Lessons from my Palestinian mother about Jerusalem — and resistance

For 70 years, Israel has tried to erase Palestinian history. And for 70 years, Palestinians have resisted erasure. My mother helped me understand how. 

Palestinian refugee Laila Abdel Meguid Tafesh 78 years old, from the Rafah refugee camp, holds up a key she says is from her house in Jaffa. (Abed Rahim Khatib / Flash90)
Illustrative photo of a Palestinian refugee, Laila Abdel Meguid Tafesh, 78, holding a key she says is from her house in Jaffa. (Abed Rahim Khatib / Flash90)

In her expansive history of Jerusalem, British author Karen Armstrong describes a peculiar pastime of Moshe Dayan, the Israeli general who, in 1967, captured the city’s eastern half. Dayan, it turns out, was “the most famous of Israel’s amateur archaeologists,” an avid practitioner with “a quasi-religious passion” for unearthing fragments of Jerusalem’s Jewish past.

This “patriotic archaeology” was more than hobby, though. Dayan saw in it a way to inspire allegiance, among Jewish Israelis, to the state. “They learn that their forefathers were in this country three thousand years ago,” he told an interviewer. “By this they fight, and by this they live.”

For the Palestinian family in exile, archaeology takes on different meaning. Deprived of the land, we sift instead through the memories of our kin, our living history held in the mesh of imagery and idiom.

I recall how, two decades into the Oslo process, I pried open a box my mother had asked me to hold in safekeeping (“in a cool, dry place,” she said). In it, I found hundreds of faded photographs — my mother’s history, hidden all those years in sepia stills. There she was outside her home in Bethlehem, a scout in neckerchief and beret. There she was, at Jerusalem’s Mamounia school, then just a bus ride away.

It was this living Palestinian history that Jerusalem’s Israeli “liberators,” Dayan at heir helm, sought to erase. In July of 1950, after he had ordered the destruction of an eleventh-century structure, said to be the burial place of the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson, Dayan made no attempt to conceal the act: “The detonation was carried out by the Coastal Plain District,” he proclaimed, “at my instruction.”

What followed was equally remorseless. By the time this particular campaign of erasure had ended, Dayan’s army had destroyed three-quarters of the mosques that fell within Israel’s newly established borders. As the Israeli historian Ilan Pappé has documented, such was the fate of entire Palestinian villages, hundreds of them summarily razed by Israel’s first generation.

If the truth of that early “cleansing” has now been documented by Pappé and others, it would be a mistake to think of it as past. As my colleague Edo Konrad reminded +972 readers earlier this month, Dayan’s eulogy to one Roi Rothberg, a kibbutznik killed along the Gaza border in April of 1956, made clear why:

Let us not cast the blame on the murderers today. Why should we declare their burning hatred for us? For eight years they have been sitting in the refugee camps in Gaza, and before their eyes we have been transforming the lands and the villages, where they and their fathers dwelt, into our estate.

Where these Palestinian refugees “and their fathers dwelt” was to be a land settled by “the steel helmet and the canon’s maw,” Dayan declared. “This is our life’s choice — to be prepared and armed, strong and determined, lest the sword be stricken from our fist and our lives cut down.”

And so the curse, not just of Dayan’s generation, but of all Israelis’ since, was to forever douse the “burning hatred” that Israel itself had kindled. Doing so required dismantling the foundations upon which Palestine and its people had stood, shoveling the combustible ruins of our Arab epoch into some dark, unmarked quarry.

But the most valuable remnants of our history are not made of olive wood or stone. They were salvaged from Dayan’s would-be ruins by mothers like mine. In America, where she now lives, she brings Palestine to her neighbors in the grainy citruses of a sumac spice-rub, in velvet-lined boxes of mother-of-pearl, in a guava tree heavy with this season’s fruit.

On Jerusalem, Trump picked a fight with us Palestinians. Some of us, those still residing on the land, will bear the brunt of this folly, fixed arms against the bullet or the baton. Some of us will photograph or write, planting memories for some later season. And all of us, I think, will tend to memories unsoiled, for reminders that we, too, belong there.

By this we fight. And by this we live.