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British Jews Divided over Rabbis’ Part in Deir Yassin Memorial Event

April 4, 2001
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

A decision by leading rabbis to join Palestinian representatives in commemorating Palestinian suffering during the creation of the State of Israel has split British Jewry down the middle.

Rabbi John Rayner, life president of the Union of Liberal and Progressive Synagogues, described his participation in the Deir Yassin Remembered memorial as “a religious, a Jewish, and — in the best sense — a Zionist thing to do.”

But Rabbi Sidney Brichto, a vice president of the union, said that the event would “give a propaganda coup to the Palestinian authorities by diverting attention from the fact that they began an unprovoked intifada” — or violent uprising — “after rejecting peace proposals.”

The union did not take an official position on the event. Neither did the Board of Deputies, the umbrella organization that represents most British Jews.

Board Executive Director Neville Nagler said board officers received invitations to the ceremony, but “agreed it was not a desirable event to get involved with.”

The commemoration consisted of an evening of music, readings, short plays and prayers at the 1,000-seat Peacock Theater in central London.

Organizer Paul Eisen, who is Jewish, said the April 1 event was sold out nearly a week in advance. Despite that, it received virtually no attention in the British press.

The event commemorated an attack by the Irgun and the Stern Gang, underground Jewish militias that sometimes cooperated with but often opposed the central Zionist authority, on the Arab village of Deir Yassin on the western edge of Jerusalem.

A report in The New York Times on April 13, 1948, said that 254 Arabs, including women and children, were killed in the attack. More recent research, including an exhaustive study by Palestinian academics, puts the figure closer to 100.

Official Zionist leaders condemned the incident, and David Ben-Gurion — leader of the pre-state Jewish community — apologized to Jordan’s King Abdullah. Jewish philosopher Martin Buber also spoke out against the killings.

All parties to the conflict had their reasons for exaggerating the casualty figure. The underground Jewish militias believed a higher number would prove their fighting mettle. For the Zionist mainstream, it confirmed the alleged recklessness of the militias.

The Arab leadership trumpeted the event widely, believing it would rouse the Arabs to a belligerent frenzy. Instead, it appeared to have the opposite effect, causing many Arabs to flee their homes in fear of the Jews — as Irgun leader Menachem Begin reportedly acknowledged.

Regardless of the facts, the event has taken on legendary stature in Palestinian circles as a symbol of their alleged persecution at the hands of the Jews.

Eisen described the commemoration as “a creative event, not a religious one.” It took place a week before the April 9 anniversary of the incident, so as not to conflict with Passover.

Eisen said he helped organize the event because Deir Yassin “has come to symbolize Palestinian oppression.

“It’s not commemorated just because it’s an atrocity — if that were the case, we would be commemorating every day of the year on both sides,” he said. “It is as important an event in Jewish history as in Palestinian history. We require, quite rightly, that our suffering is commemorated. Theirs should be too.”

Israeli embassy spokesman D.J. Schneeweis would not comment on the event, saying only: “We look forward to the day when representatives of the Palestinians are able to show the same kind of sympathy for Jewish suffering at the hands of the Palestinians as Jewish representatives are showing for them.”

Rabbi Rayner said he thought the event had “achieved something significant. It was a mixture specifically of Palestinians and Jews in an atmosphere of mutual understanding and respect.”

Eisen said he guessed the audience was about 60 percent Palestinian, with “significant” Jewish representation, including a number of rabbis.

The announcement that Rabbi Rayner and Rabbi Jeffrey Newman, another senior Liberal figure, would attend prompted furious debate on the letters page of the Jewish Chronicle, the country’s leading Jewish weekly.

Rabbi Rayner said the event itself “totally disproved” apprehensions.

“There were no demonstrations or acrimony or bitterness of any kind,” he said. “If only relations between the politicians were as good as between members of the audience, there would be real hope for the future.”

Other than a poem satirizing Israeli Cabinet Minister Natan Sharansky, the event was “very courteous,” Rabbi Rayner added.

Eisen said one of the short plays, “Friday Morning,” had made Jewish members of the audience uncomfortable.

It depicted an Arab father being taken from his home by Jewish militants while his wife leads their children in singing to distract them from what is taking place.

“The father is taken outside and the rest is left to the audience’s imagination,” Eisen said. “Jewish representatives weren’t happy about it, but they insisted it go ahead because it was the truth.”

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