Laura van Rij (LR): What is your connection to Lifta?
Ilan Shtayer (IS): As a teenager I came there with the scouts, we would go early in the morning to swim in the pool. There was more water in the pool back then; it seems that there is less water now. Many people have memories of their first unpermitted smoking of hashish there. They would go with friends and sleep there for a few days. It was a place to be out of your parents’ sight, but still be in contact, be close to Jerusalem. It´s like there is something peaceful and quiet there that makes people feel comfortable. It makes people from a lot of different backgrounds feel comfortable, you could sit at the pool and hear Arabic, Yiddish and Hebrew. I am a member of the Coalition to save Lifta, when people hear this they usually tell me they really like going there and it´s a good thing to try to preserve it.
LR: Why do you think so many people are attached to Lifta?
IS: Most people in Israel don´t want to acknowledge the evil that was done to the Palestinians in 1948. They also don´t want to recognise the evil that was done to the Jewish people that came from Arab countries, that ran away to save their lives, they didn´t come here as Zionist idealists. They were not treated equally to the Ashkenazi from Europe. In this marvellous, beautiful place are a lot of memories of these bad things that happened to both people. It is difficult to remember what happened here, if you leave the village like it is you cannot forget that. The people that are trying to push the plans to destroy Lifta are the ones that don´t want to have this picture at the entrance of Jerusalem. If it will be a Jewish nature reserve they will still not be happy because they know that the stones of these buildings will still be shouting at us. The memories stay even if Lifta is filled up with flags of the Israeli nature reserve.
LR: Why didn’t the government destroy the village?
IS: That is one of the big secrets. There were different points where it could have been destroyed but it didn´t happen. The first moment was when the houses were abandoned in 1948,at that time it was saved because they needed the houses to resettle the Jewish immigrants. In 1967 Israel occupied East Jerusalem and suddenly there was a lot of space. They say that in around 1970 the people of Lifta got money from the government at the entrance of their house, about 2300 lirot, and a key with the address to their new home. They had to stay to see them blow a hole in the roof of their house, to make clear that they could never come back. Others say they made the holes in the roofs because they were afraid the Palestinians would come back after the borders opened in 1967. Either way, they didn’t want anyone to settle there anymore, not Palestinian and not Jewish.
LR: Is there a place in Lifta that you like specifically?
IS:For me one of the most powerful places in Liftais the balcony of the house that once belonged to the muhtar of Lifta, afterwards this became the Jewish school. I like the picture of Lifta from there, you see upper Lifta which is now Romema and if you look to the other side you see Ramallah. It puts Lifta in its context. If you go down to the pool you see a beautiful place and that’s all. When you look at it from above you see how complicated the situation is. These different communities with their different views and needs and all the development around it. I like to look on Lifta from a wider perspective.
LR: Did you have conversations with the people that come to the pool or go to Lifta to hike?
IS: One time I asked a couple that was sitting there what they thought this place used to be, they said it was a Jewish settlement and in 1929 bad people came that destroyed the place and kicked the people out. Since that time the place is empty, they said. I was very surprised and asked them where they got that information from. They said they learned it in school, they learned that all the Jews in Israel and Europe were treated badly and people with horses came and then they had to run away. They mixed up a lot of different historical events. Israeli´s don´t get proper history education.
LR: Did your image of Lifta change over time?
IS: My image is the same but the way I speak about it is different. I obviously know much more about the place. Many people recognize me as the LiftaMan, I make jokes about moving there. People asked me why I was doing this, if they promised me a house afterwards (laughs). I believe much more in public resistance since I started the struggle to preserve Lifta. I wasn’t very much involved in public struggles before so Lifta was a great lesson for me. I think the existence and preservation of the village is critical to show that we are not living in a trash period of time. Lifta can show this because the heritage is important, because many people are connected to Lifta from different sides and because they are joining in a coalition. We don´t have the same interest on all perspectives but people come and open their minds and hearts, accept from the others ideas and values and needs and be flexible. There is no other place in Israel right now where that happens like this.
LR: What would you like to happen in Lifta?
IS: I think it should be an open place to study. It needs to be managed, not like now that everyone can come whenever they want and dig and make fires and do yoga. Some walls of the houses need to be fixed because they could fall on someone´s head. There should be signs explaining what the place was. People should come and research Lifta´s past and future. There are so many things to study about this place. It will give us deep historical knowledge, deep environmental knowledge, human knowledge about people´s pain, their stories, their connection to this place. I think this place has to be preserved quietly, not as a Machu Pichu. In the day of salvation, peace and understanding this needs to be preserved as a memorial site, to the understanding of both communities. To learn about the stupid decisions people, communities and nations made in 1948. I don´t know how to express it, it should not be a monument, it should be as it is. We need to learn to live with it.
The interview is for the project "It's all about people - Narratives from Lifta" done by Laura van Rij as part of her M.A. in public history at The University of Amsterdam.
Interview location: the park in front of the Central Zionist Archives, Jerusalem.
May 20, 2013.