Samuel Heilman
Distinguished Professor of Sociology Emeritus CUNY

Encountering Palestinians: Where do we go next?

Leaders I met in Issawiya and Khan al Ahmar might be glad to live in an Israel without Zionist control, but removing it would mean the end of the Jewish state
Khan al Ahmar. (courtesy)
Khan al Ahmar. (courtesy)

Recently, I spent a day with Encounter,  an educational organization committed to informing Jewish communal leadership about the situation of Palestinians in the areas conquered in 1967. I was on such a trip before, when I was still living full time in America, but this was my first such visit to the Palestinian areas since moving to Israel and becoming a citizen in August of 2020. What was once a matter of political and social interest to me because of my Zionist attachments was now far more personal and directly impactful, so the day trip took on greater meaning and urgency.

After meeting my 14 fellow travelers — ranging from a Hasidic reporter to a Modern Orthodox rabbah, a Shas and Yemina political party adviser, a few academics like me, Israeli representatives of American federations, and some kibbutzniks, we began our “encounter,” with trips to Issawiya, a village just the other side of Mount Scopus, but part of metropolitan Jerusalem, and Khan al Ahmar, a Bedouin settlement between Maale Adumim and Kfar Adumim. We met with community leaders, mukhtars, and a Palestinian lawyer from Jerusalem.

I had seen both these places from afar in the past. The first, from the windows of the Hebrew University and the second, from the windows of a car on our many drives to the Dead Sea area to and from Jerusalem. I knew a bit about Issawiya, its association with Jesus (Isa), where he and his disciples are said to have sat under a carob tree that overlooks the town from the south and is believed to be up to 700 years old. I also had read about unrest there in the past, but I also knew that many residents were patients or staff at the nearby Hadassah – Mount Scopus hospital (which some locals called the “hospital in Issawiya”). Many others commuted to work in greater Jerusalem and the rest of Israel, easier from here than places on the other side of the security barrier like Kufr Aqab, the larger Jerusalem Arab neighborhood in the north, which required crossing a checkpoint with its endless lines and difficult passage. But I knew little else. As for Khan al Ahmar, I had no idea that it even had a name and simply thought of it as one of the many Bedouin camps along the road. I had much to learn.

A view of Issawiya. (courtesy)

I learned that Issawiya’s streets are narrower than any neighborhood nearby (and not allowed to be widened by Israeli authorities, that by law the residents whose population has exploded by virtue of natural growth and fertility, are not allowed to build anything higher than two stories, and the multi-floored apartments that are so much a feature of the rest of Jerusalem, whose growth has approximately doubled since the 1980s, are limited by an ordinance unchanged in 40 years. The purpose of this appears to be the encourage Issawiya’s citizens to move elsewhere. There are no city-sponsored soccer fields or basketball courts, and few parks or schools. I saw young people sitting around on steps and lacking places to play. The many new apartment buildings — built by many of the construction workers who build them in Jewish neighborhoods too — are all slated for demolition, and each one’s residents receive hefty fines. The residents can vote in municipal elections, but they do not, claiming they do not believe it will change anything and it would “legitimate the occupation.” Perhaps I am naïve, but I still believe in the power of the ballot and while Jerusalem is subject to control by the state government and the Knesset, which limits the power of municipal authorities, voting could make a difference.

But if the situation in Issawiya was disconcerting, the reality in Khan al Ahmar was overwhelming. Settled by the Jahalin tribe of Bedouin, which comes from the area of Tel Arad in the Negev and which was expelled from there by the Israeli military in the 1950s, the tribe fell under Jordanian control and leased land to graze their flocks. But after Israel gained control and the area was taken over by Maale Adumim on one side and Kfar Adumim on the other, they gradually lost the places from which they could support themselves and live.  Israel has refused to provide them with electrical power or water. When the residents managed to get a solar array through outside donors, the Israeli civil administration confiscated it, calling it illegal, all while nearby Jewish settlers were getting help and all the infrastructure they needed. These same settlers often spend the nights harassing their neighbors at Khan al Ahmar.

The mukhtar, a college graduate and powerful spokesman has enlisted state leaders from Europe to come to his community and has managed to build a small school for their children — slated for demolition by the Israeli authorities. He however has even fewer resources than the people of Issawiya and his citizens cannot even vote in any elections or appeal to local authorities.

But here’s the rub. I asked leaders in both places the question: Is there any place in the Middle East that would serve as a model of what you want for yourselves? The leaders admitted that there was not. Nor did they want to be under the control of the current Palestinian leadership, which they all agreed was corrupt, unreliable, and anti-democratic.  But they did not want to be under occupation either. They wanted what their Israeli neighbors had, but they did not want to be Israelis. They had bought into the Israeli dream, they said to us in their perfect Hebrew, but not the Zionist one.

But of course, if they were given what they want, this would spell the end of the Jewish state. In short order, their numbers would overwhelm the Jews demographically and if Israel remained democratic, it would no longer be Jewish, and if it remained Jewish, it would no longer be democratic, and the Zionist dream would be a nightmare. There it was: the dilemma. For the Palestinians, this place was better than any other they could imagine in the Middle East — yet it was terrible. For the Jews like me who recognized the agony of what we have wrought, the solution meant the end of the Jewish dream of a return to Zion.

We are two cousins sharing a small space, yet unlike Abraham and Lot, when “the land was not able to bear them, that they might dwell together; for their substance was great, so that they could not dwell together.”  The solution the Bible offers: “‘Let there be no strife, I pray thee, between me and thee, and between my herdsmen and thy herdsmen; for we are brethren. Is not the whole land before thee? Separate thyself, I pray thee, from me; if thou wilt take the left hand, then I will go to the right; or if thou take the right hand, then I will go to the left.’”  That solution is no longer an option, and I do not know what is.

About the Author
Until his retirement in August 2020, Emeritus Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Queens College CUNY, Samuel Heilman held the Harold Proshansky Chair in Jewish Studies at the Graduate Center. He is author of 15 books some of which have been translated into Spanish and Hebrew, and is the winner of three National Jewish Book Awards, as well as a number of other prestigious book prizes, and was awarded the Marshall Sklare Lifetime Achievement Award from the Association for the Social Scientific Study of Jewry, as well as four Distinguished Faculty Awards at the City University of New York.He has been a Fulbright Fellow and Senior Specialist in Australia, China, and Poland, and lectured in many universities throughout the United States and the world. He was for many years Editor of Contemporary Jewry and is a frequent columnist at Ha'Aretz and was one at the New York Jewish Week. Since his retirement, he and his family have resided in Jerusalem.
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