Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, January 14, 1985, Page 10
By Elias Chacour, with David Hazard. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Chosen Books of The Zondervan Corporation, 1984. 224 pp. $9.95.
Reviewed by Richard H. Curtiss
Elias Chacour was a boy of seven living in the Christian village of Biram in 1947, the year the U.N. voted to partition his native Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state. But even before that fateful vote, the tragedies that eventually created the Middle East's most intractable problem had begun to befall his family and his neighbors.
Chacour tells how Jewish soldiers first came to his village. They warned the villagers that there might soon be a big battle and told them to lock up their homes and take refuge in nearby olive groves. Elias's family camped among the trees for several days, but when no battle ensued, some of the men returned to the village. They found their homes looted and they were told by the same Jewish soldiers "the land belongs to us now and you have no business here." At gunpoint they were driven away. Thus, Elias Chacour became a "Palestinian refugee" six months before the partition resolution and a full year before open warfare broke out in 1948.
A Boy Who Faced Horror
There was far worse to come. Unable to return to their homes, the villagers sought refuge in Gish, a nearby Palestinian village. When they arrived they found it deserted except for one or two old people who said that all of the occupants well enough to walk had been herded away by Jewish soldiers. The residents of Biram crowded into the deserted houses, one family to a room.
It was Elias himself who solved the mystery of the whereabouts of the inhabitants of Gish. In a game of soccer on the village football field he stumbled over a human hand protruding from recently-disturbed turf. Two dozen villagers of Gish lay in a mass grave under the playing field.
After the fighting ended the villagers obtained a court order allowing them to return to Biram. They were actually within sight of the village when once again they were stopped at gunpoint. As they watched helplessly their houses were blown up, one by one. On Christmas day, 1951, the Israeli army turned Biram into a pile of rubble.
It was a story that had been repeated all over the Jewish-occupied portions of the old Palestine mandate. Massacres took place in scattered villages. For Arab villagers who refused to flee in panic, there were forced marches at gunpoint. When it was over, 850,000 Palestinians had been put out of what became the State of Israel, while others—like Elias Chacour's family—remained, but in dramatically reduced circumstances.
Elias's father was a humble adherent of the Melkite church, whose first leader was James, brother of Jesus and overseer of the church in Jerusalem. The elder Chacour followed the Christian adage to turn the other cheek and forbade his sons to hate their oppressors. He ended his days tending the fig trees he had planted on his own land as a young man. But now he was a laborer who worked by the hour for a Jewish immigrant who had bought the land from the Israeli government.
How did Elias Chacour, assisted by Editor David Hazard of Chosen Books, a Christian religious publisher, come to record the story of what befell thousands of his voiceless countrymen?
The youngest child of his family, he was sent away to a Christian boarding school in Haifa and, after he passed his examinations brilliantly, his church sponsored his enrollment in the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, where he was the first Palestinian to earn a degree. After completing his religious studies in France, he returned to his homeland and took an assignment as priest in a Palestinian village still demoralized by the cataclysm that had overwhelmed it a generation earlier.
At the same time, he came to the attention of an American-born Melkite patriarch who had come to the Holy Land fresh from the successful American civil rights battles of the 1950s and 1960s. From him Father Chacour learned the tactics of passive resistance. Together they invited both Jews and Arabs to participate in a protest demonstration, and looked on wonderingly as some of Father Chacour's former Jewish professors and fellow students from the Hebrew University came to march alongside Israel's Arabs, protesting at last the wrongs in which they had all acquiesced for so long.
A Man Who Inspires Hope
Now Father Chacour regularly tours the United States, inspiring American Jews and American Palestinians with hope that there will someday be peace with justice in the troubled Holy Land.
Of the several miracles that made this book possible, the greatest miracle is that the experience that turned so many idealistic and intelligent young Palestinians of his generation into what we brand as "terrorists" only strengthened Father Chacour's own determination to understand, forgive, and reconcile with the oppressors.
If there were only one Father Chacour, that would be miracle enough. But as the massive 1982 protest demonstrations against General Ariel Sharon's war in Lebanon proved, there are thousands of others, Jew and Arab alike, who believe with Father Chacour. If they prevail they may not only create the Palestinian homeland, but may also save the Jewish homeland. ❑
Richard Curtiss, a retired foreign service officer, is Executive Director of the American Educational Trust.