First published by The San Diego Union Tribune
Sunday April 7, 2002
Remembering Pain Heals Wounds
By Issam M. Nashashibi
Nashashibi is a U.S.-based director of Deir Yassin Remembered, an organization of Jews and non-Jews whose objective is to build a memorial for the massacre victims in Deir Yassin. (www.deiryassin.org)
"The time will come when it will be possible to conceive of some act in Deir Yassin, an act which will symbolize our people's desire for justice and brotherhood with the [Palestinian] Arab people."
These words of the Jewish theologian Martin Buber were on my mind as I helped coordinate the 20 events taking place around the world to commemorate the Palestinian victims of the April 9, 1948, massacre at Deir Yassin: a small Palestinian village west of Jerusalem.
In these days of ever-escalating carnage in the Holy Land, it may seem perverse to remember and discuss a massacre that happened 54 years ago. But this event almost serves as the genesis for the violence that has since occurred.
No one disputes the bare facts. Early in the morning of April 9, 1948, members of two Zionist paramilitary groups: Irgun, (headed by a man who later would become Israel's prime minister, Menachem Begin) and Lehi (headed by another man who would become Israel's prime minister, Yitzhaq Shamir) attacked the small village of Deir Yassin. More than 100 people, mostly women, children and infants, were killed. Some of the surviving children were left on the street of a Jerusalem Arab neighborhood. They became the core of an orphanage, which today is a K-12 school.
Defenders of the massacre say that Deir Yassin was to break the siege of west Jerusalem and that it was a heavily armed military post. Others, including Meir Pa'il, a noted Israeli military historian who witnessed the attack, deny this interpretation.
When two colleagues and I interviewed Pa'il at his Tel Aviv home in 1996, he reiterated his public statements that the village was peaceful and had a non-aggression treaty with the neighboring Jewish settlement of Givat Shaul. He stated that the Jerusalem command had reluctantly agreed to the attack to evaluate the Irgun and Lehi forces' ability to join the future Israeli army. That is why he was sent to observe.
Pa'il confirmed that about 500 people from the neighboring Jewish settlement of Givat Shaul stopped the massacre. He also added that sections of his military report were used by David Ben Gurion, later the first Israeli prime minister, in his condemnation of the attack and public apology for it.
Menachem Begin, on the other hand, was unrepentant. He told The New York Jewish Newsletter in October 1960 that "The massacre was not only justified, but there would not have been a state of Israel without the victory at Deir Yassin."
Deir Yassin was not the first or the largest massacre of Palestinians, but the advancing Zionist forces used it to frighten unarmed Palestinians into fleeing for their lives. Thus started the eviction of more that 750,000 Palestinians from their lands in 1948. It iscarved in Palestinian collective memory because it has come to symbolize Palestinian dispossession.
While not identified on Israeli maps, Deir Yassin is not difficult to locate. Looking north from Yad Vashem, the widely recognized symbol of the Nazi Holocaust against Jews, one gets a spectacular panoramic view of Deir Yassin, which is across a valley about a mile away. The unknown graveyards, though, lie unrecognized – no sign posts, no plaques and no memorials of any kind.
The village cemetery is largely gone; the ruins of the deir (monastery) around which the village was founded are unmarked; and the quarry in which the bodies of the massacred Palestinians were piled and burned lies under a fuel storage depot.
The irony is even stronger this year. April 9 is also Holocaust Remembrance Day on the Jewish calendar. In deference to it, we organized Deir Yassin commemorations for today, because we, as Jewish, Christian and Muslim members of Deir Yassin Remembered, believe that recognition of the other's humanity is the way to peace, and that the Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal was right when he said "Hope lives when people remember."