Sunday, January 24, 2010

Sheikh Jarrah: Going Mainstream

This past Friday, the weekly protest at Sheikh Jarrah grew to about 800. It is going mainstream, as the young organizers had hoped.

The atmosphere was electric, owing to the police's denial of a permit last week and its subsequent arrest of 17 demonstrators, including Association for Civil Rights in Israel director Hagai El-Ad. The arrested were summarily released late Saturday night, Jaunuary 16, by Judge Eilata Ziskind; she ruled that, within certain guidelines, protest did not require a police permit at all. Standing vigil outside the jail were a group of civil rights activists (including, I am proud to say, my wife, Prof. Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi) who stayed until all protesters were freed. Among the arrested was also Didi Remez, the managing partner of the consulting firm Benor.

In spite of the ruling, the police responded defiantly, again denying the protest group a permit to march from the center of town, and threatening to arrest the leaders if they gathered at all. (Eventually, 20 more were indeed arrested. Their fate is going to be determined in court on Tuesday.) Not coincidentally, the police now answer to Public Security Minister Yitzchak Aharonovich, from Avigdor Lieberman's ultra Yisrael Beiteinu Party; and to Jerusalem's mayor, Nir Barkat, who's long been connected to reactionary groups funded by, among others, Sheldon Adelson.

Friday's 3:00 PM newscast on Reshet Bet, the dominant radio outlet, led with the story, just as the protest took shape. Former Education Minister and Meretz leader Yossi Sarid came out, as did the former Speaker of the Knesset, Avrum Burg, and the old lion of the peace movement, Gush Shalom's Uri Avneri. Peace Now's old guard leadership finally came out in large numbers, and were joined by people who could hardly be characterized as a left fringe (though the Israeli press persists in calling the demonstration one of "leftists," apparently for no other reason than because the rights of all people, not only Jews, are at stake). Among the protesters this week were Prof. Yaron Ezrahi, formerly a senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute, and Prof. Moshe Halbertal, who helped write the IDF's Code of Ethics, and who's been getting a lot of attention lately for his anguished response to the Goldstone Report.

I MENTIONED THE protest's young organizers. Perhaps the most heartening feature of this growing movement is its leadership group, about 75 young people, who came out last Tuesday to plan for the future. They are articulate, calm, nuanced. They are very much aware that their protest symbolizes something much larger than one dreadful injustice in a sea of injustices: the need to see East Jerusalem as the future capital of Palestine, the insanity of continuing Jewish settlement across the Green Line through the prostitution of Israeli land law (we look at pre-1948 deeds on their side of the Line, but not at deeds on our side), the insanity of the Ateret Kohanim settlers themselves, the defiance of the Geneva Conventions by the police of a state that depends utterly on a globalized economy, the immanent dangers to freedom of speech in country that wins friends, if at all, for its residual democratic freedoms. The torch is being passed to another generation, who are carrying it with courage and grace.

Yossi Sarid adds:

In my long years of demonstrating I have never seen a protest so restrained, so not in need of a permit according to any rational interpretation of the law. Not every police officer - yea, not even every brigadier general - is authorized to declare it illegal. If the police views Friday's demonstration as a criminal act then the democratic right to demonstrate has been destroyed and Jerusalem begins resembling Tehran. Already it is not entirely clear whether what we have is the Israel Police or the Yisrael Beiteinu Police.

Since leaving active political life I have not attended demonstrations despite repeated requests; after all, there is no shortage of reasons to demonstrate in these parts. I told myself - I've paid my protesting dues, time to make way for the next generation. But Nitzan Horowitz and Ilan Ghilon and Shelly Yachimovich and Daniel Ben Simon are social-welfare-oriented MKs, and the removal of Palestinian families from their homes is not a social-welfare issue.

This time I could not refuse. All citizens, not just public figures, have a duty to resist. And so, on Friday afternoon the retired demonstrators came and filled the little square. The struggle in Sheikh Jarrah isn't over, it's just beginning. More Palestinian families are slated for transfer, and one cannot trust this government, the mayor of Jerusalem or even the city's judges to do the right thing.

When the judges rule in favor of the settlers the latter stop mocking them and celebrate the confirmation of their position; but when they rule against them, they blow them a giant raspberry. Months ago the High Court of Justice ordered the demolition of Beit Yonatan, in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan, and it is as if it never happened. It's only when they agree with the decision that they follow it.

The cabinet ministers may be unaware that in their folly they are affirming the Palestinian right of return de facto. If Palestinians who have been in their homes since 1948 can be driven out and replaced with Jewish families on the grounds of ownership from time immemorial, then Nasser Gawi can return to his home in Sarafind (Tzrifin), using the same argument. Now Gawi sits in a tent with his large family next to the home in Sheikh Jarrah they were thrown out of. As a two-time refugee he watches the settlers in the rooms that still hold the smell of his family's means - and Sarafind calls to him.

He is not alone: The Arabs of Jerusalem, too, would be glad to return to their homes in the West Jerusalem neighborhoods of Talbieh, Bak'a and Katamon.