The house on Rehov Graetz

As Jews reclaim property in e. J'lem owned by them before 1948, Munir Jibrail Katul remembers the west J'lem home his family lost.

By LAUREN GELFOND FELDINGER
March 12, 2010 17:27
Original German Colony house in 1934.

German Colony House 311. (photo credit: .)

 
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Ten-year-old Munir Jibrail Katul slipped away from the circle of neighbors and friends hugging good-bye in his Jerusalem living room. When the time came to pack the family into the car, his mother eventually found him, tears still sliding down his cheeks, kissing the
walls good-bye, one at a time. An occasional sob escaped from his throat.

Before he left his one-story, stone house for the last time, he looked down at the Persian rug lining the formal living room where he had played with his brother, George, 18 days earlier, as his father, Jibrail, huddled over the console radio, listened to the UN General Assembly vote on the partition of Palestine.

As he walked from the now empty living room, across the colorful tile porch, and passed the green-shuttered windows to the waiting taxi, he studied the pine trees and green gardens around him in the German Colony.

He remembered how he loved to get lost in all that backyard greenery, with his best friend, Leila Itayyim. After school they played tag and hide-and-seek, built dirt castles, raced their pet turtles and helped his father tend the garden. He took one last look at his favorite
tree, where he loved to hide high up in the branches to see everything without being seen, and wished he was sitting there instead of leaving.

The neighbors had said a departure was premature. Even his mother, Alice, tried to talk her husband out of leaving. But Munir’s father was adamant.

“War will soon break out,” he said. One of the Jewish neighbors came to bid the Orthodox Christian Arab family good-bye. Though the Jewish, Christian Arab and Muslim Arab
neighbors in the quiet German Colony had lived peacefully with each other, Munir’s father was sure that the Jews and Arabs would soon take up arms against each other to stake out claim to the neighborhood.

The Katul family plot was apparently purchased from a Muslim family. According to architect and Jerusalem historian David Kroyanker, the area there had originally belonged to Muslim families from Bet Safafa. Much of the area was purchased by the German Templers from the Muslim villagers in the 1870s, but Arab families also purchased plots. Since partition was announced and fighting had already broken out, the area was sure to be a strategic asset to either side: The Jewish underground armies saw the colony as part of the bridge connecting the Jewish neighborhoods of Kiryat Shmuel, Rehavia and the city center to the Jews living in Talpiot and Ramat Rahel. They planned to first take Katamon and then the lower neighborhoods. For the Arab armies, the area was also the direct passage between the Arab neighborhoods of Talbiyeh and Baka.



Munir looked on as three small, open trucks holding the family belongings pulled away. The house was rented for one year to the Shell Company, and the keys turned over. “We’ll be back, won’t we?” Munir asked his father.

“We are not sure when,” he replied. “The future is uncertain.”

The events of that day, December 17, 1947, along with the feeling of the emotional ache in his spirit as he drove away, were etched permanently into Munir’s memory.

By nightfall, the Katuls had crossed the border into Lebanon, where Munir’s parents and grandparents had been born.

The new chapter of their lives began abruptly. Though it was the land of his ancestors, everything seemed strange. The Arabic language and dress norms were the same. But below the surface, the customs and behaviors were slightly different. Life in the cosmopolitan city of
Beirut was nothing like the warm, friendly, village environment of Jerusalem that made Katul feel safe.

Coming home every day after school, the radio reports soon proved his father’s prophecy was right: Palestine was burning. Parts of the neighboring Arab area of Katamon had been destroyed, and after the remaining residents fled, what was left was looted. Arab neighborhoods were falling.

With the radio often open in the background announcing the rising death tolls, his mother became solemn. Munir went from being an A-plus student in Jerusalem to struggling to get by in the Beirut school system. Shortly after the State of Israel was declared, the family
realized that what was once home no longer existed. Palestinian refugees from Jerusalem, Jaffa, Haifa and the North poured into Lebanon. An environment of sadness and loss was tucked away under the surface, as everyone rebuilt their lives from scratch.

SIX DECADES LATER, now 72, a father of three, grandfather of six, and retired as a urologist and chief of medical staff from his local hospital in Eugene, Oregon, and president of the local county medical society, Katul looks back on his early years in Jerusalem with mixed
feelings. Between the nostalgic memories of his childhood, there is also a mourning of events that caused his safe and serene childhood to end abruptly, by a conflict that, even after all these years, still doesn’t make sense to him.

Today, photos of his family and the house in Jerusalem line the corridors of his home in Eugene, where he lives with his wife, Gail. When his father died in 1975, he left Munir the deed to the house. Meaningful to the Katul family, the deed holds little or no weight in
Jerusalem, where Israeli absentee property laws turned Arab homes over to the government; an increasing number being sold to Jewish families.

Between the 1950s and the 1980s, there were few ways to gather information about the old house or the old neighborhood. In the mid-1960s, his mother-in-law traveled to Jerusalem with her church and snapped a picture of the house from the street. In the 1980s, when one
of his three daughters was in college in Greece, she traveled to Jerusalem and stood before the house, too anxious to knock on the door.

But in the 1990s, Katul bought a computer and soon discovered the Internet. Over the years, he read everything he could find about today’s German Colony. When he found a map on-line, he was able to discover that his house had been on Rehov Graetz, at the corner of
Eliashberg.

Last year, he would discover the writings of Kroyanker, and a correspondence between the two is now helping the architect to amend some of the information he had gathered about Rehov Graetz in his book The German Colony and Rehov Emek Refaim.

Around the same time, Katul found someone who lived on Rehov Graetz on the Internet, and his inquiries about the house and the neighborhood were eventually passed onto Jewish author Daniel Gordis, who snapped photos for him and sent them off. After a dialogue began between the two, an op-ed on the subject of how to serve memory to go forward
rather than backward was penned by Gordis in The Jerusalem Post (April 24, 2009). On Gordis’s blog later, dozens of readers wrote in on two posts about Munir Katul: the majority of them recalled Jews who lost their houses but rebuilt their lives anew, or how, in their
opinions, Arabs were to blame for their own fate.

The words of the Israeli and Jewish readers were still echoing through Katul’s mind just a few weeks later, as he turned on his TV and learned about Jews reclaiming properties that were theirs before 1948 in Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood.

Katul wondered to himself: “Why can Jewish families win the right to reclaim their properties owned before 1948, while Palestinian families can’t?”

As Israelis debate issues such as Jerusalem and refugee rights, Katul talked to The Jerusalem Post by telephone and in dozens of e-mail exchanges, telling his story and responding to opinions often penned in the Jewish press about Palestinians who lost their homes since 1948.

When did your parents leave Lebanon for Palestine, and why?

Palestine was the “new frontier” and the British were heavily recruiting Arab teachers. My father came from a very poor and possibly illiterate family in Dhour Shweir, a small village in the mountains of Lebanon. The son of a shoemaker, he worked his way through college,
which was unheard of there at the time. He graduated from the American University of Beirut in 1915, went to Iraq and eventually Palestine in 1921; it was a land of opportunity and easier to find work and better pay there. Remember that the whole region was devastated by the
Ottomans with famine and economic ruin.

He started as a teacher and gradually rose through the ranks to become chief inspector and then assistant director of education for Palestine. I am told that he was the highest ranking Arab in the British Mandate government and had hit the ceiling in promotions as an Arab. He was granted an Order of the British Empire,  the second highest medal given to civilians by the British government. My parents knew each other from childhood. He kept visiting his future bride in Lebanon in the 1920s, until they got married in 1927 and my mother
moved to Jerusalem.

How did they end up in the Germany Colony? And what do you remember about the area?

He built our house in 1932 on what is today Rehov Graetz because it was a new, developing neighborhood. My impression is that it was mostly unimproved land owned by the Nammar family – Muslim Palestinians. A number of Christian Arabs from Palestine and Lebanon
all built there at the same time. The neighborhood also had Muslim Palestinians and later Jewish inhabitants, too, who I think were renting from Arabs and were not actual owners. On our street, we had two Jewish neighbors; one British family; and the rest were 50-50
Christian and Muslim Palestinians.

Our street had no name and there were no street numbers then. The neighborhood was not crowded because all the homes had spacious gardens. There was one empty lot above us, which is probably now Rehov Graetz 12. There was a large tract of olive trees owned by the Greek Orthodox Church, extending all the way to the train station. There were very few cars and no traffic. Our street ended up the hill in a public garden. There were footpaths from there to Talbiyeh, also an Arab neighborhood. There was a British army camp [down at the bottom of our street on the other side] at the corner of Emek Refaim and what is today Graetz, with two tennis courts. Around the corner, off today’s Dor V’dorshav was a little hotel, Villa Rosemary, and the Leprosy Hospital further on. Some of those patients would walk towards downtown past our house.

How many members of your family were born there?

Two: my brother George in 1933 and me in 1937.

How did the neighbors get along?

The neighborhood felt very safe and the inhabitants got along very well with each other. We were in “zone A,” one of the three security zones the British created, which were surrounded by barbed wire, and special passes were required for entry and exit. The sense of security
was strange considering the turbulent times and the bombings by the Stern and Irgun gangs. In the midst of strife, our home and garden felt safe and secure. I walked to the Bishop Gobat elementary school, an Anglican school. We had only one Jewish student in the class, and
the students probably were a slight majority of Christians to Muslims, but I’m not sure because we never asked each other about our religions.

Jewish families in the neighborhood did not have young children. The Japhet family – Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany – lived next door and were very friendly with us. One of their teenage sons, Ernst, used to show me his stamp collection.

We also had British friends and had four o’clock tea with cream every day. At Christmas, many families gathered in one home and sang Christmas carols in Arabic around Christmas trees radiant with lit candles.

Did you know Hebrew? And how good was your English?

Neither my parents nor I spoke any Hebrew. We spoke to our Jewish neighbors in English. My parents spoke to us in English and Arabic growing up so that we would be fluent in a foreign language. Most educated Arabs do that. In Lebanon they would speak French since they
were under French rule for a while, except in the area around the American University in Beirut, where nearly everyone spoke English. My parents spoke no French but spoke English fluently before they went to Palestine. They and my brother and I went to British or American
schools.

What do you know about the original design of the house and garden?

The architect’s last name was Samaha, a Lebanese Christian. David Kroyanker believes his first name was Michel. Most of the houses of that era were one-level limestone houses with red tile roofs and beautiful gardens. Ours was built in 1932, with a permit from the British Mandate government, which I possess. My father had a gardener help him, but he loved to plant and work the garden himself. The garden had rose bushes and pine trees on the perimeter covering the limestone wall. I had my own seasonal vegetable patch, too. I remember green mint as one of the plants. Our neighbors grew potatoes and tomatoes.

What is your most powerful and most oft-recurring memory of this time?

My earliest memories are of playing in our garden; it was a safe haven and a playground. I  was very attached and still am to our home and garden. I felt a sense of security and belonging. I know who I was and what I was supposed to be doing. But my single most intense event was the day we left Jerusalem.

Have you ever been back?

No. My daughter was given a rough time at the airport when she visited Israel; I refuse the humiliation I would meet at the border. It would also be a trauma seeing another family living in our house. But another part of me would like to see the neighborhood in person and
tell the current occupants about my memories and the special tree I used to hide in and where I grew my vegetable patch. I have friends who have gone back and knocked on doors of their previous homes and described their upbringing to the current occupants.

I harbor no ill-feelings towards the current residents. But my understanding is that Palestinian Arab homes are held in custody by the Israeli government and that the government has no right to grant ownership to Israelis of these properties.

Has your deed to the house ever been questioned?

My father, who is dead now, willed the house to me, and I have the deed to it in a safety deposit box. The British certificate was granted in 1932. I received confirmation of the status of the house in the late ’70s from the Israel Lands Administration, stating “this property is considered the property of an absentee and was transferred to the name of the Development Authority in the books.”

What do you plan to do with this deed?

When both my wife and I are dead, per my will, the title of the house will go to my daughter, Sonia, and her husband, Josh, who live in Santa Monica. He is Jewish. I assume that they will prefer compensation to repatriation.

Did your parents talk about Jerusalem, Palestine and the house, and how it influenced them? Did they try to get the house back?

The memories were too painful for my father. He would tear up whenever he discussed Jerusalem. I remember him sobbing when he recounted his life there to the authors of the book O Jerusalem. Our family’s exodus is mentioned. My mother was more resilient in reentering Lebanese society.

How did you end up in Oregon?

I studied at the American University of Beirut where I obtained my MD degree, and had my specialty training in urology in Rochester, New York. When I met my future wife, we had a large engagement party in the mountain village where my parents came from and a wedding at the Greek Orthodox Church in Rochester, NY. With my specialty training completed, I returned to live in Lebanon with my wife and first child. We stayed with my parents while I was looking for work. Within a few weeks, culture shock, a poor economy and little need for surgical specialists necessitated my return to the US. My wife and I wanted to move to the West Coast where we thought that there was less congestion and a more easy-going lifestyle.

How do you define your identity? Are you a Palestinian refugee?

No. I consider myself a displaced Palestinian. My family was able to escape with all our possessions. Most Palestinians did not fare so well. They had to flee with only the clothes they had on, and lost their homes and lands. About 800,000 fled as refugees, with many
ending up in tent camps in neighboring Arab countries. My parents would not sell our house in 1948 because they thought we would return when the war was over. Of course we never were allowed back nor received any compensation nor recognition of our ownership.

As to my current identity, I call myself an Arab (Palestinian/Lebanese) American. I have no sense of real belonging to any one community or country. I ask myself, am I American, Arab,
Arab-American, Lebanese or Palestinian? Or a mixture or none of the above?

I was born in Jerusalem, Palestine, to Lebanese Christian parents, but  grew up as a teenager in Beirut. I raised my children as Americans because I did not want them to ask such questions. Different parts of me identify with different cultures. It’s easier to belong and
identify with only one, but the easy answers are not necessarily the real ones. A part of me yearns for the simplicity of a single cultural connection, while another celebrates the richness and uncertainty of diversity. The cultural clashes go on and questions remain unresolved,
but I have learned to live with paradox and uncertainty.

How has your background influenced your life?

Largely because of my Jerusalem experience, I have been politically active all my life. When I lived in Lebanon, it was mostly Palestinian and Lebanese politics. My involvement in Palestinian politics continued in the US in the late ’60s and early ’70s. I was the first
president of the US chapter of the Palestinian Red Crescent Society. Then starting with the McGovern campaign 1972, I became and continue to be involved in US politics, always a liberal Democrat. I was the chair of the Carter campaign in 1980 in our county. I also have been an active ACLU member since 1968, and received awards from the organization. In the last few years, I was the first chair of the Eugene Police Commission, and later the first chair of the Eugene Police Civilian Review Board. Civil liberties, human rights, and foreign policy are my areas of prime concern.

Why after all these years have you started to think even more about the house and to find people in Jerusalem to give you information?

The house has always been on my front burner all my life. I had no means of gathering information about it until the age of the Internet when I googled Rehov Graetz after finding the  name on a Jerusalem map, and started my inquiries. I found a person with an American name who had an office on Rehov Graetz and I e-mailed him asking him questions about the neighborhood. He was kind enough to respond and connect me with others.

What, in your opinion, is the proper response to absentee property in Israel, specifically homes owned by Arabs who left in or after 1948 because of fear or threat?

Ethically and morally, the Palestinians who lost their homes, regardless of the reasons, should have the right of repatriation. Practically speaking, this will not happen because it could cause the displacement of Jews and create new refugees, in addition to the fact that Israel will never allow that. What I would like to see happen is for the Israeli people and government to acknowledge that a wrong was created. Then they can approach the Palestinians and offer to sit down to discuss how this can be rectified in a practical fashion that will not cause more turmoil to people. This means mostly compensation.

If there is a place in Israel for resettling some Palestinian refugees without displacing Jewish inhabitants – and I don’t know if there is – then it should also be considered, on a limited basis. The crucial element is the acknowledgment that a wrong was made, and the willingness to discuss a practical solution. This would satisfy an overwhelming majority of Palestinians. This has to be done cautiously so that it would not change the character of Israel as a Jewish state, and would be more of a symbolic nature to meet the grievances of Palestinians whose families were displaced in 1948 or later.

This can also be done in conjunction with land swaps to accommodate some large Jewish settlements that have been created next to the Green Line. This whole subject can be negotiated in a peace conference if both parties show willingness for accommodation. Personally, I do not expect to occupy my house again. It’s just not in the cards. However,
I want my right to it validated, and to be offered compensation for the wrong created.

Some Israelis argue that “the spoils of war go to the victors.” What are your thoughts about that?

Does that mean that if the Nazis won World War II the stealing and destruction of Jewish property was justified?

There are also Israelis who say that Palestinians lost their rights because they did not accept partition and went to war instead. How do the Palestinians see that issue?

In 1948, the Jews who were living in Palestine and had been living there for a number of years did have title to Palestine as a homeland. But they had been a minority for 2,000 years, and their homeland title is in the context of a minority living in a Palestinian state, and not
as a newly created majority through the means of displacing Palestinian Arabs by intimidations, coercion and the threat of physical force.

Why should the majority of a population accept partition that would split their homeland into two different parts, when a single state could have been created that accepted all inhabitants as equal citizens? That’s why the Palestinians refused partition. Moreover, how does refusing partition and losing a war take away the rights of those inhabitants and owners of homes and lands who were not allowed by the victors to return to these homes and lands? This is against all tenets of international law. If Israel had accepted the return of Palestinian Arabs to their homes and lands at the end of hostilities in 1948, there would be no “Palestinian problem” now.

Information about your search to learn about your old house was posted recently on a blog. A large number of talkbacks mentioned the fact that so many Jewish families also were dispossessed of houses or properties in east Europe or Arab or Muslim states. Do you see any connection between your losses and theirs?

One wrong does not justify another. Jews or Arabs who left their homes and lands for any reason and were not allowed to return by the government in power should be offered repatriation or compensation. Realistically I doubt if many of the Jews yearn to return to hostile societies which persecuted them as a minority.

There is no connection between the two and I don’t think that Palestinian repatriation/compensation should be dependent on what other states or governments do. You cannot equate all the Arab governments to each other or to the Palestinians. Palestinians see Arab governments as a main source of betrayal and enmity to them.

How do you feel when Jewish people talk about their opinion that Palestinians need to move forward from the past and rebuild their communities, as the Jewish communities did, with help of their brethren around the world?

It’s not up to others, especially Israelis, to tell Palestinians how they should feel about their loss of homes and properties. Zionists claim that Jews have yearned for 2,000 years to return to what they consider their ancient homeland. So why is it not acceptable for Palestinians to yearn to return to their homeland of 60 years ago? I am offended by such comments, especially as we know that Jews have collected large amounts of money from Germany and the Western world to compensate for what Hitler did.

Why can’t that apply to the Palestinians? I am not asking for the return to the pre-1948 status quo. I am asking for a return to a modified border pre-1967 status quo. The establishment of the State of Israel by force which caused the displacement of Palestinians and the destruction of pre-1948 Palestine was a moral outrage, but it’s history. We need to look to the future and work out a two-state solution that meets the aspirations of Palestinians and the security
needs of Israel.

What is your hope?

While it’s important to be aware of the past that often helps shape the present and the future, it could become a quagmire that serves no useful purpose for proceeding into the future. I hope that all sides would emphasize the question “where do we go from here?” The
Palestinians primarily want a viable independent state, while Israel wants to preserve its security. These are not contradictory goals, and much of the planning to meet these goals is already on paper. What is lacking is execution.

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