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Middle East Kavitha Dispatch

History Repeating: How Soon They Forgot
January 22, 2000


There are some things in the past too ugly to fully comprehend. I remember being in school and reading through history books and seeing film strips of bloody wars and assassinations. I would have the same reaction I sometimes do today when I turn on the news and see more bloodshed or torture: What's the point of hearing about such atrocities? Is it merely to keep things interesting?

It's sad but true that blood and guts get high ratings. After all, war stories probably keep more readers tuned in to their textbooks than stories about indigenous farming techniques or about life in a colonial town. But sometimes I don't want to hear the disgusting truth. What good does it do to keep us informed with all the details of how cruel human beings have been to one another?

I guess the premise is that we can learn from history; that we should learn from the mistakes and lessons of the past. But are we really learning anything? Or is history merely repeating itself?

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View from Givat Shaul of the restricted hilltop

These are questions that were on my mind as I walked west out of Jerusalem and through the modern suburban area of Givat Shaul. In the center of this bustling town, a shady green hill rises up in stark contrast to all the industry and housing developments. The hilltop is surrounded by wire fencing and barred by a heavy metal gate, so I couldn't take refuge in the shade of the old pine trees that stand inside. In a way I was glad to be locked out-I wasn't so sure I wanted to visit that hilltop where the town of Deir Yassin once stood. It was the site of one of the most gruesome massacres in history.

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Fences surround what was once Deir Yassin

Should I tell you the story? Or should I spare you the discomfort...the sorrow...the shock? Should I tell you the gory details in the hope you will learn from the atrocity?

Should I tell you about how, on April 9, 1948, Jewish paramilitary groups attacked this small Arab village, which they considered a threat? About how the Arabs defended themselves as best they could until their ammunition ran out, and then the real horror story began? A story of entire families lined up and shot outside their homes, of soldiers looting through valuables while others raped and tortured women? Do you really want to know the story of the 14-year-old girl who saw her brother shot in the head? Or the woman killed holding her 3-month-old baby?

The main thing that sticks with me after my failed attempt to visit Deir Yassin is the view: nothing remains of this once bustling Arab village except the empty houses and pine trees that have grown in the 51 years since the massacre. Today there is a restricted mental hospital and a view of modern-day Jerusalem with its new suburbs to the east; and towards the south you can see a beautiful forest with a memorial standing out in a clearing.

The memorial is Yad Vashem, built in remembrance of the great tragedy from which the creation of Israel sprang forth-the Holocaust. We've all learned about the Holocaust in school: we learned of gas chambers and death camps; we saw images of overcrowded slums and mass graves... images that haunt me to this day.

How many times did I try to turn my head away to avoid seeing the black and white image of a child crying as his mother was taken away to an unknown camp? I have come to realize the importance of remembering these images. Israeli children are taught about the Holocaust from a very young age because it reveals the hardships their relatives experienced, and explains the necessity of preserving a culture that came so close to extinction.

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Those murdered at Deir Yassin could not

But is history taught only to glorify winners, survivors and accomplishments? Or are we to learn from its difficult lessons as well?

The irony of Yad Vashem having been built in sight of Deir Yassin is overwhelming and depressing. A memorial built to remember the many senseless deaths of Jews during the Holocaust is just down the hill from a ghost town, symbolizing the many senseless deaths of Muslims after the Holocaust.

atrocity - something extremely shocking or wicked
looting - anything taken by dishonesty or force
irony - an outcome of events contrary to or opposite from what might have been expected

What does this tell us about history? What was learned from the horrors of Nazi Germany? How could such a massacre as Deir Yassin happen, when the blood spilled during World War II was hardly dry? Maybe it's because the blood was hardly dry that Deir Yassin happened-maybe the sheer terror that gripped so many Jewish lives led them to commit such an act.


Everywhere I look there are fences...
Separating You from Me...
Us from Them...
Keeping some out...
and others in...

How can you see the clear of the blue sky
through the holes in the gate?
How can you feel the free spirit of the
hummingbird through barbed wire?
How can you end your fear of another through a metal wall?

We build up fences to keep the neighbors away...
but with divided yards, where will our children play?

Up to 250 people were killed that awful day in Deir Yassin. Palestinians exaggerated the stories to get international sympathy; Jewish paramilitary groups also exaggerated and boasted of the horrors of the massacre. Their strategy was a success: terror spread through Palestinian villages, causing many to pack up and leave their homes and land in fear.

Barely a couple of years after terrified Jews fled their European homelands during World War II to come here, they caused others to flee their homelands in terror. This was part of the Zionist plan to obtain land so that Jewish people could live in a Jewish state. In May, 1948, one month after the massacre at Deir Yassin, David Ben-Gurion proclaimed the creation of the Jewish state of Israel and became its first prime minister.

Today, Deir Yassin-along with more than 400 other Palestinian villages that once existed- cannot be found on a map. The villages have been replaced by modern Israeli towns like Givat Shaul. There are now more than 4.5 million Palestinian refugees all over the world: more than a million of them still live in refugee camps in the West Bank, Gaza, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan. Similar to last century's European ghettos, where many of the Jewish refugees who founded Israel came from, these refugee camps are overcrowded and neglected.

It's been more than 51 years since the first of these Palestinian refugees were forced to leave their homes. When will the lessons we learn from history come out of the textbooks and into our everyday actions? When will we realize we're making history today?

- Kavitha

P.S.- Hear what youth from a Palestinian refugee camp have to say. See the transcripts of the live chat with students from Dheishe Refugee Camp. Also check out my dispatch on Balata Refugee Camp to find out what life is like growing up as a refugee.

P.P.S. - Please e-mail me at

Team - Meet Dr. Hanan Ashrawi, Palestinian rights activist and spokesperson for the Middle East Peace talks.
Kevin - Surveying Peace from the Heights of the Golan: Israeli Youth Speak their Minds
Abeja - Descent to the Land of the Dead!
Monica - Caught in the Middle: The Situation for the Druze
Team - Exercise Your Right and Write

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