By David Shulman
February 11, 2011 Sheikh Jarrah
It took the Planning Committee of the Jerusalem City Council less than fifteen minutes to approve plans for the next wave of evictions in Sheikh Jarrah. We knew it was coming. Six large Palestinian families—some fifty souls– are to be expelled from their homes, the houses will be demolished, and thirteen apartment units will then be built for Israeli settlers. We know the families, we know the neighborhood, and we know the meaning and intention of this move, a further step in the ethnic cleansing the government is intent on carrying through in Sheikh Jarrah. They probably feel that this moment, with all eyes focused on Egypt, is a good time to act. Some 90,000 housing units for Jews have been built in Jerusalem on private Palestinian land, taken over for this purpose. More are coming.
A small group of activists stood in protest outside the City Council office during the meeting on Monday. The police arrested four of them and, as is their wont, asked the court to prohibit them from participating in demonstrations for 180 days. In the eyes of the Jerusalem police, non-violent civil protest is a disease to be extirpated. The judge threw out the request and scolded the police for the illegal arrests. Here is a small vignette that tells you all you really need to know about the state of civil liberties in Israel today. We are slipping rapidly into a form of “light” Fascism, entirely palatable to the bulk of the Jewish population; democratic institutions such as the courts are still functioning and sometimes act to protect basic rights, but they have little or no power in the face of the anti-democratic laws the Knesset is enacting or of the administrative decisions, of a racist and fanatically nationalist character, that government bodies, such as the Jerusalem municipality, routinely put into effect. “Light” Fascism has a way of turning into its heavier counterpart. We are losing ground day by day.
So here we are at the 65th Friday demonstration in Sheikh Jarrah, and Mahmud Sau, whose home is slated for demolition, is addressing the two or three hundred Israeli protesters who have come today, braving the cold rain. “We have been here for over sixty years,” he says. “We are refugees from 1948, and now they will make us refugees a second time. When we moved here, my mother used to bring water, in pots she carried on her head, from a well near where the gas station is today [on Nablus Road]. We built these homes. All we want is to live in peace with everyone. When they destroy my house, they will at the same time cut off access from the street to our neighbors’ homes; how are they supposed to live there? Where will we go?” He thanks us for coming to stand with him. A Palestinian grandmother or great-grandmother, small and bent, ten thousand wrinkles on her face, stands at the gate of her home, scrutinizing the crowd. She must be wondering if we’re capable of doing anything substantial to help. So am I.
At least we’ve managed to keep up the weekly protests for over a year. In a way, it’s no small achievement. But the demonstrations have lately become a little tepid to my taste. We stand, the drummers beat, we shout our slogans, we embrace our friends, we go home. It’s a far cry from the dramatic days of massive arrests in December 2009. Last week, in driving rain, we gathered under a newly painted sign someone had thoughtfully put up on a pole at our usual site: “Tahrir Square.” Wishful thinking. But today a little more lively action has been planned. After we circle through Um al-Harun, where the new demolitions are to take place, we push through, past the first barricades, to Umar ibn Affan Street and its stolen house. A makeshift booth of poles and cloth, in the colors of the Palestinian flag, is rapidly set up on the pavement. (When we tried this last fall, at the time of the Festival of Booths, Succot, the police immediately tore our Palestinian-Israeli peace booth to shreds.) We’re chanting, as always, and suddenly the booth is raised on high and we’re marching behind it to the rows of metal barricades where the street divides; behind them, blocking access to the Ghawi and al-Kurd houses, which the settlers have taken, stand the blue police and the military police in khaki green. They look to me a little nervous; we’ve put them off balance, and no doubt they can sense the energy coursing through the crowd of demonstrators. The cries intensify: “One Two Three Four, Occupation No More. Five Six Seven Eight, Stop the Settlers, Stop the Hate. From Sheikh Jarrah to Bil’in, Freedom Freedom Palestine.” And so on, in Hebrew and Arabic and English. The drums are beating, and the booth is actually crossing over the barrier, carrying some of the demonstrators through with it, when the police manage to grab hold of it from below and smash it.
They move to reinforce the barricades and the line of soldiers manning them, but meanwhile, in the mêlée, several activists have squeezed through to the lower street and the lost homes—a small victory. Restless, unsatisfied, I want to be there with them. Ezra suddenly appears—he has this unsettling habit—and, as if divining my wish, says, “Follow me.” We set off—Ezra, Eitan, and I—to find a crack in the police defenses. “Why are the Jews so given to worrying?” Ezra asks, both confident and a little scornful. “Not all of them,” I say, “only Ashkenazim like me.” We pass two women soldiers, who make no move to stop us, then a small group of border police. Before they can react, we duck down a flight of steps and leap over a rough rock-and-stucco wall into a small grove of fruit trees and then rapidly weave our way over the muddy ground to Umar ibn Affan. I keep thinking the soldiers must be right behind us and will arrest us in another moment—not that I would mind—but they’re either too lazy or too stunned to do this, though a small detachment of soldiers from the barricades is now rushing toward us down the street.
We stand before the Ghawi home, draped with soaked Israeli flags and other paraphernalia of the settlers, some of whom are staring down at us from the roof. The commanding office of the police is here, conferring—as is the norm—with the settler invaders, who are, I am sure, giving him his orders, urging him to attack the small body of protesters in the street. I figure this may happen soon. Meanwhile, we’re making quite a lot of noise. Of course there’s the perhaps childish but still delicious feeling of defiance, a slight whiff of human freedom, to relish for these few moments. As if to strengthen it, Silan, one of the Sheikh Jarrah veterans, arrives to join us, sailing, insouciant, through the barrier at the lower end of the street on a bicycle. How she found it, and found the way, I’ll never know. I don’t think I’ll forget it.
Maybe it’s not so childish after all, this brief taste of freedom. Later in the evening, trying to recollect the sequence in some order, to make some sense, I say to myself: It’s not yet Tahrir Square, but it may yet come to that. East Jerusalem is one place it could happen. The hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who live there may tire of the endless cruelty and injustice. And if not there, then somewhere else in the territories. It won’t take much to ignite the spark. Afterwards people will wonder how they suffered passively for so many years, and they may remember, as we will, these fleeting moments of saying no, at least that, of speaking the truth, of defying the lie and the enforcers of the lie. That’s the thing about freedom: it’s intrinsically indivisible; the tiniest taste of it already contains the whole intoxicating fullness, and once you’ve known it you can never really go back to the apathy and the doubt and the collusion with evil that comprise our daily routine, though the temptation to do so is, I suppose, always there. I’m thinking about that very subtle, almost unnoticeable, but critical inner movement from passive to active, from confusion to dignity, from child to woman or man. It’s shocking how much and yet how little effort is needed—for nearly all of us– to cross that line. Many, perhaps most people may never even approach it, to their infinite loss. Entropy and passivity may be the deepest human desires– to lie still and let the world wash over us or, even better, to keep it from touching us at all. These are not, however, our deepest needs.
So now the cries have assumed a new, richer tone, and even the sun has come out after the rain and the colors of sky and trees and clouds and eyes have deepened immensely, and in place of the longer chunks of text we’re now into a resonant staccato: “Apartheid? Fight Back! Apartheid? Fight Back!” Over and over and on and on, fists raised, the drums behind us, into the stolen courtyard of the al-Kurd family—”Settlers, we’re coming to chase you out!”—then slowly up the street to the massed police and the barriers and the main group of demonstrators on the other side. I see among the latter, pressed up close to the metal bars, my son Edan, and we smile. Another sunburst.
They’ve had their own adventures—a few arrests; a settler vehicle that drove into the crowd and knocked over a seventy-seven-year-old demonstrator. We’ve produced, it seems, a minor quandary for the police; if they open the barriers to let us through, the whole crowd will burst into the lower street and reach the forbidden houses, and they certainly don’t want that to happen. What to do? Even this matters a little: you have to push them and prod them, to outflank them, to seize the initiative, even if only for the moment, to make the statement for its own sake and for the sake of our children, never giving up, fighting back, over and over, however quixotically, until someday Quixote wins, as win he must. But you have to do it without wondering if Quixote will someday win. That is the one great condition of his victory. You have to cross, and cross again, that line.