sheikh jarrah brawl 248 88.
(photo credit: Abe Selig)
Sheikh Jarrah is fast becoming - against all odds
- the test of the viability of Israel's own democracy. When protests
against the court-ordered eviction of Palestinian families from homes
they have occupied since the early 1950s began some five months ago,
they were directed at Israel's inequitable policy in Jerusalem. Now,
following an almost weekly ritual of police roundups of peaceful
demonstrators and their subsequent release, at issue are also the
fundamental freedoms of every Israeli. This must concern anyone
committed to the robustness of the country's democratic ethos.
Sheikh Jarrah vigils started as an avowedly political act - an outcry
against a system which allows Jews to reclaim property held in east
Jerusalem prior to 1948, but prohibits Palestinians from doing the same
in west Jerusalem. They also highlighted the fact that the evictions of
this past summer, timed to forestall any negotiations on the future of
the city, posed a serious obstacle to sincere efforts to foster
coexistence, mutual respect and human dignity. The handful of initial
protesters, many veteran peace activists augmented by visitors from
abroad, held small rallies with only sporadic interference from the
Gradually, however, these encounters became more heated, as the
police increasingly intimidated and harassed participants. These,
consequently, actually grew in number and changed in composition.
Tellingly, young, dedicated Israelis - many without any prior
experience in activism of this sort - have set the tone. Every Friday
for the past few months, dressed as clowns and accompanied by drummers,
they have led a procession of several dozen sympathizers from the
center of Jerusalem to the disputed site at Sheikh Jarrah. They dance
to the beat of the samba amid calls for true equality for all residents
of the city.
The exuberance of this third generation of peace activists,
scrupulous in obtaining all the necessary permits for their marches and
demonstrations, did not sit well with the police. On the first and last
day of Hanukka, both Fridays, they forcibly dragged the musicians and
their followers to the Russian Compound. More than 50 of those arrested
were jailed for over twenty-four hours, to be released after the end of
Shabbat without any conditions. Their drums were not.
Since these events, the youthful protesters have
seen their ranks swell even more. They have been joined by an
increasing number of Israelis (not only from Jerusalem, but also from
other parts of the country) worried about the deteriorating state of
A WEEK ago, 17 protesters were arrested following a police
decision to disperse the gathering (including the executive director of
the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, Hagai El-Ad, and the
director of Rabbis for Human Rights, Arik Asherman). They were all
released 36 hours later without any charges or restraining conditions,
after the judge not only berated the police for breaking up the
demonstration, which was perfectly legal, but also for detaining the
protesters without cause. The symbolic transformation of Sheikh Jarrah
is now complete: From the locus of political protest, it has become the
focus of the struggle for the future of democratic rights in the
clampdown on the Sheikh Jarrah dissenters can no longer be dismissed as
random or haphazard. On a weekly basis, opponents of government policy
who have gathered to express their discontent without posing any danger
to public order have been hounded, verbally attacked, physically
assailed and illegally detained. They have neither engaged in acts of
incitement nor have they advocated civil disobedience in any way. This
systematic official harassment - easily stopped by government fiat
should it be so inclined - has several serious implications.
First, it is indicative of the Netanyahu administration's
unwillingness to either engage in any discussion on Jerusalem or to
allow a frank public debate on the issue. By muzzling the weekly
protests, it may hope to assert Israel's ongoing control in the city.
In reality, however, its actions serve only to accentuate the need to
increase tolerance in this fractured metropolis and to devise ways to
share the city for the full benefit of all its residents.
Second, police measures have increasingly been directed against
human rights organizations and their staffs. This is no coincidence.
Since the Gaza war a year ago, exceptional efforts have been made to
denigrate the reports of these groups, undercut their credibility and
question their legitimacy. To be sure, human rights activists are aware
that - even in mature democracies headed by the most forward-looking
leaders - they stand no chance of winning a popularity contest.
Nevertheless, any self-respecting open society fiercely protects their
autonomy, knowing full well that their critical oversight is the key to
safeguarding personal freedom.
Most Israelis intuitively understand that human rights
associations - the bedrock of civil society - protect their interests
even when they are unhappy with the content of their reports. They
should make it clear to the prime minister and to the minister of
public security that Israel cannot afford to join the ranks of those
bleak regimes which silence human rights advocates and disband their
FINALLY, OFFICIAL behavior in the case of Sheikh Jarrah poses a
real threat to basic human and civil rights in the country. Freedom of
thought, and the liberty to express a variety of opinions at will, is
fundamental to the maintenance of a climate of democratic discourse.
Israeli citizens, still deeply divided politically, rely on the
protection of the freedom of speech, as well as the freedom of
association that goes with it, in order to articulate their positions
and to promote their acceptance by the broader public. Even in the
current atmosphere of intolerance for divergent viewpoints, there is no
place for any attempt to coerce uniformity of thought. This is
especially true when such efforts are backed by official intimidation
which is both illegal and illegitimate.
At stake, then, is the most precious component of
advanced democracies: the civil and human liberties of their citizens.
Democratic regimes survive when they enable opposition; they thrive
when they welcome dissent. Silencing the drums of Sheikh Jarrah is akin
to eroding the pillars of Israel's freedom.
Jarrah generated a political protest which is now metamorphosing into a
countrywide human rights movement. Those who want a better Israel,
regardless of their political persuasion, should adopt its message and
celebrate its existence.