Remember the pain, heal the wounds
Tuesday March 26, 2002
Given the current carnage in the Middle East, it may seem arbitrary - perverse, even - to alight on one bloody episode from 54 years ago. But the events that took place in the Palestinian village of Deir Yassin in April 1948 are so symbolic that they might almost serve as the DNA of the Arab-Israeli conflict. And the decision to memorialise them in England, Scotland, and elsewhere around the world on April 7 is highly charged and, to some, downright inflammatory.
The bare facts are beyond dispute. Early in the morning of April 9 1948, commandos of the Irgun (headed by Menachem Begin) and Lehi guerrilla groups, with the help of a small elite unit from the main Jewish defence organisation, the Haganah, led an attack on the Arab village of Deir Yassin, west of Jerusalem. Some 100 Palestinians (mainly old men, women and children) were killed.
Defenders of the massacre say that it was an attempt to break the siege of west Jerusalem, and that Deir Yassin was no sleepy hamlet but a heavily armed Arab military post. Others point out that, at the time, Deir Yassin was designated a peaceful village, had contracted a non-aggression pact with the neighbouring Jewish settlement of Givat Shaul, and that its awesome arsenal amounted to some old Turkish rifles and two machine-guns.
Jewish leaders rushed to condemn the attack. The prime minister, David Ben Gurion, sent an apology to King Abdullah of Jordan, while the Jewish theologian and philosopher Martin Buber called it "a black stain on the honour of the Jewish nation" and "a warning to our people that no practical military needs may ever justify such acts of murder".
On the other hand, Menachem Begin, in his 1952 memoirs, said that without Deir Yassin there wouldn't have been an Israel, and that after it the Zionist forces could "advance like a hot knife through butter". Under advice, he removed these words from subsequent editions.
Deir Yassin is important not only because it launched a cycle of violence and counterviolence (two days later an Arab ambush killed 77 Jewish doctors, nurses and medical students) that has been the pattern ever since, so that we can no longer tell what is a reprisal for what. But also because it has come to symbolise the Palestinian dispossession.
Within a year, the village was repopulated with orthodox Jewish immigrants from Poland, Romania and Slovakia, its cemetery bull-dozed, and its name wiped off the map. Israeli mythology holds that in 1948, the Palestinians simply ran away. Deir Yassin shows why: Israeli revisionist historian Benny Morris has said that it was the single event that did most to precipitate their flight.
Ironically, on a clear day, you can see Deir Yassin from Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial Museum, and this year Deir Yassin Day falls on Yom ha'Shoah (Holocaust Memorial Day). Deir Yassin creates enormous anxiety in many Jews, who feel as if remembering it could diminish the magnitude of their own tragedy and somehow displace commemoration of the Holocaust. They say: "I'll go and commemorate Deir Yassin when Palestinians go and commemorate Auschwitz." But there is no equivalence: while Israelis were responsible for Deir Yassin, Palestinians weren't responsible for Auschwitz.
The Holocaust has taken on a new afterlife in the Middle East as an apologia. Deir Yassin was unfortunate but inevitable, say some Zionists, because of the determination of desperate post-Holocaust Jews to get their own state. Edward Said has called them "victims of victims". Arabs, enraged that Jewish suffering is used to justify Palestinian pain, resort to virulent Holocaust denial.
It is odious to reach for analogies with the Holocaust, yet the recent images of the Israeli army rounding up, handcuffing and blindfolding young men in the Dheishe refugee camp and then inking numbers on to their arms made Nazi parallels almost involuntary. And in the Israeli newspaper Ha-aretz on January 25, the military commentator Amir Oren quoted an Israeli officer in the occupied territories as saying that his commanders must "first analyse and internalise the lessons of earlier battles - even, however shocking it may sound, how the German army fought in the Warsaw ghetto".
Last year Deir Yassin Day was marked for the first time in a powerful London event before an audience of over a thousand Palestinians, Jews (braving the inevitable barbs about being self-hating) and others. Two of the four rabbis present said that they were there because "it seems to us a religious, a Jewish, and, in the best sense, a Zionist thing to do". This year, as well as two London commemorations, there will be events in Scotland, Hertfordshire, Leicester and Manchester, which form part of 17 remembrance events around the world.
Some diaspora Jews in the peace movement feel that marking Deir Yassin isn't appropriate right now, that it simply ratchets up the victimology, and acts as another round in the blame game. Both Jews and Palestinians, they argue, must jettison their victim status and move forward together. My own feeling is that to try to do this without acknowledging Palestinian history would be rather like establishing the South African Commission for Truth and Reconciliation and leaving out the truth bit.
In general, I'm sceptical about the usefulness of commemorative days (in this paper last year, I argued against the establishment of Holocaust Memorial Day), but if we (rightly) remember Kielce and Jedwabne, pogroms against the Jews, we cannot collude in the obliteration of another people's tragedy. Tomorrow is the first night of Passover, commemorating the Jewish exodus from Egypt. It may be painful, but it would almost certainly be healing to use it also to remember the Palestinian flight from Israel.