Deir Yassin Remembered

The Other Malaysia

Remembering Deir Yassin:
Palestinians, Every One Of Us

By Farish A. Noor

At 10.00 AM this Sunday (7th April), at the Dewan Tun Dr. Ismail at the Putra World Trade Centre in KL there will be a special commemoration of the massacre that took place in the Arab village of Deir Yassin in 1948. Just what this event has to do with this column, shall be explained below.

Readers of this column would know by now that one of our preoccupations all along has been to salvage the traces of Malaysian history that have been marginalized and erased for a host of political reasons. Malaysian history, like the history of all nation-states, has always been a heavily contested discursive terrain where competing political and ideological interests are at work, forever trying to challenge and undermine other interpretations and readings of the past. But Malaysia at least has a past to fight over- pity those whose past have been lost or suppressed altogether.

Observers of Malaysian politics will tell you that many changes have taken place in the terrain of Malaysian political discourse over the past two decades. Two decades of Islamisation has also brought about a number of significant discursive shifts in the arena of Malaysian politics. Our worldview has been altered, the boundaries and co-ordinates of our political universe have changed as well. From the 1950s to the 1970s, the country's political map was spread from West to East, covering the global reach of Cold War politics. But from the 1980s onwards, the casual onlooker would have noticed that the orbit of Malaysian (and Malay-Muslim politics in particular) had shifted somewhat.

One of the major issues that entered the space of Malaysian politics was the question of Palestine. Events such as the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, the rise of Islamist movements like HAMAS, Hizbullah and Islamic Jihad, the attacks on United States troops in the Middle-east and the radicalisation of Islamist political discourse in general began to register on Malaysia's own domestic political scene.

Two significant changes took place: Firstly, this discursive shift was accompanied by the move towards the 'Arabisation' of Malay-Muslim political discourse. If in the past the country's Islamist movements were moved by the plight of Muslims in Mindanao, Aceh, Patani and other potential hotspots closer to Malaysia's shores, the 1980s witnessed the slow but steady intervention of Arab-Muslim concerns. Palestine became an increasingly important issue by then.

Secondly, following the footsteps of the uprooted Palestinian came the universal Jew. Stories of Jewish plots against Islam and Muslim concerns slowly entered the space of Malaysian political discourse as well.

But with the entry of these new ideas, symbols and tropes came an internal logic of its own as well. By the 1980s, Arab-Israeli relations had degenerated to such a low point thanks to Israel's belligerent stand on the Palestinian issue and its part in the wars against and between the Arab states. What began as a political conflict had moved to a different, cultural and religious register by then and was seen as a war not between two nation-states, but between two peoples, cultures and religions. The complex inter-relationship between the two nations and their respective histories had been effaced altogether.

One of the main reasons for this erasure of the complex inter-relationship between the Arab and Jewish peoples was the policy of the state of Israel itself. As Judaism became politicised and Israel inched closer and closer towards a religious state, both Israeli and Jewish history was deliberately re-written in such a way as to erase the presence of the Other. One of the most damaging and disastrous erasures of Israel's past was the effacement of the massacre of innocent Palestinians at Deir Yassin in 1948.

Remembering Deir Yassin: Re-membering and Re-constituting the Palestinian Other in Israeli history

Every nation has a dark side to its past. The history of the United States of America, for instance, remains largely silent about the calculated destruction of the 500 nations of native inhabitants of the country that now calls itself the 'land of the free'. The history of Australia and New Zealand continue to be riddled with huge gaps in its past, gaps which serve as the silent grave markers for cultures and civilisations now lost thanks to the onslaught of colonisation. Our own history here in Malaysia is one with so many closed closets, rattling with the bones of the dead who refuse to remain silent.

But the skeletons in Israel are not metaphorical ones: they remain as very real reminders of the fact that the erasure of the country's past had a human cost to it, but a cost that was borne largely by the Palestinians whose land they now occupy.

Some of these skeletons are found near the village of Deir Yassin, which was one of the first Arab villages to be attacked by Israeli forces during the traumatic and violent process of the creation of Israel itself. In 1948 Deir Yassin was a peaceful little village of about 750 souls. Most of the Arabs there were stonecutters, and the village was surrounded by other Jewish and Christian villages. The inhabitants of Deir Yassin, perhaps aware of the strategic position that their village occupied, had formed alliances with the neighbouring villages in the area, to ensure that whatever happened none of the Arabs in the village would attack their neighbours, and vice-versa.

The British mandate was not over yet at the time, and Deir Yassin was not even within the UN-established borders of the new state of Israel. Yet despite their efforts, the villagers of Deir Yassin could not protect themselves from the attack that came on the morning of 9th April, 1948. On that fateful morning, the village was attacked by Irgun militia troops and members of the notorious Stern gang. Although the commanders of the Israeli army, the Haganah, claimed that they were not involved in the killings that followed, they later admitted that members of their elite Palmach troops were asked to support the attack on the village.

Deir Yassin was attacked despite the fact that the inhabitants had almost no weapons to defend themselves. After storming the village, the Irgun and Stern gang members took more than a hundred Arabs captive. They were put in trucks, paraded in the streets of Jerusalem, then taken to a quarry and shot down to the last man. The village itself was looted, the Arabs driven out, and it was later occupied by Jews emigrating from Eastern Europe. After the massacre at Deir Yassin, the Irgunists and Sternists boasted of their deeds and invited foreign journalists to come and see for themselves the bloody results of their toil: piles of dead Palestinian bodies heaped in the open for the public to see. The leader of the Irgun, Menachem Begin, (who would later become Israel's Prime Minister) sent a message to the Irgun troops who took part in the massacre at Deir Yassin that read: "Accept (my) congratulations for this splendid act of conquest. Tell your soldiers that they have made history for Israel." History was indeed being made that day, but one which was based on the erasure of the past of others.

Palestinians, Every One Of Us

To remember Deir Yassin is to re-member the broken body of Palestinian history. It is an act of reconstituting an identity that has been fractured and dismembered by force and violence. That is why the commemoration of the massacre at Deir Yassin is so important, up till this day.

The guest speaker at the Deir Yassin commemoration at the PWTC this Sunday is none other than Israel Shamir. Shamir is perhaps one of the most important figures in the present conflict taking place between Israel and Palestine. As a Jew who has gone against the grain of public opinion in Israel and who has fought for a truthful and comprehensive account of his country's own history - one that takes into account Israel's role in the systematic obliteration and erasure of Palestinian history - he has risked not only his career but also his life in the pursuit of the truth. Till today, he remains as one of the few intellectual figures in Israel who has had the courage to ask his fellow countrymen to take into account of the plight of the Palestinians whose land they now occupy.

A committed democrat and peace activist, Shamir has struggled for reconciliation between the two sides in the conflict and has tried to disabuse his fellow Israelis about the myth of 'Jewish innocence'. His work has been directed towards uncovering the webs of conceit and deception that have allowed successive Israeli governments to turn a blind eye to the recent past, while focusing only on the collective sufferings of the Jews in Europe in the 1930s and 1940s. 'If the Jews of today can remember the sufferings of the generations of the past, why can they not understand the suffering of others in the present?' has been the question in much of his work.

The fact that Shamir has been invited to Malaysia today is of crucial importance. Coming at a time when the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been reduced to a simplistic clash between religions, his very presence in Malaysia reminds us of the fact that the Jewish people are not a monolithic bloc. Contrary to the claims of some hardcore anti-Israelis, the Jews as a people are not anti-Arab or anti-Islam in toto. One factor that has been left out of the equation altogether is the simple fact that the brutal policies of the Israeli state has been attacked by some of the most prominent and outspoken Jews in the world: Norman Finklestein, for instance, has attacked what he calls the 'Holocaust industry' in the United States and Western Europe; Noam Chomsky has been at the forefront of criticising the double-standards and hypocrisy of the American government whose support of democracy and human rights has often stopped short at the borders of the Arab world.

Shamir's presence in Malaysia reminds us of some vital points that should never be forgotten:

Firstly, the struggle of the Palestinian people began as a struggle for national self-determination and sovereignty. The dream of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) was an inclusive one that had space for everybody. It was the dream of reconstituting a Palestinian state that was democratic and multicultural; one that gave equal rights and representation to all cultural and religious groups- Muslims, Christians and Jews. Shamir's support for such a democratic multicultural state captures the values and spirit of that movement for universal justice.

Secondly, the very presence of someone like Israel Shamir should convince Muslims that there is a desperate need to form instrumental coalitions with progressive democratic forces the world over in order to universalise the plight of Muslims that has, so far, been thought of in particularist terms. Rather than waste our time forming alliances with crackpots and hoodlums like neo-Nazis and fascists who happen to hate Israel just because they happen to hate Jews, Muslim activists, organisations and governments need to understand the necessity to form ethical alliances that transcend the immediate needs of realpolitik only.

And thirdly, the work of individuals like Israel Shamir should teach us all the importance of the recovery of history in the broadest, most comprehensive and inclusive sense. Shamir's insistence that his people should recognise and accept the truths of the past is a universal message that has relevance to us all. For those who have dedicated their time and work towards the recovery of the past, there is no such thing as 'good' or 'bad' history. Historical facts remain facts, however problematic and difficult they may be to accept. Failure to do so does not deny the past- it merely robs us of our anchors to the present.

Shamir's insistence on reminding his readers of his country's complicated and painful past is a labour that seeks to reconstitute the identity of present-day Israel and Palestine themselves. It strikes at the very existential being of Israel and Israelis themselves; it reminds them of the fact that their land once belonged to others; that the soil upon which they have built their state had been prepared by the labour of others; that their very existence is predicated on the erasure of the Other. This is more than a problem of politics- it strikes at the very core of modern identity itself, based as it is on a dialectical understanding who we are and who is the Other. Thus it reminds us of the fact that we all carry the past in us, buried in our language, culture and history. This Other still needs to be recognised and accepted: If being a Palestinian means being the uprooted and homeless Other that continually seeks a voice and who reminds us of our ethical obligation to recognise the Other, then there is, in a sense, the Palestinian in all of us.
The commemoration of the Deir Yassin massacre will be held at 10.00 am on Sunday 7th April at the Dewan Tun Dr. Ismail at the Putra World Trade Centre. Attendance is free. Those interested can contact the organisers on (03) 4252 8699.

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