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Deir Yassin Remembered
by Paul Eisen
Paul Eisen is the London-based director of Deir Yassin Remembered.
He is an active (though not formally observant) Jew.

Our aim is simple: to build a memorial to the victims of the Deir Yassin massacre. However, though simple, we believe that this, with its acknowledgement of the truth and its call for recognition for, and by, both sides, goes to the very heart of the Israel/Palestine conflict.

Deir Yassin was not the only massacre to take place at that time, nor was it the worst. But, because more than any other single event, the massacre signalled the catastrophe [al Nakba] of the Palestinian people, which led to their eventual dispossession, Deir Yassin has come to occupy a special place in the Palestinian collective memory.

A memorial at Deir Yassin is not just a matter of bricks and mortar. It would be the easiest thing in the world for any Israeli government to erect a monument at Deir Yassin as part of some current "peace process" and then continue, as before, oppressing and dispossessing the Palestinian people. In this work it is the getting there that counts. By seeking to memorialise Deir Yassin, Deir Yassin Remembered seeks to bring about a change of consciousness both by and about Palestinians - their past, present and future.

The massacre at Deir Yassin involved two parties - a victim and a perpetrator, so, we believe, commemoration involves both parties. Deir Yassin was a crucial event in Palestinian history, marking their exile and dispossession. But it is also a critical event in Jewish history too - when Jews moved from powerlessness to empowerment, from victims to perpetrators, from abused to abuser.

The story of Deir Yassin

Early in the morning of April 9th 1948, a combined force of Irgun and Lehi Zionist militias attacked the peaceful village of Deir Yassin. Resistance was unexpectedly stiff and the attackers sought the help of a nearby Palmach unit. With their help the village was eventually taken. The Palmach withdrew and it was then that the massacre took place. By the end of the day over 100 Palestinian men, women and children lay dead. That evening in the neighbouring Jewish settlement of Givat Shaul the gang members sat over tea and cookies and boasted of the "battle" they had just fought and of the 200 Arabs they claimed they had killed. They made no mention of the male Palestinians they loaded onto trucks, paraded through the streets of Jewish Jerusalem then took to the quarry and shot, nor of the children, some still covered in the blood of their parents who had been taken and dumped in a Jerusalem alley.

The official Zionist leadership under David Ben Gurion loudly denounced the massacre but, at the same time, made full use of it, and the terror it engendered in the Palestinian population. All over Palestine it was made clear to Palestinians that they should flee or the fate of Deir Yassin would be theirs. As Menachem Begin said, "Arabs throughout the country, induced to believe 'wild tales' of Irgun butchery were seized with limitless panic and started to flee for their lives. This mass flight soon developed into a maddened, uncontrollable stampede." This horrific act served the future state of Israel well in bringing about what Chaim Weizman later described as this "miraculous clearing of the land," and nowadays it is agreed that the massacre at Deir Yassin marked the beginning of the depopulation of over 450 Arab villages and the exile of over 700,000 Palestinians. Meanwhile at Deir Yassin itself, within a year, the village was repopulated with orthodox Jewish immigrants from Rumania and Slovakia. The cemetery with generations of Palestinians was bulldozed and the name Deir Yassin was effectively wiped off the map.

Deir Yassin today

Although virtually all six million Palestinians in the world know of Deir Yassin, few have ever been there. The site is not identified on post-1948 maps of Israel. But it is not difficult to find. 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 the Jewish Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem.

While not difficult to find, Deir Yassin today is not easy to visit. There are few places to park. Admittance to the mental hospital grounds is understandably restricted. There are no signs, no plaques, and no memorials of any kind. The cemetery is largely gone; the ruins of the deir (monastery) are unmarked; and the quarry from which the residents made a living and in which the bodies of those who were massacred were piled up and burned, is likely buried under a fuel storage depot on the south side of the mountain. The orthodox Jews living in the area are not friendly to outsiders and either do not know or refuse to acknowledge any history of Deir Yassin.

It is unfortunate that Palestinians do not visit Yad Vashem. They argue, quite rightly, that they were not involved in the Jewish Holocaust and resent hearing again about Jews as victims of Nazis when the whole world has so long failed to recognise Palestinians as victims of Zionists. They also believe, again rightly, that the Holocaust has been misused as a justification or rationalisation for the creation of the state of Israel and for the conquest and confiscation of their homes and villages. Nevertheless, it is unfortunate because from Yad Vashem, looking north is a spectacular panoramic view of Deir Yassin. The Holocaust museum is beautiful and the message "never to forget man's inhumanity to man" is timeless. The children's museum is particularly heart wrenching; in a dark room filled with candles and mirrors the names of Jewish children who perished in the Holocaust are read aloud with their places of birth. Even the most callous person is brought to tears. Upon exiting this portion of the museum a visitor is facing north and looking directly at Deir Yassin. There are no markers, no plaques and no mention in any map or tour guide. But for those who know what they are looking at, the irony is breathtaking.

Why remember Deir Yassin?

In keeping with Simon Wiesenthal's observation that "Hope lives when people remember," the suffering of the Jews has been rightly acknowledged and memorialised. But there are few memorials for Palestinians who died in 1948 and since. Their history, in which the massacre at Deir Yassin is a very significant event, has been largely buried and forgotten. And yet, like the descendants of the victims in Armenia (1915-17), in the Soviet Union (1929-53), in Nazi Germany (1933-45), in China (1949-52, 1957-60, and 1966-76), and in Cambodia (1975-79), the descendants of Palestinians want the world to remember what they suffered, what they lost and why they died. In the spirit of reconciliation essential for the success of any peace process, it is appropriate for the suffering of the Palestinians to likewise be acknowledged and memorialised.

Commemoration plays a vital part in the achievement of national causes. As families come together to remember birthdays and anniversaries, so nations come together to remember their national events such as Bastille Day, American Independence Day, VE Day. Jews have long understood this. Pesach (the exodus from Egypt), Tisha ba'Av (the destruction of the temple), Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Day). Each one, from three thousand years ago to fifty years ago, a commemoration of national struggle. And it is these commemorations - true commemorations, not the cynical exploitations of recent years - that connect a people to its past and point towards its future. So, for Palestinians, as for all peoples, commemoration of their history binds and strengthens them in the realisation of their national aims.

And Palestinians know this. In the most dire circumstances, even in 1948 when they could have become just another crushed nation, Palestinians struggled to retain their national memory. The keeping of the keys and title deeds to lost properties, the passing on of memories from generation to generation, the message, "This is who you are, this is where you come from and this is where you are going," the absolute refusal to submit, all these attest to the Palestinian determination to remember the truth about their past.

And for Jews too, Deir Yassin is important. Despite the fact that Jews are now part of the fabric of society not only in Israel but also in America and Europe, many Jews feel in danger, spiritually and morally. They remain spiritually broken by their holocaust and morally insecure about the injustice done by them or in their name to the Palestinian people. Many Jews today lament the decline in adherence to their faith and community. They call it a second holocaust and complain that assimilation is achieving what Hitler never could. So, perhaps by acknowledgement of the simple truth and of their own culpability with regard to the Palestinians, Jews might find a way to resolve their moral uncertainty and reverse this decline.

And it must be the right kind of acknowledgement. There can be no ifs and buts. Deir Yassin and the Palestinian catastrophe is a clear example of injustice by one party to another. Commemorating Deir Yassin does not allow for equivocation. Deir Yassin nails the old lies. Deir Yassin means there was a Palestinian people. Deir Yassin means there was a Palestinian land. And Deir Yassin means that these people were forcibly and unjustly removed from that Palestinian land.

Deir Yassin is the story of two peoples - a victim and the innocent victim of that victim. Whether we like it or not, these two peoples are now inextricably bound together within the borders of historic Palestine. What will this mean? What is the relationship between the abuser and the abused? How does the abused turn into an abuser? How can the abused achieve justice without himself turning into abusers? In short, how are Palestinians and Jews going to live together in peace and justice?