Palestinian ceremony splits British rabbis

LONDON — A decision by leading rabbis to join Palestinian representatives in commemorating Palestinian suffering during the creation of the state of Israel has split British Jewry down the middle.

Rabbi John Rayner, life president of the Union of Liberal and Progressive Synagogues, described his participation in the Deir Yassin Remembered memorial as "a religious, a Jewish, and — in the best sense — a Zionist thing to do."

But Rabbi Sidney Brichto, a vice president of the union, said that the event would "give a propaganda coup to the Palestinian authorities by diverting attention from the fact that they began an unprovoked intifada" — or violent uprising — "after rejecting peace proposals."

The union did not take an official position on the event. Neither did the Board of Deputies, the umbrella organization that represents most British Jews.

The commemoration consisted of an evening of music, readings, short plays and prayers at the 1,000-seat Peacock Theater in central London.

Organizer Paul Eisen, who is Jewish, said the April 1 event was sold out nearly a week in advance. Despite that, it received virtually no attention in the British press.

The event commemorated an attack by the Irgun and the Stern Gang — underground Jewish militias that sometimes cooperated with but often opposed the central Zionist authority — on the Arab village of Deir Yassin on the western edge of Jerusalem.

A report in the New York Times on April 13, 1948 said that 254 Arabs, including women and children, were killed in the attack. More recent research, including an exhaustive study by Palestinian academics, puts the figure closer to 100.

Official Zionist leaders condemned the incident, and David Ben-Gurion — then leader of the pre-state Jewish community — apologized to Jordan's King Abdullah. Jewish philosopher Martin Buber also spoke out against the killings.

The Arab leadership trumpeted the event widely, believing it would rouse the Arabs to a belligerent frenzy. Instead, it appeared to have the opposite effect, causing many Arabs to flee their homes in fear of the Jews — as Irgun leader Menachem Begin reportedly acknowledged.

Eisen said he helped organize the event because Deir Yassin "has come to symbolize Palestinian oppression.

"It's not commemorated just because it's an atrocity — if that were the case, we would be commemorating every day of the year on both sides," he said. "It is as important an event in Jewish history as in Palestinian history. We require, quite rightly, that our suffering be commemorated. Theirs should be too."