Deir Yassin Remembered

December 1996: Tilting Windmills

By Dan McGowan

The quest to build a memorial to Palestinians murdered by Jewish terrorists (of the Irgun and the Stern Gang) and to build it at the site of the massacre at Deir Yassin on the west side of Jerusalem in an orthodox Jewish neighborhood and in the shadow of the most famous Holocaust memorial at Yad Vashem is a daunting task. I feel like Don Quixote. But my friend, Issam Nashashibi, and I spent the first two weeks of December in Palestine fundraising for the project known as Deir Yassin Remembered. Although we worked from morning until night, we returned more energized and optimistic than ever. Now during the holiday season we are sharpening new lances and making preparations for a conference in April and for the year ahead. Here is a summary of our trip:

I arrived in Jerusalem in the evening of November 30th. An hour later I was at a reception at St. Andrew's Cathedral where I met several "important" leaders of the Christian Palestinian community. I also met the mayor of Jerusalem, Ehud Olmert, and asked his permission to photograph Lifta, an "abandoned" Arab village on the west side of Jerusalem which is scheduled to be destroyed to make way for Jewish-only housing. Although I did not have time to inquire about his father's participation in the Irgun or to describe our project, Deir Yassin Remembered (DYR), I was able to secure his permission to take pictures at Lifta.

After church on Sunday I met with other Christian organizers and with one of the brightest, most engaging contemporary Jewish theologians, Marc Ellis, who had been invited to present a series of lectures in Israel and in the Occupied Territories. Marc is on the DYR Board of Advisers. In spite of his international reputation generated by his many books and articles, Marc is financially poor; his anti-Zionist philosophy has virtually blacklisted him from any academic position in the United States.

On Monday I met with Sahar Ghosheh (Founder and Director of the Palestinian Center For Adult Education and Rehabilitation) and together we traveled to Birzeit University north of Ramallah. There we spoke with Saleh Abdel Jawad (Center for Research and Documentation of Palestinian Society) and began to plan for a conference at Birzeit to commemorate the 49th anniversary this coming April 9th. Both Sahar and Saleh are on the DYR Board of Advisers.

Tuesday morning I met with the directors of Dar El Tifl, an orphanage started in 1948 with children whose parents had been murdered at Deir Yassin. Hideya Husseini agreed to provide DYR with photographs to be included in a book on Deir Yassin to be published on the 50th anniversary; the book is being written by Sherry Al-Mufti, one of the most knowledgeable, if not well-known, contemporary authors. I also met with Khairieh Abu Shusheh, a teacher in the Old City and one of the principal coordinators of the DYR Conference in April. Khairieh helped me photograph Deir Yassin last year and visited Yad Vashem with me and my daughter, Kristy.

Issam arrived in the wee hours of Wednesday morning, but by 9 o'clock he was ready to join me and Allison Hodgkins, who converted to Judaism a couple of years ago. We traveled to Hebron and to the settlement of Kiryat Arba where we went to the grave of Barry Goldstein in Meir Kahane Memorial Park. Barry was the racist American doctor who murdered 29 Muslims and wounded over 100 others by shooting them in the back while they were praying in the Ibrahimi mosque in Hebron a couple of years ago. There is a large memorial to Barry. People come there to place small stones on his grave and to pray and light candles. The Law of Return means that people like Barry can come to Israel and to the territories it colonizes and settle there; people like Issam, who was born and raised in Jerusalem, have no such rights.

Thursday found us back at Birzeit University planning the conference. We decided to have six speakers: Marc Ellis, Saleh Abdel Jawad, Daniel McGowan, Mahmoud Darwish (the Palestinian national poet), a survivor of Deir Yassin (from the Deir Yassin Society), and Hanan Ashrawi (now the Minister of Higher Education and a master of the media). All have accepted, except Hanan. In the evening we met with two reporters and a TV scriptwriter from Switzerland.

On Friday we went to Lifta. It was a truly beautiful village with many buildings which one cannot see from the highway because they are overgrown with olive and almond trees and with saber cacti. We were inspired to make the saber (or sabra for the Israelis) the logo or symbol of DYR. It continues to grow at the sites of over 400 Arab villages depopulated during the creation of the State of Israel in 1948. It is a living testimony that this was definitely not "a land without people" as Zionist mythology often claims. In the evening we worked on our website at and began to set up e-mail accounts for our conference coordinators.

On Saturday we visited Orient House and secured a 1924 map showing Deir Yassin, its quarries, cisterns, and cemetery. We also made a presentation for a group of tour bus operators who promised a donation of $2,600. We hope that they will include Deir Yassin on their tours; currently there are only two small "alternative" groups which bring people to the site and to the beautiful old Arab buildings at Deir Yassin. In the evening I met with the board of directors of a primary school in the Old City; they liked the DYR project and proposed a way for school children to collect shekels for it and thereby keep the history surrounding Deir Yassin alive.

On Sunday we met with a prominent, wealthy Palestinian family in East Jerusalem. They were impressed with the DYR project and promised to introduce it to other significant potential contributors. In the evening we met with Pat Cockburn and two other journalists at The American Colony Hotel. They all promised to give us good coverage when we select the final memorial design and when we begin to send delegations to Israel to petition for a suitable site at Deir Yassin.

Monday found us back in Ramallah trying to meet with Hanan Ashrawi; no luck. Then on to Sabeel Liberation Theology Center and a wonderful meeting with Canon Naim Ateek, Director of St. George's Cathedral, and Nora Carmi.

All of Tuesday was spent at the Knesset where we met with Talab Elsana, Hashem Mahameed, Nawaf Masalha, and Tamar Gozansky. They were very responsive to DYR and Talab promised to put Deir Yassin on the Knesset calendar for discussion on April 9th, the 49th anniversary and the day of our conference at Birzeit University.

Wednesday was the highlight of the trip. We went to Jaffa and then to Tel Aviv where we interviewed Meir Pa'il, a retired colonel from the Israeli Defense Force Intelligence Service and an eyewitness to the massacre at Deir Yassin on April 9, 1948. He is now a military historian. In a very dispassionate, academic way he described to us the events leading up to and including the massacre. He allowed us to tape the interview and answered every question candidly and forthrightly. Using the maps we had brought with us, Meir Pa'il described how the Irgun, the Stern Gang, and the Palmach attacked the village and how the Irgun and the Stern Gang murdered over 100 people on that fateful Friday. He showed us the quarry in which about 25 male Palestinians were executed after they were paraded through the streets of Jerusalem. He pointed out the cemetery which has now been bulldozed in spite of Haganah (and later Israeli) promises to the contrary. He described his role as an intelligence officer for the Haganah and as the one responsible for urging the Palmach to withdraw after the village was conquered, leaving the "bastards" and the "terrorists" of the Irgun and the Stern Gang to commit the murders and mutilations. We were spell bound and excited to have found a witness so capable of putting together the pieces we had collected from other more fragmented accounts.

On Thursday we met with Tikva Honig-Parnass and the people at Alternative Information Center. They are interested in publicizing our conference in April. The wife of AIC Director Michael Warshawsky is the famous Israeli attorney, Lea Tsemel; she is also on our Board of Advisers. Later we met with the Jerusalem Media and Communication Center (JMCC) and they sent Rosemary Barbeau (who was on the ADC Eyewitness Israel program with me in 1989) to interview us for a story to be published in Palestine Reports. In the early afternoon Fahmi Nashashibi sponsored a luncheon for us at his hotel, The Pilgrims Palace, to introduce us to additional people who promised to help us with fundraising.

Khairieh met us late in the afternoon and we kept an appointment with the Michel Sabbah, the Latin Patriarch or Roman Catholic Archbishop of Jerusalem. He endorsed our project and gave us his blessing. He also strongly advised us not to make this another Holocaust-style memorial, but rather one which shows forgiveness even to the murderers who committed the massacre. His point was well taken and one which we plan to include in our design specifications for the memorial contest. That evening we had dinner in Bethlehem with Jennifer Morehead and Shawqi Issa of Law and the Environment (LAWE), who also endorsed DYR and its goals.

Later that night we met with Mohammed Nashashibi, the Palestinian Authority's Minister of Finance. He also endorsed DYR and promised to underwrite our conference in April for the first $6,000.

Friday we met with Linda Brayer of the St. Yves Society. She is an activist and a lawyer specializing in defending Palestinians and working to prevent the continued confiscation of their lands. We also met with Roni Ben-Efrat, the editor of Challenge Magazine. We took her to Yad Vashem and (for the first time) to Deir Yassin. We hope to do a couple of articles for Challenge about the conference and about the DYR project in general.

On Saturday I left Israel. Because I stayed in East Jerusalem I was subjected to two and a half hours of intense questioning and search. I described the project and was disappointed, but not surprised, to learn that neither of the two security agents had ever heard of Deir Yassin. It is a piece of history known to every Palestinian but systematically ignored by Israelis, even by those who are "against silence" and who profess to be staunch advocates of protesting "man's inhumanity to man."

Issam tied up loose ends and tended to some family business before leaving Israel on Monday.

Happy Holidays...

Deir Yassin Remembered

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