On Friday afternoon, I went to demonstrate at Sheikh Jarrah. Not because I have anything to do with the place. As far as I’m concerned, it’s not even a part of my country. But I went because they managed to make me angry enough to waste a few precious Fridays on the streets of East Jerusalem.
My mother agreed to join the demonstration yesterday. It required some manipulation on my part, but she was persuaded and came along. My mother isn’t opposed to this kind of protest, she’s simply not one of those people who go to demonstrations - and definitely not to “anarchist” rallies. She’s a lieutenant colonel in the IDF reserve forces, she’s a Zionist. I too am not a political animal, just a leftist who gets angry at what happens here and does little about it.
We arrived at the neighborhood at a quarter past three - in other words, fifteen minutes after the demonstration was scheduled to start - only to discover that at that very moment it was being dispersed by the police, and to see officers dragging some guys into police vehicles.
According to the police announcement, it was an illegal demonstration. Only that, according to the law, everything that happened there was completely legal. How come? The answer is simple: according to the definitions set by the Israeli police what took place in Sheikh Jarrah yesterday is considered a “protest watch”, not a “demonstration.” The difference between the two being that speeches or lectures were not heard and discussions weren’t scheduled to take place. What actually happened at Sheik Jarrah yesterday was that a group of approximately 200 people stood with signs and made statements at a volume that cannot, by any reasonable account, be considered disruptive to anyone, by the side of a busy road on a Friday afternoon. It’s legal.
I am not a political animal. I’m not used to confrontations with the authorities. When a police officer tells me to shut up, I’m one of those people who shuts up. Because I don’t feel like spending the night in custody, because I don’t want to miss something and accidentally find myself with an open police record. And because I am one of those people, when a police officer tells me I can’t pass, I believe him. And when an officer tells me I’m not allowed to yell, I clam up. And when I see, as I did yesterday, that anyone who stands out of the crowd (meaning only that he or she speaks a bit louder, or holds the “wrong” sign or flag) is arrested, I immediately roll up the sign we brought from home (on which, by the way, was written only one word: “Justice”) and I withdraw into myself.
That’s the logical response, right? That’s the way it is in democratic countries.
Later, I will see in the newspaper that according to the police it was a demonstration by “anarchists”. Well, call me an anarchist, whatever, but calling my mother an anarchist takes absurdity to a whole new level. So yes, it sounds Kafkaesque, but this is how civil protest is silenced. And this is one more (small, nearly imperceptible) step on the road to destroying democracy. It worked on me. I shut up and went home. These are the kind of statements that portray these protests as “radical leftist demonstrations” and exempt most of us from attending them.
Sheikh Jarrah is only a symptom. But struggles need specific examples to get a general principle across. Sheikh Jarrah is an excellent example of a right-wing policy of the Judaization of Palestinian neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, at the cost of the Palestinian residents’ human rights, rights that are repeatedly and severely violated. A legal struggle discussing property rights over the land has been taking place for nearly thirty years. The families in question are Palestinians who have been living in this neighborhood for generations. Most of them are refugees from 1948 who were settled there by the UN after the war. These families, in accordance with the “absentee landlord” law (which revokes the legal claim of any property owner who left Israel between 29.11.1947 and 1.9.1948 and went to an enemy country) no longer have property within Israel’s borders to which they can claim ownership. In stark opposition, Jewish foundations are entitled to demand legal recognition of their ownership over land in Sheikh Jarrah, land on which Palestinian families live.
And so it goes. Four families have already been evicted from their homes and legal battles are being waged over the ownership of the land on which stand additional houses in the neighborhood. This is happening in other places, too. Again, Sheikh Jarrah is merely a good example. The court discussed the validity of ownership deeds. Formalist rulings that dealt only in legal analysis of property rights ruled that Palestinians must evacuate houses and and eviction notices were given. Families of Jewish settlers who speak with heavy American accents displaced them.
I don’t want to enter this formalist legal discussion. It doesn’t interest me, and I am willing to assume that the evidence indeed proved the legality of the right-wing foundations’ claim to the properties. But that’s really not the point. What is obvious, at least to me, is that beyond the legal questions of title deeds lies a political issue. In other words, it cannot be that the eviction of Palestinian families from their homes and the seizing of neighborhoods that lie beyond the Green Line (Israel’s borders circa 1967) by right-wing foundations, is a matter to be settled in court ruling on property rights. It’s far more complicated than that. By ignoring the political context the courts, in fact, rule on and decide it.
The court did not discuss political questions when ruling on Sheikh Jarrah. And yet, even if the debate had in fact addressed the political, and the court had decided to interfere, and even if the ownership of the land had been proven to be one man’s and not another’s, there are legal steps that can be taken other than evicting people from their homes. And there are additional considerations to be addressed (did someone say human rights?).
For me, this is what the protest is about. It’s about the fact that the government allows extremist right-wing groups to take over land in East Jerusalem in order to set “facts on the ground” and allows them, on the way, to ruin the lives of people and critically influence all of our futures. Two families of the four that have already been evicted have been living for months in tents on the street, in front of their houses. I think that’s horrible. It undermines my (political) position regarding our presumed right to this land as Jews, and it goes against my (moral) understanding of what is good and what is bad. To evict those people from their homes with a complete disregard of the political questions at hand, to sever the discussion from its human context and turn it into a debate of property law, bringing about a reality in which families sleep in tents in front of their own homes - that is bad, and it smells like racism.
When we returned home from Sheikh Jarrah yesterday afternoon, my father said he doesn’t understand what we’re going out to demonstrate about, because, after all, the courts have already made their ruling. The answer is very clear: we are going out to demonstrate because in a democratic country, when a branch of government (be it executive, legislative, or judicial) makes a decision that I oppose, I’m allowed to go out into the streets and speak my mind. Those are the rules of the (democratic) game. The fact that the court ruled on something doesn’t mean I’m not allowed to voice a different opinion. In this case, the discussion is a complex one, and I chose what to shout and what to oppose. In this case, my critique is both about a policy that allows Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem and about serious violations of human rights. I’m allowed to voice my opinion, and it’s important that I do. Even if the court already issued its ruling. Especially if the court already did so.
These protests in Sheikh Jarrah, which have been occurring every Friday afternoon for over two months, are turning into one of the most important struggles to have been fought here in the last few years. And that’s because, nearly miraculously, it’s a cause that has managed to unite Israeli leftists who are the farthest thing from “anarchists.” The struggle for Sheikh Jarrah is an opportunity for the the “not-so-radical” left to say something about what is going on in our country without undermining the rules of the game. To voice our dissent in a nonviolent manner, in a place where moral lines have been crossed and the government’s shirking of responsibility demands a response.
I assume that the police understand the potential of this rapidly growing protest, and are working to silence it. Many good people will choose not to come and protest when they hear that every week arrests are made (even if every single detainee is released after a day or two because a judge rules their arrest unwarranted), when the police claim that the demonstrations are illegal, when it is portrayed as an anarchist riot. These are attempts to silence dissent and they must not succeed. If nothing else, it is important enough to warrant a visit. Come and judge for yourselves. Thanks to the Israeli police, the significance of these demonstrations is growing ever clearer. It is a protest against violations of human rights, and it is a protest for the right of anyone who opposes an action of the government to voice their opinion legally, as is their right by law.
I don’t usually try and talk people into coming to demonstrations; for the most part I assume that people who have better things to do on a Friday afternoon won’t want to come, and that’s really OK. But this time it is different, it’s doubly important - because it is a chance for a voice that isn’t radical, that is utterly sane by any possible definition, to be heard. And also because the erosion of democracy that’s become visible in recent weeks (but not only) in Sheik Jarrah is not only upsetting, it’s terrifying.
There will be a demonstration in Sheikh Jarrah this Friday as always. Maybe it will be approved by the police, in which case it will be possible to march from the center of East Jerusalem to the neighborhood. And maybe it wont be authorized, in which case, what will remain within our legal rights to do is to come to Sheik Jarrah and stand with signs. It is becoming more and more critical to be there. Even if the weather is bad. And not because it’s the place in which the worst atrocities are taking place, but because it is another symptom of an unacceptable direction in which government policy is headed. It is really important.
There are ride shares from Tel Aviv. Sheikh Jarrah really isn’t deep inside the Occupied Territories, it’s in the center of Jerusalem, a meter and a half from Highway 1. It’s not dangerous. And it’s very legal. You are welcome to pass this email on to whoever you want.
Wishing us all a (much) better week,
Yuli Novak January 15th, 2010
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