Thursday, December 31, 2009

Sheikh Jarrah: It's Happening

For a protest to turn into a serious happening, you need two things. First, an injustice so obvious, and so emblematic, that to redress it is to play a kind of historical jujitsu: the force of the grievance pushes more and more people to turn out; and the growing crowd starts to feel that, if they win (and why shouldn't they, when the weight of a silent majority is behind them?), they will have defeated inertia. Second, you need the protest to be so simple, repetitive and doable--so focused on the critical issue of the time--that more and more people join in just for the fun of being right and good, sort of the way they might be going to weekly prayer meeting. Little by little, the protest becomes an enormous political fact. (Think of Rosa Parks and the Montgomery bus boycott.)

Something like this is happening in Jerusalem on Friday afternoons. A few weeks ago, a group of settlers took over most of a house in Sheikh Jarrah, turning its residents out. The family had been living in this house since the 1948-9 war, and the settlers' claim to the house was based on the apparent fact that the home had been deeded to members of a Jewish Sephardi community organization before World War II. By this standard, there is hardly a Jew living in established neighborhoods of West Jerusalem who would not be turned out of their homes (including the one I am writing from).

In consequence, three weeks ago, a small number of protesters gathered in central Jerusalem on Friday afternoon (in the plaza in front of the city's largest department store, to be exact). They began to walk through the streets, with drums and signs and costumes, until they got to the Arab neighborhood in question. The immediate grievance was the expulsion of this family, and the immediate goal was restoring the family to its home.

But there is clearly a larger issue here, made more urgent by exposure of new construction, and all involved (protesters and police) have understood this. The protest is a way of asserting that East Jerusalem should be the capital of a Palestinian state, that the annexations that have gone on since 1967 must stop, and that the only way either can come about is by international intervention; that Jerusalem is an international problem, not Israel's internal affair; that Jews who want a peace deal can at least demonstrate solidarity with our Arab neighbors in a city that, while not divided, is not united either. And there is a subtext here: for the Jews in question (at least, so far) are people who consider themselves a kind of remnant of the secular Israeli intelligentsia that had thrived here in the 1970s, but is now swamped by ultraOrthodox and ultra-nationalist forces. They are, so we hope, the seed crystal for many from outside of Jerusalem to organize around.

Three weeks ago, there were about 30 or 40 protesters, and a number were arrested for tearing down the Israeli flag that the settlers had hung from the house. Two weeks ago there were 50 protesters. Last week there were 250, and East Jerusalem Arabs were cautiously coming out to cheer. Perhaps, eventually, Arabs will join, too. Anyway, Sidra and I will be there this Friday, and most every Friday. So will David Shulman, whose report from last week follows. May I urge anyone who is reading this to join us at 1:30 PM in the plaza before Hamashbir LaTzarchan? We especially need people from Tel Aviv and people from East Jerusalem. The traffic is a breeze on Friday afternoons. Bring your drums.


December 25, 2009 Christmas in Sheikh Jarrah
David Shulman's Diary

This time I was sure they'd arrest me—I'd somehow eluded them, without trying to do so, the last three times I was here for the Friday demonstration—but once again it didn't happen. Maybe I'm too old? Last week they clearly went after the young people. Gabi was standing next to his son, Boaz, who was arrested (though he had done nothing to deserve the honor); Gabi asked the policemen to take him, too, but they refused and pushed him rudely away. It's almost insulting. We had 27 arrestees who spent the Shabbat as guests of the police in the appalling detention cells in the Russian Compound.

Anyway, I came prepared, with the Phaedrus in my pocket. "That's some dialogue," Amiel says to me, "but I'm not sure you'll be reading it under optimal conditions." He's worried: the police have cordoned off Sheikh Jarrah, and they're also making unpleasant noises about our march through town, even though this demonstration is completely legal, permit and all. Many policemen stand watching us as we gather on King George Street and start handing out the large placards inscribed in Hebrew, Arabic, and English. Bernie gets an Arabic one: "Stop the settlement in Sheikh Jarrah!" It's a considerable improvement, he says, on the sign he made for himself at his first political demonstration, as President of Hillel, in the 60's in Montreal. That one read: "Cultural Imperialism Retards the Dialectic." Hm. Times have changed. Not sure I could march to the barricades under that banner. I'm given a small red plastic horn, purchased in south Hebron, and told to blow it in time with the drums.

Today's march through town is mostly easy. Last week people threw rotten eggs, and there were some slaps and punches, too. I get soaked by a sudden deluge from a window on the second floor of one of the houses en route. It's actually almost welcome in the afternoon sun; I look up and see the man who drenched me gloating, happy that he's found a target. The atmosphere, as in earlier weeks, is carnivalesque. Of course we're here, as everyone knows, on serious business—getting more serious every week; there are, we are told, another 25 Palestinian families slated for expulsion from their homes in Sheikh Jarrah. But the protest is taking off, and every week there are more demonstrators: some 250 today right at the start, with more joining us as we approach the site of eviction. The police have clearly fanned the flames, probably doubled the crowd, by their all-too-predictable attempts to quell the protest by force. I suppose no one ever really learns from experience.

We stand at the edge of the somber street in Sheikh Jarrah, almost in sight of the stolen houses; and as we chant our cries and slogans, the arrests begin, this time from deep inside the crowd. Plainclothes Shabak (Israel Security Agency—Secret Service) agents, milling among us, grab the activists who spent last weekend, or the one before, in jail. As it happens, in court this week the judge cancelled the police ruling banning these volunteers from Sheikh Jarrah for thirty days. Apparently, the police didn't get the message; or maybe they didn't want to get it. Maybe someone higher up gave them an order to disregard the court's ruling. Or maybe they're just angry at being mocked, or even—a happy thought—a little jealous. Perhaps they'd prefer to join the protest party; I'm sure it's much more fun that what they're up to.

Still, there's something terrifying about an arrest that happens like that, when a stranger, anonymous, unmarked, suddenly turns against you and starts beating you in fury as he pushes you through the crowd toward the waiting patrol cars. First Amiel is captured, then Koby, then another six; Sarah waves a copy of the judgment in the face of the Shabaknik who is trying to arrest her, but he is utterly uninterested in this document; miraculously, she escapes his clutches and disappears. Leah, our lawyer, is with us, and for once she is reassuring—the police can't hold them in jail for disobeying an order that has been rescinded. I hope she's right.

I think something new is happening in Jerusalem. I see it in the young people who bear the brunt of this demonstration, who organize it and lead it and cheerfully face the Border Police and the blue police and, much worse, the clandestine Shabak operators week after week. Once again, many of my students are here. They, I am sure, are our future, and I trust them to see it through. They are clearly feeling the bizarre happiness that so often floods you at such moments—the happiness that naturally flows from saying "no" to self-evident evil. Hence the drummers and the clowns and, specially for today, the Santa Clauses in brilliant red and even one masquerading demonstrator dressed in an Israeli Army uniform painted totally white, his face and hair also white—the soldiers and the police seem particularly troubled and angered by him and, not unexpectedly, try to arrest him, but I think he manages to get away.

As before, the police head for the drummers. As Natasha says to me—she grew up in Communist Czechoslovakia—it's like in totalitarian regimes; they're always afraid of drummers, of festive resistance, of the disorder and freedom of masquerade. So, naturally, last week in Sheikh Jarrah they arrested the clowns; you can see an eloquent picture by going to

In a way the whole deep foolishness and wrong are present in that moment. It's one thing to arrest peace activists like our Ta'ayush veterans, or even to swoop down at random on non-violent demonstrators, many of them young students, many young women, and drag them off to the police vans. But to attack and arrest a clown? Probably from the beginning of human civilization, clowns play out the essence of our freedom and embody, as no one else, the very possibility of speaking truth. They're also given to a volatile playfulness and an irreducible, insouciant innocence, the true enemies of earnest repression. There is simply no witness like a clown, no one better equipped to plumb the depths of our sadness.

Now look closely at the two grim policemen firmly grasping their prey: could anyone look more ridiculous than they? Think of the immense daring, the superhuman courage one needs to arrest a clown. Only a country, or a city, intent upon a great crime would send its soldiers to do battle with clowns. And since, despite my early morning gloom, I'm in an ever-so-slightly optimistic frame of mind after today's demonstration, after the drums and the masque and the sweet shared moments of defiance, let me follow this hopeful thought as far as it takes me, a Christmas gift for those among us who celebrate this day. Deadly earnestness, for all the vast and brutal machinery that underpins it, is ultimately a disease with a rather poor prognosis. In the end, the clowns—we, that is—will win.


Didi Remez said...

Indeed, the rise of a movement. Wonderful post.

Y. Ben-David said...

I'm sure that the Arabs who attend your demonstrations are impressed at your moral indignation at Jews moving into Jewish owned property in Sheikh Jarrah while you are living in a stolen Arab house in West Jerusalem. I would call this 'transference of guilt'. Instead of doing the right thing, i.e. tracking down the Arab who owned the property you are now living in and giving it back to him, you turn your "righteous wrath" against other Jews, hoping of course, that the Arabs WHO VIEW YOU AS A THIEF NO LESS, will forget your complicity in dispossessing them. How many Arabs at your demonstrations believe Jews had a right to come and take Arab homes in West Jerusalem and will reconcile themselves to this? How many think that the Jewish presence inside the Green Line is not ultimately reversible (hint...hint...the Palestinian insistince on the "Right of Return" which you "progressives" always conveniently forget about when claiming that the Palestinians have agreed to make peace with Israel)?

Potter said...

Y B-D: If there is no "right of return" for Arabs, then why is there a "right of return" for Jews?

What you consistently skip is international law and the growing consensus of what is not any more acceptable. The green line exists and has meaning also for homes in West Jerusalem, not only East Jerusalem.

I am reminded of my sister in law's guard dog who fiercely guards whatever is in front of him regardless of what it is... a ribbon or a light bulb. This is the lower brain at work. Real justice is another thing altogether - but also in your interest whether you realize or not.

This passive resistance movement, I hope gathers more energy and media exposure. It's heartwarming to read about. And I hope that all Palestinians join have the discipline and wisdom, after all these years, to hold to it religiously. It would be way more powerful than rockets or suiciders ever could be, would uplift spirits, and show solidarity that is sorely needed. That Jews are involved gives me pride.

What the world thinks (collectively) matters, Happy New Year 2010...

Mrs. Shoded Yam said...

My husband and I are humbled by your courage. If only there were more people doing the same, you could get a weekend off once in awhile.

Shoded Yam said...


That may very well be the case. But the Palestinians, like many before them with nationalist aspirations, will be forced to make compromises in order to realize those aspirations. If the choice comes down to a modus vivendi with Bernie or relinquishing their remaining land to a bunch of despotic, talmud thumping, Jewish racial supremacists, its a no brainer. To paraphrase Bob Dylan; "You don't need a rectal thermometer to know who the assholes are"

Y. Ben-David said...

Shoded Yam Pirate-
You are the "racial supremacist" as the Arabs see it. As they see it, YOU and Bernie are thieves that steal $100 and then say it is morally incumbent to return $20 but you claim the right to keep the other $80. So you are not a "talmud thumper", you (and by "you" I mean you and your fellow hysterical "progressives") are simply hypocrites who claim to be "multiculturalists, pluralists, anti-ethnocentrists" WHO DO THE SAME THING AS THE 'TALMUD THUMPERS'.
You are in no position to demand the Arabs make compromises FOR YOUR CONVENIENCE. Here is an Israeli Arab Knesset Member saying Tel Aviv (Ramat Aviv) is "stolen, occupied land" in spite of the fact it has a lot of anti-"talmud thumping" progressives:

Throwing Jews out of Sheikh Jarrah won't make peace, it drives peace further away because if Jews are pushed away from there, the Arabs believe the Jews will ultimately be pushed out of Tel Aviv as well. And you "progressives" will be the first to go.

Shoded Yam said...

"...You are in no position to demand the Arabs make compromises FOR YOUR CONVENIENCE."

Correct. But since you're the alternative, I'm holding an inside straight and all they've got is a pair of twos. They'll pretend its for THEIR benefit and then do it for THEIR convenience. What they could've had in 48' and after 67' they won't get today, and the Palestinians are beginning to show signs of grasping the concept. Whether this development is sustainable remains to be seen, but if your hysteria is any indication, it would appear that there are those who fear that it is.

Clearly, you do not understand where I'm coming from. Dr Avishai is a much better person than I am. I'm a sonuvabitch bastard. If you thought otherwise, please allow me to disabuse you of this notion;

#1. The settlers and their fellow travellers in the Orthodox and Haredi comunnities have become a cancer upon the body politic of Israel and must be disenfranchised politically by any means necessary up to and including enacting legislation for the purposes of seperating church and state. This is necessary if the nation is to survive as a democracy. Removing them from their physical power base in the territories is essential to the process.

#2. While its true that the settlers are a fucking disgrace, a blind man can see that many of the Palestinians aren't any better. In light of that, I have no problem with the concept of protecting the lives and substance of valuable Zahal troops from being endangered and squandered in defence of subversives, terrorists, and freeloading American Jews by means of a complete IDF withdrawal from the West Bank. Whether or not to evacuate the settlers should be left up to the settlers. If the Palestinians agree, I would have no objection to leaving kahanists right where they are. Than its a Palestinian problem. If the Palestinians do not agree, then they'll be welcome to come along with us when we leave. Should they choose a third option, and stay and fight it out, they will do so without our support and they will be slaughtered. Then they're nobodys problem and its good riddance to bad rubbish. Either way is acceptable, just so long as my kid, my nephews, and my nieces are no longer being asked to risk their necks for a bunch of freeloading twisted fucks living in subsidized villas paid for on the backs of their parents and grandparents.

As I said, Dr. Avishai is a decent guy who genuinely cares about others. But being an honest man, I cannot continue to allow you to conflate my motives with his. While I care about my friends and family, most Israelis and Palestinians have proven themselves to be unworthy of my efforts. As such, they're welfare concerns me only insofar as our interests coincide. Beyond that I don't give a damm.

Potter said...

They'll pretend its for THEIR benefit and then do it for THEIR convenience............Whether this development is sustainable remains to be seen, but if your hysteria is any indication, it would appear that there are those who fear that it is.

Ben-David usually has no response to the criticisms that his comments boil down to: fear. This he justifies with evidence from extremist views (or those pretending to be extremist ) from the other side ignoring it's counterpart. He has no way forward - not any way that works.

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