Two Vermonters – a Palestinian refugee and an American Jewish sailor - remember the early days of Arab/Israeli conflict
Last month, Arab-Israeli tensions spilled over from the Middle East to the West Bank of Lake Champlain. When a South End Art Hop exhibit depicting the plight of the Palestinians was accompanied by a controversial talk about Zionism and Israel’s future, it unleashed a torrent of accusations and countercharges of intolerance, historical revisionism and Nazi-like bullying tactics — in Vermont.
Long-simmering emotions about Israel and Palestine, which have divided Vermont’s peace movement for years, found an outlet in Peter Schumann’s “Independence Paintings.” That could have been a good thing: Here was the potential catalyst for a constructive dialogue about what is arguably the world’s most intractable political conflict. It was also an opportunity to discuss the role of political advocacy in art.
Instead, what emerged was a microcosm of the mutual hatred, fear and distrust that plague a region half a world away. In the weeks that followed, hotter heads prevailed, as the threats, denunciations and public name-calling escalated. One widely circulated email referred to its author’s political adversaries as “vermin” and suggested, only partly in jest, confronting them “with baseball bats.” A reference to Burlington’s octogenarian peace activist Sister Miriam Ward “and her broom” conjured the image of a crone. But there’s a less innocent way to read it: as a witch hunt.
The timing of the public dust-up couldn’t have been more ironic. The Art Hop exhibit opened a week before Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and the start of Ramadan, the holiest month on the Islamic calendar, which fell on the same day. In both faiths, these holidays are marked by periods of fasting, solemn contemplation, atonement for sins, and humility before God.
As tempers flared, other community members acknowledged the need to tone down the rhetoric and move the discussion forward. This article is intended as a step in that direction. What follows are the stories of two Vermonters — one a Jew, the other a Muslim — whose lives were shaped by events most of us have only read about in books. Their experiences are not presented as definitive historical truths; space and time restrictions preclude an exhaustive analysis of their memories. Which is not to suggest that verified historical accuracy doesn’t matter — it does. But it isn’t all that matters.
Vermont has long been a place where people of different nationalities, religions and ethnicities seek refuge and start their lives over. If their stories teach us anything, it’s that no single group has a monopoly on pain, suffering and loss.
David Gutmann sits outside his Wallingford home on a gray, weathered deck overlooking the southern tier of the Green Mountain National Forest. The apple trees in his yard, laden with ripe fruit, sway in an unseasonably warm autumn breeze.
Gutmann, 82, has a round face, bulbous nose, bald head and large glasses that call to mind economist Milton Friedman or actor Ed Asner. He speaks slowly but with passion. Occasionally, as he tries to remember some detail from a half-century ago, he squints into the distance and rubs his bald pate, as though his fingers might dislodge the memory. Gutmann’s hand trembles violently as he pours himself a glass of iced tea, but his handshake is strong and his forearms thick and tanned, as if they’re well accustomed to physical labor.
Actually, until his retirement in the late 1990s, Gutmann spent more than three decades as a developmental psychologist, conducting research and teaching at Harvard, Northwestern and the University of Michigan. He pioneered studies of the psychological changes that come with aging and authored several books on the subject.
But Gutmann was a different kind of pioneer as a young man. Born in New York City, he worked during World War II as a merchant seaman, traveling throughout Europe and the Middle East. After the war, Gutmann says, he wasn’t ready to attend college. He “was kicking around, looking for the next thing to do,” when he got word in a union hall that the Haganah, a Jewish paramilitary organization, was looking for sailors to smuggle Holocaust survivors out of war-torn Europe and into British-controlled Palestine.
“They didn’t specify Jewish sailors,” he recalls. “As a matter of fact, many of our volunteers were gentiles.”
Gutmann admits he didn’t have much knowledge of Zionist politics, though he came from a strong Zionist background. In 1905, his grandfather had been part of the so-called “Second Aliyah,” or wave of Jewish settlers who emigrated to Palestine between 1904 and 1914.
In 1946, the world was only beginning to grasp the full extent of the Holocaust. “I knew that most of my European family must have been destroyed because no one came out, no one went to Jewish Palestine, and no one came to the states,” Gutmann says. “There was no word from them at all.” Only years later did he learn that his family’s hometown in Bessarabia — now Romania — had been annihilated by the Nazis.
In early 1947, Gutmann joined the crew of a ship called the S.S. Abril. The Abril was operated not by the Haganah but by the Irgun, a “terrorist organization competing with the Haganah for the Jewish resistance,” Gutmann says. The Abril was an old, German-built yacht that sailed under a Nicaraguan flag. On its first mission, it picked up 650 refugees in a French port near Marseilles and headed for Palestine.
The trip was anything but a leisurely Mediterranean cruise. “These ships were old rust buckets. If we’d had severe storms, I shudder to think of what would have happened to all those people aboard,” Gutmann says. Moreover, the sea was still full of floating mines.
By 1947, the British were restricting Jewish migration into Palestine to 1500 people per month, a drop in the bucket compared with the quarter-million Jews in European displaced-person camps. “The British had a strict blockade of the Palestinian coast,” Gutmann recalls. “Given the shape that the British empire was in at the end of the war, it was a tremendous assignment of resources to this one task.”
Despite the blockade, the British wouldn’t fire on civilian vessels, though occasionally they’d ram one. “Once the Royal Marines got aboard, some of them could be pretty rough,” Gutmann notes. “We were always caught by the British. What can you do against radars, long-range spotting planes and fast destroyers? It was civil disobedience.”
Upon their capture, Gutmann and his fellow crew members declared themselves American seamen and were tossed into Acre Prison in the Galilee. Soon, news spread around the world that American sailors were rescuing European Jews. Not wanting the negative publicity, the British quickly repatriated the Yanks.
“They made us sign statements that we’d never do this again,” Gutmann says, with war-story matter-of-factness. “On the basis of that, I immediately broke my parole.”
Gutmann soon joined another ship, this one operated by the Haganah. The Paduca was a former American Coast Guard vessel built in 1907 and full of archaic machinery. “She was a rather shrimpy boat. . . and carried about 1600 people,” he remembers. “They were pretty well crowded in there.”
The Paduca was one of the first Haganah ships to penetrate the Black Sea and pick up Jewish refugees from Soviet-controlled territory. But the Paduca was also no match for the British navy. “Brit warships picked us up right outside the Bosphorus [the strait that divides Turkey into European and Asian sections]. . . and followed us all the way to the coast of Palestine. Then we were boarded.”
Haganah seamen never declared themselves as sailors but disguised themselves as refugees. Gutmann blended in with them and was imprisoned on Cyprus for three months. There he was housed among the Jewish orphans, who numbered in the tens of thousands. “I don’t know why they put us with them,” Guttmann says. “Maybe they wanted to keep us away from the mature women, given the reputation of sailors.”
Inside, the prison camp was run by the Haganah, who secured Gutmann’s release under an assumed name. He immediately contacted his father’s brothers in Tel Aviv. There, Gutmann spent several more months recuperating from an infection he’d acquired in prison.
In the meantime, the U.N. had voted in November 1947 to partition Palestine into Jewish and Arab states. “It was less than the Jews had hoped for, but at least it was a state, a place to bring the survivors,” Gutmann says. “That was our main priority in those days.” Shortly thereafter, fighting broke out between the Arabs and the Jews.
Wafiq Faour sits on a spacious wooden deck outside his Richmond home, patiently waiting for the sun to go down so he can end his daily fast. Faour is observing the traditional Muslim practice of not eating, drinking or smoking during daylight hours throughout Ramadan. That’s no easy task for a heavy smoker like Faour. He’s further tempted by the smell of swordfish steaks his wife is grilling on the barbecue nearby.
Faour is 47, tall, fair-skinned and clean-shaven, with short black hair, a kindly face and gentle demeanor. Except for his thick Arabic accent and tendency to roll his Rs, he’s not easily pegged as a Middle Easterner. One might assume that his two light-haired children got their features from their American-born mother. But a black-and-white photo on the wall shows Faour at age 3, looking a lot like his blond, curly-haired son. It’s one of the few family photos that survived wars and civil unrest.
Faour was born in 1960 in a Palestinian refugee camp in the ancient Roman town of Baalbeck, northeast of Beirut. His parents were both raised in Shaab, an Arab village in the Galilee, now Israel. Faour’s maternal grandfather, a wealthy man, owned a lot of land, which was later seized under Israel’s Absentee Property Law of 1950. A few of his relatives still grow olives and sesame there, but they must now rent the land from the Israeli government.
“It’s true that, to lessen the suffering of the Jewish people in the Diaspora, they came to the ‘Promised Land,’” Faour says. “But the moment my parents left their home in Galilee, the suffering of my family started.”
The story of his family’s flight from Palestine was more than an occasional conversation topic among his parents, aunts, uncles and grandparents, Faour explains. It was the focus of an ongoing discussion that shaped his life growing up in the refugee camps.
“If you haven’t been a refugee, you’re not going to understand what they go through,” says Faour, whose passport read “Palestinian refugee” when he first arrived in the United States. “When you’re a refugee, you are stateless. You are more a number than a person.”
Most of Faour’s family fled Shaab after the Deir Yassin Massacre of April 1948. “A lot of people in upper Galilee got scared,” Faour says. “It was shocking to them, because most of the struggle before 1948 was concentrated against the British. They never, never thought the Jews had the capability to overrun them.
“The Haganah used bullhorns when they went from town to town to scare them,” Faour continues. “In many places, men, women, children and elderly were killed and thrown into the well.”
While the historical details of the Deir Yassin massacre are still debated today, it’s generally accepted that more than 100, and perhaps as many as 254, Arabs were killed by the Jewish fighters. Large numbers of civilians subsequently fled Palestine, including Faour’s mother and father, who were then 17 and 18, respectively.
Faour’s paternal grandfather was among the Palestinian men who remained to fight the Jewish paramilitary groups. He was later captured and thrown in jail for six years. A diabetic, he lost his eyesight.
“My father went inside [Israel] 24 times between 1948 and 1951,” Faour continues. “One time, he got caught, thrown in jail and beaten. . . and later thrown into Jenin [refugee camp]. From Jenin he went full circle — to Jordan, back to Syria and then to Lebanon.”
Faour recalls another story his father often told the children. He’d sneaked back into Israel to check on his family and property. Back then, Faour says, it was commonplace for Arab males of gun-carrying age to be arrested.
As his father approached the family’s home in Shaab, he saw Israeli soldiers waiting for him; another member of his party had already been caught. He sent word to his mother through a nephew that he would meet her in the cemetery near his grandparents’ gravestones. “He said he would slide between the graves . . . and wait for her,” Faour remembers. “And she will come acting as though she were visiting the graves and speak to him as though she were saying a prayer.” An unorthodox encounter, to say the least.
Faour’s parents married in Lebanon in 1951, believing, like most Palestinians of their generation, that their displacement was temporary. “With this whole chaos, other Palestinians I met of this generation in the refugee camps thought it was only a matter of days, weeks, and they will come back.” He recalls his countrymen’s attitude toward the Israelis in those days, paraphrasing the typical dismissal: “‘It’s impossible those people are going to survive over there. They are foreigners!’”
A Bread and Puppet poster hangs in the hallway of Gutmann’s southern Vermont home. Peter Schumann has “always been one of my heroes,” he says, but now he’s not so sure. Gutmann doesn’t hold back when he talks about Schumann’s recent art exhibit, and the accompanying talk entitled “Overcoming Zionism,” by Joel Kovel. “And this Jew up there, Kovel? Hideous! God knows how many people he lost in the Holocaust, and he’s spreading this shit?”
In fact, the controversy raging two hours away is one of the reasons Gutmann’s decided to speak about his memories after all these years. “I feel an obligation, at the end of my life, to speak as a witness against the lies,” he says.
When he got out of the hospital in early 1948, Gutmann joined a maritime unit of the Palmach, the Haganah’s military arm. This unit, known as the Palyam, was manned largely by Gutmann’s old sailing buddies. They trained in an abandoned British police station north of Tel Aviv, but didn’t engage in direct combat operations. The unit later went on to help found Israel’s navy.
For his part, Gutmann remembers few dealings with the Arabs. “This is another one of the great lies, that it was the Jews who forced these poor, innocent peasants away from their olive fields and their orange groves,” he contends. “Man, they’d already gone, even before we got there and established our post. Why did they leave? I don’t know. The land we were on was, I suppose, within the boundaries of what would be the Jewish state. Maybe they didn’t want to live among Jews. I don’t know. Or they just knew that there’d be trouble.”
Gutmann recalls one of his unit’s first military operations. Jerusalem was in crisis and on the verge of starvation. Arabs controlled the gorges along the roads running to Tel Aviv, severing Jerusalem from all its supply routes. Early in 1948, the Haganah amassed enough troops to mount an operation to reclaim the high ground and reopen the roads.
“Some of our guys who had previous combat training were sent out to join that op,” Gutmann remembers. “By the evening, some of them had trickled back. Some had died on the road. Others came back and said, ‘We won’t fight.’ We asked, ‘Why not?’ ‘When we got there, they told us that there’s not enough weapons for all of you. You will take weapons from those who fall. Take your weapon from the slain.’”
Gutmann doesn’t remember feeling much personal animosity toward the Arabs, certainly nothing like America’s anti-Japanese fervor during World War II. “There was no demonization of them, really,” he insists. “Though we were told by our officers, not by way of propaganda, that when you’re in battle, keep a bullet or a grenade for yourself because if you fall captive to the Arabs, they will do terrible things to you before they kill you.”
After the State of Israel was declared in 1948, Gutmann spent another six months or so running immigrants legally between Europe and Israel before finally returning to the U.S. to attend college. In the decades since, he’s been back to Israel numerous times. In fact, he was there doing research on the Islamic Druze of the Golan Heights in 1967 when the Six Day War erupted.
Does he think a different approach to the Arabs might have changed the course of history? “What should the Jews have done, refuse the state? Refuse the place of refuge for their own blood, for the 10,000 kids on the Isle of Cyprus that I lived among?” he asks. “What could they have done differently?”
In 1963, the year the family photo on Faour’s wall was snapped, the Palestinian refugee camp at Baalbeck was razed. Faour and his family were relocated to a new one built at Rashidieh, south of Tyre. They lived for six years in a one-room cinderblock house, with one common bathroom shared by numerous families. At the time, 6000 to 7000 Palestinians lived in the camp; today there are more than 25,000, all of whom are considered second-class citizens under Lebanese law.
“When we were very little, my father had a dry-cleaner business,” Faour says. “And to open that business he had to register under a Lebanese person because he couldn’t own it.” Faour’s father lived outside the camp and saw his family only one day per week, for which he needed a pass from the Lebanese police. “When the pass is over, you go to kiss asses to get another one. And it’s not so easy to get one.”
One of Faour’s earliest political memories is of the start of the Six Day War. “I was 7 years old. I remember the people go into the streets, mainly young men 16, 17, 18, screaming slogans: ‘We want to volunteer! Take us to the border!’
“As we learned later, the war ended in the first six hours. But you’re talking about day after day of lies from the Arab regimes on the radio that they’re winning and hitting Tel Aviv,” Faour adds. “After six or seven days, it settled down that Jerusalem had been lost, and the West Bank and Gaza, the Golan Heights and the Sinai.”
The Lebanese leadership was worried that armed Palestinians would become a security risk. The militant wing of the Palestine Liberation Organization had emerged two years earlier. In the wake of the Six Day War, members of the Lebanese police went from house to house inside the refugee camp, rounding up young men who’d been chanting for war. “We were very little — me and the other kids from the neighborhood and my cousins — and we followed them to the police offices,” Faour remembers. “We hear the whipping and the screaming inside the walls. They would run after us to run away, but we would come back to listen, because most of those boys we knew. It was horrible.” Many of those boys, he adds, did become part of the PLO.
Not surprisingly, much of Faour’s anger at the time was directed at the Lebanese. “If your livelihood depends on a pass, if your father cannot come visit you, if you see those guys getting whipped, I hated them much more than the Israelis at that moment,” he says. “But the big picture was, if there was no occupation, what the hell are we doing in this country?”
When civil war broke out in Lebanon in 1975, Faour’s father’s business in East Beirut was ransacked. “They burned it and stole everything,” he recalls. “We wake up in the morning and don’t have anything.” The Palestinians experienced “ethnic cleansings, like what’s happening in Iraq right now.
“So, we were broke again and bought a wagon and started selling vegetables on the street to survive,” Faour continues. Soon the children were selling cigarettes as well, while their father slowly rebuilt his business.
As their fortunes improved somewhat, Faour’s father was eager for his children to leave the country and get an education. He saved for years to send Faour to school in the United States in 1978. One of his sisters followed and, like Faour, became an American citizen. Today they operate a retail business in Vermont. Two of his brothers emigrated to East Germany. The others are still Palestinian refugees living in Lebanon, as are his parents, now in their seventies.
Last summer, Faour visited his family in Lebanon for the first time in more than 30 years, bringing his wife and kids along. A week after they left Lebanon, Israel invaded; in the ensuing bombing, an Israeli mortar destroyed a relative’s house.
Faour has never visited his relatives or his family’s land in the Galilee. “I can go maybe because I have an American citizenship,” he says. “But deep inside, I don’t trust the Israelis.”
What does Faour think of the recent Art Hop controversy in Burlington? Like Gutmann, he argues that his people’s history has been grossly distorted.
“I was very surprised that the art became part of the problem instead of part of the solution,” he says. “The Seeds of Peace organization uses art as a common denominator between the Palestinian kids and Israeli kids.
“Any suffering is a bad suffering; any suffering is counted. It cannot be forgotten,” he adds. “Is Jewish blood worth more than Palestinian blood? No. If you want peace, we all need to sit down together.”