Palestinian-American Reflects on Israel
CHERYL CORLEY, Host:
Israel has been marking the 60th anniversary of its founding for the past week and Tell Me More has brought you the stories of Israeli citizens in honor of that event, but not everyone is celebrating. The founding of Israel is called a catastrophe by the Palestinians who were displaced by the establishment of that country in 1948. One of those people is Nina Bazuzi Cullers. She was just a girl in 1948 when her family lost their home near Jerusalem, and she joins us today. Welcome to the program.
NINA CULLERS: Thank you.
CORLEY: Ms. Cullers, I think that many people see the conflict over Israel's founding as a dispute between Jews and Muslims, but I understand that you're a Palestinian Christian.
CORLEY: So how big was the community in 1948?
CULLERS: The numbers change, but prior to the war of 1948 the Christians constituted about 18 percent of the population. So I had a lot of uncles and aunts. We lived in West Jerusalem in areas like Talbiyeh, Katamon, and Bakah, the suburbs of Jerusalem.
CORLEY: And when did your family leave that home?
CULLERS: Actually, a little before '48. There was a bomb - after the skirmishes between the Arabs and the Israelis started to escalate, a hotel not far from where we live called Semeramez (ph) was blown, and 20 people died in that hotel. We knew some of the people who - it was New Years Eve. And that really traumatized us as kids, and my grandmother who lived in the Old City sent a taxi and my uncle saying don't come back until you bring Neda (ph), my mother. We gathered pajamas and a few things, and we wanted to take some nice things - mom said, no, no, we have to go quickly the taxi is waiting. And that was it.
CORLEY: It seems like you weren't expecting to be gone for very long, your family rushing to the taxi and just taking a few things with you.
CULLERS: Yes, that's right. Because nobody knew that this was it. We were very naive thinking that we were going to be getting our independence and when those incidents quieted down we will go back to our home.
CORLEY: When did you realize that you would never be able to go back to your home and reclaim it?
CULLERS: You know, it's hard to tell because I remember as a child, whenever my parents would get together with their cousins and relatives and friends they would say, you know, there is a very strong feeling that such and such is going to happen and we are going to go back. But actually we realized that when the rest of the world recognized Israel as a permanent state, we knew that you could not reverse that. But we still had hope of some kind that justice is going to prevail and the new hope is built up by a new peace accord or some leaders entering the picture and becoming more interested in the Palestinian problem and time passes, and then your hope it taken away.
CORLEY: You are listening to Tell Me More. We are speaking with Nina Bazuzi Cullers. She was a young girl in 1948 when her family lost their home near Jerusalem. I understand that your mother was able to visit your former home. What happened when she returned?
CULLERS: The people who were on the West Bank after '67 had access into the Israeli part. My mother took my sister and went to show her where we used to live. And when they got to the house, my mother was overcome by emotion, but she knocked at the door and a lady came out and asked her what she wanted, and she said I want to just show my daughter the house where we used to live prior to '48. And the woman did not let them in. So she gathered up the courage and asked the lady who lived there and said I just want to ask you if you found the album in this house, the album which could not be replaced. Our childhood pictures. Could you tell me what you did with it, because it means nothing to you, but it means everything to me. The woman was very annoyed, and she kicked her out, and she said no, this is no longer your home and actually my mother was very emotional. She was crying when she was there. She probably annoyed her by showing her emotion. And that was it. And I have a good memory of where we lived. I can find it without much trouble and every time I go I say I am going to go and look around and see if I can remember the neighborhood, but I have never done that.
CORLEY: President Bush was in Israel this week to celebrate Israel's anniversary, and I was wondering how you feel about America's relationship with Israel and how the American people view the conflict?
CULLERS: Unfortunately, the American people do not know what took place. All they hear or when I first came to United States, nobody knew anything about the Palestinians. I mean the word Palestinian was only used in the biblical sense. They did not release that the Arab-Palestinians were the majority of the population in that part of the world that is now Israel. And it was unfortunately those acts of violence that were committed, that brought the attention of the world to the plight of the Palestinians. It really is unfortunate that people don't know and the lack of knowledge is what hurts the Palestinians more than anything else and sometimes they resort to acts of violence, in my view, primarily to bring attention to the cause. They are determined to make the world aware of their plight.
CORLEY: Let me ask you one last question because you talk about the situation of the Palestinians and being uprooted from your home. Some people would say that your family's displacement was indeed unfortunate but was necessary in their mind and that the founding of Israel was necessary and they point to the millions of Jews who were killed in the Holocaust and Jews who have suffered centuries of mistreatment across Europe. What do you say to people who believe that?
CULLERS: Yeah. Well, I would say unfortunate - it was unfortunate that the Jews suffered and the Holocaust is a horrible thing but, why were the Palestinians the ones who had to pay for it? We had nothing to do with the Holocaust, but we are the ones who suffer the consequence of that and that is where it is unfair. I mean, here comes people who were fleeing from Eastern Europe and they chose to come to a land that was already populated and they drove us from our homes for no just reason, except that sometimes, you know they result to biblical times and saying this is the Promised Land which is an argument that can be debated. That doesn't justify them taking our homes, our property and not only the land, our aspirations, our hope. It is hard to uproot people that are traditional. I mean, maybe the young ones can assimilate into other cultures and some people are happy living away from their roots, but my parents came this country and even though they spoke some English and, you know, they managed OK being around their children, but they died in this country brokenhearted, away from their friends, away from their way of life and that is the tragedy of the Palestinians.
CORLEY: Nina Bazuzi Cullers is a Palestinian American. She joined us from her home in Luray, Virginia. Thank you so much.
CULLERS: You're welcome.
CORLEY: Tell Me More featured conversations with Israelis earlier this week, celebrating the 60th anniversary of that nation's founding. For links to those conversations please go to our website at npr.org/tellmemore. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.