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-


“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)’; ‘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?