Deir Yassin Remembered

In Clear Sight of Yad Vashem (January 2003)
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."

Dan McGowan, "Remembering Deir Yassin"

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 of Auschwitz in 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, when Israel could have peace and security for the asking, Israeli governments persist in their original intention of conquering the whole of Palestine for 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 of Israel now 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, in Israel, Europe and North America have used their power, influence and, most importantly, their moral prestige to support Israel in 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, that Israel is not the aggressor, that Israel is 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 destroy Israel and 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 commemorate Auschwitz". To this we have to say, "Yes, but Palestinians didn't do Auschwitz to 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."

Paul Eisen

Paul Eisen is the London-based director of Deir Yassin Remembered
[email protected]


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