Memorializing Deir Yassin
by Steven Salaita
April 10, 2003
I try sometimes to see it through her eyes. She was only twelve, never knowing in the morning of April 9 that she would be an orphan by the afternoon. It is important that we see it through her eyes. If we manage such a daunting feat, then we will begin to understand the horrors Palestinians suffered in 1948.
She was in Deir Yassin when the Irgun and Lehi arrived before dawn. I imagine that she twirled her thick, black curls as her eyes betrayed the anxiety she felt at the sounds of war surrounding her. It probably didn't take her long to realize that terrorists were killing her neighbors. The stink of sweat and blood must have enveloped her, a fetid sensual phenomenon symbolic of her passage into adulthood as a displaced Palestinian.
She was one of the few to survive. She hid with her family when soldiers barged into her home, but they were discovered and dragged outside with the rest of the captives. Her brother was shot first. When her mother, who was breastfeeding at the time, covered him, she, too, was shot. The rest of the people were lined against a wall. Most were murdered at point-blank range.
Another young girl recalled watching a terrorist carve the stomach of a dead woman nine months pregnant. Another discussed her father's maroon-stained face as she helped other children, held at gunpoint, dump his corpse in a shallow mass grave. Another remembered cowering underneath four aunts who were stabbed to death. Her future memory also was marked by the sensation of ubiquitous mourning.
Scholars now dispute how many civilians were slaughtered in Deir Yassin on April 9, 1948. But nobody, except the most amnesiac propagandists, denies that there was an unprovoked mass murder. Traditionally, historians have estimated that anywhere from 200-300 people were killed, although recent estimates suggest that 90-150 is a more accurate number.
And yet, in the end, numbers don't matter. The murdered civilians were not statistics, nor was Deir Yassin an equation. It was a village with living, breathing humans, many of whom were murdered and piled in mass graves. Now it is a memory with an Israeli mental institution in its stead and not even a signpost to mark its pivotal role in Palestinian and Jewish history.
Most important, though, Deir Yassin is now a symbol. It emblematizes, as the international coalition Deir Yassin Remembered suggests, "the truth about Palestinians as victims of Zionism." Deir Yassin Remembered, whose Board of Advisors includes Hanan Ashrawi, Sherna Berger Gluck, Edward Said, Rachelle Marshall, Ilan Pappe, Muna Nashashibi, and Norman Finkelstein, further notes that "For too long [Palestinian] history has been denied and this denial has only served to further oppress and deliberately dehumanize Palestinians inside Israel, inside the occupied territories, and outside in their diaspora."
Deir Yassin Remembered "was founded to do justice to the victims of the Deir Yassin massacre," whose ordeal never has been acknowledged by the Israeli government, much less memorialized. Most immediately, the coalition hopes to construct a memorial at the massacre site, but, more broadly, wishes "to eliminate prejudice against Palestinians and to promote the human side of a people who have been the victims of Zionist colonization of their land and of the apartheid conditions under which they now live." Presumably, if Israel reaches the point where it actually permits the construction of a memorial, it will have done so only when there is real coexistence between Arab and Jew in the Holy Land.
I approach this sort of project with a great sense of personal involvement. My maternal grandmother is from the nearby village of Ein Kerem; it was the fear generated by the Deir Yassin massacre that prompted the surrounding population to flee. They never would be allowed to return. The whole of West Jerusalem would become part of the State of Israel, and the Palestinians would remain stateless for over 55 years.
A memorial in remembrance of the victims of the Deir Yassin massacre would be a remarkable way to humanize not only Palestinians, but also the physical and philosophical descendants of the Jewish perpetrators who committed one of the most notorious war crimes in the modern history of the Middle East. Warring peoples, history has shown us time and again, cannot coexist without a mutual acknowledgment of past brutality.
Yet denial usually supercedes acknowledgment. We can see the denial in the United States. The Lakota Indians have struggled for years to erect a monument for the 350 unarmed civilians massacred by the U.S. Army 7th Calvary in 1890, an act comparable to Deir Yassin in effect, intention, and result. Indeed, despite pressure from the Minneconjou and Oglala tribes, the American government refuses to rescind the 20 Congressional Medals of Honor (the most ever for a military campaign) awarded to soldiers of the 7th Calvary. Likewise, former Irgun leader Menachem Begin later became Prime Minister of Israel and was even awarded a Nobel Peace Prize.
The results of American denial are worth Israel's attention. The Politics of Hallowed Ground, a stirring account of the Lakota struggle to obtain Congressional funding for a memorial, quotes a Wounded Knee survivor, Alice Ghost Horse, who ends a story by proclaiming, "Despite all these nice things being done for us, I can't forget what happened at Wounded Knee. Some nights, I cried thinking about it. Many months afterwards. I have never touched a white man during my lifetime. I just couldn't trust any white men and never will because they killed my father and brother for no reason at all."
It is no accident that conflict exists in places without memorials because memorials are more than physical structures; they position the past in the present in the service of a better future.
Jews made great advances in recovering from the Holocaust in part because various memorials compel non-Jews to confront the extremities of denial and indifference. The people of Oklahoma City felt a collective sense of closure when a beautiful memorial commemorating the victims of the 1995 bombing was constructed where the Murrah building was destroyed. And it won't be long before a much-needed memorial is erected at ground zero in New York City.
Unfortunately, though, these are rare cases. No structure commemorates Romani and homosexual victims of Hitler. No structure commemorates the Turkish genocide of Armenians. No museum on the Washington Mall commemorates Indian dispossession. And no physical marker in Israel beyond occasional stone rubble and cactus patches denotes the existence of a once proud and populous Palestinian nation. This lack of acknowledgment, rather than historical suppression, ensures that Palestinians always will haunt Israel's conscience, even if they are all expelled.
People often are afraid of monuments because monuments symbolize memory; but they needn't be afraid, because memory, in its most honest form, symbolizes something greater than any physical structure: rapprochement and unity.
I urge everybody to support the Deir Yassin Remembered project. To learn more about it, make donations, attend upcoming events, or simply read more about the massacre, please visit http://www.deiryassin.org.
Steven Salaita recently completed an English doctorate at the University of Oklahoma, with emphasis on Native, Palestinian, and Arab-American literatures. A West Virginian with Palestinian and Jordanian parents, he splits his time between the United States and the Middle East. This article first appeared in Yellow Times.org (www.yellowtimes.org). Steven Salaita encourages your comments: ssalaita@YellowTimes.org