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Swept Away

The founding of Israel meant a new homeland for some and broken hearts for others. A new documentary brings home the Palestinian experience.

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By Nadia Oehlsen

Raja Khuri's family closed their front door in April 1948, but they didn't expect to be gone long. "We fled because of the war--I mean, who wants to stay and kill or be killed?" Khuri says. "We packed a little bit of our gear for a short trip outside until things settled down. We covered the furniture that we had, we locked the door and took the key."

Khuri's brother still has the key, but the house, in Jaffa, has long been occupied by other families. Yet unlike thousands of other Palestinian refugees whose towns were razed or renamed shortly after they left them half a century ago, Khuri can at least see his old city under its old name on a current map.

In 1998, the golden anniversary of the founding of modern Israel inspired numerous celebrations and documentaries from the Israeli point of view. But activists from Chicago's Arab American Action Network and the American Friends Service Committee wanted to show another side of that history--they recorded what Palestinians now living in Chicago remembered from that time in their documentary Collecting Stories From Exile: Chicago Palestinians Remember 1948. It's a story few non-Arabs know much about.

Mai Khader and Mahasen Nasser-Eldin, the film's chief researchers, are both Palestinians and recent graduates of North Park University. Khader had helped one of her professors gather stories about 1948 from Palestinians who'd spent 50 years in refugee camps in Gaza and the West Bank. "In a refugee camp, let's say the Dheisheh camp around the Bethlehem area, people would just grab us from the streets if they knew that we were doing a project on '48," Khader says in the documentary. "They would just grab us from the street--they wanted to tell us their story." So she was surprised to find that many Palestinians in Chicago were reluctant to be interviewed. "One guy was really hesitant," she says. "I felt like he had a story, but he seemed afraid to say it. He would tell us, 'It's over. We don't need to talk about this.' He kept saying, 'I'm not political, I'm not political. I don't know what you're talking about.'"

Jennifer Bing-Canar, director and producer of the video and head of the Middle East program at AFSC's Chicago office, says, "Some people feared there would be some retribution. It's a story that is so often not understood in the West."

The state of Israel was born in 1948 when Britain was giving up its World War I mandate to control Palestine. Most Palestinian Arabs call the upheaval they suffered al-nakbah, which means "the catastrophe." In early April of that year news spread quickly via Jewish, Arab, and international media that Zionist soldiers had attacked Deir Yassin, an Arab village on the western edge of Jerusalem that lay outside the UN-proposed borders of a future Jewish state, killing a third of its 750 residents and expelling any of the rest who hadn't already fled (historians now think there were probably about 110 casualties). It had been considered a peaceful neighbor by the Jewish communities that surrounded it, but it was targeted because no one expected much resistance and it was on high ground in a strategic corridor between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. The stories of the massacre frightened many Palestinians into fleeing for their lives, and they were encouraged by members of Haganah, the official army of the Jewish Agency, who drove sound trucks through Arab areas, warning residents to leave or face the fate of Deir Yassin. Most Arab communities that refused to evacuate were forcibly expelled by Haganah soldiers. Deir Yassin wouldn't be the last or worst massacre by Zionist soldiers in Arab communities, but among Arabs it came to symbolize the pivotal and most horrifying event of al-nakbah.

Israel's official history and many of its citizens have long ignored or denied almost all Arab claims of atrocities by Zionists during and after the founding of the state, but since the mid-80s Israeli "new historians," using recently declassified Israeli state documents, have corroborated many Arab charges, including those of Deir Yassin survivors. Israeli historian Benny Morris writes in his book 1948 and After: Israel and the Palestinians that most Arab violence at the time, including at least two of three massacres of Jews by Arabs, was immediately preceded by Jewish attacks on Arabs. He also says that there's no evidence for the popular Zionist argument that Arab leaders encouraged Palestinian Arabs to leave their homes. "The opposite occurred. Haganah intelligence and Western diplomatic missions in the Middle East at this time...picked up, recorded, and quoted from Arab orders and appeals...to the Arabs of Palestine to stay put in their homes or, if already in exile, to return to Palestine." Internal reports from the 1940s between Zionist political leaders and military brigade commanders provide damning evidence of massacres, violent expulsions, supply blockades, and other actions against Arab cities and villages.

Within months of the attack on Deir Yassin 600,000 to 800,000 Arabs had fled or been expelled from their homes and were living with family members, friends, and strangers in villages and refugee camps in Gaza, the West Bank, and other countries in the Middle East. The new Israeli government allowed few to return home. Only 150,000 Arabs remained within its borders, and only about 100 out of 550 predominantly Arab towns escaped being taken over or destroyed.

Many refugees later emigrated to other countries, including the U.S.--though there are still some three million exiles and their descendants crowded into the refugee camps. Chicago is one of the largest outposts of the Palestinian diaspora; the Arab American Action Network and the Chicago Commission on Human Relations estimate some 85,000 Palestinians live in and around the city.

Victoria Imreibe, who lives on the north side, was a 32-year-old mother of three in July 1948, when Zionist soldiers reached Lydda, an Arab city near Tel Aviv where some 30,000 people were still living. "All we saw was shooting, and they said, 'The Jews came, the Jews came,'" she says through an interpreter in Collecting Stories From Exile. "I was worried about my children. They were young, and I hid them under the bed to protect them....They kicked us out barefoot. We left our jewelry, clothes, and other things at our house in Lod [the Israelis' name for Lydda]. I carried my kids like little chicks when we escaped....It was hot that day, as if the earth were on fire. People walked all day, from morning till night."

As they walked, they may have passed a young Yitzhak Rabin, then a Haganah brigade commander overseeing the expulsion and forced march of Lydda's population. Many young and elderly Arabs, made to continue walking during the hottest part of an oppressively hot day, died along the route. In 1979 the New York Times published a section of Rabin's memoir that had been cut by Israeli government censors but leaked by the book's translator. "The population of Lod did not leave willingly," he wrote. "There was no way of avoiding the use of force and warning shots in order to make the inhabitants march the ten to fifteen miles to the point where they met up with the [Arab] Legion....Great suffering was inflicted upon the men taking part in the eviction action....The action went beyond what they were used to. There were some fellows who refused to take part in the expulsion action. Prolonged propaganda activities were required after the action to remove the bitterness of these youth movement graduates, and explain why we were obliged to undertake such a harsh and cruel action."

Imreibe's family wound up in a refugee camp outside Ramallah. When she returned to Lydda a dozen years later she found her house demolished.

Watfa Zayed, who now lives in Bridgeview, remembers the refugees who came to her village in the West Bank. "They had children. They came with nothing. They only came with what they were wearing. Poor souls, they had nowhere else to go, so we offered them our orchards to stay in. They built huts in our orchard. We offered them what we had--grapes, figs, and pomegranates."

Matuk Rantisi, a retired mechanical engineer, sits in his living room in Wood Dale and recalls his peaceful childhood in the Mediterranean city of Jaffa: "Going to school in the morning, going to the beach in the afternoon, swim and catch a few fish and eat them, roast them right on the beach, or just in the coffeehouse where we used to sit. It will never, never be replaced." He was 19 when his family sent him away with his pregnant older sister and her husband the day before the British mandate ended, on May 15, 1948. Jewish soldiers shot at their truck as they left, but they made it to Bethlehem. For three months they didn't know what happened to the rest of the family; as it turned out, they had soon tried to follow, but the highways were closed. "They went to the seashore," Rantisi says. "They took a boat and went to Tyre, in Lebanon. They fled Jaffa because there was no way for them to sit under bullets all night."

Raja Khuri was 11 years old when in late April his family and another rented a truck and joined the stream of Arabs leaving Jaffa. "When we were out in the suburbs, my father tells me, we passed through a--not quite a checkpoint, but an area where we could see Israeli fighters," he says. "For some reason, one of them pointed a gun at us to shoot, and a fellow next to him waved him off to keep him from shooting. I didn't see it personally, but certainly that put the fear of God in my father and mother at the time." Khuri says that if he ever found the soldier who probably saved his family he'd thank him.

Collecting Stories From Exile, made for $15,000, is less than a half hour long. The video's planning committee wanted teachers to be able to show it to their classes and still have time for discussion (AFSC's Chicago office is selling copies of the video for $20). Roughly a third of the video shows the planning committee and researchers discussing the importance of the project and the difficulty of getting older Palestinians to talk freely on tape--which unfortunately doesn't leave much time for the stories the researchers did collect or for much more than a perfunctory history lesson. But Bing-Canar says the committee thought it was important to show how they struggled to understand the experiences of their elderly subjects: "It's as much a piece to inspire other young people, whether they're Arabs or not, to sit down with their grandparents and to record a history that is slipping away."

As teens, researchers Khader and Nasser-Eldin lived in the Occupied Territories near Jerusalem. They participated in the Palestinian intifada, which lasted from roughly 1987 to 1993, joining strikes and demonstrations, boycotting Israeli-made products, refusing to pay taxes, and holding meetings with Israeli peace groups. They endured food, water, and power shortages, as well as closed schools, martial law, and friends wounded or killed in clashes with Israeli soldiers. Nasser-Eldin's father spent a week in jail; Khader's father was in for a year. At times those experiences shaped their interview questions. Bing-Canar says, "Mahasen would ask people, 'Well, why didn't you resist? Why did you leave your homes? Why did you lock up your house and leave all your valuables behind?'" Khader says such questions didn't go over well. "They were mad. They were like, 'What do you mean we didn't resist? We did resist.'"

The intifada generation had the advantages of hindsight and better communication tools when they planned their uprising. But in 1948 Arabs were stunned by the swiftness and brutality of the Zionist takeover. "There was a high degree of naivete on my part," says Ayoub Talhami, a retired engineer from Evanston. "It was unthinkable, unbelievable."

After 1948, Khuri says, "There was a lot of misinformation, a lot of broken promises, and the Palestinians never got together to do something about it. We were scattered and spread every which way....There was no cohesive force to get us together until the 60s, when the Palestinian movement came about....We were emotionally devastated, and then we were hopeful, and then devastated, and hopeful, and devastated. After a while [when] there is something hopeful, you don't really attach yourself to it, because you don't want the disappointment of losing it."

Khader says that talking to Palestinian refugees in her homeland and in Chicago helped her and Nasser-Eldin understand that simply existing in a refugee camp for years can be a form of resistance, as can retaining one's ethnic identity in the U.S. "People here went through a lot," she says. "I know they did not survive the intifada, but they went through a lot just living in America. People here don't know who they are--they stereotype the Arabs big time." She remembers that during her freshman year at North Park someone in her dorm asked if Arabs had until recently had tails.

Khuri says in Collecting Stories From Exile that his sense of isolation as a Palestinian refugee began long before he left the Middle East. "There was no home for me that I could call my own, regardless of where I was. I would meet with Palestinians and the Palestinian friends would say, 'You're a traitor. You're becoming Lebanese.' And I would meet with the Lebanese and they would say, 'You're still a Palestinian.' I was neither here nor there."

But he says that the anti-Arab discrimination in the U.S. is more frustrating. "The stereotype that we live in here, you know, is amazing. The moment you mention you're a Palestinian they have ideas of either a bedouin or a peasant or a terrorist. It took me the longest time so that when people asked me, what are you? I said, the hell with them all. Look at me for what I am, not for what the stereotype of papers mention. And I don't even tell them whether I'm Muslim or Christian. I'm a Palestinian. I'm an Arab."

Khuri, who eventually became a doctor, says that the American friends he feels the strongest connection to are Jewish. "There's a commonality," he says. They visit each other on holidays and participate in some of each other's traditions. His medical-practice partner, who is Jewish, is sympathetic when Khuri describes what happened in 1948: "He's very wide-open."

Not everyone is as open. Khader recalls that one night she was studying with a friend in her dorm and a man struck up a conversation, asking where they were from. "He's like, 'That history did not exist. You Arabs are full of it. You just want the world to support you.'"

This year Israel's education ministry has admitted that at least some of that history exists. For the first time public secular schools are using texts by Israeli new historians that say many Palestinians left their land because they were forced off it or because they had good reason to fear for their lives if they stayed.

Collecting Stories From Exile begins and ends with comments from the writer and Columbia University professor Edward Said. "I'm old enough to remember Golda Meir in 1969 saying there are no Palestinians--they don't exist as a people. And of course a lot of what happened in 1948 and before was premised on not just the disappearance of the Palestinians, but the absence of the Palestinians....We must get the story right so that there can be no amnesia, there can be no self-mutilation--which is what has happened. And the only way we can restore ourselves as a people is to have our history. And I think the notion of reclamation is central to this process--to reclaim what has been taken from us, both by the years and by the Israelis."

Khader and Bing-Canar say they'd like to do other oral-history projects about Arabs in Chicago. They're already considering remembrances of the war of 1967, in which Arabs lost control of the West Bank and Gaza, and the experiences of Arabs as immigrants in Chicago.

Khader seems particularly driven to collect more stories from older Palestinians, in part because she's already lost the chance to hear the memories of some of her own family members, including those of her grandfather, who once lived in what's now west Jerusalem. "Every time we passed there he was like, 'That was my house, and they kicked us out,'" she says. "But I wasn't really specific in my questions, and when I was aware of this my grandfather had passed away. I was very ashamed that I didn't do anything. At least I've done something with other grandfathers."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Cynthia Howe/Institute of Palestine Studies.

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