Remembering Deir Yassin.
Dan McGowan is probably the only American in the United States whose licence plate reads DEIR YASSIN. Certainly, he is the only New York motorist bearing the name of the Palestinian village destroyed nearly a half century ago.
His earlier licence plate, bought after he made his first trip to Palestine in 1987, read INTIFADA. It isn't that the economics professor wants to pick a fight with right-wing Jewish extremists who might see his plates, so much as he wants to raise American awareness of the injustice done to the Palestinian people. His ambition is to establish a permanent memorial to the Palestinian victims massacred in the village of Deir Yassin by Zionist extremists half a century ago.
Deir Yassin Remembered is the name of the organisation McGowan has established for his crusade, a twist on the Zionist slogan "Remember Deir Yassin" which Zionist extremists blared over loudspeakers in 1948 to terrorise villagers into fleeing their homeland in the wake of the Jewish armies.
Instead of debating economic theories at international symposia, the persevering academic is waging a battle to commemorate a bloody injustice done to the Palestinian people five decades ago.
McGowan had no interest in the Middle East in the mid 1980s, when he took note of the trend by American colleges and universities to force their pension funds to withdraw their investments from South Africa. He didn't like the apartheid government in Pretoria, but he questioned political obstructions to the free flow of capital. As he researched divestment, he noticed a peculiar double standard whenever Israel was included in the equation.
Unaware of the bombshell he was dropping, he publicly asked: "If krugerrands are to be banned, why not diamonds (imported to Israel from South Africa); does cutting them in Israel remove the black blood on them?"
Or, he would query of an uncomfortable audience: "If apartheid is evil, why is it bad for South Africa yet acceptable for Israel? Why is the expropriation of land for the exclusive use of whites condemned, while the expropriation of land for the exclusive use of Jews condoned?"
McGowan's talks were beginning to ruffle the feathers of Israel's supporters, but he persisted in pointing out in lectures on labour markets that Israel practiced ethnic and religious discrimination. For even though Israel has a tradition of labour union rights, when the Jewish state employed Palestinians, they were confined to menial jobs in agriculture, construction and sanitation and received few of the benefits accorded Jewish workers.
The professor at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, NY, realised the deck was stacked when he decided to see if an introductory course on Islam was offered on his campus. He was astounded to discover that although the religion department had five full-time faculty and offered 39 courses, including 10 on Judaism and the Holocaust, but there was not a single class on Islam. When he inquired why a religion observed by one-quarter of the world's population was not represented by even one course, he was told there were not many Muslim students on campus.
"By that analogy, colleges without Russian students would have no reason to teach Russian," he countered, but to no avail. Ten years later, Hobart and William Smith Colleges still do not offer a course on Islam.
McGowan's curiosity over this intentional omission of Islamic studies led him to contact the American-Arab Anti-Discimination Committee. He learned about ADC's Eyewitness Israel Programme and applied.
"I guess I wasn't a good candidate, what with being a Republican, a lifetime member of the National Rifle Association and an economist instead of a human rights organiser or journalist," he noted.
Nonetheless, McGowan was accepted at the last minute and paid his own way to live in Jabalia, the largest refugee camp in Gaza. He was shocked to observe the abuse Palestinians endure under Israeli military rule. McGowan walked the streets of Hebron, Jerusalem, Ramallah and Jenin, but it was the total cover up of Deir Yassin -- the flashpoint for the systematic depopulation of 700,000 Palestinians -- from more than 400 Arab villages and cities that most galled his sense of justice.
"The chilling fact is that Deir Yassin is within sight of Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust Museum." McGowan notes. "Yad Vashem is a memorial park, Israel's pre-eminent national shrine, where the names of all known Jewish victims of the Germans are recorded. Yet less than 1,400 metres away, the massacred civilians of Deir Yassin were cremated and buried in an mass, unmarked grave. The irony and hypocrisy are breathtaking."
Most of the stone houses of Deir Yassin's Palestinian villagers remain standing.
They have been preserved partially because they are used to house residents of a Jewish mental institution known as Givat Shaul. Few in this West Jerusalem neighborhood would even recognise the words Deir Yassin if they were questioned.
Yet this is where McGowan wants to erect a permanent memorial to the 254 villagers slaughtered on 9 April 1948 by the Irgun and Stern Gang. He believes that, if he can generate enough international attention, a memorial can someday stand on the site of the infamous massacre.
McGowan has formed an international board that is made up of half Palestinian and half Jewish members. At the onset, McGowan sent an invitation to serve on the board to Elie Wiesel, the pre-eminent Holocaust survivor and Nobel Prize laureate who writes about the Holocaust survivors "so they won't be forgotten". Wiesel, McGowan notes, was working for the Irgun in France during and after the Deir Yassin massacre. However, the writer has not answered any of McGowan's phone calls, letters or faxes.
The determined crusader officially opened his fund raising campaign for the Deir Yassin memorial at the 1995 convention of ADC in Washington, DC. There, he outlined his plans to raise a modest $100,000 for the memorial, which would entail an international design competition. Everyone applauded his idea, but the project has yet to raise this amount of money.
Over the years, McGowan has collected about $7,000 -- an amount that might just cover the cost of a base for a memorial sculpture. In spite of the difficulty in persuading Palestinians to contribute to this type of national cause, he has gained the cooperation of journalists and Middle East scholars to contribute articles about the Deir Yassin massacre for a memorial book.
In addition, McGowan has received encouragement from artists and sculptors who are eager to design a sculpture. He has even met Israelis who say they will petition the Knesset for a suitable site at Deir Yassin/Givat Shaul. Palestinians tend to be sceptical of the project and ask that McGowan first secure a site from the Israelis at Deir Yassin before they will contribute to the project. McGowan believes it is this attitude that has led to the failure to erect a marker at Deir Yassin over the past 50 years,
"The problem is, we've got to have a memorial project underway that will draw media attention as well as the ensuring social pressure that will induce the Israeli government to grant us a site," McGowan commented.
"It hasn't been the Israelis who have dragged their feet on this project, but the Palestinians themselves."
What is the remedy? "We need grassroots participation. If every reader of The Middle East and every Palestinian in the diaspora just sent us a check for $5 we could be dedicating a memorial tomorrow."
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|Author:||Twair, Pat McDonnell|
|Publication:||The Middle East|
|Date:||Dec 1, 1998|
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