For The Record
26 September 2001
The Center for Policy Analysis on Palestine
2425-35 Virginia Ave., NW
Washington, DC 20037
Tel: 202.338.1290 / Fax: 202.333.7742
Deir Yassin's Significance to Palestinians and Jews
The goal of Deir Yassin Remembered, explained London-based Director Paul Eisen at an 18 September 2001 Center presentation, is to build a memorial to the Palestinian victims of the 9 April 1948 massacre in Deir Yassin village.
This massacre was not the only one committed during the formation of Israel and was likely not even the worst, but "more than any other single event, it has come to symbolize" the Nakba, or catastrophe, when Palestinians fled or were expelled from their homes by Jewish forces. Deir Yassin and what happened to its residents "occupies a very special place in the Palestinians' collective memory."
Deir Yassin Remembered was founded seven years ago. Its board is comprised half of women and half of men, half of Jews and half of non-Jews. Eisen explained: "Deir Yassin is as important a part of Jewish history as it is of Palestinian [history]." Eisen hoped to explain what the massacre "means to me as a human being and as a Jew."
In 1948, Deir Yassin had reached a non-aggression agreement with a nearby Jewish settlement and had asked combatant Palestinian forces to leave. But the village "had the misfortune of being on land the Haganah [the nascent Israeli army] wished to designate as an air field." Moreover, Deir Yassin was the "target of two gangs that wanted to prove themselves." These gangs were the Irgun and the Stern Gang, the first led by Menachem Begin and the second by Yitzhak Shamir, who both later became prime ministers of Israel.
The Irgun and Stern Gang "were not fighters. They were better at throwing bombs into an Arab market" and at hanging unarmed British soldiers. But in combat, "they really weren't up to much." At Deir Yassin, they "were taking casualties." Fortunately for them, the Palmach, or the "shock troops of the Haganah," were passing by and they joined forces. After they took the village, the Palmach withdrew. The Irgun and Stern Gang stayed.
That day, the Irgun and Stern Gang massacred 100 to 130 people. Many argue that 250 people were killed, but Eisen said the number he uses is more accurate. The higher number came from "the boasts of the Irgun and Stern Gang leaders as they sat drinking tea and eating cookies at Givat Shaul that evening." Although these leaders boasted of their victory, they did not boast about the men they loaded onto a truck and "parad[ed] . . . through the Jewish suburbs of Jerusalem" before shooting them at a quarry. "They didn't boast about the children of Deir Yassin who they dragged from under the bodies of their dead relatives" and "dumped, traumatized and still bloody, into a Jerusalem alley."
Although the "Zionist leadership screamed their condemnation," they exploited the massacre with loud speakers, surrounded various villages, and committed acts of "ethnic cleansing." The news "spread like wild-fire," people fled, and Palestinians were dispossessed. By the end of the year, Deir Yassin was reoccupied by Jews from Romania and Czechoslovakia, the cemetery was leveled, the "name of Deir Yassin was wiped off the map." Today, Israel's Holocaust museum Yad Vashem sits across the valley from Deir Yassin. Eisen visited the museum 25 years ago and remembers the "narrative exhibition," the tribute to the one million children killed, the shrine with its the smoky flame representing to him the destruction of "an entire way of life, an entire culture." Eisen recalls "most of all" exiting the shrine to see an "astounding panoramic view of Jewish Jerusalem." The location of the exit is "no accident." It symbolizes "the future, [the] redemption [of] Israel." What the building's designer did not know was that it faces Deir Yassin. This site commemorating the "universally known symbol of Jewish suffering" faces the "unknown symbol of Palestinian suffering."
Speaking from his own experience, Eisen discussed the importance of having remembrance days. Although he is not surrounded by Jewish culture, he is still bound to Jewish traditions. Eisen attributes this to his childhood of commemorating Jewish holidays. Shared holidays "bind people together;" he said, "I believe that Palestinians know this." He is not aware of any people who have guarded their history more strongly.
As for the importance of a Deir Yassin memorial to Jews, Eisen referred to the growing fears within the Jewish community that their culture is "falling away" through assimilation. Eisen referred to the image of a Jewish teenager sitting in front of her television set in 1982, watching Israel blasting its way into Beirut, Lebanon. The teenager is told this is for defense. Although she nods her head, she feels disconnected. Then Eisen turns to the image of a teenager watching television today who sees missiles falling on Ramallah. Again, the teenager is told this is for defense, and again she nods her head, "but it just doesn't add up." Eisen asked: What is Judaism without justice? "Jews must acknowledge who did what to whom." For the Jewish people, "Deir Yassin marks a transition from enslavement to empowerment and from abused to abuser."
Eisen discussed Deir Yassin Remembered's commemoration of the massacre's 53rd anniversary held last year in London. Palestinians, Jews, and others attended this event which included poetry, song, and theater. Eisen believes the Jewish members of the audience were deeply affected by the presentations for three key reasons: (1) They were hearing the story for the first time. (2) They were with Palestinians and witnessed their reactions to the story. (3) "They saw their own story being told"-one of "exile" and "hopelessness," as well as "solidarity and memory." They saw an "inextricable link" between the two peoples.
Next year, the circumstances will be unique. On the Jewish calendar, the 9 April date commemorating Deir Yassin will also be Holocaust memorial day. This presents Deir Yassin Remembered with "enormous opportunities and enormous dangers." Palestinians and Jews may both be uncomfortable with this overlap. As for Jewish peace activists, Eisen believes they may flock to the idea, arguing that both groups have suffered, so "let's talk." But for Deir Yassin Remembered, this is not the message they wish to impart.
Rather, their message is "Jews have suffered and they've caused Palestinians to suffer. Now they can talk." This is the examination of a "shared history of a victim, and the victim of that victim." Deir Yassin's message is to "acknowledge the truth of what happened, who did what to whom, . . . then move on toward true reconciliation, true justice, and then have true peace."
The above text is based on remarks delivered on 18 September 2001 by Paul Eisen, London-based Director of Deir Yassin Remembered. His views do not necessarily reflect those of the Center for Policy Analysis on Palestine or The Jerusalem Fund. This "For the Record" was written by Publications Manager Wendy Lehman; it may be used without permission but with proper attribution to the Center for Policy Analysis on Palestine. If you wish to contact Eisen, write to [email protected]
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