Sacred Landscape: The Buried History of the Holy Land since 1948by Meron Benvenisti, Maxine Kaufman-Lacusta (Translator)
As a young man Meron Benvenisti often accompanied his father, a distinguished geographer, when the elder Benvenisti traveled through the Holy Land charting a Hebrew map that would rename Palestinian sites and villages with names linked to Israel's ancestral homeland. These experiences in Benvenisti's youth are central to this book, and the story that he tells helps
As a young man Meron Benvenisti often accompanied his father, a distinguished geographer, when the elder Benvenisti traveled through the Holy Land charting a Hebrew map that would rename Palestinian sites and villages with names linked to Israel's ancestral homeland. These experiences in Benvenisti's youth are central to this book, and the story that he tells helps explain how during this century an Arab landscape, physical and human, was transformed into an Israeli, Jewish state.
Benvenisti first discusses the process by which new Hebrew nomenclature replaced the Arabic names of more than 9,000 natural features, villages, and ruins in Eretz Israel/Palestine (his name for the Holy Land, thereby defining it as a land of Jews and Arabs). He then explains how the Arab landscape has been transformed through war, destruction, and expulsion into a flourishing Jewish homeland accommodating millions of immigrants. The resulting encounters between two peoples who claim the same land have raised great moral and political dilemmas, which Benvenisti presents with candor and impartiality.
Benvenisti points out that five hundred years after the Moors left Spain there are sufficient landmarks remaining to preserve the outlines of Muslim Spain. Even with sustained modern development, the ancient scale is still visible. Yet a Palestinian returning to his ancestral landscape after only fifty years would have difficulty identifying his home. Furthermore, Benvenisti says, the transformation of Arab cultural assets into Jewish holy sites has engendered a struggle over the "signposts of memory" essential to both peoples.
Sacred Landscape raises troublesome questions that most writers on the Middle East avoid. The now-buried Palestinian landscape remains a symbol and a battle standard for Palestinians and Israelis. But it is Benvenisti's continuing belief that Eretz Israel/Palestine has enough historical and physical space for the people of both nations and that it can one day be a shared homeland.
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Sacred LandscapeThe Buried History of the Holy Land since 1948
By Meron Benvenisti
University of CaliforniaCopyright © 2000 Regents of the University of California
All right reserved.
Chapter OneUprooted and Planted
One day in July 1949, members of the Abu al-Hija family living in shacks on al-Wastani hill on the Carmel ridge noticed a group of people wending their way up the steep path from the Haifa-Tel Aviv Highway and disappearing into the empty, abandoned houses of their village, Ein Hawd. The Abu al-Hija family had been uprooted about a year before, along with the rest of the village's 700 inhabitants, following its occupation by the Israeli army. In contrast to most of their neighbors and relatives, who migrated (or were expelled) across the border, the family's dozen or so members had remained within sight of their land. The head of the family, Muhammad Mahmoud Abu al-Hija, spent some time in an Israeli prisoner-of-war camp along with scores of men from nearby villages. This tall, strong, dignified man bore on his broad shoulders the glorious tradition of his ancient family and of its revered ancestor, Emir Hussam al-Din Abu al-Hija, a high-ranking officer in the army of the fabled Sultan Salah al-Din (Saladin). Emir Abu al-Hija, whose title was Isfahslar (Generalissimo), was commander of the Kurdish force that took part in (fellow Kurd) Salah al-Din's conquest (1187-93) of the Crusader kingdom.
Hussam al-Din was extremely stout, whence his nickname, "Hussam the Fat." It is said that his obesity was so phenomenal that when he rode, his belly would brush the horse's back. When he served as governor of the Irbil District in Iraq, potters from Mosul designed an especially wide eating bowl in his honor, to match his ample dimensions. Bowls of this design were henceforth known in the pottery trade as "Abulhejas." The emir was renowned for his bravery, which earned him the additional nickname "Abu al-Hija" ("the Daring"). Hussam al-Din commanded the garrison of Acre at the time of the Crusader siege of that city (August 1189 to July 1192), subsequent to its capture by the Muslims in July 1187. In the last stages of the siege, Abu al-Hija's forces engaged in combat with those of Richard the Lionhearted, king of England, and King Philip II of France, winning universal admiration. Salah al-Din's biographer, Beha al-Din (1145-1234) writes of Abu al-Hija: "Hussam was distinguished both for his munificence and [his] valor; he was of high rank amongst his own people (the Kurds), and the plans he formed bore witness to the stoutness of his heart." Following the reconquest of Acre by the Crusaders, Emir Hussam continued to command the Kurdish force in battles with the army of Richard the Lionhearted. In July 1192, as the Crusaders were threatening to retake Jerusalem, Sultan Salah al-Din convened a council of war at which his commanders were asked for their recommendations on how to defend the city: whether to prepare themselves for a siege or to launch a battle. Hussam al-Din went to the consultation, although he was barely able to move because of his weight "and was obliged to sit in a chair in the Sultan's tent." Despite his huge girth, he was as daring as ever. He opposed the army's hiding behind the city's walls, saying, "It would be better to risk a pitched battle rather than to shut ourselves up in the city." In the end the need for this decision did not arise, since Richard was forced to forgo his plan to attack Jerusalem. However, Salah al-Din, fearing that Hussam would prefer to remain in the field with his forces rather than repeat his experience of the siege of Acre, ordered him to leave a member of his family in command of the Kurdish force in Jerusalem: "For the Kurds will not obey the Turks, and the Turks in like manner will never obey the Kurds."
Shortly after these events, once the danger to the Holy City had passed, Hussam al-Din returned to Iraq, but several members of his family remained in the country under orders from the sultan and settled on spacious tracts of land that they had been granted in the Carmel region, in the Lower, Eastern, and Western Galilee, and in the Hebron Highlands. One of these land grants became the village of Ein Hawd. Other villages inhabited by families claiming kinship with Hussam Abu al-Hija included Hadatha and Sirin in the Lower Galilee and Ruweis and Kawkab in the Western Galilee. Although they profess to be blood relations of Emir Hussam, these villagers' claims are based solely on tradition. Hussam al-Din apparently died in Iraq and was buried there, but because of his part in liberating the Holy Land from the infidels, family members who stayed in the country designated as his burial place the village of Kawkab al-Hija in the hills of the Western Galilee, where several of his descendants, too, are buried.
The al-Hija tradition is deeply rooted in the village of Ein Hawd. One of the village elders recounts how the land on which it is situated was granted to the emir: "When Salah al-Din requested that Abu al-Hija designate the boundaries of the village, the emir took his walking stick and threw it. The stick landed on the rocks near the coast at "Atlit and left a clearly visible mark on one of them. That mark exists to this day." Ancient letters carved into the sandstone, still visible in the area that served as a quarry providing stone for the construction of the Crusader castle in "Atlit, have been the source of many a legend.
Ein Hawd was famous for its healthful air and the healing qualities of the many springs in the vicinity. Especially renowned was a small spring that flowed from a boulder, of which it was said that if someone afflicted with sores poured its water on his body, he would be healed. On the hillsides grew carob trees from which honey of outstanding flavor and aroma was produced. The farmers of Ein Hawd-a village with landholdings of approximately 12,000 dunams-raised field crops, sesame, and olives. During the 1948 War the village's inhabitants took part in armed attacks against Jewish vehicles on the Haifa-Tel Aviv Highway and, along with other villagers from the area, at first held out against the Israeli army; but in July of 1948 they fled the village, apparently without a battle. The villagers scattered, some finding their way to refugee camps in the West Bank and Transjordan. The other al-Hija villages in the north of Israel were captured and destroyed. A number of the refugees from these villages succeeded in remaining inside the country and gathered at the village of Tamra, near the venerated (supposed) grave of Emir Hussam al-Din in Kawkab.
Although the dozen remaining members of the Abu al-Hija family who stayed close to Ein Hawd received Israeli citizenship, they remained "absentees" according to the law, since they had left their homes (even if less than one mile away). Nor was their possession of the hill where they had found refuge recognized by the authorities. However, efforts to dispossess them by legal means, or to make their lives difficult in hopes that they would leave, did not succeed, and the number of inhabitants of the small village grew steadily.
Pioneers "On a Different Level"
The group of people who climbed up to the abandoned village that July day in 1949 had no idea of the history of the place to which they had been sent to make their home; it is not known whether they had any notion that the people whose houses they were taking over were so close by. The group was made up of new immigrants who had arrived a few months previously from Tunisia and Algeria and had been recruited by the Moshav Movement to establish a moshav in Ein Hawd. This was one of the first three groups of immigrants from North Africa to be recruited for agricultural settlement (the second group, new immigrants from Morocco, settled nearby, in a place at first called North "Atlit and later, Megadim; the third was directed to the abandoned village of Rantiyya, near Lod, the former Lydda). The leaders of the Moshav Movement were unsure whether the "immigrants from the Orient"-that is, non-Ashkenazis-were suitable "human material" for cooperative agricultural settlements. After all, they and the overwhelming majority of older moshavim were Ashkenazis who had come from Europe. In their estimation, the immigrants from North Africa and the Arab world were, "from an anthropological standpoint and from the point of view of historical development, on a fundamentally different level than are the immigrants from countries in Europe, from among whom the first twenty organized groups that had founded new cooperative settlements since July 1948 were recruited."
This appraisal was delicate in comparison to some of the harsh pronouncements that could be heard at the time regarding the caliber of the immigrants from North Africa. Tom Segev quotes some of these in 1949: The first Israelis: "The primitiveness of these people is unsurpassable. They have almost no education at all, and what is worse is their inability to comprehend anything intellectual. As a rule, they are only slightly more advanced than the Arabs, Negroes and Berbers in their countries. It is certainly an even lower level than that of the former Palestinian Arabs," wrote a respected Israeli journalist. The immigrants from Algeria received only slightly higher marks than those from Morocco.
The Moshav Movement leadership thought that the North Africans "require[d] different treatment, a different approach," and in fact assigned instructors to the Ein Hawd settlement group to give them social guidance because of the "difference in [its] human composition, family structure, lifestyle, and outlook on life." The group received the same financial grants as the other immigrants who settled in abandoned villages: after the houses worth refurbishing were designated, each settler family received a sum of money for repairs to their new home as well as for starting up a small farm, plus two cows and a plot of land for raising crops.
The original group of seventy families had grown to ninety-two by October 1949. They were quite satisfied with Ein Hawd (which by that time had obtained the Hebrew name Ein Hod), but the Moshav Movement decided that the abandoned village was not a suitable site on which to establish a permanent settlement: "The shape of the Arab village is not at all suitable for the form of settlement toward which we have been striving.... not that it was a mistake; on the contrary, it served as an impetus and a lure for the immigrants [to] escape from the crowded immigrant camps, which lacked either privacy or any sort of conveniences." "However," wrote Moshav Movement leader Yitzhak Koren, "as long as these people were sitting in the abandoned village, they would not be able to develop their farms or [build their] community." In his opinion only the established settlement model-of scattered dwellings, each adjoining a twenty-five- to thirty-dunam plot of land-"the very foundation of Jewish settlement in the country"-could suit. Therefore a new moshav was built for the Ein Hod group-called Tsrufah (a mutilation of the name of the abandoned Arab village of Sarafand)-on the plain between Mount Carmel and the Mediterranean Sea, six kilometers south of Ein Hod. The new, permanent settlement was built adjacent to a Turkish immigrant moshav, which had also been established in 1949, on the land of the abandoned Arab village of Jab"a.
Superstitions and Rational Fears
Ein Hod, then, was deserted yet again, a year and a half after its Arab inhabitants had been forced to abandon it. Its houses, partially repaired, again fell into a state of neglect, and some of the walls collapsed. The members of the Abu al-Hija family who watched what was going on did not understand why the Jews were abandoning their homes. Because they could not comprehend how people could despise these houses-for which they themselves longed-they imagined possible explanations. One villager told the writer David Grossman:
They put people from the Oriental communities in our houses, but they didn't last there. They believe all sorts of superstitions and they used to say that at night they could see eyes watching them from the hills, or that rocks fell on them from the sky, or all sorts of ghosts, or that the earth was crying out to them, or that they could see the village people returning to take back their houses. So they weren't able to hold out.
The reabandonment of abandoned Arab villages took place in other locations as well-where new immigrants had been settled and within a short time were withdrawn because the villages were "not suitable for Jewish settlement." Thus, in those places too, the displaced villagers who were still living close by spun similar tales. For example, the Arabs who had been uprooted from the village of Tantura, finding refuge in nearby Furaydis, say that the inhabitants of Moshav Dor abandoned the Arab houses of Tantura because everyone who lived in them was struck by serious illness. They also reported that every time a Jewish bulldozer attempted to destroy the grave of the local saint, Sheikh al-Majrami, its blade broke.
But the beautiful village of Ein Hod was too attractive to remain empty. The authorities were preparing to demolish its houses, as they had done in the neighboring villages of Ein Ghazal and Jaba, but painter and architect Marcel Yanco, who had already conducted a successful campaign against the destruction of the houses of Old Jaffa, hoping to turn it into an artists' colony, took a liking to the picturesque village. He persuaded the authorities to refrain from destroying this architectural gem. In 1953 he succeeded in obtaining the rights to Ein Hod for himself and a group of artists-writers, painters, and sculptors-and with the assistance of the Haifa municipal authority founded an "artists' village" there. The village mosque was converted into a restaurant and bar, and the al-Hija family homes became galleries and summer homes. Sons of displaced villagers worked on the renovations to their fathers' former homes; some even developed close ties with new residents of the village, many of whom held leftist views and participated in demonstrations for peace and coexistence. Meanwhile, the Abu al-Hija family had grown and its hilltop refuge had become a real village. It was not, however, recognized by the authorities, who did not supply them with basic services, prohibited the expansion of the residential area to accommodate natural increase, and refused to build an access road, claiming that improving the physical infrastructure "would spoil the landscape and destroy the forest"-the very forest that had been planted on their fathers' land with the explicit intent of preventing them from cultivating it.
Part of the Ein Hawd cemetery was made into a parking lot, but one has to be thankful that it didn't become the regional garbage dump, as had that of Ein Ghazal.
Excerpted from Sacred Landscape by Meron Benvenisti Copyright © 2000 by Regents of the University of California . Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Meron Benvenisti was deputy mayor of Jerusalem from 1971 to 1978, and is currently a columnist for Haaretz, Israel's largest newspaper. He is the author of Conflicts and Contradictions (1986) Intimate Enemies (California, 1995), and City of Stone (California, 1996).
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