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
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
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
www.deiryassin.org 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
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
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.