Ross Singer
Ross Singer

A perspective on Sheikh Jarrah

Before Corona I guided groups fairly frequently on dual narrative tours of Jerusalem where I provided my Jewish Zionist narrative, and an Arab Palestinian guide provided a counter narrative. Typically, the Palestinian guide would point out buildings in the Moslem quarter with Israeli flags on them and categorize them as settlements and present them as provocations. My response usually went something like, “I don’t share the ideology of most of the people living, studying, and working in these homes and institutions, but like them, I am drawn to these sites. I think it would be amazing to live in one of these homes because many of them were occupied by important pious Jews with deeply significant stories that are part of who I am.”

My response was based on my vague knowledge of the history of some of these buildings in the Moslem quarter. As a guide who knows the power and impact of the stories of particular people and specific incidents, I knew that I had to research the history of this story more deeply.

I began to scour my tour-books for information. After putting together some of the specifics, I went to explore on my own the Moslem quarter in order to connect names, dates, personalities, and more with the streets and structures visited on these tours. During this exploration, I came across one of the Jews who lives in the Moslem quarter and asked him how to get to a particular place on my list. He helped me as best he could and then asked me the purpose of my question. I shared with him what I was doing. He told me that I had to get my hands on the works of Shabtai Zechariah who had documented in great detail the pre1948 Jewish life of the old city in his many books and articles. I was able to get ahold of his Yerushalayim HaBilti Noda’at (The Unknown Jerusalem) and I was blown away. This book documented the vibrant, rich, bustling, at times comical and deeply meaningful life of the Jews who lived in what today is called the Moslem quarter. Jews from North Africa, Eastern Europe, Central Europe and all over had come to Jerusalem to live in its sanctity and to locate themselves near the Holy of Holies. But their story came to a tragic end. They were driven out of their neighborhoods slowly but surely by violence that climaxed periodically and then ebbed but always loomed in the background.

Due to Corona, I have not had the opportunity to guide the Jewish sites of the Moslem quarter since reading Zechariah’s book, but I anticipate my future guiding will be much much richer. It will include the names of those who turned their homes into orphanages, soup kitchens, and study halls. It will also include the stories of those murdered and attacked during the riots of 1920, 1921, 1929, and 1936.

I will be able to point out the ruble that used to be a Jewish communal institution and the present-day Arab-owned storefront that has a deeply Jewish past. My prequal to the narrative of “settlements” and “provocateurs” is the narrative of the depopulation of Jews in the Old City of Jerusalem in the wake of lethal violence and devastating vandalism.

Zechariah’s book led me to look beyond the old city for similar stories. In fact I found that in the decades leading up to Israel’s establishment Jews were kicked off and intimidated out of areas all over the country. While the numbers pale in comparison to the numbers of Palestinian refugees of 1947-49, the percentage of Jews who ended up living in the area of the British mandate outside of Israeli sovereignty is zero. I documented a significant piece of that story in the first full episode of my podcast, “Looking at Palestine from Zion.” Among the areas that left no trace of any previous Jewish population was the neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah that housed hundreds of Jews in the early twentieth century.

If Sheikh Jarrah is being ethnically cleansed of Palestinians today (more on why I say if below), then it certainly was ethnically cleansed of its Jews seventy some odd years ago. This does not justify what Israel is doing in Sheikh Jarrah today and I will get to why I think Israeli policy in Sheikh Jarrah is wrong. However, it seems to me that this background and backdrop is crucial to understanding what is going on today. It also should quash some of the righteous indignation and temper the virulence of Israel’s detractors.

Defenders of Israel’s policy in Sheikh Jarrah are quick to point out the fact that the land in question was owned by Jews before 1948. They also point out that Israel’s courts granted protected resident status to the inhabitants in question. The court “merely” ruled that since the property rightfully belongs to the Jewish litigants, the current residents have to pay them rent.

To the best of my knowledge, (if I am wrong on any of the facts that I present here, I welcome being corrected and presented with the sources that indicate my error) had the residents been willing to pay this rent, there would be no eviction order. But the residents apparently don’t think that this ruling is legitimate. They refuse to pay and I can understand why.

Israel’s War of Independence (what my Palestinian co-guides call the Nakba) caused large-scale depopulation. There were atrocities committed by both sides. While Israel was willing to negotiate a return of at least some of the Palestinian refugees as part of a peace treaty, the Arab leadership was unwilling to accept the legitimacy of making peace with Israel and so virtually none of the Palestinian refugees were allowed back into the country.

Dealing with hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees from Arab lands and Europe, Israel handed over much of the property previously owned by Palestinian Arabs to these new immigrants (Olim). Until today, there is no way for Palestinians who were kicked out or who abandoned their homes and property to retrieve them or be compensated for them. Perhaps one day, in an overall settlement that takes into account the loses on all sides it will be reasonable to try and address all the various grievances. In the meantime, in the absence of goodwill, this is far off.

Given that for now, there is no recourse for retrieval of property on the Arab side, it seems clear to me that it is unfair and unequitable to allow Jews to reclaim their property that was lost in the same war. This is especially true given that it seems that at least some of the inhabitants of Sheikh Jarrah lost property in Israel because of the war.

I have very little knowledge of civil law, Israeli or otherwise but I think I do have a good sense of decency and fairness. I don’t know how this commonsense fairness should be articulated by the courts but I do hope they find a way to make the law on the books and basic equity coincide.

There is another important point I want to share. The fact that I think Israel is wrong on the Sheik Jarrah affair does not mean I think that Israel is illegitimate, that this is a case of ethnic cleansing, or that I accept the vicious portrayal of Israel that is all too common in the media.

First of all, countries don’t lose their legitimacy by having wrong policies, even ethically wrong policies, even egregiously problematic policies. There are many countries in the world that have behaved much worse than Israel whose legitimacy remain unquestioned. Certainly, our immediate neighbors, including the PLO, the Palestinian Authority, and Hamas can’t claim the high road.

Furthermore, I think that Israel’s ethically questionable policies and actions need to be seen in the context of hostilities perpetrated by a preponderance of actors who presume that this conflict is a zero-sum game and that Israel must be eliminated. This doesn’t justify Israel’s actions, but it should affect the discourse about them.

And yet, when all is said and done, my beloved Israel is in the wrong on Sheikh Jarrah.

About the Author
Ross Singer lives on Kibbutz Maale Gilboa and works as a tour guide, educator, and translator.
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