Why We Are Attending
Published in The Jewish Chronicle, London, UK, on 2 March 2001
Deir Yassin Memorial Day
Recent times have seen a proliferation of Holocaust memorials around the world; but none will ever match Israel's national shrine at Yad Vashem, aptly so called after the Isaiah verse, "I will give them . . . a monument and a name, . . . an everlasting memorial which shall never be erased" (56:5), which records the names and particulars of all Jewish victims and exhorts the visitor "never to forget man's inhumanity to man."
Clearly visible from Yad Vashem about a mile to the north is a hill which was until 1948 the site of a quiet Arab village called Deir Yassin. That year, shortly before the British Mandate was about to end, the Irgun and the Lehi (right-wing guerrilla groups), with the acquiescence of the Haganah (Jewish Defense Organisation), decided to capture the village in a combined operation on April 9th. After encountering unexpectedly stiff resistance, and with the help of a small unit of the Palmah (the Haganah's elite striking force), they accomplished their objective.
As soon as the Palmah had withdrawn, the guerrillas proceeded to massacre about 110 of the villagers, mostly old men, women and children. (The often-quoted figure of 254 derives from a boastful claim from the Irgun commander and from Arab propaganda.) This atrocity was immediately disowned by the Haganah and condemned by Jewish leaders. Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion sent an apology to King Abdullah of Jordan, and Martin Buber called it "a black stain on the honour of the Jewish nation."
Nevertheless the village was evacuated, its cemetery bulldozed, and its site appropriated to provide a Jewish mental home and an Orthodox Jewish settlement. No marker was ever erected to indicate that Deir Yassin had once existed; its name does not appear on Israeli maps, its memory has been effectively erased. The exhortation never to forget man's inhumanity to man was apparently deemed inapplicable.
To the Palestinians, it has become a symbol of their national tragedy. For it is an acknowledged fact that the Deir Yassin massacre was a major factor precipitating the flight of some hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Arabs from the territory that became the state of Israel. And it was not an isolated incident. Other massacres occurred, other villages vanished, a whole new diaspora was created, and the subsequent history of violent conflict has exacted a terrible toll from the vanquished as well as the victors.
The conflict has furthermore been bedevilled by the inveterate but pragmatically as well as morally mistaken belief of both sides that every outrage requires a reprisal, creating a vicious spiral of violence and counter-violence. (The Deir Yassin massacre itself was followed two days later by an Arab ambush which killed 77 Jewish doctors, nurses and medical students.)
It is clearly right and proper that the Palestinians should commemorate their national tragedy as we Jews commemorate ours. But why should we associate ourselves with theirs? For three reasons which we find compelling.
First, by way of human solidarity. Edmond Fleg's "I am a Jew because in every place where suffering weeps, the Jew weeps," says it all. The yiddishe neshome (Jewish soul) demands it.
Secondly, because we, the Jewish people, are implicated. To say that is not to prejudge the issue of the distribution of responsibility, which is complex and admits of a variety of views. But it cannot be denied that the Palestinian tragedy has been a by-product of the Zionist enterprise, carried out by, and for, the Jewish people. Nor can it any longer be maintained that it was a wholly unintended by-product, for Israeli historians have proved that the depletion of the Arab population in what was to become the Jewish State was, to some extent, deliberate Haganah policy. Besides, there have been many ugly actions, from the Deir Yassin massacre of 1948 to the Hebron massacre of 1993 and since, for which we cannot altogether disclaim responsibility without denying the talmudic principle kol yisrael arevin zeh ba-zeh, that all Jews are responsible for one another.
Thus we must accept a measure - just how large or small can be debated - of shared responsibility for the Palestinian tragedy, and to acknowledge that fact by the gesture of participating in its commemoration is, we believe, a moral imperative. Peoples, like individuals, need to face the truth about their own past if they are to achieve spiritual wholeness.
Thirdly, for the sake of the future. Whatever our views may be about the shape of the political settlement ultimately to be desired, Jews and Palestinians are destined to live together and side-by-side in the same region. If they are to do so harmoniously, they need to face the truth about themselves as well as to learn to understand and respect each other, and to feel each other's pain.
That is why we shall be among those attending the Commemoration of Deir Yassin Day at a London theatre on Sunday April 1st, which although organised mainly by and for Palestinians, has been brought forward to that date in order to avoid Pesach and so enable Jews who feel so inclined to attend as well. It seems to us a religious, a Jewish and, in the best sense, a Zionist thing to do.