Remembering Deir Yassin

I want to talk today about two things.

The first one is a process to which I will give the awkward name, “Deir-Yassin-ization.”

The second thing I want to talk about, at the end, is what I, an American Jew, have to do with the village of Deir Yassin, located 5000 miles from here, and how I am connected with the calamity that overtook that place one day 55 years ago, when 130 Israeli fighters stormed into the village and in the course of that single day wantonly killed over 100 men, women, and children, out of a population of 750.

First, about “Deir-Yassinization”: I think the meaning of the term is apparent.

It represents, simply, the recurrence of events of the kind that took place at Deir Yassin.

While the original Deir Yassin event took place a long time ago, it is a tragic fact of our time that miniature and piecemeal Deir Yassins are now occurring daily throughout the Palestinian territories … a shooting here, a bulldozer demolition there, a terrified child, or a man or woman humiliated to the dust in another place.

Always in the cause of Israeli self-defense, and with the incitement of unbounded retribution against Palestinians who have perpetrated or are suspected of having perpetrated, or of planning to perpetrate, or of being the kinds of persons who on the spur of an unspeakable moment might tomorrow perpetrate violence against Israelis … retribution which in violation of the laws of modern warfare is collectivized to include the families and neighbors and the entire neighborhoods of individuals whom faceless security officials have adjudged to be guilty and have summarily sentenced to die.

At Deir Yassin itself, in April, 1948, more than 100 Palestinians were killed in a single day. Now, in these present days, we see reports of 1, 2, 5, or more Palestinians killed in the course of almost each new day. It might take weeks or months — really not many months, sad to say — for the cumulative toll of any of those series of days where 1 or 2 or 5 fatalities have been counted, to match the number of over a hundred people killed outright in Deir Yassin on that one day 55 years ago. The somber fact is that in just the last 30 months, since the beginning of the present Intifada, the numerical equivalent of a dozen Deir Yassins have taken place. And that form of death in low numbers steadily duplicated continues every day as I speak: a detail of contemporary history that makes, now, a small, droning sound in the mind of the distant observer, if it registers there at all.

The killing of Palestinians in the last two years has been going on with a regularity that is inexorable, and with an inexorability that already has numbed our sensitivity. So regular have the deaths become as to be forgettable to the distant onlooker. The reporting of Palestinian deaths by the American media is for the most part rendered in the detached manner of enumeration: two Palestinians were killed today in Nablus, one yesterday in Gaza City. End of story.

Inexorable, piecemeal, and dismally cumulative. That is the character of the amalgamated Deir Yassin that today’s Palestine has become.

To understand this process of Deir-Yassinization that I’m speaking of, think of tempo ­ the rate at which events occur ­ and think of expanse ­ the breadth and extent of the territory in which those events occur.

The tempo of the killing of Palestinians is, on any given day, on a smaller scale than it was in the original Deir Yassin, 55 years ago. But the days become weeks, the weeks have become months and years, as death creeps almost daily and multiply into the wrecked streets and houses of what is left of Palestine. Death creeps in, and the bulldozers grind away, taking down house after house, and demolishing olive trees by the thousands, some of them older by centuries than the idea of Zionism itself, and older than the idea of our own America.

The original Deir Yassin was concentrated in time and space. It fell out on a single day, and fell on a single village. The piecemeal Deir Yassins of the present time burst out unexpectedly in any of the hundreds of Palestinian hamlets, villages, and towns that Israeli tanks and troops choose to make their current objective. There is no place where Israeli rockets, helicopter gunships, and sharpshooters, with a power and selectivity that seems almost divine, cannot reach. Death comes out of the sky, programmed and ordained by strategists at headquarters, or out of the guns of sharpshooters whose positions merges with the featureless distance. Of course we know that most of the Israeli shooters are 20-year-old boys, and not at all divine. They have been granted by their superiors the power of life and death over men old enough to be their grandfathers, over women they are too immature to wed, and over babies they are too young to father themselves.


Deir Yassin was a large human tragedy and it belongs to the whole world, just as the Holocaust belongs to the whole world. Everyone who has an inch of space left in the part of his consciousness that reckons with the grim things of life, should attend to Deir Yassin, as we have attended to the Jewish Holocaust which was its companion-event in the dark 1940’s.

I feel called upon, especially as an American Jew, to keep Deir Yassin and all its spawn of smaller Deir Yassins, in my thoughts. Even without being a Zionist, I retain, as a Jew, a kinship with the people of Israel. They, from their side, certainly claim me as a kinsman, and offer me the prize of automatic citizenship. The state of Israel assures me that all that it does, it does in my behalf, inasmuch as I am a Jew, too,

All that Israel does ….

But what if I find abhorrent a great and growing roster of the acts which have been carried out by the Israeli state, for my benefit, as it claims, and in my name?

It is then that I am obliged especially and am singled out, as a Jew, to object, to speak, to clamor — as I have been clamoring, as much as my average selfish nature has allowed and goaded me to do, at intervals, for two years now, against what I would now call the constant Deir-Yassinization of the Palestinian people.

Primo Levi, the distinguished Jewish-Italian writer who survived Auschwitz and later, as some people believe, took his own life because his grief at the world we have become was too great for him to bear, with his death-camp wisdom said a curious thing. He said, with oracular directness, that today, the Palestinians have become the Jews of the Israelis.

I think Levi was right. And I think that this perverse Judaization of the Palestinian people by the Israeli state, which is to say the subjection and casting down and casting out of them by that state, is one of the mordant ironies of the last half century, a turning of history that is enough to make the devil laugh.

That is why I, a Jew, have come here today to speak with remorse about the calamity of Deir Yassin. Because some of my people were responsible for that atrocity. And because they have made the devil laugh at all of us Jews for that. And because as Jew calls to Jew, I am called by the Judaized Palestinians of today to look deep down into the stony, dry well they have been dumped into, and tell what I see there.

JULES RABIN lives in Marshfield, Vermont. He can be reached at: