On September 27, 2014, at an event hosted by Med Israel for Fred (With Israel for peace) in the House of Literature, Oslo, a captivating speech was given by George Deek, an Arab-Christian who served as Chargé d’Affaires of the Embassy of Israel in Norway. The text has been excerpted due to space limitations.
When I walk in the streets of my hometown Jaffa, the alleys of the old city, the houses in the Ajami neighborhood, the fishing nets at the port–they all tell stories about the year that changed my city forever, 1948.
One of those stories is about one of the oldest families in this ancient city, the Deek family, my own. Before 1948, my grandfather George, after whom I’m named, worked as an electrician at the Rotenberg Electricity Company. And since Jaffa was a mixed city, he naturally had some Jewish friends. In fact, his friends at the electricity company even taught him Yiddish, making him one the first Arabs to speak the language.
In 1947, he became engaged to Vera, my grandmother, and together they made plans to build a family in the same city where our family lived for about 400 years.
But a few months later, those plans changed, literally, overnight.
When the United Nations approved the establishment of Israel, and then the State of Israel was established, the Arab leaders warned the Arabs that the Jews were planning to kill them if they stayed. They told everyone, “Leave your houses and run away.” They said they would need just a few days, during which with five armies they promised to destroy the newly born Israel. My family, horrified by what might happen, decided to flee, along with most others.
A priest was rushed to the Deek fami-ly’s house, and he wedded George and Vera. My grandmother didn’t even have a chance to get a proper dress. After their sudden wedding, the entire family started fleeing north, towards Lebanon.
But when the war was over, the Arabs had failed to destroy Israel. My family was on the other side of the border and it seemed that the fate of the brothers and sisters of the Deek family was for us to be scattered around the globe. Today I have relatives in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Dubai, the UK, Canada, the US, Australia and more. The story of my family is just one, and probably not the worst, among many tragic stories of the year 1948.
According to the UN, 711 thousand Palestinians were displaced. At the same time, because of the establishment of Israel, 800 thousand Jews were intimidated into leaving the Arab world, leaving most [of those nations] empty of Jews.
This also happened in the Middle East. For example:
The chances of any of these groups returning to their homes is almost non-existent.
So why is it, then, that the tragedies of the Serbs, the European Muslims, the Polish refugees, or the Iraqi Christians are not commemorated? Why is it that the displacement of the Jews from the Arab world was completely forgotten, while the tragedy of the Palestinians (the Nakba) is still alive in today’s politics?
It seems to me [it is] because the Nakba has been transformed from a humanitarian disaster into a political offensive. The commemoration of the Nakba is no longer about remembering what happened, but about resenting the mere existence of the state of Israel.
It is demonstrated most clearly in the date chosen to commemorate it: The Nakba day was set on May 15th, one day after Israel proclaimed its independence. By that the Palestinian leadership declared that the disaster of the Nakba was not the expulsion, the abandoned villages, or the exile. The Nakba in their eyes was the creation of Israel. They are saddened less by the humanitarian catastrophe that befell the Palestinians than by the revival of the Jewish state. In other words: They do not mourn the fact that my cousins are Jordanians, they mourn the fact that I am an Israeli.
By doing so, the Palestinians have become slaves to the past, held captive by the chains of resentment, prisoners in the world of frustration and hate.
To mend the past, first you have to secure the future.
This is something I learned from my music teacher, Avraham Nov. When I was seven years old, I joined the marching band of the Arab-Christian community in Jaffa. That’s where I met Avraham, who taught me to play the flute and the clarinet.
Avraham is a Holocaust survivor, whose entire family was murdered by the Nazis. He survived because a Nazi officer found him gifted in playing the harmonica, so he took him home during the war to entertain his guests.
When the war was over, he could have easily sat and wept over the greatest crime of man against man in history, and over the fact that he was alone. But he chose life, not death, hope rather than despair.
Avraham came to Israel, got married, built a family, and started teaching the same thing that saved his life–music. He became the teacher of thousands of children all over the country. And when he saw the tension between Arabs and Jews, this Holocaust survivor decided to teach hope through music to hundreds of Arab children like me.
Holocaust survivors like Avraham are among the most extraordinary people you can find. Throughout the 15 years I have known Avraham when I was his student, he never spoke about his past, except once, when I demanded to know. Many Holocaust survivors did not speak about those years, about the Holocaust, even to their families, sometimes for decades.
Only when they had secured the future did they allow themselves to look back at the past. They built the future in their old-new home, the state of Israel. And under the shadows of their greatest tragedy, Jews built a country that leads the world in medicine, agriculture and technology.
Why? Because they looked forward. Friends, this is a lesson to every nation that wishes to overcome a tragedy, including the Palestinians.
And the first step in that direction, without a doubt, is to end the shameful treatment of the Palestinian refugees.
In the Arab world, the Palestinian refugees–including their children, their grandchildren and even their great-grandchildren–are still not settled, are aggressively discriminated against and, in most cases, are denied citizenship and basic human rights.
Why is it that my relatives in Canada are Canadian citizens, while my relatives in Syria, Lebanon or the Gulf countries–who were born there and know no other home–are still considered [non-citizen] refugees? Clearly, the treatment of the Palestinians in the Arab countries is the greatest oppression they experience anywhere.
And the collaborators in this crime are none other than the international community and the United Nations. Rather than doing its job and helping the refugees build a life, the international community is feeding the narrative of victimhood.
While there is one UN agency in charge of all refugees in the world–the UNHCR–another agency was established to deal only with the Palestinian ones, UNRWA. This is no coincidence. While the goal of the UNHCR is to help refugees establish a new home, establish a future, and end their refugee status, the goal of UNRWA is the opposite: To preserve their status as refugees and prevent them from being able to start new lives.
The international community cannot seriously expect the refugee problem to be solved when it is collaborating with the Arab world in treating the refugees as political pawns and denying them the basic rights they deserve.
Wherever the Palestinian refugees were granted equal rights, they prospered and contributed to their society–in South America, in the US, and even in Israel. In fact, Israel was one of the few countries that automatically gave full citizenship and equality for all Palestinians [within their borders] after 1948.
And we see the results:
Today, when I walk the streets of Jaffa, I see the old buildings and the old port, but I also see children going to school and university, I see flourishing businesses, and I see a vibrant culture. In short, we have a future in Israel.
This brings me to my next point:
The time has come to put an end to the culture of hatred and incitement because anti-Semitism, I believe, is a threat to Muslims and Christians, as much as for Jews.
I arrived in Norway just over two years ago, and here was the first time that I inter-
acted with Jews as a minority community. I’m used to seeing them as a majority.
I grew up in a similar environment, in the Arab-Christian community in Jaffa. I was part of the Orthodox Christians, who are part of the Christian community, who are part of the Arab minority, in the Jewish State of Israel, in the Muslim Middle East. It’s like those Russian dolls. You open a big one and there’s a smaller one inside. I’m the smallest piece.
Being a minority, my friends, means being different. And no nation has ever paid a heavier price for being a minority, being different, than the Jewish people. The history of the Jewish people added many words to the human vocabulary, words like expulsion, forced-conversion, inquisition, ghetto, pogrom, not to mention the word Holocaust. [The UK’s former Chief] Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks explains accurately that the Jews suffered throughout the ages because they were different. Because they were the most significant non-Christian minority in Europe (and today the most significant non-Muslim minority in the Middle East).
And a Europe (or a Middle East) that has no room for Jews has no room for humanity.
Let’s not forget, anti-Semitism may begin with Jews, but it never ends with Jews. They were not the only ones to be forcefully converted under the Inquisition. And Hitler made sure that gypsies and homosexuals, among others, suffered alongside the Jews.
And it is happening now again, this time in the Middle East. The Arab world seems to have forgotten that its greatest days in the last 1,400 years were when it showed tolerance and openness towards those who are different.
But rather than reviving the successful approach of tolerance, Arab youth are being taught to hate Jews, using anti-Semitic rhetoric from medieval Europe mixed with Islamic radicalism. And, once again, what started as hostility towards Jews has become hostility towards anyone who is different.
A week ago, more than 60 thousand Kurds fled from Syria towards Turkey, afraid of being slaughtered. The same day, 15 Palestinians from Gaza drowned in the sea trying to escape the claws of Hamas. Bahai and Yazidis are at risk.
And on top of it all, the ethnic cleansing of Christians in the Middle East is the biggest crime against humanity in the 21st century. In just two decades, Christians like me have been reduced from 20 percent of the population of the Middle East to a mere four percent today.
If we wish to succeed in protecting our right to be different, if we want to have a future in that region, I believe we should stand together–Jews, Muslims and Christians. We will fight for the right of Christians everywhere to live their faith without fear, with the same passion with which we will fight for the right of Jews to live without fear.
We will fight against Islamophobia [prejudice against Muslims], but we need our Muslim partners to join the fight against Christianophobia and Judeophobia. Because at stake is our shared humanity.
The Arab world can overcome the mindset that the [Palestinians] are helpless victims, but they must then open up to self-criticism and to holding themselves accountable:
Only the Arabs themselves can change their reality by not leaning on conspiracy theories and blaming outside powers–America, the Jews, the West or whoever–for all their problems.
I read a very interesting article by Lord Sacks about rivalry among brothers in the Bible.
There are four such stories in the book of Genesis: Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, and Joseph and his brothers. Each story ends differently:
Joseph was the 11th of Jacob’s 12 sons and Rachel’s firstborn. At some stage, because of their jealousy of Joseph, his brothers sell him into slavery. However, he becomes the second-most-powerful man in Egypt next to Pharaoh. When famine struck Canaan, Joseph’s brothers and their father come to Egypt. And there, instead of punishing them for what they had done to him, Joseph forgives his brothers. This was the first recorded event of forgiveness and reconciliation in literature.
Joseph provides his brothers with all their needs. They prosper, they grow in numbers, and they become a great nation. At the end of the story, Joseph says to his brothers, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good, to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” By that, he meant that by our acts in the present we can shape the future.
Jews and Palestinians, we might not be brothers in faith, but we certainly are brothers in fate. And I believe that, just like in the story of Joseph, through making the right choices, by choosing to focus on the future, we can redeem our past. Yesterday’s enemies can be tomorrow’s friends. It happened between Israel and Germany, Israel and Egypt, Israel and Jordan.
I still didn’t tell you the rest of my family’s story in 1948. After a long journey towards Lebanon, most of it on foot, my grandparents George and Vera reached Lebanon. They stayed there for many months. And while there, my grandmother gave birth to her first son, my uncle Sami. When the war was over, they realized they had been lied to. The Arabs did not win the war as they had been promised. And the Jews did not kill all the Arabs as they had been told would happen.
My grandfather looked around him and saw nothing but a dead-end life as refugees. He looked at his young wife, not even 18 yet, and his newborn son, and knew that in a place stuck in the past with no ability to look forward, there was no future for his family. While his brothers and sisters saw their future in Lebanon and other Arab and Western countries, he thought otherwise.
He wanted to go back to Jaffa, his hometown. Because he worked with Jews in the past and was a friend to them, he was not brainwashed with hatred.
My grandfather did what few others would have dared do, he reached out to those that his community saw as their enemies. He contacted one of his old friends from the electricity company and asked for his help.
And that friend, about whom I’ve heard through my father’s stories, was able to help my grandfather get back. And, in an extraor-
dinary act of grace, he even helped him get his old job at what has become the Israel Electric Company, making him one of the few Arabs who work there.
Today, among my siblings and cousins we have accountants, teachers, insurance agents, high-tech engineers, diplomats, factory managers, university professors, doctors, lawyers, investment consultants, managers of top Israeli companies, architects–and even electricians.
The reason my family succeeded in life, the reason I’m standing here as an Israeli diplomat, and not as a Palestinian refugee from Lebanon, is because my grandfather had the courage to make a decision that was unthinkable to others. Rather than falling into despair, he found hope where no one dared look for it. He chose to live among those who were considered his enemies and to make them his friends. For that, I and my family owe him and my grandmother eternal gratitude.
The story of the Deek family should serve as a source of inspiration. We cannot change the past, but we can secure a future for our next generations.
Transcript: Conrad Myrland