‘We do not discriminate when we build. There is no provocation here.”
Such was the message from Brachie Sprung, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat’s spokeswoman, on Wednesday. She was defending the municipality’s decision to authorize the building of a nine-story yeshiva campus in the middle of the Arab neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah.
Sometimes reading the newspaper in Israel is an Alice-in-Wonderland experience, where you have to shake your head and wonder whether you are sharing the same reality as the rest of the world. We don’t discriminate? No provocation? Let’s look at both of those propositions.
Sheikh Jarrah is on the north side of Jerusalem, just east of the Green Line. From 1948 to 1967, it was part of Jordan. In 2010, the Supreme Court ruled that 30 homes in Sheikh Jarrah belonged to Jews prior to 1948, and those homes should be returned to the Jewish owners, and taken away from the Palestinians who have been living in them for more than 60 years. The neighborhood has been the site of periodic large demonstrations attracting international attention ever since.
The basic court ruling is patently discriminatory. War broke out in 1948. Jews who lived in east Jerusalem fled to west Jerusalem. Many Arabs who lived in west Jerusalem fled to east Jerusalem. Both groups abandoned property. Nineteen years later, in 1967, Israel conquered the territory and annexed east Jerusalem into the municipality of Jerusalem. Another 43 years later, the court rules the Jews who fled to west Jerusalem can have their land in east Jerusalem back.
But the Arabs who fled to east Jerusalem are not entitled to get their land back.
It’s an outrageous ruling. It’s one thing to say “There was a war, people were dislocated, people lost property. It was unfortunate for people on both sides.” But to say we’re going to give land back to the original owners, if they were Jews, and not give it back to the original owners if they were Arabs, violates every fundamental principle of fairness. There’s an expression in English, “What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.”
Such behavior makes us look like greedy pigs. Either no one should get their land back, or everyone should get their land back.
“We do not discriminate.” Right.
What would happen if the Christian Arab family that owned the Semiramis Hotel in the Katamon neighborhood of west Jerusalem tried to reclaim it so they could build a Christian school there? How much success would it have? Jews get more building permits in east Jerusalem than Arabs do.
Nof Zion and Har Homa get far more building permits than Jebl Mukaber or Sur Bahir. And when the Arabs have no place to live because of natural population growth and leave east Jerusalem to find housing, they lose their valuable Jerusalem residency cards. But there’s no discrimination.
And then there is the contention that “there is no provocation here.” US Secretary of State John Kerry is working tirelessly to bring about a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. The whole world is watching events here in Israel in general and in Jerusalem in particular with a microscope. Israel can prevaricate until the cows come home, but the rest of the world views any Israeli construction activity east of the Green Line as illegal under international law. Saying that this is just one step in a process that takes years does nothing to mitigate the damage. If it’s going to take years anyway, what’s the rush? Why approve it now, during the middle of sensitive negotiations? It’s stupid timing, because it calls the world’s attention to the discriminatory way that Israel treats Arab residents of east Jerusalem.
We don’t even have the sense to avoid reminding the world of our sins. This week’s Torah portion is about the episode of the Golden Calf. The midrash says that after the episode of the Golden Calf, when Aaron was commanded to bring a sacrifice, he didn’t want to bring a bull, because he didn’t want to remind God of the Golden Calf incident. Aaron is portrayed as embarrassed by his people’s inappropriate behavior. Aaron’s descendants instead prefer to publicize their inappropriate behavior in big headlines in the newspapers.
It’s not just the Palestinians who say that continued settlement building is a provocation. Our most important trading partners – America and Europe – tell us the same thing. But we don’t listen.
As it says in this week’s Torah portion: We are a “stiff-necked people.”
We should behave morally because it’s the right thing to do.
But if we refuse to behave morally because it’s the right thing to do, we should at least behave morally because it’s the smart thing to do.
Barry Leff is an entrepreneur and former chairman of Rabbis for Human Rights.