names, locations and the fate of four hundred and sixteen Palestinian villages destroyed since 1948.
“By the end of the 1948 war, hundreds of entire villages had not only been depopulated but obliterated, travellers of Israeli roads and highways can see traces of their presence that would escape the notice of the casual passer-by: a fenced-in area, often surmounting a gentle hill, of olive and other fruit trees left untended, of cactus hedges and domesticated plants run wild. Now and then a few crumbled houses are left standing, a neglected mosque or church, collapsing walls along the ghost of a village lane, but in the vast majority of cases, all that remains is a scattering of stones and rubble across a forgotten landscape.”
There are photos too, mainly of piles of rubble, which, to tell the truth, are a bit disappointing. After all, when you’ve seen one pile of rubble… a few stones… rubble… deserted site… rubble, overgrown with thorny plants… rubble… a few carob trees, piles of stones, crumbling terraces… rubble… a few stones… no landmarks… rubble… rubble… rubble.
But then there is something. As I hold the book in my hands it’s as if I’m holding something important, a record, a testimonial, a symbol of resistance, if you like.
I move on to the business at hand. District of Tiberias, 23 out of 26 villages destroyed… District of Bisan, all 28 villages destroyed… District of Safed, 68 out of 75 villages… Safed! Yad David is near Safed. Then I spot something… Kfar Yitzhak… I know that place. It’s a couple of kilometres from Yad David. I used to cycle there… Founded in 1943 on the site of the village of Qaytiyya… population predominantly Muslim… from agriculture and animal husbandry… had its own grain mill…
…at midnight June 5th 1949 army trucks encircled the village and Israeli troops swept down… rounded up the villagers and dumped them on a hillside south of Safed… villagers treated with brutality… kicks and curses… All that remains are a few stones… much of the lands absorbed by the settlement of Kefar Yitzhak…
I cannot believe what I’m reading, but I manage to turn the page just one more time and see what I’ve come here for:
“Yad David… founded in 1946 one kilometre north of the village of al Zawiyyeh… The village now lies under the cotton fields of Yad David.”
As I’m going out, I show the man the slip of paper on which I’ve written the name al Zawiyyeh and I ask what it means. He looks at the paper. “Corner?” He says as if asking me whether such a thing could really be so. Then, as I’m leaving and just as an afterthought I ask:
“There’s this word I keep seeing. Nakba. What does it mean?”
“al Nakba… the Catastrophe “
From “We Stand byIsrael” by Paul Eisen
It was two years later, in 1998 that I met Dan McGowan in London to promote his organisation: Deir Yassin Remembered. But not once in our short conversation or in the extended interview he gave afterwards did Dan mention the proximity of Deir Yassin to Yad Vashem. I read about that later on the tube, somewhere betweenGloucester RoadandHolloway Road, in the leaflet Dan gave me.
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.
From “Deir Yassin Remembered” by Dan McGowan”
For Dan, a conservative American patriot, no more was needed than to note both the fact and the irony. But for me, with my leanings and obsessions, searching as I was for some meaning to the jumbled mass of my Jewish childhood and to the Holocaust, Israeland Palestine, it was epiphany. Deir Yassin was one thing but Deir Yassin in clear sight of Yad Vashem was quite another.
Of course, it was only much later, long after I had begun to think, write and speak about these things, that I was able to properly articulate even to myself that it was precisely this ‘breathtaking irony’ of Dan’s that had so held my attention. But even if I didn’t then know it, I certainly hung onto it – from that moment I was a messenger who had found his message.
And takers there were plenty. Palestinians, long resigned to Jewish suffering being placed at the centre of their own tragedy, were still pleased with the surge of publicity that the story and the resulting Jewish participation brought to their cause and Jews were delighted as ever to have themselves and their suffering centre-stage once more. Deir Yassin gave Palestinians a new and effective narrative for resistance and Jews an activism, sufficiently challenging to seem courageous and meaningful, but not so challenging as to necessitate any loosening of tribal bonds. And the rest – the Christians, the Marxists and the various non-aligned – well, as usual, they just went along with the Jews.
By 2003 I had it all – Palestinian suffering/Jewish suffering, abused/abuser. Okay, so, my much-loved Jewish victim was now the perpetrator but no matter, Deir Yassin could be viewed only from Yad Vashem – and the suffering of the Palestinian people could be seen only through the prism of my beloved Jewish suffering.
In Clear Sight of Yad Vashem by Paul Eisen
“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 into 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.”
By Dan McGowan from “Deir Yassin Remembered”
Deir Yassin is as important a part of Jewish as it is of Palestinian history. Deir Yassin, coming in April 1948, just three years after the liberation ofAuschwitzin January 1945, marks a Jewish transition from enslavement to empowerment and from abused to abuser. Can there ever have been such a remarkable shift, over such a short period, in the history of a people?
Deir Yassin also signalled the ethnic cleansing of 750,000 Palestinians leading to their eventual dispossession and exile and was just one example of a conscious and premeditated plan to destroy the Palestinians as a people in their own homeland. For the fifty-odd years since the establishment of the state of Israel, successive Israeli governments whether Labour or Likud, and whether by force as at Deir Yassin, or by chicanery as at Oslo and Camp David, have followed the same policy of oppressing and dispossessing Palestinians to make way for an exclusively Jewish state. Even now, whenIsraelcould have peace and security for the asking, Israeli governments persist in their original intention of conquering the whole ofPalestinefor the use of the Jewish people alone. And all this was done, and is still being done, by Jews, for Jews and in the name of Jews.
But should we, as Jews, feel ourselves culpable? After all, these are the crimes of Zionists not of Jews committed in a different place and time. Are we, Jews who were not there, who were not even born at the time, to feel responsible for these deeds? And anyway, not all Jews committed these crimes, so surely not all Jews need accept responsibility?
But Zionism and the state ofIsraelnow lie at the very heart of Jewish life and so many Jews have benefited from the associated empowerment. So many Jews, even if unaffiliated officially to Zionism, have still supported it in its aims. Indeed, almost the entire organised Jewish establishments throughout the western world, inIsrael, Europe and North America have used their power, influence and, most importantly, their moral prestige to supportIsraelin its attempts to subjugate the Palestinians. And not only have they offered their support for these crimes. These same groups and individuals are also telling the rest of the world that it’s not really happening, thatIsraelis not the aggressor, thatIsraelis not trying to destroy the Palestinian people, that black is white. And not only do they deny this reality, anyone who dares say otherwise is branded an anti-Semite and excluded from society.
This militarization and politicisation of Jewish life, this silencing of dissent, this bowing down before the God of the state of Israel, is this the tradition that was handed down to us, and what does this leave us to pass on to our children? If we are really honest with ourselves, should we not, as suggested by Marc Ellis, replace every Torah scroll, in every ark, in every synagogue in the Jewish world, with a helicopter gunship? Because, as Ellis says, “what we do, we worship”.
That the relationship with the Palestinian people is fractured is self-evident, but what of the relationships within our own community and the relationship with our own history and tradition? Are these also not affected? And how does one repair a fractured relationship? As with an old friend whom one has offended, but to whom one has never acknowledged the offence, surely only the absolute truth will do.
So, for the sake of the future of Jewish life, there can only be one solution – a complete and full confession that what we Jews have done to the Palestinian people is wrong and what we are doing to the Palestinian people is wrong, and, with that confession, a resolve, as far as is possible, to put the matter right.
And where better to begin than at Deir Yassin – the scene of the crime against the Palestinian people, the place of transition from enslavement to empowerment and from abused to abuser? For Deir Yassin, in clear sight of Yad Vashem, the symbol of our own tragedy, is the symbol of the tragedy visited by us on another people. Where better to begin this process of confession and restitution?
But will they come? Will Jews come to commemorate Deir Yassin? For the overwhelming majority, the answer is a resounding “no”. Jews will not come to Deir Yassin. Jews will not confess to the Palestinian people. For most Jews, commemoration of Deir Yassin is tantamount to siding with the enemy, to conspiring to destroyIsraeland the Jewish people. Buoyed up by their own propaganda and blinded by their sense of innocence and victimhood, most Jews will not join with Palestinians in commemorating Deir Yassin.
But there is a fringe of Jews who do not take this view, Jews who do not share this vision of the Jewish establishments. These Jews, who generally make up what is known as the “Peace Camp,” do not wish to see the complete destruction of the Palestinian people but, instead, wish to come to some kind of accommodation with them. These Jews, whilst also uneasy about coming to Deir Yassin, will at least talk about it. What of them?
These Jews will often say, “Yes, we will join Palestinians in commemorating Deir Yassin when Palestinians join us in commemorating Maalot” or “We will remember Deir Yassin when Palestinians remember the more recent Sbarro Pizza Bar bombing”, We then point out that we don’t commemorate Deir Yassin because it was a massacre. (If we did, we would be commemorating every day of the week, every week of the year since there were plenty of massacres, on both sides) We commemorate because Deir Yassin is a symbol of the Palestinian catastrophe rather as Anne Frank is a symbol of the Holocaust. After all, as Anne Frank was just one child, so Deir Yassin was just one village.
So then these Jews say, “Okay, we shall commemorate Deir Yassin when Palestinians commemorateAuschwitz”. To this we have to say, “Yes, but Palestinians didn’t doAuschwitzto us; we did do Deir Yassin to them”. These Jews also don’t want to admit that what they have done to the Palestinians is wrong, and what they are doing to the Palestinians is wrong. Nor do these Jews really want to make restitution to the Palestinians. These Jews, just like those who flatly refuse to come to Deir Yassin and make no apologies, these, more moderate Jews, also want to assert their power. But, unlike the others, they want to keep their innocence as well. And this is not easy. At one time they simply told themselves that it had never happened, but now, largely thanks to the new Israeli historians, this is no longer possible. So they dress it up in what Professor Walid Khalidi has called “the sin of moral equivalence”. They say, “This is not a case of one people trying to destroy another, of a victim and a perpetrator; this is a conflict, a conflict between two rights and both sides have suffered terribly. If only both sides would understand each other’s suffering, all will be well.” So these Jews say that they will come to Deir Yassin and, once there, will say to Palestinians, “Okay, we’ve suffered; you’ve suffered, let’s talk”. To which we have to say, “No, it’s not we’ve suffered, you’ve suffered, let’s talk”; it’s “We’ve suffered and we’ve caused you to suffer; NOW let’s talk”. Deir Yassin is surely about peace and reconciliation, but the peace cannot be the peace and quiet for the victor to go on robbing the victims, and the reconciliation cannot be the reconciliation of the victims reconciling themselves with their victim-hood.
But for those few Jews of conscience who do make it to our commemorations, for that tiny remnant who do wish to remember and to confess, what will they find? First, they will encounter a people and a narrative that they may never have met or heard before. For most Jews, Palestinians remain stereotyped as biblical shepherds, refugees or terrorists, and their story is largely unknown. To encounter the Palestinian community, as so many Jews did for the first time at our London commemorations, is to encounter a community not only human and diverse, but, most importantly, so very like their own.
They will also be witness to Palestinians remembering their own tragedy. For many Palestinians, particularly those old enough to have been present at the events being remembered, Deir Yassin commemorations can be very emotional. Silently to accompany these people as they remember their tragic history is, for any Jew of conscience, a deeply moving experience.
Thirdly, and so importantly, they will encounter a story of dispossession and exile so reminiscent of their own. For any Jew, the Palestinian father who was dragged out of his home in Deir Yassin, as re-enacted at the London 2001 commemoration, could so easily have been a surrendered ghetto fighter in Warsaw 1941, and that bourgeois Madame, in her now-bedraggled fur coat trudging the road out of Jaffa and into exile, was nothing if not a Berliner boarding a train for Riga in 1942.
Finally, they will have the opportunity and the privilege to say, loud and clear, with no ifs and buts, “what we have done to the Palestinian people is wrong and what we are doing to the Palestinian people is wrong. Let us now work together to put it right.”
‘The Recitation of the Names’ The London Palestinian community remember Deir Yassin; St John’s Wood, London, April 2002