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'Days of Our Years' by Pierre van Paassen
Last uploaded : Monday 4th Mar 2002 at 22:16
Contributed by : Carol Gould


News ?...Factories, buildings, schools and homes were rising from the ground. Everywhere the plough was turning up the fields of festering weeds which had for centuries poisoned the Arab goatherds and sent them to a premature grave. Swamps were being drained. Olive-skinned Jewish boys were dragging baskets of earth up the mountain slopes and restoring the vine terraces and the hanging gardens of Solomon....?


The current wave of escalating violence is a tragedy that eats at the heart of every person who cares about the destiny of what the West calls ?the Holy Land.?

I have been reading ?Days of Our Years,? a splendid book by the late Pierre van Paassen, an eminent Dutch-American journalist of the 1920s and 30s. His accounts of the events of the earliest days of the Zionist pioneers are as terrifying as the recent accounts of the murder of Daniel Pearl. Van Paassen, a Christian with an even-handed view of the birth pangs of the Jewish State, escaped slaughter innumerable times because he wrote for an American newspaper that the Mufti had (wrongly )identified as a Zionist rag.

What is so startling about ?Days of Our Years? is that the text could have been written in the past two years. One of the most evocative episodes recounted by van Paassen is a parade by Jewish Boy Scouts near the Wailing Wall in 1929, which the Arab world was successful in convincing the world was a deliberate attempt by ?Jewish Fascists? to usurp the entire region. The handful of boys, in van Paassen?s words,?..had been a mere subterfuge on which the Arabs had seized to bring their long-smouldering revolt to a head.? The bloody riots that ensued, most chillingly in Hebron, are part of the sad annals of Jewish history.

The 'provocation' is hauntingly reminiscent of the blame laid on Ariel Sharon more than seventy years later. Though Boy Scouts are not quite the ?Butcher of Beirut,? it is all the more sobering to reflect that the butchering of Jews could ensue from such a mild event as a small Boy Scout parade. Van Paassen recounts the sight of dead Jewish women's underwear being draped by the rioters around a picture of Herzl in the sacked Hebron shul. (see photograph above.)

A sampling of van Paassen?s glorious narrative may be found in Chapter Eight, ?After Seven Centuries:? ?...One of the most brilliant theatrical companies in the world, the Habima, had transferred its home from Moscow to Tel Aviv...The Jews were building hospitals and clinics. They were laying out new roads, exploring the waste places in the infernal heat ..harnessing the River Jordan with an ingenious hydro-electric system. The plain of Sharon was slowly being filled with orange groves and the immense valley of the Emek, which a few years before had been a death-trap for the Arab tribes, was beginning to be filled with prosperous agricultural colonies...?

Van Paassen?s meeting with the Mufti of Jerusalem, Ai Hameen el Husseini, draws the reader into the tension of the situation as the journalist is rendered petrified by the Mufti?s rage. Just as much of the terrible strife between Muslim and non-Muslim today is fuelled by lack of understanding of the other?s faith and aspirations, so does van Paassen become apoplectic as he tries to explain to the Mufti that (according to el Husseini) Professor Albert Einstein does NOT want the Dome of the Rock demolished to make way for a giant synagogue.

This book is filled with hidden treasure. Van Paassen reminds us that as far back as 1921 ?...King Feisel of Iraq... spokesman of the Arabic Peoples at the Peace Conference in Paris, had expressed his entire satisfaction ...with Palestine as the National Home of the Jewish people..?

Van Paassen describes the deeply disturbing ?acme of deceit? when the Arab press published ?photographs of the wrecked Jewish theological seminary in Hebron, showing the bodies of the slain students lying in the foreground and capped with a heading saying that this was what the Jews had done to an Arab home..?

In light of the events of today, in which Israeli helicopter gunships killed the wife and children of a Hamas man they were targetting, and blasted an ambulance, killing medics and a Palestinian doctor, van Paassen?s poetry is painful at times. He observes, ?..Humbly and patiently the Jewish pioneers have set about to make the Land of Israel, the hope and prayer of their people for two thousand years, a hospitable place not only for the weary wanderers still in Europe, bur first of all, for the destitute and disease-ridden masses of Arabs....Instead of arsenals and military bastions, the first foundations on Zion?s hill had been a school of learning, a tribute to the universality of the spirit, the Hebrew University...?

JewishComment is currently negotiating with Messrs Heinemann to serialise the Palestine section of ?Days of Our Years? on this site, principally because the book is difficult to obtain, having been published in 1939. If we are able to do so, we believe Jewish Comment readers will be treated to an extraordinary piece of non-fiction that has undeservedly faded into obscurity.

My late mother exhorted me to read ?Days of Our Years? to learn everything one needed to know before going out into ?the world,? and it must be acknowledged that this book is a revelation, so many decades after its compilation.


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