A Home Found, a Home Lost

Avital Ben Chorin was born in the German city of Eisenach, but found a new home in Israel. The Bedouin Abu Sitta family, on the other hand, lost its home when the state of Israel was created. Bettina Marx on the different emotions 1948 stirs up in different people

photo: Bettina Marx / DW
Avital Ben Chorin: "We were thrilled to be allowed to help build up the country"

​​Avital Ben Chorin is an elegant, 85-year-old lady with jet black hair and silver rings on her slender fingers. She was born Erika Fackenheim in the German city of Eisenach in 1923. At the age of 10 she became interested in Judaism and Zionism.

In 1936, three years after the Nazis seized power, she decided to leave Germany.

A home found

At the tender age of 13, she emigrated to Palestine with a group of young people and without her parents. She found accommodation in a home for young German Jews in Kirjat Bialik near Haifa, a town established by German immigrants.

"We were thrilled to be allowed to help build up the country," she recalls, over 70 years after her emigration.

At the age of 17 she had to earn a living and fend for herself. She moved to Ramat Gan and then to Jerusalem, where she met her future husband, the Munich-born philosopher of religion Shalom Ben Chorin, at a lecture by the famous German-Jewish theologian Martin Buber.

Together they witnessed the UN resolution of November 1947 that partitioned the land to the west of the Jordan under British jurisdiction into a Jewish state and a Palestinian state.

When Israel's first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, proclaimed the state of Israel in May 1948, Jerusalem was already under siege from Arab troops.

Nevertheless, Chorin recalls the joy and celebration that greeted the creation of the Jewish state. "We knew that our country would be terribly small, but we were overjoyed all the same. At last, we had our own country."

The "nakba"

For the Palestinians, however, 14 May 1948 marked the start of their expulsion. For them, Independence Day in Israel is the anniversary of al-nabka (the catastrophe).

Jerusalem (photo: AP)
On 29 November 1947, the UN passed a resolution that foresaw the division of Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state and the designation of Jerusalem as an international city

​​The family of Fawaz Abu Sitta, who now lives in Gaza, was just one of many to lose its home around this time. Abu Sitta's family was a Bedouin tribe that lived in the region around the city of Beer Sheva and had put down roots in the Negev desert 400 years previously.

The tribe owned extensive stretches of land on what is now the border with the Gaza Strip and engaged in mixed crop and livestock farming. "My grandfather considered education to be very important," he explains. "He founded a school for the boys in our tribe."

This meant that Fawaz's father and his brothers not only went to school, but later studied at university. When the tribe lost its land and its livelihood in the Israeli War of Independence in 1948, the educated brothers were able to support their now landless family with the money they earned from their academic jobs.

A home lost

The entire tribe, which comprised over 400 people, was expelled from its land. The Abu Sittas fled into the neighbouring Gaza Strip, where they settled in the refugee camps in Khan Yunis, Deir el Balach, and Rafach from where they could practically see their old home.

photo: Bettina Marx / DW
For Fawaz Abu Sitta, 14 May 1948 marked the beginning of his family’s expulsion from their tribal land

​​Fawaz was born in Khan Yunis in 1953. He grew up believing that he was a refugee who would one day return to his tribal homeland. Although he lived in Khan Yunis and went to school there, he felt that his real home was on the other side of the barbed wire fence in the state of Israel.

"My grandfather often took me with him and showed me our homeland from a distance. And he promised me that I would get a big part of it," recalls Fawaz. But the family never went back. Some of them stayed in Gaza, the rest spread to the four corners of the earth.

Fawaz went to Germany. He learned German and studied economics in the GDR, where he met his wife, Anke. His brothers emigrated to the USA, Canada, and Saudi Arabia.

Fawaz, who is now a professor at Azhar University in the Gaza Strip, has given up hope of returning to his old tribal home. He is in favour of the establishment of a Palestinian state that would comprise the Palestinian territories of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, which were occupied by Israel in 1967.

"However," he stresses, "those of us who hold this view are in the minority." The vast majority of Palestinians do not want to give up their dream of a return to their old homeland or - at the very least - a just solution to the refugee question.

Bettina Marx

© Deutsche Welle / Qantara.de 2008

Translated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan


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