Paul Eisen

Paul Eisen

Thursday, 1 April 2004

From Deir Yassin to the Wall

From Deir Yassin to the Wall
 Deir Yassin Day 2004

If Deir Yassin was the first atrocity then the wall is the latest and perhaps even the last atrocity.

To the Israeli people, it’s a security fence. But a fence is something you can see through, something children climb over. Thirty feet high and maybe two or three feet thick, you can’t see through this and no child will be climbing over it. And security for whom, and from whom? Because, if the wall will protect Israelis from Palestinians, who will protect Palestinians from Israelis?

To peace activists it’s a separation barrier, an obstacle to the natural inclination of these two peoples to live together. Or, in a struggle between equals, a barrier to keep the two warring sides apart until such time as they can come together. But this is not a struggle between equals: this is the oppression of one people by another. And the wall is not a barrier to keep the two sides apart but to keep the Palestinians from living in their own land.

To those in solidarity with the Palestinians, who come fresh from the struggle in South Africa, this is an Apartheid wall – another occurrence of the ideology that they gave and did so much to defeat. But the Zionism, which in its oppression of the Palestinians uses as justification both the name of God and the suffering of millions, is so much worse than apartheid.

For those Jews of conscience in solidarity with the Palestinians, the wall is a ghetto wall. These Jews know a lot about walls. Jews are commanded to ‘build a wall around the Torah’ and the Western, or Wailing Wall is Judaism’s only real holy place. But it is, of course, ghetto walls with which Jewish history and memory abounds.

Because that’s what it is: a ghetto wall. They’re walling these people in as surely as they walled them in, in the ghettos of Lodz, Bialystock and Warsaw.

And it’s not new. The wall simply delineates the history of the last hundred years and especially of the last thirty-five years. Because, if you look at the map of the wall, it’s the same map as proposed by General Yigal Allon in 1968 when he called for Israel to take as much of the land on the West Bank and Gaza as possible with as few of the people. And the map of the wall is not only the map of Allon but also of Rabin, Netanyahu, Barak and Sharon: Palestinians herded into ghettos in ten per cent of what was once their land. Only now there’s a wall around it.

But Deir Yassin is not imprisoned inside the wall. Deir Yassin: where the Palestinian exile began, lies inside the state of Israel, once the land of Palestine. Deir Yassin, with its victims burned and buried under an oil depot not 1400 metres from the most famous Holocaust memorial in the world, stands as a permanent and irrevocable reminder that the Palestinian people and land live on in both memory and fact.

Nothing lasts forever, not even the present evil. With memory and hope we can struggle for a better future.

Jesus' Broken Heart

Khalil Bendib for DYD 2004

Jesus’ Broken Heart
Deir Yassin Day 2004

This year on the 9th April, Deir Yassin Day - the 56th anniversary of the Deir Yassin massacre - falls on Good Friday, the day on which Christians commemorate the crucifixion of Jesus. Today Deir Yassin, the site of probably the most important event in modern Palestinian history, stands unnamed and unmarked in clear sight of the most famous Holocaust memorial in the world.

This year Deir Yassin Day also falls on the fourth day of the eight-day festival of Pesach, the Jewish Passover which Jews often refer to as zeman cherutenu: "The Season of our Freedom". It is the word cherutenu, particularly the suffix enu "our", which calls for examination: if for Jews, Pesach is the season of our freedom, celebrating our liberation from slavery and the beginning of our self-consciousness as a people, what of their freedom celebrating their liberation from bondage and their identity as a people?

April 9th is also the day in 1945 when Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed in Flossenburg concentration camp. What would Bonhoeffer, who spoke up for Jews when so few others did, have made of the massacre of Deir Yassin and its proximity to Yad Vashem? At our 2003 London commemoration Nicholas Frayling, Dean of Chichester Cathedral, speaking of Bonhoeffer, offered an answer: "I have no doubt that Deir Yassin, in all its horror and with its ironic proximity to Yad Vashem, would have broken the heart of Dietrich Bonhoeffer."

A series of events separated by time but bound together by meaning: Jewish liberation three thousand years ago, the death of a Palestinian Jew two thousand years ago, the death of a German Christian fifty-nine years ago and the massacre of over one hundred Palestinian men, women and children fifty-six years ago.

There was probably no Deir Yassin at the time of the crucifixion and certainly no Yad Vashem, only 1400 metres to the south, and the Deir Yassin/Yad Vashem site, though high up, is over three kilometres from where Jesus died, so we are unable to indulge in any fanciful notions that he was able to see the village, certainly not with his earthly eyes. But that's not the point. Deir Yassin may be some distance from Calvary but it is no distance at all from Yad Vashem; and the massacre at Deir Yassin may have occurred a very long time after the Exodus, but it occurred a very short time after the Holocaust. So we don't have to be Christians or believers of any kind to know that, as with Bonhoeffer, the sight of this bitterest of ironies would have broken Jesus' heart.

Paul Eisen
March 2004

In the Shadow of the Wall - Deir Yassin Day 2004

In the Shadow of the Wall
Deir Yassin Day 2004
Like the Palestinian tragedy itself, the village of Deir Yassin which symbolises it, lies forgotten.  The site of the massacre of April 9th 1948, today lies unnamed and unmarked not 1500 meters from the most famous Holocaust memorial in the world at Yad Vashem. The international organisation, Deir Yassin Remembered, by building memorials and holding yearly commemorations, has put the village, and the Palestinian people, back onto the conscious map of the world.

“From Deir Yassin to the Wall”, this year’s London commemoration of the massacre, was directed by Jordanian actor/director Nadim Sawalha, and performed to a packed audience of Palestinians, Arabs, Jews and many others at the Royal Geographical Society in London’s Knightsbridge.
Nadim Sawalha

In the event, the high expectations generated by the three previous commemorations were both met and dashed. They were met by the quality of the performance, this year written, performed and directed entirely by professionals, but dashed for anyone who came expecting a conventional commemoration or a mere repetition of previous years’ successes. Nadim Sawalha:

'This year we tried something new, emphasising the theatrical side of the event, and I think we have succeeded in getting the message across to our audience in an entertaining and engaging fashion'.  

It began simply enough with 17 year old Shadia Mansour singing “Asfour” by Marcel Khalife.

“I asked him where do you come from? He said my home is the sky. I said, what happened to your feathers? He said time has scattered them away.”

It’s about a small bird of course, but for Shadia, it’s about a small Palestinian boy taking refuge in the house of a Jewish woman. Deir Yassin commemorations always salute those Jews prepared to stand up and be counted.

“Shooting with Parsley” was a new play by Palestinian playwrite Razanne Carmey. Through the Deir Yassin commemorations, Carmey has established herself as the foremost English-language Palestinian playwrite. Fascinated by a subject which has occupied her attentions for the past three years, Razanne writes:

Like many Palestinians I grew up hearing about Deir Yassin.  But also like many Palestinians, my parents didn’t go into detail, it was a massacre and many innocent villagers died.  As if a blow by blow account was somehow obscene, as if we were preserving the dignity of the victims by glossing over what was actually done to them.  This left us, the new generation of Palestinians born and raised in the Diaspora, with a vague sense of horror all the more disturbing for the lack of information. 

So when I was asked to write the story of Deir Yassin, even as the writer in me wanted to convey a sense of this horror, the Palestinian in me wanted to lay the ghosts to rest by uncovering the mundane truth.  But it was the mundane truth which proved more terrifying. In my mind, the villagers had been heroic, noble even saintly in their martyrdom at the hands of Zionist monsters.  In reality, they weren’t all that heroic, they were ordinary people with ordinary faults, people like me.  Sometimes they made mistakes, or were cowardly and sometimes foolhardy.  They refused the Arab Liberation Army’s protection, preferring to trust to their negotiations with the Jews of Givat Shaul. Were they collaborators and appeasers?  Or were they just plain frightened and confused Palestinians trying to guess at the best course in increasingly dark times? 

In fact the single most disturbing discovery I made while researching Deir Yassin, is how similar it all is to present day issues.  If the Jews who killed the people of Deir Yassin were in fact ordinary people saturated with hatred of Arabs is it any wonder they found it easy to massacre Arabs.  The culture of hatred and racism against Palestinians made killers of the Zionists, even as racism and hatred made killers of the Nazis.

What will hatred and racism do now?

So, in a timeless and imaginary courtroom, a trial takes place. On trial, the state of Israel, and to be determined, the following issues: Was it a massacre or a battle? Was it premeditated or accidental? Indeed, was it just an attack that got a little out of hand, or part of a master plan for the ethnic cleansing of Palestine. As the Chief Prosecutor says,

“Make no mistake, Deir Yassin wasn’t a massacre of a village, it was the massacre of a nation. The extermination of a country, a society and a culture”  

Shaltiel & Husseini
For both Prosecution and Defence, witnesses are called: survivors of the massacre plus real figures like Haganah commander David Shaltiel, “It was a bad business….stupid” and the Israeli historian, Benny Morris “Preserving my people is more important than universal moral concepts.” 

There is a surreal intervention by the anti-Zionist Jew Moshe Menhuin (father of the violinist Yehudi), “Jews and Blood! Jews and blood!” he rages, quoting the even greater anti-Zionist Jew Ahad Aham “Was there ever such a contradiction?  And he concludes with a thundering “If this be the Messiah then I do not wish to see his coming!”

A selection of readings; poems, comment and heartfelt pieces written by various people over the years about Deir Yassin and its commemoration - Edward Said, Martin Buber, Afif Safieh; contributions from Robert Fisk, and a recitation by Andy de la Tour and Susan Wooldridge of “Never Again Shall We Forget” by DYR director of poetry Randa Hamwi Duwajui, with its refrain “La Tensa…La Tensa” Don’t forget….don’t forget….” And then, an astonishing performance by Poet and Jewish activist Michael Rosen. Rosen, who has appeared in two other Deir Yassin commemorations, performed his poem “Promised Land”
Andy de la Tour & Susan Wooldridge

Michael Rosen

A family arrived and said that they had papers
to prove that his house was theirs.
 - No, no, said the man, my people have always lived here.
My father, grandfather….and look in the garden,
my great grandfather planted that.
No, no, said the family, look at the documents.

There was a stack of them.

- Where do I start? said the man.
- No need to read the beginning, they said,
Turn to the page marked ‘Promised Land’.
- Are they legal? he said, who wrote them?
- God, they said, God wrote them, look,
here come His tanks.

These were all professional actors, poets and performers called on to do a simple job, so it was quite a thing to see, sitting as I was at the front, these seasoned professionals slowly realising the importance of the occasion they were attending and of the words they were uttering.  

The second half opened with Hadar from Israel. She had been spotted a few days earlier by DYR’s UK Director busking on London’s Piccadilly Line. He handed her a card “We’re casting for this, call if you want to” She did and ended up singing to an audience of Palestinians, Arabs and their supporters “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” by, (in her own words), “that great Jew Robert Zimmerman AKA as Bob Dylan.”

But nothing could have prepared the audience for what was to come when Company:Collisions appeared. Was ever an audience so surprised as when four young women and one young man took to the stage in white long-johns and vests and performed “In the Shadow of the Wall” specially written for the commemoration?

Nadim Sawalha, who discovered this group says, “This theatre company which operates from Brighton has a fantastic track record. Their speciality is physical theatre which means putting more stress on movement than on words. So, we had four girls and one man in long johns and white vests performing the tragedy of war and violence. Although they had one week to rehearse the piece, their facial expressions were haunting, their movement beautifully controlled and the sound track, breathtaking.”

Dressed unbelievably as babies, these young avant-garde performers confounded our expectations, raised and dashed our emotions and ended up totally seducing our minds and hearts. A pillow fight breaks out over an orange which these children seem unable to share. The conflict over the “promised fruit” becomes ever more playfully violent and then ceases to be funny as the violence moves inexorably from pretend to real. The “children” play soldiers with guns and find pleasure in killing for killing’s sake. 
In The Shadow of the Wall

And they took it. The Arab audience, surely unfamiliar with such cavortings, sat in total and stunned silence as the horrors of violence was starkly thrust before them. And, when it became almost unbearable, they were dismissed with a baby-voice “bye-bye.”

Commemoration endings have always been important but was there ever an ending like this? Unsure what to do next, stunned and disconcerted, we stumbled to our feet and went out into the night. Deir Yassin had been remembered.

Amongst others, the evening was attended by His Royal Highness Prince Turki al-Faisal Ambassador of Saudi Arabia. H.E. Afif Safieh, the Palestinian General Delegate, H.E. Mr Ali Mohsen Hameed, Ambassador of the Arab League and by Rabbi Mark Solomon of the Liberal Jewish Synagogue. During the interval His Royal Highness accompanied by Mr Safieh went backstage to chat to actors and director. The performance was warmly praised by Rabbi Solomon who expressed an interest in bringing more and more members of the Jewish community to future commemorations.
Sophie Hurndall, H.E. Afif Safieh, H.R.H Prince Turki al-Faisal