Opinion |

Don't Be Scared of Sheikh Jarrah: Six Decades After a Massacre

Six decades after the infamous 1948 Arab ambush of a medical convoy, which left 73 doctors and nurses dead, I heard an eye-witness account of loss – and hope

Jerome Chanes
Jerome Chanes
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The convoy of ambulances to Hadassah Hospital ambushed in Sheikh Jarrah, April 14, 1948. Palestinian assailants killed 78 doctors and nurses.
The convoy of ambulances to Hadassah Hospital ambushed in Sheikh Jarrah, April 14, 1948. Palestinian assailants killed 78 doctors and nurses. Credit: Wikipedia
Jerome Chanes
Jerome Chanes

I had finished my work for the day at the Hebrew University archive on Mount Scopus in Jerusalem, and called a taxi to take me back to the town center. It was Yom Hazikaron - Memorial Day for the fallen in Israel’s wars, 2012.

As the taxi meandered down the hill, through the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood, to the city center, I sighed to the driver, “Ahh - Sheikh Jarrah...” Sheikh Jarrah is a placename known to all Israelis. On April 14, 1948, a month before Israel declared statehood and at the height of the War of Independence, 78 doctors and nurses were killed when their convoy to Hadassah Hospital was attacked and burned by Palestinian Arabs, as it passed through Sheikh Jarrah.

My taxi driver, Yitzhak, my age: “I will tell you a Sheikh Jarrah story.

“I was five years old, and living I the Bukharan Quarter in Jerusalem. At that time the Quarter went almost the to the foot of Sheikh Jarrah, and my apartment building was the last one; from our window I could see the hillside of Sheikh Jarrah Road.

“In those days the Bukharan Quarter was mixed—Sephardim and Ashkenazim. We were Bukharans, but our neighbors were an Ashkenazi family—the father was a doctor, and they had a daughter, Ruti, my age, who was my playmate.

Sheikh Jarrah memorial for the slain doctors of the 1948 Hadassah convoyCredit: Wikipedia

“I was at my window that day, the day, April 14, 1948, that the convoy was attacked. I saw it all—the attack on the armored buses, the burning of the buses so that no one could escape, the intervention, finally, by the British soldiers. God will avenge

“The next day I looked for Ruti, but she was nowhere to be found. My dad told me that Ruti and her mom had to move, suddenly. Of course, Ruti’s father was amongst those slain doctors. But I didn’t learn that until much later.

“Six months ago - 64 years later - I pick up a fare, here on Mt Scopus, a woman around my age. As we drive down Sheikh Jarrah, she begins weeping. I ask her, ‘G’veret, lady, why are you crying?’

“’Don’t ask. My father . . .’

“I look carefully at the woman. It’s Ruti, my playmate from 1948 in the Bukharan Quarter.

“’Is it you, Ruti?’ I asked.

“She looks at me, puzzled.

“Slowly, hesitantly, she asks: ‘Yitzhak?’

“What can I tell about our reunion? We arrived in the city center, embraced, cried together, drank coffee together, caught up.

“What had happened with Ruti? After April 14, she and her mom were moved out of Jerusalem to relatives in Haifa. After many difficult years, including four years of army service, she herself became a physician, moved back to Jerusalem, married, and had her own family. She became active in civil rights and social justice, and her medical work is davka with Palestinian Arabs.

An Israeli activist is detained by Israeli policemen during a unauthorized demonstration in Sheikh Jarrah. January 15, 2010. Credit: AFP

“Ruti and I brought our families together, and our children and grandchildren have found a vehicle for what Americans call ‘the healing process.’ Together, we all visited the monument on Sheikh Jarrah. 65 years later, we can finally say goodbye to Sheikh Jarrah, and look, together, at the future.”

A week later I visited Sheikh Jarrah with my son, Adam. I told him the narrative of the April 14 doctors' convoy; more important, I told Adam the story of Ruti and Yitzhak, my driver.

The question for me, for my son, for Israelis and for Palestinian Arabs—for Jerusalem in this fiftieth anniversary year since its reunification: Might the healing process, like Ruti and Yitzhak's, extend further, to the inhabitants of Sheikh Jarrah, all of whom are of the next or two and even three generations away from those who attacked the convoy? Might the individual who has been the enemy, who has always seen the enemy as the “other,” now see the “other” as a human being?

Jerome Chanes, the author of four books on Jewish history and public affairs, is a fellow at the Center for Jewish History at the CUNY Graduate Center. He is writing a book on Israeli theater.

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