Deir Yassin -How Palestine Became Israel:
A Talk I Never Gave
Here is the text of a talk I was invited to give to the Respect Society of Goldmith’s College, London. A few days before the talk, Ahmed Masoud, the Palestinian doctoral student who originally invited me, told me that the Union of Jewish Students (UJS) had demanded that the talk be cancelled on the grounds that I was an anti-Semite and a Holocaust denier. A day before the talk Ahmed told me that the talk had now been cancelled - not by the college but by the Respect Society.
When I spoke to Ahmed he told me that he was being summoned to explain to the college authorities why he had invited me. I asked him what he would say to the college. He said that he would say that he had asked me to speak on the subjects of Deir Yassin and How Palestine became Israel and that is what I would speak on. If anyone wanted to know anything else about me or my views or writings on any other subjects, they should go directly to me.
“Ahmed, are you going to apologise to them?” I asked
He laughed “Apologise? Paul, I’m from Gaza.”
Sorry, Ahmed, I should have known.
I'm fairly certain that none of those who demanded my talk be cancelled, nor those who agreed to its cancellation have ever met me I also doubt whether most of them read much of what I've written other than selected out-of-context quotes.
So to those who did not permit me to speak: You say that I am an anti-Semite and a Holocaust denier. Well, I’m really not sure, but if you will tell me exactly what you mean those two terms, I promise to do my very best to tell you whether I am one.
Dear reader, please try to make sure that anyone who wanted, or would have wanted to hear this talk, receives this.
Deir Yassin/How Palestine Became Israel
Goldsmith’s College – 5th May, 2006
Thank you for inviting me this evening. I am the UK Director of Deir Yassin Remembered, a marvellous international organisation with a seemingly simple aim: to build a memorial to the victims of the Deir Yassin massacre.
Deir Yassin was the Palestinian village in which, on Friday April 9th 1948, a massacre took place in which between 100 and 130 people died. This was not the only massacre to take place at this time - on either side - nor was it even the worst. But it is important because, for various complex historical and moral reasons, Deir Yassin has come to symbolise the tragedy of the Palestinian people, their dispossession and their exile.
What happened at Deir Yassin?
Early in the morning of Friday April 9th 1948 the peaceful village of Deir Yassin was attacked by a combined force of two dissident Zionist militias, the Irgun and the Stern Gang. I say ‘peaceful’ because Deir Yassin had, a short while before the attack, signed a non-aggression pact with the neighbouring Jewish settlement of Givat Shaul. In fact, just a few days before, in accordance with that pact, the elders of the village had expelled some Arab guerrillas who had taken up temporary residence there.
But Deir Yassin had the great misfortune, not only to be strategically located on the all-important Tel-Aviv-Jerusalem road and to be on land earmarked by the Haganah (the official Zionist militia), for an airfield, but also the even greater misfortune to have attracted the attention of some people who had something to prove. The Irgun and the Stern Gang were no fighters. Throwing a bomb into a crowded Arab market - no problem. Hanging unarmed British soldiers and booby-trapping their bodies - easy enough, but when it came to actual combat, these two gangs were really not up to much and, on the morning of the attack, things did not go well. The village put up stiff resistance and by mid-morning the village remained un-subdued and the attackers had taken several casualties. But a band of Palmach (the elite troops of the Haganah) happened to be on the next hill and, with the aid of a two-inch mortar, they achieved in a short while what the two gangs had failed to do and the village was taken. The Palmach withdrew and it was then that the massacre took place. By the end of that day between 100 – 120 Palestinian villagers, mainly elderly men, women and children lay dead.
Note the figure - not the 254 as was widely reported. This larger and erroneous figure originated from the perpetrators who, in the evening after the massacre boasted of the 250 killed in the “battle”. The figure was also foolishly taken up by a Palestinian leadership anxious to maximise the atrocity value of the incident. Of course while recounting their daring deeds, the perpetrators made no mention of the male Palestinians they had loaded onto open-top trucks and, in a grotesque victory parade to cheering crowds, had driven through the streets of Jewish Jerusalem and then taken to the village quarry and shot. Nor did they mention the children of Deir Yassin, dragged from under the bodies of their relatives and also loaded onto trucks to be dumped, dazed and smeared with the blood of their murdered families, in a Jerusalem alleyway.
And the effect? News of the massacre spread like wildfire as did the accompanying panic. As the gangs boasted of their deed and swore to “do it again”, Palestinians succumbed to blind terror. A trickle became a stream, a stream became a torrent, and a torrent became a flood as the Palestinian people fled for their lives. The Zionist leadership screamed out their condemnations of a crime which they claimed was an isolated incident and a terrible stain on the Zionist record – they even sent a letter of apology to King Abdullah of Trans-Jordan. But as Palestinians have always known, and as the rest of the world is now beginning to learn, just as they screamed out their condemnations, they made full use of the massacre, encouraged its effects and went on to commit plenty of their own.
We know about the assaults on terrorized, undefended villages, surrounded on all sides except one – always to the one facing east. We know of the loudspeaker vans touring the countryside broadcasting the screams of the dying and, most shamefully of all, the moans of violated women. And we now know about the massacres.
The result was the dispossession of the Palestinian people, known to Palestinians as Al Nakba – the catastrophe.
How Palestine Became Israel
Now, the idea that the Palestinians just ran away or were told to leave by their leaders has, in the main, been dispelled, but we are still left with many stories, obfuscations and downright lies about responsibility for this ethnic cleansing. The critical issue now centres on the question of intentionality. Did they mean to do it or was it just an opportunity - Chaim Weizman’s “miraculous clearing of the land” - seized amidst the confusion of war.
It seems to me that Political Zionism’s aims were always clear: to establish, in all of Palestine a state for Jews. Palestine for Palestinians was to be transformed into Israel for Jews. But I don’t think the Zionists came consciously intending to ethnically cleanse Palestine. No, Zionism was far more self-delusional than that. Like all of us, the Zionists liked to tell themselves stories to make themselves feel better (Their moral degeneration was completed when they ceased telling the stories but still proceeded with the deed) First they told themselves there was no one there. The land was empty - truly a land without a people for a people without a land. Then they told themselves that there were people there but they weren’t really people – just a load of itinerant beggars. Then they told themselves that there were real people there but that they would be pleased to be part of an enlightened and utopian Jewish state - and so on and on and on. Of course they knew that they had to have a Jewish majority but they dreamed that they could do it by immigration. However as it became clear that this was not going to happen - many Jews were happy enough where they were, and for the increasing numbers who weren’t, there were far more desirable destinations than Palestine - they had to face the fact that in order to secure the necessary two-thirds Jewish majority they were going to have to lose a lot of Palestinians.
|In the hour before dawn, a mother writes to her son.......|
This was illustrated beautifully on Sunday April 9th 2006 at the Bloomsbury Theatre, where, as part of our Deir Yassin Day commemorations, Deir Yassin Day staged a play from which the title of tonight’s talk is derived – “How Palestine Became Israel”. On one side of a darkened stage Zionists plot to take over the land whilst on the other side of the stage Palestinians pretend that it isn’t happening.
|...While Zionists plan to take over the land|
Thus was Palestine lost.
But it is when David Ben-Gurion appears on stage that we begin to see the whole semi-conscious, self-delusional morality of the entire Zionist enterprise – and its inevitable moral collapse.
Ben-Gurion is a man who has long abandoned his Jewish god and now worships a new deity – a god of Socialism, Zionism and the ‘Jewish People’. But above all, Ben-Gurion is a man who ‘knows’. He ‘knows’ what is best for the workers of the world, he ‘knows’ what is best for the Jews of Europe and he certainly ‘knows’ what is best for the Palestinians of Palestine. Palestinians only want what he wants – secularism and socialism or at least, fridges and motor cars.
And not once does he see any moral objection to the Zionist takeover.
“We do not recognise absolute ownership of any country. The only right by which a people can claim to possess a land is the right conferred by willingness to work. Palestine is still undeveloped…..Since the Jewish labourer is more intelligent and more diligent than the Arab, then the land is ours.”
But the mass Jewish immigration of Ben-Gurion’s dreams is not happening. As Act One closes and the darkness looms, he and his comrades bemoan the fact that, after nearly sixty years of building the Jewish state, the Jews are simply not coming.
“Where are the Jews? Where are the Jews? Why don’t they come? We’re creating a Utopia here! Where are the Jews?”
The hard truth dawning on Ben-Gurion and his colleagues is that in order to secure their Jewish state they need to lose one million Palestinians. But how?
The answer according the research done DYD artistic director Razanne Carmey, and by scholars Ilan Pappe and Salman Abu-Sitta, is massacre
“We know what must be done. We need a few massacres – highly publicised, newspapers with stories of death, rape and burning. As soon as you shoot a few in the village square – that’s how you empty a village.”
Perfect. And, best of all, no-one’s morality need be compromised.
“No-one needs to give the order. When the soldiers are hot enough there is no need to give an order.”
I believe that the ethnic cleansing of Palestine, like all instances of ethnic cleansing, was intentional, premeditated and planned - and the planning was brilliant. Above all, Zionists knew how to wait. “The Negev will not run away” said Chaim Weitzman and nor would the rest of Palestine. But wait for what? For what Ben-Gurion called a “revolutionary situation”, meaning a situation, usually one of war, under cover of which the takeover of Palestine could be completed. The first of these “revolutionary situations” presented itself in 1947 and 1948. Another occurred in 1967.
And we need not bother looking for direct documentation, (though the Zionist blueprint for the conquest of Palestine, Plan Dalet makes fascinating reading). Although there is an abundance of evidence for the desires and intentions of the Zionist leadership to cleanse the land of Palestine of Palestinians, the architects of the Nakba left no ‘smoking gun’. No direct order has been found because there was no need for a direct order. As we heard when soldiers are hot enough there is no need to give an order.
Like most instances of ethnic cleansing, the expulsion of the Palestinians was done on understandings. Every local Haganah commander and all the men under their command at every village and town knew exactly what was required. Sometimes a few shots in the air would do and sometimes a full-blown massacre was needed. But the result was the same.
We saw it at the Bloomsbury - a projected animated image of the march of ethnic cleansing across the map of Palestine. As the map steadily turned pink, before our eyes, Arab Palestine transformed itself into Jewish Israel, accompanied all the time by flashing pinpoints of light - each of the seventy known massacres making its own special contribution to turning Palestine into Israel.
Any way you look at it Palestinian society was shattered by the Zionist onslaught and an entire way of life obliterated. At least 750,000 Palestinians were driven from their homes and into exile. In excess of 450 of their towns and villages were destroyed or depopulated and pillaged and a people who had lived a settled life for generations ended up either in tents in Lebanon, Syria or Jordan, or as a bereft and traumatised Diaspora in every corner of the earth. Thus was Palestine lost.
And back at Deir Yassin? By the end of the year the depopulated village had been repopulated with orthodox Jewish immigrants from Rumania and Slovakia. The cemetery had been bulldozed. The name of Deir Yassin was no more.
Deir Yassin Now
Although the village is still standing, the name Deir Yassin is on no map. The central part of the village is a mental hospital. To the east is the industrial area of Givat Shaul. To the north lies Har Hamenuchot, an orthodox Jewish cemetery, and to the west is Har Nof an orthodox Jewish settlement. But, to the south is a valley, and on the other side of that valley is the Jewish Holocaust memorial of Yad Vashem.
You can find Deir Yassin but it’s not easy to visit. There are no signs, no plaques, 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. But Deir Yassin is still there and still in clear sight of Yad Vashem.
Over 30 years ago I visited Yad Vashem. What memories remain are few but vivid. The narrative exhibition with its unfolding story: Concentration. Deportation. Selection. Extermination. The shrine itself with its metalled floor. The smoky flame - a world destroyed. But for me, most memorable of all, was coming out of the Children’s Museum. You go from the darkness, up some steps and into the brilliant sunshine and there before you is a panoramic view of Jerusalem. Now I believe that view is no accident. I believe that view was put there for a purpose. After the Holocaust, before you is the future - Jewish Jerusalem and the Jewish state. But what I didn’t know as I stood there taking in that view, and what I believe the designers of that view didn’t know, is that as one stands, as I did, looking at that vision of a Jewish future, you are looking directly at the Palestinian village of Deir Yassin.
|"In clear sight of Yad Vashem..." Deir Yassin seen from Yaf Vashem|
Over the years, Deir Yassin Remembered, and myself in particular have put a lot of effort into drawing people’s attention to the close proximity of Deir Yassin to Yad Vashem and we have done it as a symbol of what we saw as the close and agonised relationship between Jewish suffering and the suffering inflicted on the Palestinians. Jews have been encouraged to visit Deir Yassin, the symbolic starting point of nearly six decades of Palestinian dispossession, and from there to look across to Yad Vashem. Palestinians (if only they could!) have also been asked to visit Yad Vashem - the symbol of Jewish suffering, and to look across the valley toward the birth site of their own tragedy.
Everybody was happy. Jews of conscience were of course pleased to see Jewish suffering again at the centre of the discourse but also happy to extend their narrative of suffering to include Palestinians. Palestinians were perhaps less pleased at having - yet again - to acknowledge Jewish suffering in order to help achieve their own liberation, but they recognized the importance of the publicity that the link between Deir Yassin and Yad Vashem brought to their cause.
Of course we’ve had our problems. Jews of conscience have been happy enough to remember Deir Yassin but often at a price. They have said “Yes, we will join Palestinians in commemorating Deir Yassin when Palestinians join us in commemorating Maalot” or “We will remember Deir Yassin when Palestinians remember the more recent Sbarro Pizza Bar bombing”. We have then pointed out that we don’t commemorate Deir Yassin because it was a massacre. (If we did, we would be commemorating many times a week, every week of the year since there were plenty of massacres, on both sides). We commemorate because Deir Yassin is a symbol of the Palestinian catastrophe rather as Anne Frank is a symbol of the Holocaust. After all, as Anne Frank was just one child so Deir Yassin was just one village. So then these Jews have said, “Okay, we shall commemorate Deir Yassin when Palestinians commemorate Auschwitz”. To this we have had to say, “Yes, but Palestinians didn’t do Auschwitz to Jews; Jews did do Deir Yassin to Palestinians”. Then these Jews of conscience have said, “This is a tragic conflict and both sides have suffered terribly. If only both sides would understand each others’ suffering, all will be well.” And they have said that they would come to Deir Yassin and, once there, would say to Palestinians, “Okay, we’ve suffered; you’ve suffered, let’s talk”. To which have had to say, “No, it’s not we’ve suffered, you’ve suffered, let’s talk”; it’s “We’ve suffered and we’ve caused you to suffer; NOW let’s talk.
But those days and those concerns are over. There have been too many disappointments and too many deaths and all that seems left is resistance and defiance. So for now, I want to make just four points, and it is with these that I will close:
- First, by all accounts, and according to any version of the events, what was done to the Jews of Europe took place a long distance from Yad Vashem, while what was done to the Palestinian people took place right there at the village of Deir Yassin and right there throughout the whole of Palestine.
- Second, the perpetrators of the atrocity against Jews had nothing whatsoever to do with Palestine or Palestinians, while perpetrators of the Palestinian tragedy were and are Jews and Israelis.
- Third, the perpetrators of the atrocity against Jews have been roundly condemned over the years and punished for their crimes, and have mostly shown contrition, while the perpetrators of the massacre at Deir Yassin have not been punished. Instead, they have been honoured for their crimes, continue to take pride in them and the crimes live on in ideology and in deeds.
- Fourth, what befell the Jews had a beginning, a middle and an end, while the assault on the Palestinians goes on to this day with no end in sight.
- And one last point: The 2006 Deir Yassin Day commemoration at the Bloomsbury closed with the words: In spite of the Nakba the Palestinian people live on.
Paul Eisen is a Director of Deir Yassin Remembered