International Herald Tribune – 17 April 2003
Do you believe in the Torah?” a boy no more than 10 years old, dressed in the black trousers and white shirt of the Haredim, was demanding of Eitan Bronstein, four decades his senior. “Do you know what it means to be a Jew? Are you really a Jew?”
In front of the locked gates of the Kfar Saul psychiatric hospital in the sprawling suburbs of West Jerusalem, Bronstein was trying to unfurl the banner of Zochrot, a small Jewish group committed to educating Israelis about the 1948 war that founded their state (the name is Hebrew for “remember”). He was there with 100 demonstrators, drawn from what in Israel is seen as the far left, to commemorate a history most Israelis are never taught in school.
The complex of buildings behind the hospital gates is all that remains of the village of Deir Yassin, a name that in the Palestinian collective memory still reverberates with chilling significance. Here, 55 years ago, on April 9, 1948, several weeks before the state of Israel was declared, the Irgun and Stern militias stormed the village, home to nearly 600 inhabitants. They killed nearly 100 men, women and children with guns and swords. Several captives were later paraded in Jerusalem before being killed.
The leader of the Irgun, Menachem Begin, who went on to become a prime minister of Israel, later wrote that the Palestinians, hearing of the massacre, “were seized with limitless panic and started to flee for their lives.” Deir Yassin triggered an exodus that soon emptied the new state of 80 percent of its Arab population.
Bronstein is one of a new generation of Jews determined to bring these events out into the open. It was the first time Israeli Jews had come to the site to commemorate the anniversary of the massacre.
As Zochrot’s demonstrators began a short procession around the hospital’s perimeter fence to a stretch of waste ground, they found themselves swamped by an escort: dozens of police officers and local residents from the ultra-Orthodox community who noisily cursed them. “You bleeding hearts,” one old woman called them.
“They have no idea, or interest in, what we are doing here,” said Ofer Neiman, one of the demonstrators, a “refusenik,” one of several hundred men who have been jailed for refusing to serve in the army in the occupied territories. “We might as well be from Mars.”
Bronstein put up a list of 93 names of the dead on the fence as speakers told of what is known as “al nakba” – the catastrophe – that befell the Palestinian people with the loss in 1948 of 78 percent of their homeland – the area of Palestine that became Israel.
A few Palestinians wearing the traditional keffiyah scarf were sprinkled through the audience. Khairieh Abu Shusheh from Beit Hanina in East Jerusalem had braved the checkpoints that divide the city but said many more had not dared. In the previous week, dozens of Palestinians had been killed and injured by the army, mostly out of view of a Western media more preoccupied with events in Iraq.
Abu Shusheh had brought her neighbor, Abdul Barakat, 81, whose mother’s family was from Deir Yassin. Seventeen of his relatives were on the list of the dead.
Abdul Barakat recounted the morning when the Irgun and Stern gangs arrived, waking the villagers with the sound of gunfire. “The slaughter began at 4 a.m. in the morning and lasted till 6 p.m.,” he said. Those who fled ended up in the refugee camps of the West Bank and Jordan. He concluded: “One day, God willing, Jew and Arab will once again be able to breathe the air together.”
After the speeches, Bronstein erected a signpost to the village. “There are more than 400 villages that were destroyed in order to create our state but as a people we refuse to recognize the fact – even to this day,” he said. “There are no signposts to any of them, nothing to acknowledge that they ever existed.”
Bronstein has held similar ceremonies at 10 other destroyed villages but says the signposts are always taken down by the police or local families within hours. “At the moment, the signposting is just a symbolic act – we know that no one wants to know where these places are or what happened there.”