There’s a changing of the guard in Jerusalem. Jodi Rudoren, the current New York Times bureau chief, is coming back to New York. Soon we will learn the name of her replacement. All signs are that it will be White House correspondent Peter Baker.
Last night in New York, Rudoren gave a talk at the Jewish Community Center on the Upper West Side. She was hosted by two rabbis, and there were a number of sharp questions from the (almost-completely) Jewish audience. Not one person asked her about a preeminent issue in the minds of Palestinians when they think of the New York Times bureau chief. Will you continue to live in that house?
The Times owns an apartment in the Qatamon section of West Jerusalem that has become a symbol of the newspaper’s insensitivity to the Palestinian side of the story, because the house was formerly owned by a Palestinian family that was forced to leave in 1948 and never allowed to return. And never compensated for its stolen property either.
The owner of the house was a journalist named Hasan Karmi, who became famous working for the BBC in London. but never thought of himself as English, moved ultimately to Amman to be as close to Palestine as he could. His daughter Ghada is a physician and a writer of distinction. She lives in London and lately published a memoir titled Return, about her work in the West Bank 10 years ago. In that book she tells about visiting the house; and last month, she spoke at NYU and I asked her to tell the story (at minute 6 of the video below). Karmi:
In a way this is funny though of course ultimately it’s not funny. I received one day an email from an extremely unlikely source, namely the New York Times bureau chief in Jerusalem. And I was at that time in the West Bank– saying to me, “I’ve just finished your memoir, In Search of Fatima, and… I think I’m living above your old house,” and in that email he invites me to visit him to see if indeed it was the old house.
So, most intrigued, I went. We agreed on a date, and I went, and yes, there he was, living in an apartment which had been built on the top of our house. Our house was a villa on one floor. They don’t have two stories. But this had been built at some time. The New York Times bought it in in like 1983. And its bureau chiefs have been living in it ever since.
Now, this man called Steven Erlanger, at the time he was the bureau chief, he invited me, and he said, I thought first of all to confirm if this is your house. So I said, Yes indeed it is my house. And he said, I’d like to take some photographs of you in it. I know it’s difficult for Palestinians to find people who allow them to come and see their old houses. But he said, “There is a very nice Israeli family living in the house, they’re friends of mine, and they would love for you to feel free to come and have a look.”
The thing about that visit, was that apart from being intrigued about this man inviting me, I thought, Actually, I have to put him on the spot. I have to ask him, having read the book, living above what was my old house, which I confirmed, did he feel something about that. You know? Was there something wrong with that? Did he think that this was cruel or that this was hurtful or something.
I can only tell you– and you have to read the book– but he was absolutely evasive from the start. I said, “Well now, you’ve read the book. You see what’s happened. You are here because I am not here, if you know what I mean. What does that make you feel about Israel?” He said, “There’s history, and nothing’s black and white, and things are very difficult and–” he wanted to move on. The whole time– and I went back several times, and I said, “Do you actually think it is right, morally right to throw people out and put yourselves in their place? What do you think?”
I never got a straight answer. And you know– I think he felt badly. He insisted I came round, he took hundreds of photographs of me in his house. I always thought, it was his way of saying I’m sorry without saying it.
Weiss: How painful is it for you to go and see that house?
You know, I’ve been a number of times, and the first time that I finally made it, which I’ve described toward the end of In Search of Fatima, I found it extremely sad, extremely painful, extremely sad. I remember standing there… and to me the thing that was so striking was the way that that time was dead. We were dead. The people who we were at that time were dead. Fatima [a former employee of the Karmis]– was dead. You know, it was a very curious feeling, a feeling of extinction. That actually– not so much, that this was our house, I remember where we played here, and this is the swing and whatever… It was so much the feeling of having been wiped out, erased– by a force that was way beyond us, the Zionist project, its determination to place its own people in our place.
A couple of comments. Until a few years ago, it would never have occurred to me to be concerned about the house. I once worked for the Times; as a Jewish Ivy Leaguer, it is easy for me to relate to Rudoren and Erlanger (who is now the London bureau chief for the paper).
But I can tell you from my current privileged position, of knowing many Palestinians, that this is the very first thing they say about the New York Times: what are they doing in that house? It upsets them because the house symbolizes the Nakba (which has never been acknowledged let alone the right of return honored).
I don’t believe Karmi has been interviewed by anyone in the MSM or her wonderful new book reviewed in prominent places. Just as no one last night at the Rudoren event on the Upper West Side asked about the house. This is a form of cultural blindness that cannot and should not last.