Sheikh Jarrah, the opening heart of Jerusalem

Many Israelis are simply not going to let this one slide. In this protest, solidarity cuts across national identities

sheikh jarrah protest 311 (photo credit: Associated Press)
sheikh jarrah protest 311
(photo credit: Associated Press)
It is becoming increasingly hard to talk about Jerusalem without clichés. Israeli politicians have been peddling sentimental platitudes for so long that even the most accurate and incisive criticisms sound hackneyed.
No, Jerusalem is not a unified city: Jewish Jerusalemites never venture into the east side and Palestinian Jerusalemites rarely set foot in the west side. The school systems are separate and far from equal; public transportation is entirely segregated; one would be hard pressed to find commercial ties or cultural exchanges across the east-west divide. Indeed, the story of Jerusalem is a tale of two cities.
But Israeli politicians have long ago found out that the truth cannot do as much for their careers as intoxicating myths. And so celestial Jerusalem, unified and eternal Jerusalem, Jerusalem of gold, superseded earthly Jerusalem as the capital of the Jewish state. So powerful is this myth that it can justify practically anything: decades of political stagnation, systematic discrimination and above all, the creeping dispossession of Palestinians.
Underlying this tragedy is a single, tiny, word: ours. It is this possessive pronoun which animates Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s belligerent rhetoric, which guides Mayor Nir Barkat’s decision to demolish 22 houses in Silwan in favor of the fictional “King’s Garden,” and which led the courts to authorize the eviction of four Palestinian families from their homes in Sheikh Jarrah.
At its core, the dispute in Sheikh Jarrah boils down to an infuriating asymmetry in the right to say “ours.” At the heart of this story are 28 Palestinian families who fled their houses in what is now Israel during the 1948 war. Arriving in Jordanian east Jerusalem after the war, these families were offered an opportunity to rebuild their lives. The Jordanian government and UNRWA gave them plots of land in an empty field in Sheikh Jarrah in exchange for their refugee cards.
After Israel’s occupation of east Jerusalem in 1967, these resettled refugees discovered that a Jewish organization claims ownership of their houses based on deeds dating from the 19th century. But when the Palestinian families presented the same kind of deeds to their pre-’48 properties, they found out that the right to say “ours” is ethnically biased. As a result, four of these families were thrown into the street, and 24 more await a similar fate.
BUT THE human aspect tells only half the story. For behind the human tragedy lurks a larger political program, the plan for the “Judaization” of east Jerusalem. In a remarkable cooperation between state officials and secretive settlers’ organizations, Jerusalem is becoming a demographic battlefield.
Official agencies, such as the Jerusalem Municipality, weave a net of nightmarish bureaucracy around the Palestinian residents of east Jerusalem, refusing to issue building permits, demolishing illegal construction, revoking permanent residencies and eschewing responsibility for education, health and transportation. This growing obsession with changing the Jewish-Arab proportions is clearly evidenced in the proposed local outline plan (Jerusalem 2000), which actually sets demographic benchmarks for policy makers.
All the while, settlers’ organizations such as Elad, Ateret Cohanim and Nahalat Shimon work unremittingly to implant small Jewish enclaves within Palestinian neighborhoods so as to undermine any possibility for a future division of sovereignty over this manifestly divided city. More than 2,000 Jewish settlers already inhabit heavily guarded residential outposts in a ring around the Old City. They are accompanied by private security guards who become the new sheriffs in town, and use constant harassment to make the daily lives of Palestinian residents unbearable. The message is clear: Jerusalem is ours; kindly pack your bags and leave.
Discrimination and dispossession systematically pervade all aspects of life in east Jerusalem. What makes Sheikh Jarrah unique is the fact that soon after the forced evictions of Palestinian families from their homes, it became clear that many Israelis are simply not going to let this one slide.
What began in small solidarity vigils in August 2009 quickly evolved into weekly demonstrations in which hundreds, sometimes thousands, of Israelis, Jews and Arabs, renounce the occupation of east Jerusalem.
Much about this nascent protest movement is spontaneous and disorganized, but the basic principles it lays down may become the foundations for a rejuvenation of the Israeli left. In Sheikh Jarrah, reconciliation comes before peace, solidarity cuts across national identities and loyalties are formed on the basis of shared principles and mutual interests.
A peculiar mixture of reasons, real and imagined, place Jerusalem at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For years, it has been considered an insurmountable stumbling block on the way to a solution. But this is precisely where the truly subversive aspect of the Sheikh Jarrah movement comes to light. For it is at this heart of the conflict that the daily friction with the reality of segregation, domination and discrimination unmasks the deception of political rhetoric. And this rift between what one is led to believe and what one sees with one’s own eyes is a tremendous source of motivation. Jerusalem is at the heart of the conflict, and this heart is slowly opening up.
The writer is a PhD candidate in the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought. He lives in Jerusalem.