Abou-Yasser was still hoping to return to his house in Tel-es-Safi when I met him in the Dehaishah refugee camp in the occupied West Bank in 2005. He still had the keys to a door that might not exist any more. He left that house fleeing Israeli occupation in 1948, and now lives under that same occupation but as a refugee. When Israel occupied the West Bank in 1967, Abou-Yasser refused to flee again and become a double refugee. As he was telling me his story I was wondering, what kind of refugee is he now?
In May of 1948, Abou-Yasser was in his late teens training in a British "police academy" in Bethlehem. The "cadets" were a mix of Jews and Arabs, Abou-Yasser told me. They studied together to become colleagues in the police force under the British mandate government of Palestine or in the new country that would be founded when the mandate ended.
One morning, the Arab cadets arrived for class to find none of the Jews there. On the blackboard there was writing in Hebrew, which most of the Arab cadets couldn't read, addressing the Jewish cadets. But Abou-Yasser had enough knowledge of Hebrew to translate what was written. "Rise up! The Jewish state is born," it read.
The state of Israel was declared. The Palestinians refused to accept it or the UN partition plan (which allocated approximately half the land of Palestine to a Jewish state when the Jewish population was about 30 per cent and owned less than six per cent of the land) upon which it was based.
Soon after, the Jewish militias, which were better equipped and prepared than any Palestinian forces, surrounded Tel-es-Safi as they did many other Arab villages and towns. Outgunned, the villagers decided to surrender. Most of the villagers took whatever belongings they could carry, locked their doors and fled. The same was the case of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from hundreds of villages. Stories of the massacre of Deir-Yaseen, where more than 100 Palestinians -- many of them women and children -- were murdered by the Stern Jewish militia, made staying under occupation a risk most did not want to take.
A few weeks ago, I had Passover dinner in Montreal. We Jews and Muslims of different ages and genders gathered together and followed the traditional Jewish Passover rituals remembering the plight of the Jews in my own native Egypt, and their escape from injustice thousands of years ago. But at a certain point our hosts deviated from tradition and read from the "Rabbis for Human Rights Pesach Seder Supplement," which included questions that very closely touches Abou-Yasser's hopes and right to return: "Is the vision of Israel as a democratic state and a Jewish state ultimately reconcilable?" "Can there be equality in some areas and not in others?" "What are some ways in which Israel can resolve the tensions between being a democratic state and a Jewish state?"
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As I reflected on the singing of Dayenu (It would have been enough for us), and how God's bounties are so gratefully remembered by the Jewish people generations after the Exodus, I wondered when Abou-Yasser or his descedents will be able sing a song of thanks.
The creation of Israel had an ugly side to it which shouldn't be forgotten or ignored. It is the destruction of a people and the creation of the world's largest refugee population and longest-lasting refugee crisis. Albert Einstein commented on these events, which are at the core of this problem, 60 years ago. In a letter he wrote on April 10, 1948 to the executive director of American Friends of the Fighters for the Freedom of Israel, in response to a request for a meeting, he wrote, "When the real and final catastrophe should befall us in Palestine the first responsible for it would be the British and the second responsible for it the terrorist organizations built up from our own ranks. I am not willing to see anybody associated with these misled and criminal people."
Abou-Yasser, then soon to be at the receiving end of the actions of Einstein's "terrorists," was probably not seeing things as clearly as Einstein did.
I don't know if Abou-Yasser is still alive. Maybe it is too late for him to return to Tel-es-Safi anyway but his granddaughter, a child with an angelic face who I met in 2005 and whose photo with her innocent gaze hangs in my living room, has a lot to look forward to.
I am hoping that, for her sake, the plight of the Palestinian refugees would be remembered while many cheer Israel's 60th anniversary and that she, one day and in her own way, would sing, "If it would be only for rebuilding my ancestral home in Tel-es-Safi, Dayenu! If it would be only for seeing Tel-es-Safi with my own eyes, Dayenu!"
© The Gazette (Montreal) 2008