This week in 1912, wheelchair bound 85 year old Musa/Moshe Sasson, his 76 year old wife, their son, his wife and 4 children were evicted from their Baghdad home they had lived in since 1850. The family had been renting from a wealthy Muslim family. They claimed that, according to the law of the time, that they had protected tenant status. However, Musa hadn’t paid attention to the fact that he had signed a new contract according to which he forfeited his protected tenant status. The owners of the home were part of a nationalist movement at the time, that wanted to clear Baghdad of its massive Jewish population. (Some 50,000 Jews, compromising over a quarter of Baghdad’s population.) It was even claimed that a notable Muslim family had lived in the home previously, and that it was important to restore the home’s glorious past. The family tried every appeal they could think of. Leading rabbis and Jewish notables appealed to the owners and to the authorities. However, on the morning of August 4th, police arrived at 5:30 am, and tossed them and their belongings into the street. Within minutes, the locks were changed, and a new family was brought in.
This story is fictitious, but representative of the oppression and discrimination Jews suffered over many centuries in many lands.
Now, for a true story.
This past Tuesday, wheelchair bound 85 year old Ayoub Shamasna, his 76 year old wife, their son, his wife and 4 children were evicted from the East Jerusalem home they had lived in since 1964. They had been renting from the Jordanian government, and then from the Israeli Custodian. In recent years, it was claimed that this home had belonged to Jews before 1948. (Entirely possible, but no Israeli Jew wants all lands to go back to whoever owned them before 1948). The family maintains that the Arabic version of the contract they signed in the 1980’s didn’t include the forfeiting of protected tenant status that appears in the Hebrew version. After a protracted court battle and diplomatic efforts on their behalf, the police arrived at 5:30 am, and the family was tossed into the street. Within a short amount of time, the locks were changed, and Jews were brought in to live in the house.
I am writing this blog entry on location, as the family prays Friday prayers on the street outside their erstwhile home.
In this week’s Torah portion (Ki Tavo), Moses instructs the Israelites what they are to do when they enter the Land of Israel. When they cross the Jordan, half the tribes are to recite blessings from Mount Gerizim, and half curses from Mount Ebal.
Among the curses, “Cursed be the one that perverts the justice due to the non-Jew living among you, the widow and to the orphan. And all the people shall say: ‘Amen.'” Deuteronomy 27: 19)
In order to understand why, we must return to the beginning of the Torah portion. Moses commands the ceremony of the first fruits, to be taken to the cohen (priest) in the place that God will choose. There, in this ceremony that was partially reenacted on Shavuot in the Temple times, and with words we recite in the Passover Haggadah, we recount our history as wandering Arameans who went down to Egypt, “and the Egyptians dealt ill with us, and afflicted us, and laid upon us hard bondage” (Deuteronomy 26:6). Therefore, after God has liberated us and brought us to a Land flowing with milk and honey, we must share our bounty with the landless Levite, the non-Jew living among us, the orphan and the widow. We solemnly swear, “I have not forgotten.” (Deuteronomy 26:13).
We have forgotten.
The curse recited before the curse of perverting justice for the weak and powerless is “Cursed be the one who makes the blind go astray.” We have been blinded to the true meaning of our own history of oppression, and the perversion of justice now being done in our name.
I don’t know if there were any Muslims who sided with our fictitious family in 1912. Certainly, there have been righteous gentiles who have stood with us at various points in our history.
I do find some hope and comfort in the fact that for years there have been Israelis fighting to save the Shamasna home, and who have been standing with them outside their home all this week. In another hour, we will march from the Jerusalem city center to the home in the Umm Al Haroun neighborhood of Sheikh Jarakh.
As I march, I will recite, “I have not forgotten.”