JAFFA, Israel – Freighted with memories, a bus carrying Najwa Dajani and her extended family pulled into this city by the sea, which she had left under gathering clouds of war more than six decades ago.
“We’re going home,” she said.
Najwa, 75, had not been back since she left for Cairo with her mother and siblings in January 1948 as fighting raged between Arabs and Jews in the war that accompanied the creation of Israel. The departure, part of a mass Palestinian exodus, was supposed to be temporary, until the hostilities died down, but became a lifelong exile.
On Sunday, Najwa, who lives in Amman, Jordan, was back in Jaffa by invitation with her sole surviving brother, Omar Dajani, who arrived from Baltimore, for an unusual tribute.
The municipality of Tel-Aviv-Jaffa took the exceptional step of naming a square in memory of their father, Fouad Ismail Dajani, a respected Palestinian physician who founded the first private hospital in Jaffa in 1933.
Serving both Arabs and Jews, the hospital was familiar to many Israelis who were born there over the years, and although its formal name has since changed, it is still widely called the Dajani Hospital. The doctor, who specialized in surgery and obstetrics, died in 1940 at age 50 from an infection contracted from a patient during an operation.
Sunday’s commemoration was a rare moment of recognition in Israel of its Palestinian past — in this case, the contribution of the esteemed surgeon from a prominent Palestinian family whose members are scattered across the globe, although some remain in the Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem.
“When we first heard about it, we were very surprised,” Omar Dajani, 72, the youngest of the doctor’s six children, said before the event. “I do not understand it, but I accept it with great pride.”
A group of about 20 Dajanis — children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the doctor — went to Jaffa for Sunday’s ceremony, some arriving from Saudi Arabia and Tunisia, which have no diplomatic ties with Israel, as well as from Jordan, Hong Kong, England, Switzerland and the United States.
They went to the old family house on the grounds of the hospital, now a geriatric center, where Najwa walked through the rooms, re-creating the mental map of her childhood. They prayed at the doctor’s grave in the courtyard.
Echoing the cooperation at the Dajani Hospital, which was designed by a Jewish architect, and where Jewish doctors and nurses were among the staff, the commemoration was the product of joint efforts by Arabs and Jews.
The idea originated with Samuel Giler, a Tel Aviv architect, who learned of Fouad Dajani from a televised documentary about two Palestinian and two Israeli women who, as girls, shared a room in boarding school during the British Mandate in Palestine. One of the Palestinian women was the doctor’s eldest daughter, and in one scene in the film, she lamented the absence of a headstone on his grave.
Giler helped arrange for a tombstone that was erected on the 60th anniversary of the doctor’s death, inscribed in Arabic, Hebrew and English, and went on to suggest that city authorities memorialize Dajani by naming a street after him.
The cause was taken up by Ahmed Mashharawi, a city council member from Jaffa’s Arab community, which makes up about one-third of the mixed city’s population. He has been leading a campaign to name city streets after prominent Arab figures, and he persuaded the Tel Aviv-Jaffa city council to unanimously endorse the naming of a square near the hospital after its founder.
After Jaffa was merged with Tel Aviv in a single municipality in 1950, many of its Arabic street names were changed to Hebrew ones, including a street near the hospital that once bore Dajani’s name and is now named for a Jewish doctor.
“An injustice done to the family is being righted,” Mashharawi said. “There are 400 streets in the city with Jewish names. We have to remind people that we’re together here in Jaffa. Don’t erase my Arab identity. It’s a small and symbolic step, but important. It makes you feel that you belong.”
Before the start of the dedication ceremony, some Dajani family members objected to Israeli flags that had been posted in the square. They voiced concern that media images would show them against the backdrop of the flags, fueling claims by critics that they had accepted Israel and forfeited their claim to recover their homes. The flags in the square were removed but remained on adjacent lampposts.
The ceremony, conducted in Hebrew, Arabic and English, went off without a hitch and with moments of high emotion. A 93-year-old Israeli woman who served as a nurse at the hospital came forward and was warmly welcomed by the doctor’s children. An Arab-Jewish women’s choir sang a haunting Arab song, and the mayor of Tel Aviv-Jaffa, Ron Huldai, greeted the Dajanis, calling the naming of the square “an attempt to fight the cruel forgetfulness brought by time.”
Choking back tears, Omar said he hoped the day’s events would be “an example to the two peoples, descendents of Abraham, Isaac and Ishmael, to whom God promised this land, that like the healer we are honoring, we will heal the wounds of our differences and find a way to live in peace and harmony in this holy land.”