06-10-09 Reflections in Ma’alot massacre 35 years later

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By Anisa Mehdi —
Thirty five years ago the celebration of the 26th anniversary of the founding of the State of Israel was tempered. The spring of 1974 was a bloody and dangerous time in the Levant. Attacks on the town of Kiryat Shmona, which borders Lebanon, and on the town of Ma’alot in western Galilee, horrified Israelis and non-Israelis alike. At least 40 people died in those combined attacks, which were thought to be part of a wave of violence designed to concur with the anniversary. Israel retaliated, bombing refugee camps and villages in southern Lebanon, killing 27 people and wounding 139.

It is Ma’alot I remember best. As an Arab American New York City public high school student. As the daughter of the most prominent Arab spokesperson in the United States in his time, the late Dr. Mohammad T. Mehdi. And as a flutist in the New York’s lauded All-City High School Orchestra.

The massacre at Ma’alot happened the day before our spring concert.

The All-City High School Orchestra performed each year at Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center. Getting into that orchestra was a top achievement for New York high school musicians; it was particularly competitive for flutists. The orchestra rehearsed every Saturday morning fall, winter and spring, schlepping ourselves and our instruments to the High School of Printing on New York’s west side to be ridden, ridiculed, corrected and complemented by Gabriel Kosakoff, our conductor. This year, along with Gioachino Rossini’s “Thieving Magpie” and “A Night on Bald Mountain” by Modest Mussorgsky, we would play Claude Debussy’s “L’après-midi d’un faune.” “The Afternoon of a Faun” is a luxuriant orchestral piece that opens with flute alone in an ethereal, celestial phrase. French horns and the violins buoy the theme, the harp strums a brrrng! And again the flute, alone, toying, teasing, calling to the orchestra to come and play, which it does, and the whole body lifts into the stratosphere. Every flute player’s greatest desire in life is to play this solo. This time I was she. And on the night of May 16, 1974, would come the crowning moment of my musical career. Nervous? You bet.

My father and his politics were already known to my teachers, friends, fellow musicians and conductor. Back in the day when Muslims were on a back burner and “Arab” was the prefix for “terrorist,” his was the lone voice protesting the plight of Palestinians. All news media turned to him when there was an attack on Israel, knowing Dr. Mehdi would provide context to acts of terrorism, offer another perspective (we called it “balance”), and some bit of quirky wit. Palestinians, a recently exiled people, still long for their homeland, too. Some will fight to get back home. Do we condone their methods? Hostage-taking? Airline hijacking? Certainly not. But what do we Americans expect, he would ask rhetorically with his Iraqi accent, when it is our bombs and bombers, under the command of Israeli pilots that are devastating southern Lebanon and the west bank of the Jordan River? Stop supplying Israel he’d implore our government. Show compassion for Palestinian refugees, he urged the American people. Once their dilemma is righted they and the Israelis will be able to live in peace. My father’s message in the 1960s and 1970s was way ahead of its time. Today most people acknowledge that the Palestinian refugee situation must be addressed. That the question of settlements is indeed a question and not fait accompli. That until there is resolution for Palestine there will be no peace for Israel.

Decades ago my father’s angle was interpreted as anti-Semitic and extreme. By the time he died, oh so suddenly in my arms on a cold February day in 1998, he was heralded as a moderate that recognized the quandary the Israeli Jews faced, as well.

Thanks to appearing on myriad television news programs and radio shows, everyone knew my father’s voice. Among them were my public school teachers, many of whom didn’t like what he said were not shy about letting me – or my sisters — know. Sometimes they let my grades know how much they disliked his politics. Sometimes I wouldn’t get a first flute part. But in the spring of 1974, merit trumped bigotry. My flute and I were ready and quaking. Then, the news of Ma’alot. By the long-awaited evening of our Lincoln Center concert, members of the orchestra and our audience had already heard my father commenting on the terror and tragedy of the massacre of 26 civilians, most of them school children, teenagers, like us.

Afternoon of a Faun was programmed just after intermission. Nearly 100 high school musicians sat behind the drawn curtain at Avery Fisher at the break while a representative of the Board of Education came on stage. Often the purpose is a litany of thank you’s. Not this time.

“Everyone knows about the tragedy that happened yesterday in Israel. I ask all of you to please stand for a moment of silence, out of respect for the 21 children who lost their lives at the hands of Arab terrorists.”

As the room rumbled into a thousand people making to stand, a shout rang out, filling the hall.

“Golda did it!”

I didn’t know exactly what he’d said until hours later. What he meant was that the children wouldn’t have died if Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir had not ordered troops onto the scene, had they not opened fire; he meant she should have been more patient and pursued negotiations. We will never know what might have happened. But what did happen was that I knew his voice and so did everyone on that stage. My father was disrupting my night of triumph.

If felt like my lungs caved in; my heart began to boom so loudly I thought it would echo in the timpani. I grabbed for air, hyperventilating for breath. Doubled over, my flute and I made for off stage, desperate to regain composure. The drama backstage paralleled the confusion out front. People didn’t know whether to stand or sit. My very proper Canadian grandmother was ashen; my choir director, crimson. Mother, stoic. Sisters, mortified.

Gabriel Kosakoff, my conductor and a man who absolutely abhorred my father, came to my side.

“Are you OK?”

“Give me a minute,” I gasped.

There was no way out but to muscle through. I returned to my chair. The maestro resumed the podium. He looked at me and I nodded then he nodded: whenever you’re ready. As if nothing had happened.

I inhaled deeply and played the solo of my life.

My father’s outburst cost him my love for at least that one night. But it’s 35 years later and as Israel celebrates is 61st birthday the tragedy of the Levant costs innumerable people their lives and livelihoods every day.

My father called for justice and peace. It may be that the twain will not meet. Justice, as in the return of Palestinian descendents from Jaffa to Jaffa, will not be meted out. Justice as in compensation to those families could be. Peace, as in absence of anger, may take decades, centuries. Peace, as in cessation of vengeance, is possible.

Golda did it. Yasser did it. Menachem did it. Nayef Hawatmeh, leader of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine did it at Ma’alot. But Benjamin Netanyahu, Mahmoud Abbas and Khaled Meshal could do something else. The new American administration could be the first to end the military aid to Israel and to Arabic-speaking countries that helps keep conflict afire.

As merit may trump bigotry, let reason trump revenge. Thirty five years later my heart races at the presentiment of more Ma’alots and more Gazas, and at the possibility that the call of more fauns could be quelled before the delights of the afternoon are played.

The writer is a Fulbright Scholar, filmmaker and interfaith consultant. She plays the flute in New Jersey’s Livingston Symphony Orchestra.


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Ray Hanania

Ray Hanania

Ray Hanania is an award winning political columnist and author. He covered Chicago Politics and Chicago City Hall from 1976 through 1992. Hanania began writing in 1975 when he published The Middle Eastern Voice newspaper in Chicago (1975-1977). He later published “The National Arab American Times” newspaper which was distributed through 12,500 Middle East food stores in 48 American States (2004-2007).

Hanania writes weekly columns on Middle East and American Arab issues for the Arab News in Saudi Arabia at www.ArabNews.com, and at www.TheArabDailyNews.com, www.TheDailyHookah.com and at SuburbanChicagoland.com. He has also published weekly columns in the Jerusalem Post newspaper, YNetNews.com, Newsday Newspaper in New York, the Orlando Sentinel Newspapers, and the Arlington Heights Daily Herald.

Palestinian, American Arab and Christian, Hanania’s parents originate from Jerusalem and Bethlehem.

Hanania is the recipient of four (4) Chicago Headline Club “Peter Lisagor Awards” for Column writing. In November 2006, he was named “Best Ethnic American Columnist” by the New American Media. In 2009, Hanania received the prestigious Sigma Delta Chi Award for Writing from the Society of Professional Journalists. He is the recipient of the MT Mehdi Courage in Journalism Award. He was honored for his writing skills with two (2) Chicago Stick-o-Type awards from the Chicago Newspaper Guild. In 1990, Hanania was nominated by the Chicago Sun-Times editors for a Pulitzer Prize for his four-part series on the Palestinian Intifada.

His writings have also been honored by two national Awards from ADC for his writing, and from the National Arab American Journalists Association.

The managing editor of Suburban Chicagoland Online News website www.SuburbanChicagoland.com, Hanania's columns also appear in the Southwest News Newspaper Group of 8 newspapers.

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Ray Hanania