On the Fiftieth Anniversary of Deir Yassin
A Jewish Perspective on Memory, Justice and Reconciliation.
Marc H. Ellis
Fifty years ago today, in the midst of Israel's struggle to be born as a nation-state, terrible event occurred. A village of some 700 Arabs, named Deir Yassin, located on the outskirts of Jerusalem, was attacked by the Hagannah, the official Jewish army, and Jewish irregulars, bearing the names of the Irgun and Lehi.
While irregular, these organizations contributed much to the future state of Israel. Among their leaders were two future prime ministers of Israel, Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir.
What happened at Deir Yassin is well known, and though the numbers of dead are disputed (from 100 -250 are claimed ), the essential details are confirmed by Palestinian and Jewish historians alike: a massacre of Arab non-combatants occurred carried out by the Irgun and Lehi. This massacre resounded throughout Palestine, and coupled with other massacres in other villages, spread panic among the Palestinian Arabs leading to a
Widespread exodus of Palestinian Arabs, numbering in the hundreds of thousands.
In a letter to David Ben-Gurion protesting the plans to resettle the village after the war with Jewish citizens, Martin Buber, one of the most prominent Jewish intellectual and religious figures of his time, along with Ernst Simon, Werner Senator and Cecil Roth, wrote that the massacre at Deir Yassin had become "infamous throughout the ... whole world. In Deir Yassin hundreds of innocent men, women and children were massacred. . Let the village of Deir Yassin remain uninhabited for the time being, and let
its desolation be a terrible and tragic symbol of war, and a warning to our people that no practical military needs may ever justify such acts of murder..."
At this time of celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of Jewish statehood, what are Jews to do with this event that signaled then and represents now the catastrophe within Palestinian history? What are we to do with Deir Yassin, the shadow-side of the formation of Israel?
For most Jews this event is forgotten or repressed, folded into the larger Jewish drama of suffering in the Holocaust and survival in the state of Israel. For some Jews, the tragedy of the Holocaust is so huge that to spend time on this smaller, perhaps unfortunate, event in the midst of a war where terrorism was perpetuated by both sides is misplaced.
Perhaps the burial of this tragedy in Jewish consciousness has a more significant reason. In Israel and Palestine today, there is a fear of raising this issue. The fear is that the Jewish history of dispossession, known and mourned by all Jews, the dispossession of Palestinians, if analyzed and affirmed, is all too familiar.
Could the recognition that the Palestinians have experienced a tragedy not unlike tragedies in Jewish history - this time at our hands - call our own commitment to Israel into question? Perhaps this is why Ben-Gurion never responded to Buber's letter and why Jewish leadership, after initially admitting the massacre at Deir Yassin and expressing regret, have been silent over the last decades.
Buber never felt that his mourning over Deir Yassin meant betrayal of Israel. For Buber it was a call to recognize the evils of war, the limitations of statehood and the possibility, indeed the necessity, of confession and reconciliation with those who had been wronged in the creation of Israel. Buber was a Zionist before and after the founding
of Israel, but a Zionist whose voice has been lost between the competing and increasingly militarized parties and factions that make up the Israeli political and religious scene today.
Instead of arguing over percentages of Israeli withdrawal from the occupied West Bank, Buber had a vision of a united Palestine where Jews and Arabs would live side by side, affirming their own particularity and involved in a joint development of the Holy Land.
Could this be our vision today, a vision celebrating Jewish survival and mourning the Palestinian catastrophe? The purpose of this vision is to transform Jewish survival into a peaceful and just flourishing and Palestinian defeat into a new freedom and prosperity. Jews and Palestinians could thus claim and share their own homeland with each other, becoming over time a shared homeland.
Forty years ago Buber concluded his reflections on Deir Yassin with these words: "The time will come when it will be possible to conceive of some act in Deir Yassin, an act which will symbolize our people's desire for justice and brotherhood with the Arab people."
On the fiftieth anniversary of Deir Yassin, can we Jews recognize that the only act that can symbolize that desire is a full recognition of the equality of Palestinians as a people and a nation? Buber's vision is a challenge. If not now, when?
For Jews to remember Deir Yassin is a tribute to our martyrs and the martyrs of all peoples: that their lives will not be lost to history and that the reconciliation of histories, broken by atrocity and war, will one day be healed. It is time now for Buber's vision to be sought and implemented, on this, the fiftieth anniversary of the division of two peoples who one day will live as one.
Marc H. Ellis is a Jewish theologian and author of nine books. He has
been a Senior Fellow at the Center for the Study of World Religions and a
Visiting Scholar at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University.