Israeli activists from Zochrot join Palestinian Nakbah survivors in commemorating a lost village
With the 60th anniversary of Israel’s birth — and of the Palestinian Nakbah (catastrophe) — which are, of course the same event, almost upon us, I was reminded this week that April 9 was also the 60th anniversary of an event that has long epitomized the connection between the creation of an ethnic-majority Jewish state and the man-made catastrophe suffered by the Palestinian Arabs. That would be the massacre at Deir Yassein, a small village near Jerusalem where fighters of the Irgun, led by Menahem Begin, massacred up to 250 Palestinian civilians — in what later emerged as a calculated campaign of “ethnic cleansing,” using violence and the threat of violence to drive Palestinians to flee their homes and land, which were then summarily appropriated by the new state of Israel, which passed legislation forbidding the Palestinian owners from returning to their property. It was the events of 1948 that created the Palestinian refugee problem, and set the terms of a conflict that continues to define the State of Israel six decades later. No resolution of the conflict is possible without understanding the events of 1948 — something that precious few mainstream U.S. politicians do. The irony is that Israelis are far more likely to be familiar with the uglier side of their victory in 1948 than are their most enthusiastic supporters on these shores.
I was no dignitary, but just as every politician visiting Israel is still taken first to the Holocaust museum at Yad Vashem, so do did my own official trip begin there in the winter of 1978 — as part of a Habonim leadership training program. The horrors memorialized at Yad Vashem pressed all the intended buttons in my 17-year-old mind, I realized a few months later, as a freshman student at the University of Cape Town, when I came very close to having the crap beaten out of me in a fight that I almost provoked when confronting Muslim students handing out leaflets marking Al-Quds day. I have had little appetite for physical confrontation since age 12, but I did not hestitate to grab the leaflets of a student named Ashraf, and throw them to the ground. He jumped at me, cursing. “You’re trying to deny my existence, you scum!” I screamed. “What about Dir Yassein?” he yelled, as he leaped towards me, restrained by his buddies as mine hustled me away, admonishing me for my provocative behavior. In truth, I hadn’t even recognized myself in that moment; it was all adrenal rage, a channeling of the “Never Again!” Warsaw Ghetto spirit unleashed in me by what I had seen at Yad Vashem. There was no room in there to consider what might have motivated Ashraf, of course; in the face of genocide (which was what I imagined he represented) there was no room for debate.
Yet, Ashraf, too, had pressed a button. I knew exactly what he was getting at by citing Deir Yassein. In the progressive, “Labor” Zionist movement of which Habonim was a part, we had long recognized the 1948 massacre of up to 250 Arab men, women and children in the village near Jerusalem as an ugly stain on the “purity of arms” myth in which we had always cloaked violence from Israeli side. We knew about Deir Yassein, but we could dissociate ourselves from it, or so we imagined, because it had been carried out not by the Haganah of Ben Gurion, but by an Irgun unit led by Menahem Begin. And as far as we ardent young Zionists of the left were concerned, Begin, who by then was Prime Minister of Israel, was nothing but a fascist thug and terrorist — hell, even Ben Gurion detested the man and condemned the Deir Yassein killings.
We in Habonim had no truck with the “fascists” of Betar, the youth wing of Begin’s movement that was now Israel’s ruling party. We stood for a “socialist Zionism” that would serve as a model to humankind of universal brotherhood and equality — thus the depths of our self-delusion. And the Betarim were the first to mock it. They, too, knew all about Deir Yassein. And they laughed at our revulsion over the massacre. “Do you think we’d ever have had a Jewish state if it wasn’t for actions like Deir Yassein?” they asked. Back then, of course, having been fed only the bubbemeis about the “miracle” in which most of the Arab population had voluntarily upped and left in 1948 to make way for an Arab invasion, I had no idea of the organized ethnic cleansing that was undertaken not only by the Irgun, but the Haganah of David Ben Gurion.
(I will confess, though, that at that time, it took reading about those events from Jewish sources, like Uri Avnery, to make it emotionally safe for me to accept the truth; if they were being hurled at me only by those whom I could dismiss as out to exterminate me and my kind, I’m not so sure it would have been as easy.)
The work of Benny Morris and other Israeli historians in the late 80s made abundantly clear that Deir Yassein was no isolated aberration, demonstrating that the mainstream Haganah, at Ben Gurion’s behest, had conducted an organized and systematic campaign of ethnic cleansing to clear Palestinian Arabs off the land that would become the State of Israel. (As to the rhetorical question of the Betarim, actually, the prospects of a Jewish ethnic majority state were pretty slim under the 1947 UN Partition plan, because 45% of the population of what would have been the Jewish State was Palestinian Arab — after all, Palestinian Arabs were the majority of the total population of Palestine, and it was hard to partition a substantial Jewish majority based on the demographics facts of 1947. So, not only Begin, but also Ben Gurion, set out to change those demographic facts.
But our willingness, in Habonim, to acknowledge even what we deluded ourselves was the aberration at Deir Yassein, was unusual. Unlike Benny Morris — whose swing to the right has seen no retraction of his understanding of the events of 1948; these days he simply complains that the ethnic cleansing was incomplete — most of Israel supporters abroad desperately need to believe the mythology about a “miracle” in which Israel overcame impossible odds (actually, the population size of neighboring countries meant nothing on the battlefield, where the armed forces Israel was able to field were more than a match for the armies sent by Arab countries) — and also about Palestinians stupidly just leaving of their own free will, expecting to return as soon as their side won. The idea that Jewish people would load civilians onto trucks at gunpoint and force them out of their homes and into the oblivion of refugee life was unthinkable for Jewish supporters of Israel, because they could not recognize themselves in such actions. The idea that by its very creation, Israel had turned three quarters of a million Palestinians into refugees — and quickly legislated to deny them the right to return — is simply too distasteful to swallow. Better to imagine a bloodless birth, in keeping with what Benny Morris called the “righteous victims” mythology.
The late Edward Said noted in 2000 that Israelis are more comfortable discussing the events of 1948 than are their most fervent American supporters. It’s worth quoting at length:
A month ago, the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz sent over a leading columnist of theirs, Ari Shavit, to spend several days talking with me; a good summary of this long conversation appeared as a question-and-answer interview in the August 18 issue of the newspaper’s supplement, basically uncut and uncensored. I voiced my views very candidly, with a major emphasis on right of return, the events of 1948, and Israel’s responsibility for all this. I was surprised that my views were presented just as I voiced them, without the slightest editorialising by Shavit, whose questions were always courteous and un-confrontational.
A week after the interview there was a response to it by Meron Benvenisti, ex-deputy mayor of Jerusalem under Teddy Kollek. It was disgustingly personal, full of insults and slander against me and my family. But he never denied that there was a Palestinian people, or that we were driven out in 1948. In fact he said, we conquered them, and why should we feel guilty? I responded to Benvenisti a week later in Ha’aretz: What I wrote was also published uncut. I reminded Israeli readers that Benvenisti was responsible for the destruction (and probably knew about the killing of several Palestinians) of Haret Al-Magharibah in 1967, in which several hundred Palestinians lost their homes to Israeli bulldozers. But I did not have to remind Benvenisti or Ha’aretz readers that as a people we existed and could at least debate our right of return. That was taken for granted.
Two points here. One is that the whole interview could not have appeared in any American paper, and certainly not in any Jewish-American journal. And if there had been an interview the questions to me would have been adversarial, hectoring, insulting, such as, why have you been involved in terrorism, why will you not recognise Israel, why was Hajj Amin a Nazi, and so on. Second, a right-wing Israeli Zionist like Benvenisti, no matter how much he may detest me or my views, would not deny that there is a Palestinian people which was forced to leave in 1948. An American Zionist for a long time would say that no conquest took place or, as Joan Peters alleged in a now-disappeared and all but forgotten 1984 book, From Time Immemorial (that won all the Jewish awards when it appeared here), there were no Palestinians with a life in Palestine before 1948.
Every Israeli will readily admit and knows perfectly well that all of Israel was once Palestine, that (as Moshe Dayan said openly in 1976) every Israeli town or village once had an Arab name. And Benvenisti says openly that “we” conquered, and so what? Why should we feel guilty about winning? American Zionist discourse is never straight out honest that way: it must always go round and talk about making the desert bloom, and Israeli democracy, etc., completely avoiding the essential facts about 1948, which every Israeli has actually lived. For the American, these are mostly fantasies, or myths, not realities. So removed from the actualities are American supporters of Israel, so caught in the contradictions of diasporic guilt (after all what does it mean to be a Zionist and not emigrate to Israel?) and triumphalism as the most successful and most powerful minority in the US, that what emerges is very often a frightening mixture of vicarious violence against Arabs and a deep fear and hatred of them, which is the result, unlike Israeli Jews, of not having any sustained direct contact with them.
For the American Zionist, therefore, Arabs are not real beings, but fantasies of nearly everything that can be demonised and despised, terrorism and anti-Semitism most specially. I recently received a letter from a former student of mine, who has had the benefit of the finest education available in the United States: he can still bring himself to ask me in all honesty and courtesy why as a Palestinian I let a Nazi like Hajj Amin still determine my political agenda. “Before Hajj Amin,” he argued, “Jerusalem wasn’t important to Arabs. Because he was so evil he made it an important issue for Arabs just in order to frustrate Zionist aspirations which always held Jerusalem to be important.” This is not the logic of someone who has lived with and knows something concrete about Arabs. It is that of a person who speaks an organised discourse and is driven by an ideology that regards Arabs only as negative functions, as the embodiment of violent anti-Semitic violent passions.
There are growing numbers of Israelis who want to confront the reality of the fact that much of the “Jewish State” is built on the ruins of homes, lands and villages seized at gunpoint from others, before laws were passed legalizing what was, in a moral sense, essentially theft justified by war, and then simply flattening and building over them.
In Chicago, recently, I met Eitan Bronstein of Zochrot, an Israeli organization dedicated to drawing Israelis’ attention to what lies, hidden and denied, beneath their feet, for example by posting signs in the middle of Israeli towns and cities denoting where Arab villages once stood, and explaining the fate of those villages — and other creative strategies to draw Israelis’ attention to the Nakbah. (Click on their video page here for some fascinating material.) And to begin concrete practical discussion on how (not whether) the right of return of Palestinian refugees would be implemented in contemporary Israel. (Click here for video of Eitan in Deir Yassein, leading participants in an event marking anniversary of the massacre.)
Here’s an extract from a piece I wrote two years ago about The Lemon Tree, the most important book anyone looking to understand the conflict could read:
Dalia Eshkenazi, like me and hundreds of thousands of other Jewish kids around the world, grew up believing that the Palestinians had simply fled their homes in 1948, miraculously making way for a Jewish State — either out of ignorance and fear; mostly in response to radio broadcasts urging them to leave so that Arab armies could wipe out Israel. That’s when the Palestinians were discussed at all. Israel preferred (and still prefers) not to think too much about the fact that much of the “Jewish State” is built on the ruins of homes, lands and villages seized at gunpoint from others, before laws were passed legalizing what was, in a moral sense, essentially theft, and then simply flattening and building over them. Dalia, whose family had emigrated from Bulgaria in 1948 when she was an infant, often wondered about the previous inhabitants of the beautiful old stone house in which she’d grown up in Ramla.
Then, one day in 1967, one of them showed up and knocked on her door. Bashir Khairi, whose family — like most others in the town — had been loaded onto buses at gunpoint and driven out of town and then forced to walk miles to Ramallah, had taken advantage of Israel’s conquest of the West Bank to travel to Jerusalem, and then to his old home. Dalia allowed him in, and immediately understood his connection with the house. Thus began a fraught and complex friendship that allowed for a dialogue quite unique between an Israeli and a Palestinian. There’s no happy ending or simple outcome. But her engagement with Bashir allows to Dalia to adopt what I would consider a more Jewish attitude to her country’s predicament: She is a committed Zionist, but is nonetheless forced to dispense with the web of self-serving myths propagated by the Zionist movement over Israel’s creation, and instead confront the reality that it occurred at the cost of a crime perpetrated against another people. For Dalia, the dilemma is to find a solution that avoids turning her own people into refugees. For Bashir, it’s a simple case of the “right of return” and the belief that Israelis and Palestinians can live together in a single democratic polity — a position for which, by the end of the book, he’s spent about a third of his life in prison, as a leader of the PFLP.
I don’t want to get into the nuances — you need to read this book. Go to Amazon and buy this book right now, or for more, click here to hear him discuss the book on NPR’s Fresh Air — or get a glimpse of his accompanying radio documentary from this NPR transcript. And also, this piece of his published by my friend Tom Engelhardt. Believe me, I don’t know Sandy Tolan from a bar of soap; this is quite simply the most important book I’ve read for ages.
The pair find no easy answers, of course. But they are able to conduct an honest dialogue based on a recognition of their common humanity — a dialogue made possible by the fact that Dalia is able to acknowledge what really happened in 1948, and accept Israel’s responsibility. She doesn’t only take Bashir’s word for it; she begins to investigate and finds Israelis who were actually involved in some of the relevant military operations who tell her how the Arabs of Ramla and many other towns and villages were driven out in what, today, would be called a campaign of ethnic cleansing.
I had the same experience myself in 1979, on Yom Kippur, when I read Uri Avnery’s “Israel Without Zionism,” written by an Israeli who was there, who fought in that war, and who bluntly revealed that the massacre at Deir Yassin (as recounted at this link from a liberal Zionist perspective) was not an isolated incident…
The suppression of the history of the ethnic cleansing of 1948 within the Zionist movement — and its substitution by the frankly preposterous myth that had us believe that 700,000 people had turned themselves into refugees with nothing but the clothes on their backs in response to radio broadcasts telling them to do so — is premised on the idea that to admit and acknowledge what Israel had done to the Palestinians in 1948 would undermine the moral legitimacy of the State of Israel. But you have to wonder what moral legitimacy is established on the basis of falsehoods. Israelis know very well where the Palestinian refugee problem came from, and they also understand its significance in fueling the conflict. Why else, when asked what he would have done had he been born Palestinian, did Ehud Barak answer (during his 1999 election campaign), “join a fighting organization”? Barak, a bit of a weasel, really (he tried to suggest, in the wake of the Camp David debacle, that his sole purpose in negotiating with the Palestinians was to “unmask” the duplicity of Yasser Arafat), almost personifies Israel’s struggle with its bad conscience: Despite acknowledging the reason why Palestinian fight, he later insisted that Israel could never accept responsibility for having created the Palestinian refugee problem.
Yet, as the relationship between Dalia Eshkenazi and Bashir Khairi shows, such acknowledgment is the only basis for an honest dialogue between the two sides: How they proceed from that acknowledgment is a major point of negotiation, but it can’t be avoided. In one scene in “The Lemon Tree,” Dalia’s husband shocks his Palestinian guests by telling them that Israel is not afraid of Syria or Hizballah or any other neighbors, but it is deeply afraid of the Palestinians. They’re shocked and ask why. He answers: “Because you’re the only ones with a legitimate claim against us.”
A Palestinian friend told me years later that Avnery was a good friend of his. Early in their relationship, Avnery suddenly realized that my friend was one of the Palestinian villagers that Avnery’s unit had forced onto trucks at gunpoint and driven out of their village near Jerusalem, forcing his family into West Bank exile. My friend poured him another drink and their friendship deepened. 1948 is known to the Palestinians simply as the “Nakbah” — the catastrophe. But for Israeli Jews, too, it was a catastrophe of a different type; a moral “nakbah.” Dalia Eshkanazi is rare — although hardly alone — among Israelis, Zionists even, in recognizing that fact. (Even though, in the U.S., recognition of such a simple truth would probably have her branded an “anti-Semite.”)
I’m not sure how this conflict will be solved, and while I can recognize the fundamental flaws of a two-state solution, I’m also skeptical of the simplicities advocated in support of a single state solution. But I do know that, like the relationship between Dalia Eshkenazi and Bashir Khairi, it will have to proceed on an honest acknowledgement of the humanity of all the protagonists, and an honest accounting of the history of Palestinian dispossession. Whatever the solution, it will have to involve justice and fairness.
And it’s on that front that the U.S. and others have stumbled over the rise of Hamas. To simply demand that Hamas recognize the State of Israel is pointless. Fatah recognized the State of Israel, but only because it had become clear to them that Israel was an intractable strategic reality — not because they recognized the moral basis claimed by Israel for its own existence, but simply because they recognized the futility of trying to fight on to reverse the fact of its existence against overwhelming military odds. Ask Abu Mazen or any other Palestinian leader, for that matter, in an honest moment, would he rather Israel had not come into being in 1948, and I have no doubt of what the honest answer would be. This book may help the objective observer, and indeed, Israelis themselves, better undertand why.
History can’t be reversed, but nor can it be denied. It’s time more Americans became better acquainted with the Palestinians, and, indeed, with the Israelis — and with the big picture of the brutally tragic history they share. Understanding that history is the key to changing its tragic course.