Ben Jamal is an member of Palestine Solidarity Campaign’s executive committee. His father’s family was driven out of Jerusalem and into exile in 1948 when Israel was created in the land they had called home for generations. Here, as the 68th anniversary of those dark days approaches, Ben talks about what the Nakba means to him.
My family were a family of Christian Arabs who lived in Talbieh in West Jerusalem.
My grandfather, a man called Shukry Jamal, was one of five brothers who ran a travel business with offices across the Middle East, as well as having some publishing interests.
Those who have been to Jerusalem and seen stalls selling postcards of the city dating back to the 19th Century may have noticed that they were published by the Jamal Brothers in the 1920’s.
My great uncle was a man called Shibli Jamal who, in 1921, was the secretary to a delegation of Palestinians which came to the UK to negotiate with Winston Churchill, then Secretary of State for the colonies, to overturn the Balfour declaration.
The delegation remained in the UK for many months during which time it held what was, I believe, the first pro-Palestinian rally in Hyde Park.
My father was a man called Khalil Jamal who became an Anglican priest. He grew up in Talbieh and attended St George’s Cathedral School, the same school attended by Edward Said, whose family also lived in Talbieh.
In 1948 all of my family members were forced from their homes in Talbieh and left for a variety of destinations. My father at that time was a priest in Nazareth, and my grandparents went to be with him.
The Israeli plan for Nazareth was that its inhabitants be expelled, but the Major in charge of the operation, a Major Ben Dunkelman, disobeyed the order and negotiated a surrender with the leaders of the local community.
My parents divorced when I was very young and I had limited conversations with my father about his childhood experiences and about his life in Palestine which is one of my life’s great regrets. However, he did once tell me that he played a part in the negotiations with Major Dunkelman which saved Nazareth.
My father remained in Nazareth until 1955 when, on meeting my mother, an Englishwoman who was working as a missionary in a church orphanage, they married and moved to the UK. At this point my grandparents, who I met only as a three-year-old on a visit to the Middle East, moved to Beirut to be with my uncle who had been a student at the university in 1948 and remained.
I do not know what happened to all of the family homes, which are now regarded as some of the most desirable in Jerusalem. I do know that one, the home of my uncle Anis Jamal, was scheduled to be the home of David Ben Gurion [Israel’s first Prime Minister] but he rejected the idea.
My parents divorce, as can happen, created a family dislocation , which meant I grew up without much knowledge of my father’s side of the family, with little contact with my Palestinian relatives or family history.
What I know, I have pieced together as I have made contact with relatives, and explored what family history is available online, mostly after my father’s death.
In 2012 I took my daughter to Palestine for her first visit and, as part of our tour, we visited the Protestant cemetery on Mount Zion in Jerusalem, where many family members are buried . We spent an afternoon walking around Talbieh trying to locate the family home from a photograph we had seen online which appeared to show my grandfather sitting outside it in the 1920’s. We couldn’t find it.
Seeing my daughter exploring her family roots made me reflect on my first visit to Palestine as a young student. I had grown up, knowing I was Palestinian, but with virtually no sense of what that meant, of my family history, but, more broadly, no understanding of the realities of the political history of the Nakba.
I got on a boat from Greece to Haifa with student friends, secure in my identity as a young white British male about to go to university and travelling abroad with friends for the first time.
When I got off the boat in Haifa, was separated from my friends and subjected to a four hour interrogation about my name, my background and my reason for coming to Israel, I realised I had arrived as a Palestinian.