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 theOttomans 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 mothermoved 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 Lebanonall 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 50-50Christian 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 securitywas 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, andthe 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 theywere 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 Americanschools.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 andtell 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 manyending 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 andidentify 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 firstpresident 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 notas 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 securityneeds of Israel.What is your hope?Whileit’s important to be aware of the past that often helps shape thepresent and the future, it could become a quagmire that serves nouseful purpose for proceeding into the future. I hope that all sideswould emphasize the question “where do we go from here?” ThePalestiniansprimarily want a viable independent state, while Israel wants topreserve its security. These are not contradictory goals, and much ofthe planning to meet these goals is already on paper. What is lackingis execution.