“Blanket German support for Zionism is wrong as well as foolish; it’s not good for Germany or for the Jews in the long run, and it’s an insult to the Judaism that flourished in Germany for many hundreds of years before the Holocaust. It’s also a sign that the lessons of the Holocaust have not really been learned except in the most vulgar way: Never Again should this happen to the Jews -- is that all we’ve learned?” -- Jeremy Milgrom
We made our way into Jerusalem with a picture of a picture from an old newspaper clipping and some vague directions. Go past the YMCA, make a right at the olive groves, walk for five minutes and the Minerva (or Shiber) house is on the corner on the right hand side. We did not know whether the house still existed or would be recognizable from these 60-year-old directions. Yet finding the home my friend Tony’s father was born in, and forcibly kicked out of in 1948, was easy and full of surprises!
Tony’s father was around the age of 11 when Zionist soldiers came to the doorstep and informed his family that they had 48 hours to vacate the home in the West Jerusalem neighborhood of Talbieh. Many of the events surrounding this pivotal moment in Tony’s history are vague and unknown. This seems to be typical of many refugee families. It almost seems that the trauma is too painful to remember.
"I didn’t know that my father was a refugee until recently."
The same is true for my family. In fact, I didn’t know that my father was a refugee until recently. Another friend of mine who is also a refugee knows very little about the trip that sent his family into exile in Jordan. Many times it takes questioning and digging by the children and grandchildren to get the full story. Tony’s father and grandfather George Shiber (the architect who built the house) have never been back to their home in Jerusalem.
In some ways I don’t blame them. How difficult it must be to revisit a trauma that has been denied and to never have received justice. My father tells me stories of being questioned and strip-searched at the border and the airport. What a horrifying experience, to be harassed each time you want to go home, a home that was stolen.
Tony grew up in the States, and this is his first time in his father’s ancestral homeland. The first time I met Tony we discussed how strange it is to walk the streets of Israel. For me, I told him, it is like I am reliving the Nakba (or Catastrophe) over and over again. The strangeness of wondering what was it like before, how did our ancestors live and where are their villages now buried beneath modern cities and national parks?
And the feeling of being unwelcome upon entering the country is a horror in and of itself. I and every other Palestinian expatriate I know get questioned each and every time, and how we respond determines whether we are allowed to enter our ancestral homeland and for how long.
It was a typical sunny day in Jerusalem and the streets were full as usual of people and tourists walking up and down the sidewalks. We walked from the old city down to King David Street, where we found the historic YMCA in West Jerusalem. It was built in the 1800s, and Tony’s father told him stories of going there to eat and lounge in the restaurant and sitting area. It is a beautiful structure full of arches, domes and byzantine-style architecture.
"My father tells me stories of being questioned and strip-searched at the border and the airport."
We began following the directions we were given. Of course there are no more olive groves, so almost at random we found ourselves on the right street. We walked past houses and apartment complexes draped in Israeli flags and Jewish symbolism.
We stop in front of a big, three-story home. As Tony and our friend Avi stare at the picture and the home before us, I see a man checking the mailbox out front. He looks to me and kindly asks if he can help with anything. I tell him we are looking for a home. He laughs and jokingly says, “Well, perhaps you can ask the owners, they might be selling.” He then tells me that his parents own this home.
Tony walks up and tells him that this is the house that his father was born in, and this stranger, whose name is Jeremy, welcomes us all into his parents’ home, and we follow him inside. The house has been renovated and redone a couple of times, and it has the aura of a home that has seen much in its time. The current residents call it the Shiber House, named after Tony’s grandfather George Shiber, who built it. We are in the right place.
I personally felt such ecstasy at finding the right house so quickly and being so warmly welcomed by its occupants. I looked around and wondered to myself, what happened to the Shibers’ furniture and household items. Where did all the clothing go, how much has been removed and redone, what about kitchen supplies and food items, where did all the home’s ghosts settle?
We sit down for a drink and a chat with Jeremy and his father, who is resting after a surgery. They both seem at ease with our arrival, almost as if the home has been telling them that one day the Shibers would come back, and now this “one day” has arrived. At first the conversation is casual, typical things you ask and say when you first meet someone. Jeremy’s father tells us that many of the vacated Palestinian homes that were taken by the state of Israel in and around 1948 were given to Jewish refugees.
"Things seem so hopeless on so many levels, but I, Avi and Tony still believe that a better future is possible."
Then Jeremy’s father begins to ask us what we think would bring peace to this land. There is an initial silence. As in most instances like these, it can be hard to tell which direction the conversation might go. Almost hesitantly, I begin to stumble over my words and explain why I think one state is the most just and peaceful potential outcome.
He listens intently as I discuss the way the landscape has changed, how the refugees have an inherent right to return to their homes and what a beautiful place this could be, where Palestinians and Jews could build and create a diverse and beautiful society into the fabric of the Middle East. Some heads nod around me in agreement. When I finish Jeremy’s father says that it might work.
He voices his concerns over extremist groups such as Hamas, and I agree that extremism is a problem and that the current Israeli government is very right-wing and does not seem at all interested in peace. He agrees with me. I tell him that people will calm down once guns stop pointing and shooting at them and the land is no longer being stolen. He responds that perhaps two states can be a step towards the one, I nod my head, and the conversation tapers off there.
Because our visit was unexpected, it was short but sweet.
Jeremy sends us off and extends an invitation to come back and visit anytime. We leave the house, take pictures of its exterior and then sit for an extended period across the street staring at the home and talking about the current status of the conflict. Things seem so hopeless on so many levels, but I, Avi and Tony still believe that a better future is possible.
We later found out that Jeremy, the man who invited us into Tony’s home, is a major figure in the movement of Israeli Jews for building true peace and understanding around this issue. Knowing this I felt a sense of relief. The Shiber home has not been returned to its original inhabitants, but it has attracted someone who is willing to look beyond the dividing line and see what truly exists on the “other side.”
We left Talbieh and made our way to the old city, where we wandered through the walled-in, windy roads, ate kanafah (a yummy middle eastern dessert with cheese, honey and wheat shreds) and enjoyed the electricity of the day.
Deema Dabis can be reached at .