A quarter of a century is the kind of number that brings many events to mind, but apparently only Agence France Presse remembered recently to inquire what people in Israel remember about the massacre in Sabra and Chatila, the refugee camps in South Lebanon: Hundreds of their residents were murdered in September 1982 by Lebanese Christian militias, the "Phalangists," operating under the aegis of the Israel Defense Forces.
It turns out that they don't remember much. In advance of the 25th anniversary of the massacre, Sabra and Chatila have sunk into oblivion. Here we have an opportunity to reflect on what causes certain affairs to retain a permanent presence in historical awareness as opposed to others that nobody wants to remember. That was one of the greatest moral traumas in the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but the intifadas and the Second Lebanon War in some way balanced out the bloody accounting; shame and pangs of conscience had their effect.
Five years ago Elie Hobeika, who was always described as the commander of the massacre, was murdered in Beirut. Earlier Hobeika had agreed to testify in the trial of Ariel Sharon, which was supposed to take place in Brussels. Lebanese politicians do not lack for reasons for being murdered, but naturally the question arose as to whether Hobeika had been murdered in order to be silenced.
A few hours before his death two Belgian politicians met with him. One of them, Senator Josy Dubie, was serving at the time as the chair of the law committee and the foreign affairs committee in the Belgian Senate. The second was Vincent Van Quickenborne, who is now a secretary of state in the Belgian government. "We met with Hobeika secretly," Dubie told me this week. "We sat with him for about an hour, in his office on the outskirts of Beirut; the place was surrounded by bodyguards. Hobeika spoke fluent French. He repeated his willingness to come to Belgium; he had no part in the massacre, he claimed, and promised that he had evidence to prove his innocence, but refused to reveal even its main points to us. We tried to pressure him: We told him that he was the main suspect, if not he and his followers - who was responsible for the massacre? He replied that the answer should be sought in the South Lebanese Army, which operated under Israeli sponsorship. We tried to get more out of him, but he insisted that he would save his 'revelations' for the Belgian court."
Dubie adds that Hobeika did not mention Sharon at all.
A love story
For the past few weeks Iranian state-run television has been broadcasting a drama series about the persecution of the Jews during the Holocaust; the creators of the series exhibit sympathy for the Jews. The story takes place in occupied Paris.
In one of the installments we see a group of Jewish citizens being loaded onto trucks, before the eyes of passersby in the street. Among the observers is Habib Parsa, a young diplomat serving in the Iranian embassy. "Where are they taking them?" he asks, and someone replies: "The fascists are taking them to concentration camps." Influenced by the incident, the Iranian diplomat decides to help rescue the Jews and issues them passports.
Associated Press correspondent Nasser Karimi thinks the series, "Zero Degree Turn," could not have been broadcast without a permit from Iranian religious leaders, and it is possible that the program reflects the differences of opinion between them and Holocaust-denying President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Whatever the case - this is a love story; the young diplomat, who is played by actor Shahabeddin Hosseini, falls in love with a Jewish girl, Sarah. She and her family receive passports from him. The German occupation authorities demand an explanation and believe him at first when he says that these are members of a remote Iranian tribe, not Jews. Afterward they discover the deception, arrest him and he is forced to return to Iran. There he is imprisoned once again for issuing forged passports. There is still room to hope that everything will work out in the end and who knows, maybe Habib will even meet up with his Sarah - because there are still eight installments left. The AP correspondent says the series enjoys a high rating.
Brigadier General Yaakov Hefetz, who died a few months ago, and Ovadia Meshulam, who is celebrating his 80th birthday, probably did not know one another; Hefetz, one of whose ancestors was a student of the Rabbi Eliyahu of Vilna (referred to as the Vilna Gaon), was already a senior officer in the Israel Defense Forces when Meshulam, a native of Yemen, began his job as a sanitation worker in the Tel Aviv municipality. They both did something for history: They wrote their life stories. More and more people are doing that nowadays, by themselves, with the help of relatives or professionals; there are still not enough people doing it.
Some of the writers feel a need to link themselves to historical events: Hefetz remembers someone who came to their home and informed his father that Haim Arlosorov had been murdered; Meshulam was on the ship "Altalena." Sometimes these booklets contain "historical" information: Hefetz knew Ben-Gurion, Meshulam knew Begin. Hefetz interrogated two officers: One smuggled bags of sugar from Jordan and his comrade sold weapons to the Arabs. A third officer confiscated postcards distributed to soldiers to send home during one of the wars, in order to sell them to stamp collectors. Meshulam was among the conquerors of Jaffa and was forced to shoot an Arab childhood friend who opened fire on him.
That's interesting, of course, but personal memoirs are worth writing even if national poet Haim Nahman Bialik did not happen to be one of the guests at the writer's bar mitzvah; it's enough for them to write how they arrived here and how they lived here, what they wore and what they ate, how they celebrated and how they mourned. One of these days there will be some great-grandchild - and maybe even a historian - who will be thrilled when he finds the booklet his grandfather wrote.
Ussishkin isn't to blame
A small bit of nonsense found its way into the media last week, and even Haaretz published it: A group of activists connected to the Yad Ben-Zvi historical research institute were supposed to restore to Ussishkin Street, in Jerusalem's Rehavia neighborhood, its original name: Yehuda Halevy. According to a well-known story, Menahem Ussishkin, the head of the Jewish National Fund-Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael, lived on Halevy Street; in honor of his birthday he initiated the change of the street's name, and since then it has been called Ussishkin Street. Here is a story about an Ashkenazi entrepreneur who stole the glory from a Sephardi poet. Arise, O Sephardim!
But the story is a fabrication.
Ussishkin is in fact described as an insufferable person, extremist in his political views and greedy for honor, but he did not disinherit Yehuda Halevy. The street named after Ussishkin was originally Keren Kayemeth Street. So that the JNF would not remain without a street, they gave it a street that was called Shmuel Hanagid. Although Shmuel Hanagid was exiled from prestigious Rehavia, he received a street leading to the neighborhood, which bears his name to this day. Yehuda Halevy Street eventually became Hakuzari Park, which includes the Yad Ben-Zvi compound, among other things; Yehuda Halevy received a street in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City. It has nothing to do with Ussishkin.