Sheikh Jarrah: Praying with our Feet

June 9, 2010

Friday afternoon at Sheikh Jarrah, I arrive to find a crowd of four, maybe five hundred people: I’m trying to park in a lot overflowing with cars, when David Grossman gets out of his car, tells me to back up. “Whatever you do,” says my friend, “don’t knock into David Grossman’s car!” Another man is trying to get up the hill to his house, and shouts, “you asshole, you’re backing us all up!”

Anne Paq/Active Stills

People mill around in the back of the demonstration, behind the clump of people holding signs, to see and be seen. Local young men have set up orange juice stands, while little boys thread their way through the crowd, carrying jugs of lemonade and plastic cups. Even when we come here, to stand together with the residents of the neighborhood against the Jewish settlers, it’s hard to get away from these gestures of colonialism. Our children are not selling orange juice; it is their children who must slack our thirst.

What does it mean to come down to Sheikh Jarrah, this slice of Palestinian East Jerusalem slowly being taken over by settlers? Why do we come here, week after week? A friend says the demonstration has become a kind of practice, like putting on tfillin. Each Friday, I organize myself to go shout the slogans, scampering down into the valley of the neighborhood, wearing my black and white T-shirt: “No Sanctity in an Occupied City!” (אין קדושה בעיר כבושה!) The protest, the preparation for it, reminds me of going to shul, the way you see the people who are also coming from a distance, coming from all directions.

Near the gas station, an Arab man in a fancy shirt tells me he’s so proud of us, how we keep coming back week after week. “Come down and join us,” I say. I say this all week to sympathetic taxi-drivers, to students wearing veils at Hebrew University. Instead of my eye skipping over the Arabs of Jerusalem, like extras in a movie, like local color, I feel I have a new language with which to speak to Arabs here in Jerusalem about our shared city, how we can work to save it together.

“It’s different for us and for you,” he says. “They take our pictures, they’ll take away our residency cards. Maybe Arabs from the Galilee can join you, but not the ones from East Jerusalem.”

So, it is mostly Israeli Jews who go into the neighborhood to demonstrate. We bring pots of food. We listen to the stories of court cases and unfair judges. We stand together with the residents of Sheikh Jarrah, twice over refugees now, who have been thrown out of their houses to be replaced by an ever-revolving group of boys and young men, mostly in black and white ultra-orthodox suits, who prowl around the neighborhood, playing cowboys and Indians with the left-wing activists and their cameras, letting the air out of resident’s tires, throwing rocks through windows when the cameras don’t see them.

Being here as a Jews is a kind of experiment: Last week, when I joined in an eerie Kabbalat Shabbat we held on a beat-up sofa by the side of the road, our praying scared a local resident. She thought we were another Jewish fringe group come to take her house.

The main experiment though, is the Friday afternoon gathering. It feels like a new left has woken up in Jerusalem. It is local – many people walk or bike to the demonstration, creating new ways of mapping the city. Though I spent the first twenty-four years of my life in Jerusalem, I had never before walked the length of Salah-A-Din street to Damascus gate, which is how I got home last week after the buses stopped for Shabbat. The march we held from Hebrew University down into the neighborhood showed us, with our feet, (to paraphrase Abraham Joshua Heschel) how close the two communities were, and how the injustices in the valley were also the responsibility of those in the ivory tower on the hill.

This new way of demonstrating, our new left, is filled with vitality. Counter-demonstrators have attacked us for waving only a pirate flag, but I think what they are missing is the sense of humor in the gesture, the humor that undermines the heavy-handed Israeli flags plastered over the newly Judaized Sheikh Jarrah houses or their giant orange Menorahs. We have drums, and whistles, and flutes. When the drums were confiscated, people brought frying pans and spoons to keep the beat.

You say apartheid, I say, fight back!


Fight back!

Or there’s a silly chant. “Whoever isn’t jumping is a policeman…” and the entire clump of demonstrators in the front start jumping together. Sometimes there are giant paper-mache dolls carrying signs, a doll covering its ears with a sign, “hear no evil, see no evil.” When we marched from the university, we looked for quotes by the founders of the Hebrew University, Judah Magnes and Martin Buber, who believed that the Hebrew University should be founded on “the spirit of the Hebrew prophets” and that study would provide a solution to the Arab-Jewish conflict. But the musicologists also insisted on quotes from Don Giovanni, and the political scientists wanted Martin Luther King, Jr.

Today at the demonstration, there are little break-off groups everywhere. Dolev is trying to find a few people to cover the Saturday afternoon shifts in the neighborhood, because the settlers have been more violent recently. Dorit is talking about organizing a women’s march. In the back, in the shade, I see former Knesset member Avraham Burg holding court, and a whole group of Hebrew University professors usually stand to the north side, including Moshe Halbertal, Sidra Ezrachi, Shlomit Rimon-Kinaan.

A few weeks ago news rippled through the demonstration: Mario Vargas Llosa was here! The former PM of Holland was here! The head of the Communist party in Italy was here! There’s a group sitting on the curb, young, some with shaved sideburns, perhaps a splinter anarchist group? A group of psychologists against the occupation is planning their next meeting near the playground. I imagine all of them are asking, in one form or another, “What’s next?” Maybe the battle-worn Women-in-Black activists know what to do, what action to take, to sit in the road or not sit in the road, to escalate, to turn the demonstration illegal, to take to the streets? How do we grow? How do we react to the wave of increasing fascism washing over this country? Is it time yet for wide-scale disobedience? Should we stop paying our municipal taxes? Should we lie down in the road?

In the Knesset this week, they wouldn’t let MK Chanin Zoabi, who participated in the Gaza flotilla, address the Knesset. MK Anastasia Michaeli actually attempted to push her off the podium, while others screamed personal attacks, such as MK Yochanan Pelsner, who told Zoabi that as a 38-year-old single woman she would be mistreated in Gaza. (Perhaps they’ll come for the single women next!)

When we practiced non-violent civil disobedience at Sheikh Jarrah last month blocking the road, police reacted violently, breaking a drummer’s arm, and arresting twelve demonstrators. Now many key activists have restraining orders and can’t enter the neighborhood. Do we try and make our demonstrations more mainstream, stay in the confines of police instructions, or should a new group of us try to get arrested?

It doesn’t seem enough anymore to shout the stale old left wing slogans – “yes to peace, no to war. Two states for two peoples.” Not when democracy is in acute danger. An old-time Women in Black activist says, “We need speeches, we need something to motivate us, to show us the next move.” But a young woman said to her, “I don’t want to hear speeches. Speeches turn me off.”

An activist said to me, “In the beginning it was hard for me to see this – this carnival atmosphere. I slept with the families in their homes before they were evacuated. This is a sad demonstration for me, not a happy occasion. But people come here, come back every week because it’s fun. And I think the families like it too.”

Some Fridays it can feel like just another trendy scene; some Fridays I feel like this is just orange juice and circus. But something inside me is changing, alchemically; instead of being against the occupation in theory, for the first time I am actively, regularly practicing my beliefs. It’s so different than going to a mass demonstration once a year in Tel Aviv and resting on my laurels.

I recognize fellow activists all over Jerusalem, on the bus, on campus, at the pizzeria. And we keep talking. “Well, do you think we should have flags?…What if we disobeyed by broadcasting speeches on the mosque loudspeaker?” And I think we – five hundred of us, a thousand of us, are having this experience together, creating and growing up into this community of resistance where we are learning to pray with our feet.


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