Occupation in Kufr Qaddum

We just got back from the weekly demonstration at Kufr Qaddum, a small town in the North West Bank that since 1975 has suffered from the nearby (illegal) Israeli settlement of Qadumim, and the expansionist, colonialist projects that have trailed in its wake. The Popular Committee at Kufr Qaddum has held weekly demonstrations in the town since early July to protest, among other things, the nine-year partial closure of the town’s main road, the uprooting of 3,000 olive trees, the building of an Israeli military base in Kufr Qaddum, and the establishment, around the settlement, of several colonial neighborhoods which further steal Kufr Qaddum’s land.

In 2003, a crucial section of the main road that links Kufr Qaddum to the nearby large town of Nablus (from where I write this article) was illegally obstructed by Qadumim settlers, and later officially closed by the Israeli military, turning a 15 minute commute into a 1 1/2 half detour. This significantly increases travel expenses, makes study difficult for those en route to Nablus university, and endangers the lives of those trying to reach the Nablus hospital (two Palestinians have died in recent years for this reason). After years of legal protest in the Israeli High Court, Kufr Qaddum received a (rare) legal ruling in their favor, but the Israeli military delayed re-opening of the road until 2012, citing (absurd) safety reasons. Thus, the protests began in July.

We hatched a plan last night to use wire cutters to cut the waist-high razor wire fence that stretched across the main road, in plain view of demonstrators and soldiers. The purpose of this act, we reasoned, was public action- whereas the protest last week just petered out and fizzled away, with the townspeople returning to their homes in a half-satisfied Ramadan daze, we felt that this week people needed something to cheer about, a sign behind which to rally. We assigned roles- folks to cut the fence, folks to pull the fence back, folks to videotape, and folks to watch the actions of the soldiers, who were standing beyond the barbed wire fence, on the closed-off road, between Kufr Qaddum and Qadumim. It was important for internationals to carry out this action, at the front of the demo and in full view of the soldiers, because when internationals are present, soldiers hesitate to fire rubber bullets, and instead settle for the less dangerous tear gas.

The crowd, of about 100 Palestinians and 15 international activists, chanting and clapping, walked up the road towards the razor wire fence, and we saw the 20 or so soldiers standing ominously, 50 meters beyond the fence.

(you can see the fence in the two pictures above, before we cut it)

Many of us sat down crosslegged behind the fence, in a peaceful sign of protest. When the crowd had gathered at the fence, we made our way to the front; someone gave me a camera, and I began to film. In a matter of seconds it was done- we cut the fence and moved it off aside, and the crowd erupted in ecstatic cheer! To our surprise, the soldiers stood in place, without a motion. We were hesitant- should we move closer towards the soldiers, in the now-freed road space, or should we stay put? We had accomplished our mission with flying colors- in front of the soldiers, we had cut their fence; in front of the Palestinians, we had performed a potent symbol of nonviolent resistance that inflamed the crowd with hope. It is incredible to be part of such a powerful public performance, planned and carried out with intent, to achieve a specific purpose, in such a high-intensity situation. Of course, it was not the practical purpose- they could’ve cut the fence in the middle of the night- but the symbolic import of the act, which illuminated the moment with significance. To open the space for, and to enact, such a symbolic Event

Then, after about 20 seconds, came the tear gas.

Instantly I was running- I have never experienced tear gas like that before. It is like you are an ant, flailing to death in the middle of a fizzling can of Sprite; instantly, tears fill and overfill your eyes, and your throat is scorched with a pepper-like ferocity. You cannot breathe, a thousand burning pebbles prick every inch of your skin, red tingly heat claws at you from all sides, a flaming fist of cayenne pepper and chili powder punches you in the gut. Your face instantly collapses into a puddle of tears and runny snot. Thankfully, some Palestinians rushed up to me and sprayed perfume at my nose, to remind my body that it could breathe. Then the shebab (young guys) began throwing stones at the soldiers, in the thick of the clouds of tear gas, which of course, after a lull period of two minutes, prompted another volley of tear gas, which stimulated another mass run further down the road, which in turn inspired another round of stone throwing, which called forward another volley of tear gas in response….one part of my brain wanted to question ‘why do the shebab keep provoking them?’, and that part of my brain wanted to yell at them ‘stop throwing stones! i dont want to be teargassed anymore!’ but the whole point of our mission here is to support the palestinian effort; and while objectively it is obviously futile, and merely provocative, to throw stones, on the ground it is a supreme expression of will, triumph and resistance. extremely moving it is to see a palestinian teenager, completely swamped by tear gas and without even a kafiya to protect his face, throwing a stone at an advancing israeli soldier in gas mask and full combat gear. and after the demo was over, the cheering and hollering that gripped us in spasms of applause was completely electrifying! the feeling of collective accomplishment put a bright smile on everyone’s faces; we all stood in front of two soldiers positioned on top of the hill, jumping and waving, screaming in joy, flashing peace signs in their faces.

I hope, as it approaches midnight, that there are not Israeli soldiers raiding the village in retaliation as I speak…

Neturei Karta and the Revolutionary Intelligentsia

Neturei Karta is a group of anti-Zionist, ultra-Orthodox Jews who pray for the ‘peaceful dismantling of the State of Israel’. Descended from the Orthodox Jewry who, for hundreds of years before the advent of Zionism in the 1900s, lived in peaceful coexistence with Arabs in Palestine, they base their opposition to Zionism not only on the rich tradition of written and oral Jewish prophecy- which says, among other things, that Jews should not settle in the land of Israel until the coming of the Messiah, and that at no time during the Diaspora should Jews return en masse to the land and settle it by force- but also on their clear perception that the human rights abuses committed by Zionism run directly counter to Jewish ethics and morality.

From the USA branch’s website-

‘Neturei-Karta is the Aramaic term for “Guardians of the City”. The name Neturei-Karta originates from an incident in which R. Yehudah Ha-Nassi (Rabbi Judah the Prince) sent R. Hiyya and R. Ashi on a pastoral tour of inspection. In one town they asked to see the “guardians of the city” and the city guard was paraded before them. They said that these were not the guardians of the city but its destroyers, which prompted the citizens to ask who, then, could be considered the guardians. The rabbis answered, “The scribes and the scholars,” referring them to Tehillim (Psalms) Chap. 127. (Jerusalem Talmud, Tractate Hagiga. 76c).’

Before we take this quote and apply it to the modern world, we should be clear that, according to Neturei Karta and all Orthodox Jewry, the ‘scribes and the scholars’ are primarily the rabbis and students who pour over the collected body of Jewish writings and, above all, the Torah, those who follow what is written in the Pirke Avot (Sayings of the Fathers)-

“Ben (son of) Bag Bag said: Turn the Torah over and over for everything is in it. Look into it, grow old and worn over it, and never move away from it, for you will find no better portion than it.”

Much of Neturei Karta’s condemnation of the state of Israel is founded on principles of Torah and Judaic eschatology which are foreign to us; their primary opposition to the State of Israel is founded not on its grossly imperialistic human rights violations, but on its infidelity to the true dictates of the Torah (the former, for them, derives from the latter). Nonetheless, they share with secular anti-Zionism the universal moral imperative, and the desire for a liberated, secular, democratic Palestine. Accordingly, this parable can take on meaning for us beyond its Torah context. We can apply it not only to contemporary discussions of the State of Israel, but also to the modern State as such, the capitalist cosmo-polis that threatens to engulf the planet; we can distill from this parable a drop of insight touching on the general question ‘What is to be done?’, in reference both to this particular manifestation of imperialism (Israel), and to imperialism as such. What is to be done? that is, how shall we resist? What is resistance in this day and age?

In this parable, who are the ‘scribes and scholars’, who are the ‘city guard’, and what is the ‘city’? A simplistic, surface-level bourgeoisie reading would suggest that the ‘city guard’ refers to the modern police and army, (in the case of Israel, the Israeli police force, the IDF, Mossad, Shin Bet, etc.), while the ‘scribes and scholars’ of the city refer to the lawmakers and judges, and, in a broader sense, the bourgeoisie academics and journalists, the entire literate cosmopolitan public- from the politicians who spit out policy, to the state-worshiping intellectuals who scrutinize its details while, implicitly or explicitly, paying lip service to the ideological power structures of the State (in the case of Israel, the entire ideological apparatus, from the Supreme Court and the Knesset in Israel proper, to the entire gamut of international Zionist apologist intellectuals- Dershowitz, Joan Peters, etc).

The parable’s message, according to this bourgeoisie reading, is that the ‘guardians of the city’, the preservers of the social order, are not its police, who guard its walls with brute force, but its lawyers and judges, its intellectuals, who maintain the symbolic social order by controlling, interpreting, defining, and proscribing its laws. The fountain of law flows from the lofty heights of the latter down into the guns of the former. The lawmakers write the laws, and the cops enforce their dictates. The real guardians of the social order, those who truly protect and constitute the life-blood of the social body, are not those who enforce social policy with a strong arm, those who stand in as the physical representation of its laws; rather, the strength of the city is actually ensured by those who generate the laws, those who protect and transmit the ideas and ideologies that knit the social body together.  The ‘scribes and scholars’ constitute the Mind of the State, while the ‘armed guards’ stand in as its inert and obedient Body.

But we see the flaw in this interpretation when we ask- how, then, according to this model, are we to understand that the armed guards of the city are ‘not its guardians, but its destroyers’? The police are not the destroyers, but the executors and enforcers of the written law of the state. If we are to claim that lawmakers and judges are the true guardians of the city, it does not make sense to say in the next breath that the police ‘destroy’ the city that these lawmakers guard; quite the contrary- the police, in modern societies, seem to get along just fine with the lawmakers! Nor can we be content with interpreting this parable to mean merely that the ‘purity’ of the written law of the state, as it flows from the fountain pen of the court, is ‘imperfectly’ carried out on the street, is compromised or tainted by the corrupt cops, who enforce it according to their own whims. The disparity between the ‘scribes and scholars’ and the ‘city guard’ in this parable runs deeper than this- the latter destroy what the former guard. There is clearly a moral cut that runs between the two, whereby they work not in harmony but in direct opposition. The ‘scribes and scholars’ preserve the city from the destructive hands of the city guard; if it were up to the latter, there would be no city left to guard. How can this be, if the former write the city laws, and the latter guard the city walls? Who are the ‘scribes and scholars’, if not the bourgeoisie lawmakers and intelligentsia, and what is the ‘city’ that they guard, if not the concrete city and its body of social law?

The bourgeoisie reading of this parable erroneously believes that the ‘scribes and scholars’ ‘guard the city’ by serving as its state-sponsored lawyers, judges and apologist intellectuals, developing and upholding its ideological banner, and thereby fortifying its oppressive social order. The parable does not speak of these folks at all. The ‘scribes and scholars’ of this parable play no role in the fortification of State power.

In truth, the ‘scribes and scholars’ can only be those within society who critique its power structures, those who ‘speak the truth to power’, those intellectuals and writers who, in every generation, denounce those elements of oppression within the social order that stifle the potential of the people. These writers and speakers work alongside social activists, on the ground, as part of a single concerted effort, embodying in written form the ‘theory’ that animates, as well as the poetry that gives voice to, the movement. These writers and thinkers leave traces of their spark both in the lofty heights of academia (though much of what is ‘up there’ is too far removed from the ground to serve much use, and ends up calcifying into lifeless refuse), and in the innumerable daily publications by which the innumerable NGOs of the world document the innumerable human rights abuses that occur every day. In the present struggle, the written word that ‘speaks the truth to power’ does not exist sequestered on a plane apart from the concrete, practical political fight for justice; it is the very effulgence of this battle itself, its lasting expression, cast off its breathing back like a shell, left behind to remain imprinted on the temporal skin of cultural memory.

For as long as humanity has left written traces of its existence, we find the marks of this spark- its roots lie back in the prophetic lamentations of religious texts that cry for social justice, speak for the poor and downtrodden, and decry the corruption that men of power unleash upon the world; closer to the modern age, as the opportunities for social change become more tangible and practical, we find a myriad of social movements that blossom, unleash their clarion call into the world, and wither in time, leaving their skeletal remnants as testament and sign, from which future generations draw inspiration, receive vision and become firm in footstep.

By speaking words of dissent and leaving written traces of protest, these ‘scribes and scholars’ maintain in history a revolutionary flame that illuminates the past and casts its light forward into the future. Thanks to this unbroken chain of resistance, held firm through the generations by revolutionary remembrance, we can stand at our ‘point’ on (what we imagine to be) a historical time line, look behind us, and see signs and signals left by those who came before, little lights flickering on the dark hillsides of the past that give us hope in our struggle. It is our job, as the precious few ‘scribes and scholars’, to answer to the revolutionary struggles of those who have come before us in time; for if we do not give testament to the bones of the oppressed, their memory will be covered over by the oppressors, past and present, who, in the interest of the perpetuation of their own power, would happily erase the record of injustice from the historical register (ironically, this very logic is used to justify the State of Israel in the name of holocaust remembrance; more on that below). The archive is a battleground, and, in the words of Walter Benjamin, “Whoever until this day emerges victorious, marches in the triumphal procession in which today’s rulers tread over those who are sprawled underfoot. The spoils are, as was ever the case, carried along in the triumphal procession. They are known as the cultural heritage…a lineage [Abkunft: descent] which [one] cannot contemplate without horror. It owes its existence not only to the toil of the great geniuses, who created it, but also to the nameless drudgery of its contemporaries. There has never been a document of culture, which is not simultaneously one of barbarism.” (Theses on the Philosophy of History)

Just as the ‘scribes and scholars’ are a far cry from the bourgeoisie judges, lawyers and apologist intellectuals of the State, so, too, do they guard a ‘city’ which is a far cry from the city whose walls are patrolled by armed guards, whose laws are enforced by armed policemen. The ‘city’ of the parable, the ‘karta’, refers not to the established State with its army and its laws, but rather to the productive, communal social body as such, the democratic space of plurality as it exists both tangibly- before and between us- and ideally- beyond us, as the democratic ideal towards which we strive. The ‘guardians’ of this city are certainly not the policemen who maintain law and order, nor the lawmakers who proscribe law and order, but are rather the visionaries who speak this ideal of justice to the people, who remind the human community of its moral shortcomings and its innate possibilities.

The true ‘guardians of the city’ guard a city that is not perceptible by the senses in space and time; the ‘scribes and scholars’ of each generation dwell with suspicion, distrust and outright condemnation in earthly cities, which anyway are guarded perfectly well by paid armed guards. The city guarded by the ‘scribes and scholars’ is of an entirely different nature- it is a vision of a social structure wherein humans live in democratic peace and equality, and, as a transcendent corrective ideal, it translates into immanent critique of oppressive social structures which fall far short of justice. The City is To Come, because as a human community here on planet Earth we are still divided by bloodshed and strife. Nonetheless we whisper to each other words of hope, that this City is possible, and one day may come.

In the Diaspora, observant Jews pray to God three times a day, saying, among other things-

‘And To Jerusalem, your city, may you return in compassion, and may you rest within it, as you have spoken. May you rebuild it soon in our days, as an eternal structure, and may you speedily establish the Throne of David within it.’

Orthodox Judaism is unflinching in its belief that ‘Jerusalem’ refers to the actual piece of land at the eastern end of the Mediterranean; Zionism has warped this into the political belief that Jews must now rush over there and drive out its inhabitants; but in the course of the Diaspora, many Jews, Orthodox and secular alike, have expanded the signifier ‘Jerusalem’, which in Hebrew means ‘abode of peace’, to refer not to any particular city, but to the vision of a peaceful, just, and mutually equal human community as such. The ‘Throne of David’, also, refers to the Messiah, who upon his arrival will, among other things, unite the human community in a singular peace. (Of course, there are many problematic aspects to the Jewish concepts of Jerusalem and Messiah which unquestionably prefer the Jewish people over others, but as a secular humanist Jew who believes in the universal human community, I reject these elements. If, as the Orthodox (and many secular Zionists) will claim, I have sinned before God by forgetting the special lot of the Jewish people, then perhaps my soul will not be rejoined with my body in the World to Come, when all the righteous will be resurrected to study Torah for all eternity. My bad!)

Judaism is suffused with this spirit of revolutionary remembrance, though it often runs as an undercurrent beneath the surface of revealed tradition, and is today almost completely submerged under the colossus of Zionism. As Joel Kovel says in his book Overcoming Zionism, ”Judaic being can conduce to universality and bring forth emancipation. We should regard this as its priceless potential, if not always a legacy. However, emancipation has always, indeed necessarily, occurred in reference to a critique of, and a standing away from, the established order, including the order of Judaism itself. The Prophetic tradition within the Old Testament is certainly one of the great gems given to the world by the Jewish people, and an example of this. By definition oriented to an as-yet-unfulfilled future, it is therefore grounded in critique of the given. The prophet is one of the people but stands outside the city and reminds it of its falling away from the universal that is God’s true being.” (22)

Neturei Karta, and the handful of other ultra-Orthodox, anti-Zionist groups that exist, represent an attempt, at the Torah level, to redeem the religious essence of Judaism from the clutches of Zionism; but Western, secular Jews who critique Israel and Zionism in word and deed also have an important role to play as ‘guardians of the city’, in this case, of the prophetic, critical, anti-establishment legacy of Judaism. The radical kernel of Judaism can be reaffirmed, in the name of the prophets, by wresting the monopoly over the Jewish legacy away from the clutches of the Zionist enterprise. Joel Kovel- ”a multiple linkage and dissolution is involved: casting off the identity of the Jew as Zionist who is to redeem Israel and restore its glory, and in the process, undoing the linkage of Zion to capital and Western imperialism” (7).

The irony, in relation to the state of Israel, is that Israel was founded in 1948 on the imperative to ‘never forget’ the Holocaust, and now, in the name of precisely this sort of ‘remembrance of the oppressed’, it continues to pump its ideological life-blood from the corpses of the six million Jewish victims of Nazi Germany. Its Zionist apologists portray themselves as precisely those ‘guardians of the city’ who fight to protect the remembrance of past oppression from the clutches of the ‘armed guards’, the Islamo-fascists who today are enemies of Western ‘freedom’. Israel, then, is portrayed as the physical embodiment of the morally virtuous City of Peace, upheld by the ‘scribes and scholars’ who protect the remnant of justice in the world. Zionism has usurped for its own purposes a stale image of Judaism’s revolutionary, prophetic function, and uses it to bolster its banner of State power.

This sort of trick is emblematic of all postmodern, decentralized, disembodied, omnipotent, immanent forms of societal oppression- even the ground on which one could stand outside of and critique the existing order seems swallowed on all sides by that order, so that one has nowhere to turn; even the voice of resistance, which speaks different tongues in different ages, itself blares out of the megaphones, and is emblazoned on the banners of, the very social structure against which one must nonetheless speak. Regarding the Holocaust, Zionism has twisted remembrance of the oppressed into a new oppression, and perversely uses the former as the weapon of the latter, creating, out of the specter of anti-Semitism, and inscribing, on the fabric of the moral weight of history itself, a seemingly impenetrable shell to house the parasite within.

On December 12, 2006, Rabbi Yisroel D. Weiss of Neturei Karta gave a speech in Tehran, Iran at the controversial ‘International Conference to Review the Global Vision of the Holocaust’. Largely denounced by the Western intellectual community as a hotbed of Holocaust denial, the conference aimed in its own words to open a space “for suitable scientific research so that the hidden and unhidden angles of this most important political issue of the 20th century becomes more transparent”, to, in the words of the Foreign Minister of Iran, “create an opportunity for thinkers who cannot express their views freely in Europe about the Holocaust”. While I can currently pass no judgment on the conference (I have only given a cursory glance at its Wikipedia page), it is safe to say that its very existence highlights the fierce political, social and moral battle over the memory of the Event. Zionists would claim that the Holocaust itself, as well as this conference, as well as any attempt at all to criticize Israel, constitute examples of “a document of culture, which is simultaneously one of barbarism”; while others would claim that Zionism itself constitutes such a document of culture, as it manipulates the memory of the Holocaust to justify the existence and actions of a brutally oppressive military regime and imperialist monster. Here are the words of Neturei Karta rabbi Yisroel Weiss-

“Now maybe I can say that at the discussion of the holocaust, I may be the representative, the voice of the people who died in the holocaust because my grandparents died there. They were killed in Auschwitz. My parents were from Hungary. My father escaped and his parents remained. He wasn’t able to get them out of Hungary and they died in Auschwitz as were other relatives and all the communities that they knew. So to say that they didn’t die, to me you can not say that. I am the living remnant of the people who died in the holocaust and I am here, I believe sent by God, to humbly say, simply to speak to the people here and say, “you should know that the Jewish people died, and do not try to say that it did not happen. They did die.” There are people throughout the Jewish communities, still alive in their seventies and eighties and every one of them will tell you their stories. It is something which you can not refute, but that being said, it doesn’t mean that the holocaust is a tool to use to oppress other people. And that is the most new unfortunate piece of the holocaust, why the holocaust is such a bad word, because the holocaust is being used today to oppress another people….The main people who are suffering anew from the holocaust today, would be the Palestinian people…The holocaust is being manipulated and abused by a movement that refers to themselves as the Jewish nation, that usurped the name of the Jewish nation. The Jewish nation after World War II was very weak and the people who were in power, who were non-religious, people who were far from God who decided for convenience sake that they wanted to use the word “Judaism”, they wanted to use the Star of David, they wanted to use the Bible to be able to gain a materialistic gain: the state of “Israel”. They decided that they are going to use the holocaust to be able to reach their goal of having a nation…There should be Nuremburg trials on the actions of the Zionists. Not only that, but the irony is, they said “as more Jews die then we will get more land because the more the bloodshed, then the nations will feel guilty and the nations will give us land”. After World War II they went to the nations and said “you must give us land”. They were given the land. Therefore they use the word “holocaust” because they demand that, that is one of the reasons to give them land. And they are afraid that if you talk about the holocaust, you will be able to find the truth: that they are guilty just as the Nazis are…Jews were killed, but they died to sanctify God’s name. Their souls went up in purity and they don’t want to be brought down now to rebel against God. I am here to speak the cry of the dead of the holocaust: “We do not want to be used, to be soiled, to rebel against God with our blood. We do not want the state of “Israel”. We don’t want that our blood should be used and tainted for the state of “Israel”, which is a steady rebellion against God. We want a speedy and peaceful dismantlement of the state.”“

Like all struggles against oppression, that against Zionism is fought not only on the ground, in the present, but in the past as well. It is a battle over the past, where the tides of ideology turn in line with our changing comprehension of the timeline of events that have led us to this moment. We see this not only with regard to the Holocaust, but also with regard to the Nakba (disaster), the name given to the ethnic cleansing of 1948, the primitive accumulation by which Zionism drove out the Palestinian inhabitants of this land to secure for itself the territory necessary for the Jewish state. A major battle was won in the 1980s, when a New School of historians from the right and the left (Benny Morris, Ilan Pappe, and others) unearthed into the public light something which had long been denied by Zionist historians- that the Arabs did not leave of their own free will in 1948, that they were actually brutally driven out by their oppressors. Folks on the ground, not least the actual victims of the Nakba, had long known this to be the case, but for the first time the entire literate public was forced to remember that which for decades had hovered over the precipice of obscurity.

In our struggle, we must remember that those who struggled before us, struggle anew alongside us today; we must struggle in the name of the wellspring of resistance that bubbles just beneath the surface of the officially recognized, bourgeois picture of history. For as we struggle against oppression, we inherit, we give voice to, we carry the flame of a struggle that long precedes us, and will continue long after we are gone. The ‘scribes and scholars’ of every generation play a vital role in guarding, carrying, and transmitting this revolutionary inheritance.

“The danger threatens the stock of tradition as much as its recipients. For both it is one and the same: handing itself over as the tool of the ruling classes. In every epoch, the attempt must be made to deliver tradition anew from the conformism which is on the point of overwhelming it.” – Walter Benjamin, ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’

Sheikh Jarrah House

This is a photo i found online of a settler standing on the roof of a house across the street from the ISM tent. next to him you can see the first two candles of an enormous menorah, put on top of the four-story home as an obvious sign of israeli colonization. there is a weekly protest at sheikh jarrah on fridays, and when the protest reaches this street, the settlers from this house blast cheesy canned yiddish music (i can call it cheesy, because i love well-made yiddish and klezmer music) at an extremely loud volume that drowns out our protest, and unfortunately dispels the energy of the crowd. they watch the crowd disperse from the rooftops, where this boy is standing, flashing peace signs that turn into middle fingers.

ISM in Sheikh Jarrah

so what is the ISM, and what is the ISM tent in sheikh jarrah, and what is sheikh jarrah? let me try to answer these questions now, as I sit alone in the brightly-lit ISM tent in the middle of the night in Sheikh Jarrah.

Sheikh Jarrah is a neighborhood in East Jerusalem that was settled by Palestinian families in 1952. I will let the Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity website pick up from here-

(http://www.en.justjlm.org/)

“These Palestinians are all former refugees who escaped their erstwhile houses during the 1948 war. Arriving in then Jordanian ruled East Jerusalem, they waived their UN refugee cards in exchange for the right to build houses on a vacant lot in the neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah.

After Israel’s occupation of East Jerusalem in 1967, Jewish organizations claimed ownership over these houses by virtue of Ottoman deeds dating back to the 19th century. The families, however, were not allowed to regain ownership over their former properties in Israel, though backed by similar Ottoman deeds. Indeed, while Israel’s “Absentee Properties Law” officially strips Palestinians of ownership rights over their pre-1948 properties, Jews are free to reclaim possession of prewar assets. This inequality before the law is responsible for the current crisis in Sheikh Jarrah.”

So basically, when Israel won the Six Day War in 1967 and ‘redeemed’ East Jerusalem, the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Sinai and the Golan Heights, they tried to evict the Palestinians in Sheikh Jarrah; the Palestinians refused, and promptly secured for themselves legal representation, thereby beginning the legal battle that continues to this day. (Side note regarding the ‘Ottoman deeds from the 19th century’- An elderly man from the neighborhood, who comes every night and gives me a cigarette, told me last night that recently, the Sheikh Jarrah lawyer went to Turkey and looked through the old Ottoman Empire archives for the documents that would prove or disprove the Israeli government’s claim that a Jew had owned the land in 1817. The lawyer discovered a pre-1817 document, stating that originally a Palestinian family owned the land, and lived in a cave nearby; the Palestinian family hired a Jewish man to look after the land, tend the olive trees, and, eventually, to take care of renting the land out to others. Over time, through a mysterious, gradual and unofficial process of transfer, control of the land came under the Jewish man’s hands, though in truth, that is, officially, the Palestinian family never relinquished control. This man is the Israeli government’s fabled Jewish landowner from 1817. Nonetheless, when the Sheikh Jarrah lawyer attempted to bring this convincing evidence to court, the judge ruled that it was ‘too late’ in the proceedings to introduce such damning proof.)

The ISM tent is located in a very precarious place. First, what is the ISM? From Wikipedia- “The International Solidarity Movement (ISM) is a Palestinian-led movement focusing on assisting the Palestinian cause in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict using nonviolent methods.” Founded in 2001, “the organization calls on civilians from around the world to participate in acts of nonviolent protests against the Israeli military in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip”. Apart from going to ‘demos’ and getting tear gassed while standing in front of the apartheid wall shouting at soldiers, we also monitor and videotape Israeli soldier harassment at checkpoints, monitor and videotape instances of Israeli settler harassment, help Palestinian farmers struggle under oppressive and restrictive conditions to meet their farming quotas, etc. The average ISMer seems to me to be an idealistic, goodhearted, and intelligent 20-something (though there are older members) from Europe, who stays with the organization for 2-3 weeks in the middle of a longer summer trip; the organization is carried, however, by those who stay on for multiple months, and become proper organizers.

Now I promised I would answer the third question as well- what is the ISM tent in sheikh jarrah? Well, it is where I am currently sitting, crosslegged in the peace and quiet of a slightly, slightly chilly August night in east jerusalem. A flourescent light set above me casts a harsh light onto two well-used and well-loved mattresses and tiled floor space, surrounded on all sides by a blue tarp on the outside, and a tattered white tarp on the inside. The white tarp is littered with graffiti- ‘when the voice of the oppressed are stifled, we must lend them ours. Their freedom depends on ours, the quality of our freedom depends on theirs. with love, selin’; ‘denmark, finland, sweden, italy, pakistan, england, and poland support palestine’; ‘never give up’; ‘be realistic. demand the impossible!’; ‘never sing with settlers!’; ‘our ideas, our actions are shit-proof! we aren’t afraid of your POOP’ (i’ll explain this in a bit); ‘on behalf of all the stray cats of Jerusalem, we/I would like to express our solidarity to the Palestinians of Sheikh Jarrah. from the chief cat of stray cat committee for Palestine Solidarity, Jerusalem (SCCPS) www.sccps.org’; ‘dear ISM, keep the yard and area clean! designate an ashtray- all those cigarette butts are from us!’; ‘a.s.a.b. all settlers are bastards’….

this tent is stationed beside a house. Until 2008, a Palestinian family lived alone in this house. in the year 2000, they built an extension; the Israeli government, however, who for 33 years had already had its eye fixed on this neighborhood, waiting for an excuse to move in, forbade the family to live in or even enter their extension, on the grounds that it is illegal to build a structure without a permit (side note- this is one of the cornerstones of the israeli government’s house demolition policy- even if a palestinian family owns land (which is unlikely, as the JNF since 1948 has bought [or stolen with the help of the government] over 90% of the land in Palestine for sale or lease only to Jews), they cannot legally build on their own property without a permit, which is incredibly expensive to apply for and almost always rejected. So the Palestinian family builds on the land without a permit, and so one morning they find on their doorstep, or tacked onto a tree outside their front door, or lying on the ground out on the street, a demolition order. Then they wait; the knock could never come, or it could come in a week, or a month, or 10 years. But to many it comes- the 18-year-olds-with-guns of the IDF show up with bulldozers at 6:00 in the morning, announce over loudspeaker that the family has 15 minutes to grab their belongings, and then promptly demolish the house. Thank you to the Caterpillar company for supplying the D9 bulldozer to the IDF- who call it the ‘teddy bear’- since 1954!)

In 2008, then, the government decided to move a gang of settler youth into the house extension (originally built, remember, by the palestinians for their own home), creating an impossibly tense and awkward situation whereby a palestinian family must share their structure with violent, religious-nationalistic Israeli boys. the israeli government turned the space into a boys’ club, rather than a family home, because in their view the latter would appear a more blatantly callous human rights violation. Today, the front of the house is adorned with israeli flags, while the back of the house holds the palestinian family, the home’s builders and rightful owners. Of their many children, two 13-year old twins come to the tent every night and play me songs on their IPOD. Yesterday, I heard the word ‘falestin’ in one of the songs, and asked them to translate the lyrics. They bashfully would not translate directly, but said ‘you know, he is saying ‘one day falestine will be free’, that sort of thing. he is also saying ‘my mother, her house was demolished, my brothers and sisters were arrested…’

so the ISM camps out here every night to document settler violence, which decreases if there is an international presence (or at least is redirected towards us). I have not yet had feces, or water, or oil, or garbage thrown at me, though all such projectiles and others have been launched recently, usually in the middle of the night. needless to say, it is very socially tense- religiously-dressed boys walk past the opening of the tent constantly, looking in for a moment, sometimes sneering or laughing, always giving the cold shoulder; we hear them 10 feet away, playing with their big growling dog, laughing and cavorting drunkenly in the yard (it is while drunk, so i hear, that they commit the worst violence against our tent). they know we are here to support the palestinians, and so they point at us yelling ‘hitler! hitler!’. for some reason, things have been peaceful and quiet the four nights i have been sleeping here, if you can call it sleeping- if there are three or four of us, we take turns sleeping and staying awake, trying to maintain a constant watch. tonight, though, i am here alone, probably because ISM is low on volunteers; soon I will lay down in the darkness, and hope I am not woken by the splash of strong-smelling liquid on my body or the tent.

a couple nights ago marked the beginning of shabbat, and i was sitting outside as the sun was setting; the tallest of the settlers walked by me, and turned his nose up at me in a sort of jeering, hostile and disgusted look. as he paused next to me, i looked up at him and said ‘good shabbos!’ he was taken aback. ‘you are jewish?’ ‘yes!’ ‘you speak hebrew?’ ‘no.’ ‘you love israel?’ ‘i love the land, the earth!’ ‘you no like the people?’ ‘uuuuuhhh…’ ‘you love the country?’ ‘no, not really. i don’t like the government.’ ‘aaahh.’ he paused for a moment, then extended his hand. ‘good day!’ we shook hands and he walked away. i wonder- is he kind to me now because he knows i am jewish? did it make him think for a moment, that maybe these internationals who camp outside his front door are not nazis?

last night a friend and i were playing guitar outside at 4 in the morning, and a settler walked up to us and listened, and nodded his approval when the song ended. he asked us in broken english where we were from, and then he pulled out his wallet, and removed an old, battered photograph of a young orthodox jewish boy, holding a palestinian flag and smiling. i pointed to him as if to ask ‘is this you?’ he shook his head. he pointed to what was either the settler house, or an israeli flag in front of it, and made an ‘i dont like this’ motion. it seemed like he was trying to reach out to us, like he was sympathetic to the cause! but a moment later a palestinian came up and asked us not to play music with the settlers, because to locals in the village it would look as if we were striking a bond of solidarity with the enemy, which is certainly not our purpose. it’s a shame; earlier, when a couple settlers my age walked up to the tent and asked me where i was from, a palestinian ran up and closed the tent and said ‘don’t talk to us!’. i understand that these settlers have done, and will continue to do, horrific things to the palestinians here, above and beyond the horror that their act of settling represents as such; there is a part of me, however, that wants to reach out to them, that is not afraid of and hostile towards their alterity, that wants to bridge the gap, as a gesture that may lead us closer towards peace. but there are deep currents of enmity here, of which i only glimpse the surface.

Call to Prayer

I am currently sitting in the ISM tent in Sheikh Jarrah, and the evening call to prayer has begun to blare out of the speakers of a nearby mosque. This is one of the most beautiful things about being in Palestine- I am walking along, absorbed in my own thoughts, when suddenly a sound drifts through the air (or fills the air, depending on how near you are to its source), as if a someone is crouching in a mosque with a megaphone, humming with a warbling, winding melody a prayer whose words my western ears do not understand. And usually within seconds, if you are within earshot of multiple mosques (as is often the case in densely packed Jerusalem), several more voices chip in from different loudspeakers, usually (by some stroke of magic or sympathetic listening) chanting in the same key; each continues for about 5 minutes, stopping and starting again, rolling up and down the middle eastern scale my ears have come to cherish and crave.

I am Jewish, and most of the modern manifestation of my tribe seem to claim a singular, exclusive and jealously guarded sacred relationship to this land; but when I hear the Muslim call to prayer crackling out of its loudspeaker, I can imagine no sweeter dew that more perfectly settles over every nook and cranny of these majestic hills and valleys. Nonetheless, according to Israeli law a suburban Jewish boy from halfway around the world has a God-given ticket to instant citizenship here, while a Palestinian child born into poverty in a refugee camp in Jordan cannot return to the land his family has cultivated for 700 years! The first time I heard the air come alive with this chorus of song, it was my second day here; I was walking along the pathways of the old city of david, on a guided tour with 30 other american jewish boys. I came to this land on a more religious, less alcoholic version of the Birthright program, called the Jewish Learning Exchange with the Orthodox yeshiva Ohr Somayach; the circuitous route that took me out from under the gaze of the Rabbinate, and into this brightly lit Palestinian solidarity tent, will have to be traced later. But as I walked with those bright-faced, impressionable, 20-something Jewish American males that day, and the Muslim call to prayer began to resound over the valleys, I was instantly taken aback, and awash with gleeful surprise; but just as my imagination was spirited away, the boy next to me said (to the best of my memory) ‘I can’t believe it, their prayer sounds so disgusting and war-like and violent, you can hear how violent they are’. All the boys cackled, and the tour guide, though he did not acknowledge the statement with direct approval or comment, went on to explain, with an exasperated and eye-rolling look, how Muslims won’t get out of the land that so obviously belongs to the Jews.

Though at that point in my education I was excited and proud to walk through what I perceived to be a Jewish land, something did not sit right with me after that moment; an uneasiness began to gnaw at me from the inside. I felt profoundly alienated from the group, and wandered back to the hotel room with my head down, saying little, and stayed deeply depressed for two days. Nonetheless I still bought into the Zionist mythology for the next three weeks; why? What so ensnared my senses and my reasoning power, that I swallowed with hungry eyes and open heart the Biblical fairy tale of ‘a land without people for a people without land’, even though I had some concept in my mind of Israel’s human rights violations, even though I knew in the back of my head that the shiny Jewish streets, populated with happy Chassidic faces, were paved over the ruins of Palestinian villages? Or perhaps the question is- what rescued me from this myth and restored me to my senses, what brought me back to reality and reminded me of the truth, so that I now sit here surrounded by Noam Chomsky and Norman Finkelstein books, a self-hating Commy Jew if there ever was one?