The Teen Who Taught Me the Truth About Israel's Expulsion of Palestinians

Even in New York, no one lives this land's problems more than a Palestinian exile and an ex-Israeli

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From the insight of this teen, I looked down at the monstrous arguments fed to us for generations to justify a people’s expulsion from its homeland.
From the insight of this teen, I looked down at the monstrous arguments fed to us for generations to justify a people’s expulsion from its homeland.Credit: Marina Grechanik
Odeh Bisharat
Odeh Bisharat
Odeh Bisharat
Odeh Bisharat

We met in Central Park. The summer heat, still mild that day, would become oppressive on my last day there. Our walk brought us to Strawberry Fields, the memorial to John Lennon located not far from where he was murdered. The word “Imagine” on the mosaic inexplicably radiated sadness. We exchanged a few words about this great artist, and soon returned to rehash the problems of our home region. It seems that no one lives its problems more than a Palestinian exile and an ex-Israeli.

In 1966, when he was 16, Yair Svorai was exposed to the events of 1948, including the stories of the Arab villages whose residents were expelled. This was his first insight: Whatever happens, people do not leave their villages. Period. From the insight of this teen, I looked down, with contempt and disgust, at the monstrous arguments fed to us for generations to justify a people’s expulsion from its homeland. Do you truly believe it when you claim the Palestinians were expelled because they rejected the UN partition plan, or that in every war there is a winner and a loser?

We share the ideals of freedom, peace, brotherhood and human dignity. In the words of an old Arabic poem: 'You may have a brother your mother did not birth.'

I also became angry with myself, with my pathetic attempts to rebuff such claims with specific responses that miss the main point: Even if the Arabs rejected partition, were defeated, fired shots from some village; even if the Arab states started the war, even if the grand mufti of Jerusalem came up with the “Final Solution,” not poor Hitler (as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claims), it does not justify the expulsion from Ma’alul of my family and all their neighbors.

I met this teen 51 years later, on a visit to New York. Svorai is no longer young, but his truths still shine with the truthfulness of youth. In the battle against those who distort history, Svorai is a fortress, whether in his home in Manhattan, or in Kibbutz Mizra, where he attended high school, not far from his parents’ home in Kiryat Tivon.

'You may have a brother your mother did not birth'

Yair emigrated to the United States in the early 1970s, but not to get rich. He wanted to discover America at the time, the protests against the Vietnam War and the nascent women’s movements. He stayed, partly because of the personal freedom America offers and that today are under threat. He worked hard, he married, he retired and now he writes and tries to attract the world’s attention to repairing the injustice done to the Palestinian people.

Why do I write about Svorai? Because there are good people in the worldCredit: Marina Grechanik

Why do I write about Svorai? Because there are good people in the world. He is Jewish and I am Palestinian, and our peoples have been in conflict for generations. But we share the ideals of freedom, peace, brotherhood and human dignity. In the words of an old Arabic poem: “You may have a brother your mother did not birth.”

Svorai did not come from an extreme leftist or pacifist family, just the opposite. Tova and Moshe Svorai famously hid the head of the Lehi pre-state underground militia, Yair Stern, from the British Mandate police. When their Tel Aviv home was raided, in 1942, Tova tried to shield Stern with her own body, but British policemen shot and killed him.

The shocking information

Yair Svorai remembers Mizra as the best part of his childhood, and over 30 years later he is still close to his “adoptive family” there. As a member of the Hashomer Hatzair youth movement there, he heard stories from his counselor about the Nakba, though of course the Arabic term was not used at the time. He didn’t know how many villages were destroyed in the course of Israel’s War of Independence, their residents expelled, but he realized the number was large.

“In my [high-school] class there were over 20 students who heard what happened, but they didn’t become activists as a result of the shocking information; it also didn’t stop the counselor from joining an elite unit when he was drafted, a year later. Some people are deeply affected by what they hear, and others aren’t,” Svorai says, referring to his 16-year-old self. 1966 was also when he bought “The Arabs in Israel,” by Sabri Jiryis, which came out that year. Svorai still has it.

“The book influenced me greatly. I read about the theft of the Arabs’ land, about the concept of ‘present absentees,’” referring to Israel’s absentee property law, “which allowed the state to expropriate Arab land, even of those who were in the country. Of course, it was all the direct continuation of what happened during the Nakba,” he says.

Svorai transferred to a high school in Kiryat Tivon in 1967, for 11th grade. In early August, two months after the Six-Day War, he went to Jerusalem to visit friends. “Someone there told about what went on in what was called then the Latrun “finger,” the destruction of the villages of Emmaus, Yalu and Beit Nuba, and it spurred us to visit the area,” says Svorai. He photographed the ruins. The villages were destroyed completely after the battles ended, exactly the way it happened in 1948.

He took his photographs to the offices of Haolam Hazeh, in Tel Aviv. He remembers quite well that the editor of the weekly, Uri Avnery, was not interested in the story. The wave of national enthusiasm that flooded Israel after apparently did not pass by Avnery. But Svorai did not give up. A month later he wrote a letter to the editor, accompanied by one of his photographs from Latrun. It was published in the letters section.

At the time, Haolam Hazeh had a custom of leaving white space in items that had been censored, to show the diligence of the military censor. In Svorai’s letter, the white “windows” covered three-fourth of the text.

The Arab lover

The story did not end there. The propaganda Hebrew radio from the Voice of Cairo was popular among Israeli high school students at the time, partly because of the ridiculousness of the broadcasts and the lame accents of the Egyptian announcers. And then the Egyptian newscaster told about Yair Svorai’s letter in Haolam Hazeh. In school they called him the “Arab lover.”

And then, perhaps under the inspiration of Lennon, he reminded me of another truth that has worn away over the years and distortions: The terrorist operation directed at civilian targets that caused the greatest number of deaths in the entire history of the bloody conflict was that of Menachem Begin’s pre-state underground militia Etzel, also known as the Irgun. In 1946 it bombed the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, killing 91 people. And even after that, they are not embarrassed to paint the Palestinian struggle in the colors of terrorism.

It is very important for Svorai to talk about the occupation of 1967 as the continuation of the Nakba. Because the goals of the two events were identical: as large a territory as possible with as small a Palestinian population as possible.

Even the means they used, and continue to use, were similar. And the ethnic cleansing in both cases was similar too. Svorai says that in general it is a process of “replacing a people,” and in legal terms it is ethnic cleansing, which is considered to be one of the most serious crimes in international law. He expounded on this in a piece he published in Haaretz in March of this year.

When we talked about the hot-button issue of the Israeli-American demand to stop the Palestinian allowances to the families of Palestinian prisoners and of Palestinians killed by Israeli security forces — “terrorists,” according to Netanyahu, Svorai said: There are terrorists and there are freedom fighters, it depends which side you ask. In the eyes of the Palestinians, the Israeli army carries out terrorist acts and the armed Palestinians are freedom fighters; in the eyes of most Israelis, the Palestinian gunmen are terrorists and the soldiers are heroes. And if a leader who seeks peace and reconciliation does not also understand the other side and its perspective, it will only perpetuate the suffering of both peoples.