What Yosef Weitz Didn't See While Surveying the Palestinian Villages He Would Destroy

I look at the photo of Yosef Weitz, the father of the population transfer plan, and wonder what he was thinking when he sealed the fate of whole villages

Odeh Bisharat
Odeh Bisharat
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Yosef Weitz, center, surveying land scheduled for purchase by the JNF. Maybe the photographer wanted to say that the soil of Palestine was not exactly empty.
Yosef Weitz, center, surveying land scheduled for purchase by the JNF. Maybe the photographer wanted to say that the soil of Palestine was not exactly empty. Credit: Aryeh Peck / Kibbutz Na’an Archive
Odeh Bisharat
Odeh Bisharat

I haven’t seen “Blue Box,” Michal Weits’ new documentary about her great-grandfather, Yosef Weitz, who conceived Israel’s population-transfer policy. Nor have I read the article about the film that appeared in Haaretz. My heart bleeds too profusely to read another article about 1948. Nevertheless, a large photograph that accompanied the article prominently disoriented me.

I look at the picture, then go back and look at it again, and say to myself: Maybe my eyes are deceiving me. I return to look at it again and again, and my eyes aren’t lying: There’s another figure in the photograph. It’s impossible to ignore it. It’s true that in a quick glance, in the transition from print to image, it’s hard to discern. But on second and third glance, I’m certain that behind Yosef Weitz’s aide, who’s on the right in the photo, is the figure of an Arab. His face is hidden behind the aide, but the keffiyeh is clearly visible, there’s no mistake about it.

I shift my gaze to the center of the frame. You can see a cane – but whose hand is holding it? It’s definitely not Weitz’s. He’s pointing at something with one hand and holding a map with the other. And why is the hand holding the cane blurred?

Continuing up from the hand, above, I see the attire of the person in the keffiyeh, and again I wonder why the hand is blurred, while all the other details in the photograph are seen clearly. Could it be the deceptiveness of the light at dusk, light fragmented by clouds that have created for us the illusion of an inhuman hand, a hand that is not a hand? And why is the person in the keffiyeh also holding the map, from below? Weitz’s hand is high up, while the blurred hand of the keffiyeh person is below. Is the hand below trying to explain something? Wait a minute – the hand of the keffiyeh man is holding the cane: more deceptiveness.

One moment, please. It’s clear that there’s another figure, apparently a woman, behind Weitz. Her (if it is indeed a woman) coat is darker than the color of his jacket, and the bottom of her coat ends above his knee. What is she doing there? Is she an Arab or a Jew? And if she is an Arab – my intuition tells me that that is in fact what she is – what are two Arabs doing there? Are they shepherds and is the cane actually a shepherd’s crook? Or were they perhaps invited by Weitz’s staff to explain to them where the boundaries of the village lie and agreed willingly to come, for one of the Arabs’ rules of hospitality is to accede to all of a guest’s requests, the more so if this guest is a distinguished foreigner, khawaja, in a suit and tie and a Western hat.

I have a fleeting conjecture that this is sweet revenge, or more precisely, cruel revenge, by the photographer, who grasped the enormity of the crime that was transpiring before his eyes: An outsider had come to dispossess simple, indigent fellahin of their land and to dispatch them across the border. Perhaps, as part of the trend that prevailed during that period, too, he executed a photomontage and planted in the photo these Levantine figures, so that sharp-eyed viewers would realize that something was amiss in it. Yes, I can hear a muted shout from within the scene: Pay attention, the victims are in the background of the picture. Maybe he wanted to say that the soil of Palestine was not exactly empty; the ghosts of those who had been will continue to walk the land.

One way or the other, it’s a harrowing shot to behold. The representatives of the dark side of Western culture are looking from above at little creatures, without hearing them, maybe also without seeing them, and sealing their fate.

Still, whether the Arabs were disappeared deliberately from the frame, or whether this was really how things were, the photograph tells the story: A supreme force, in the person of an obsessive agent, destroys the lives of hundreds of thousands of people without even getting close to them. For him this is a scene that contains earth, rocks, plants, animals and human beings. He agrees to let them all remain – all, that is, but the human beings. Unfortunately for them, they were born to a different race, not the race of the person who’s looking from on high.

The picture was taken in the 1940s, and its caption relates that it shows “Yosef Weitz [center] on the job as director of the land department at the JNF.” The location is not stated, but what does it matter? All land in Palestine suits the story, each person and his or her personal story.

Looking at the photograph of Yosef Weitz standing on a hill and surveying the lands of an Arab village, I thought about my parents’ village, Ma’alul, and about amti (my aunt), Khazna, who was then 8 years old. I don’t know if Weitz took any notice of her. He certainly didn’t know her story about being in the salt cave, so we should tell it.

Khazna was 22 days old when her father was killed in a train accident, in 1933. His brother Khalil adopted her into his family and she was raised like one of his daughters and even got special treatment. When her brothers and sisters (more accurately, her male and female cousins) did something wrong, they blamed Khazna, because her uncle customarily punished his own wayward offspring, but always forgave Khazna’s transgressions. For him she was a precious jewel, the only living memory of his beloved brother.

While Yosef Weitz would have been busy surveying the village’s land on behalf of the Jewish National Fund, Khazna and her cousin Said, who was a year younger than she, decided to climb along the ridge of the sloping hill that lay next to Ma’alul’s spring. I recall my account of the event as I wrote about it several years ago:

“Khazna wanted to see the cave in which, according to legend, salt was created. So there she is walking in front and Said is following in her footsteps. One step before the entrance to the cave Khazna slipped, and her little body tumbled along more than a hundred meters, on her head, legs, stomach and back. When she reached the spring, in the wadi, it was the shepherds’ voices that summoned the villagers. Many came to take care of the pampered Khazna. After all, she was an orphan. My uncle Said told me that he didn’t dare to return home for many hours. Khazna was already there, bruised all over, although with no serious injuries. No one shouted at her. Khazna told everyone that she was the one who had slipped, without Said’s ‘help.’ Khazna had a special status, she was even able to sweeten her cousin’s punishment.”

I look at the photograph of Weitz, and Khazna’s image captures my imagination. He didn’t know Khazna. He wasn’t aware of the measure of love that her uncle, my grandfather, Khalil, bestowed on her. Standing up there, it’s doubtful whether Weitz felt the human warmth that welled up in the simple houses that stood across from him. It’s very doubtful that he ever listened to the stories of love, heroism, courage and generosity, whether he heard the songs that murmured and surged on this soil. Who knows. If he had listened, maybe he wouldn’t have decreed expulsion for Khazna and wouldn’t have demolished the village and prevented the return of its inhabitants and their descendants.

An entire society was shattered in Ma’alul. The residents scattered, some to across the border and some to nearby towns. The human fabric unraveled completely, and to this day we are trying to collect the fragments.

Just a month ago I chanced on another piece of the puzzle. Jad Saba Salem, 95, remained and did not wander to Lebanon thanks to lullabies that his mother sang to his infant daughter, Faiza. In the days before the conquest of Ma’alul, young Jad rented a camel to take him, his wife and their daughter to Lebanon. On the evening before the journey his aged mother began singing melancholy songs for the little girl, so she would fall asleep. Jad’s heart broke: How could he leave his elderly parents on their own at a time like this? In the end he stayed. The family fled to Nazareth and added to its numbers sons, grandsons and granddaughters, great-grandsons and great-granddaughters.

Because of the lullabies that were sung to Faiza, who’s today 73, Weitz missed expelling another family across the border.

Khazna passed away a few weeks ago, and her brother Said died a few years back, far from the village where his stories nourished the diwans in which they sat. The thought of what I would have done, if I had been in their place during that period, always gnaws at me, and gives me shivers.

I am filled with admiration at the moral courage of Michal Weits, the great-granddaughter of Yosef Weitz. As I understood from the little I read, she chose to confront reality in her film and not to embellish it, because truth is the first step on the road to reconciliation. Left to us, the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of both peoples, is a prodigious task of ameliorating the lives of the generations to come. The path chosen by Michal is the most promising of all.

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