Arik Ascherman
Arik Ascherman

On Jerusalem Day, Sheikh Jarakh and our Burning Country

Yesterday Israeli Jews and Israeli Palestinians stood together around the country, 'Not in our name.' 'We refuse to be enemies.'

To my Muslim friends,  كل عام وانتم بخير. فطر سعيد. تريت – Id Il Fitr Blessings. An early Khag Sameakh as we draw nearer to Sinai, and the Jewish Shavuot holiday

Sunday was “celebrated” in Israel as Jerusalem Day, and I have been intending to write about what I have seen in Sheikh Jarakh in recent days, the letter we have obtained from former US President Jimmy Carter voicing his concerns about the potential eviction of families from their homes, and the fact that there is no unified Jerusalem.  However, it is impossible to write without addressing the wave of violence engulfing us, of which Sheikh Jarakh is a key component, but only one component.

A personal musing: For many years I have imagined Jewish and Palestinian extremists getting together at night to plan how to continue fueling the flames of hatred and violence they each feed off of. Some of you may recall the original Star Trek episode, “Day of the Dove.” An entity wishes to feed off eternal warfare between Klingons and Enterprise crew members, until they realize what is happening and join together to laugh it off the ship.  There is almost no chance that Israel can form a government while violence is escalating, and the country is literally and figuratively burning.  Could it be that Hamas believes that it benefits from fomenting Israeli extremism and dysfunctionality, and would like to see us thrown into a 5th election cycle? Just a thought.

I wrote a portion of these thoughts Wednesday morning while guarding Bedouin cultivated fields in the Occupied Territories from settler flocks. One of the Bedouin shepherds made a point of sharing with me his distress over this cycle of violence. He asked the question that used to be featured on t shirts with a picture of a soldier being shot, “WHY?” While Israeli media has extensively focused on the attacks of Israeli Arabs against Israeli Jews, and Israeli Jews against Israeli Arabs, last night average Israeli Jews and Israeli Palestinians stood together at locations around the country, rejecting the violence and refusing to be enemies. Civic and religious leaders have also begun to stand together. What we have seen in recent days exposes long simmering grievances and our ugly side. But, it by no means represents the vast majority of Israelis and Palestinians.  It doesn’t represent the best that is in us.

Our sages had an answer to the question, “WHY?”.  Pirke Avot has been very timely this year. We traditionally read a chapter every Shabbat between Passover and Shavuot. The Shabbat after I was last attacked because we need to defend Palestinian fields when Israeli security forces refuse to do their job, we read “When nobody is acting with basic human decency, try to be the person who does.” (2:5, some versions 2:6) This past Shabbat we read, “The sword comes into the world because of justice delayed, justice denied, and those who issue improper Torah rulings.” (5:11, some versions 5:8) As I have written in the past, the Talmudic rabbis were not justifying violence.  Even if Hamas’ outrage over the injustices being perpetrated against Palestinians in Jerusalem and elsewhere is in no way manipulative or cynical, it is no justification for the barrages of rockets on Israeli civilians. Even if they have succeeded in unleashing anger forged through decades of injustice, the Arab lynch mobs in Israeli cities are just as wrong as the Jewish hate groups who mercilessly beat Arabs they manage to catch. Even if we Jews are outraged by Hamas rockets and Israeli Arab violence, that doesn’t permit Jews to smash Arab shops.  The righteous anger of one group feeds the righteous anger of the other. As Chief Sefardic Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef has been quoted as saying, our anger does not justify taking the law into our own hands, “We must be a light unto the nations, and not, God forbid, the opposite.”

However, let’s be honest. Justice has been delayed and denied in East Jerusalem. The Torah and Jewish privilege have often been the justification.  If we interpret “Torah” more generally as law, many of the injustices and forms of discrimination are justified through laws promulgated by our Knesset, undemocratically imposed on Palestinians who cannot vote for the Knesset, and enforced by our courts.  One of Israel’s claims of why the International Criminal Court has no right to investigate allegations of Israeli violations of international law is that we have a justice system and rule of law that investigates itself and protects Palestinian human rights. We don’t. While it would be an exaggeration to say that our judicial system never protects Palestinians in East Jerusalem and elsewhere, it would be an even bigger exaggeration to say that it consistently does so.  I am not joining the chorus of delegitimization we hear from the right wing, but the truth is the truth.

Rabbi Shimshon Rafael Hirsch presciently in the 19th century writes on this verse from Pirkei Avot that God grants us state power and authority in order to implement law and the Torah. If we abuse this power and fail to carry out our purpose, God will cease to protect us. We will be just another power among many, living by the sword according to the rules of the jungle.

I would simply say that the rabbis were realists. When we pervert law and Judaism, making them tools of injustice and discrimination, we create anger that can eventually boil over. The Meiri (1249-1315) writes that one thing leads to the next because the oppressed person is furious with his/her oppressor. It’s not rocket science.

In 1956 the Jordanians offered 28 refugee families land in Sheikh Jarakh in return for giving up their refugee status. However, in 1972, two Jewish organizations said that this had been their land before 1948.  They submitted a Turkish document that some have claimed was forged, and others have said that it is a rental agreement, not a bill of sale. When challenged, the State could not say anything about whether the document had ever been checked or verified. After a series of court victories, some of the families eventually discovered that their former lawyer had signed a deal behind their backs, acknowledging Jewish ownership in return for protected tenant status. He may have truly believed that he was protecting the families for generations. However, the case was turned over to the more aggressive Nakhalat Shimon settler organization, that found excuses to cancel the status by claiming that the Palestinians had violated the conditions. This led to one family being evicted in 2008, two more in 2009 and the relentless efforts to evict additional families now coming to a head.  The families claim to have found documents in Turkish archives proving that this land was rented, but never sold to Jews. Palestinians in Sheikh Jarakh can point to homes in the neighborhood they acknowledge were once owned by Jews. They are not the homes currently threatened. The courts have said that it is too late to entertain new evidence.

Four families are now almost at the end of their legal rope. If the their now briefly postponed Supreme Court appeal is rejected, they could be evicted almost immediately. The neighborhood has been the scene of weekly vigils since 2009, but now has been discovered both by Hamas and Meir Kahane disciples Itamar Ben Gvir and Bentzi Gopstein.  We are back to almost nightly confrontations, with the Israeli mounted police and skunk water cannons focused almost entirely on the Palestinians and those of us trying to keep the peace. Last night I did see the police herding a group of what looked like hilltop youth out of the neighborhood.

Last Thursday Ben Gvir “moved his office” to Sheikh Jarakh.  I couldn’t believe it when I saw the theoretically neutral paramedics of the “Ikhud Hatzalah” organization roaring in on their motorcycles like the Hells Angels, and taking their picture with Ben Gvir.

Chairs and rocks were thrown.  I watched helplessly as the gate of my friend Salakh’s home was broken open for no reason that I could discern. I found him groaning on the ground with injuries to his throat, ribs and his leg that apparently had already been broken by the police several days before.

https://www.facebook.com/100000674059660/videos/4360224517343307/

Ironically, because of the Hamas rockets and heightened tension that led Israel to reroute the annual triumphalist parade of flag waving right wing Israelis shouting “death to the Arabs,” there were fewer gloating Israelis in Sheikh Jarakh this year on Jerusalem Day itself. But, that didn’t stop the police from firing stun grenades and skunk water at the peaceful Palestinian crowd.

https://www.facebook.com/100000674059660/videos/4371839839515108/

If there has been any silver lining in this tragic situation, it is that the Israeli media hasn’t only covered the Hamas threats regarding Sheikh Jarakh.  For the first time that I can recall, there has been serious discussion of the fact that Israeli law allows Jews to try to reclaim property they say was theirs before 1948, but Arabs can’t.  How many Israeli Jews would want everybody to return to where they lived before 1948? The questionable nature of Jewish ownership claims to lands in Sheikh Jarrakh upheld by the courts has also been vetted. The international community is expressing its concern over the possibility of families being evicted. Just as it has done with the collaboration between the Keren Kayemet – Jewish National Fund and the Elad settlers to steal the Sumarin family home in Silwan, the Israeli Supreme Court has punted the Sheikh Jarakh evictions to Israel’s Attorney General. He is being given the opportunity to issue rulings on the wider issues of justice beyond the legal minutia the Court has been asked to rule on.

The fact that the Attorney General has been asked to issue rulings means that there is an opportunity for the international community to engage the Israeli government. . Last Friday, the U.S State Department expressed concern over potential evictions, and the issue was raised when U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan spoke with his Israeli counterpart on Sunday.  In both cases, Palestinian violence was also raised.  Whatever the Attorney General and the Court will rule, and despite the fact that the effort to evict families is a civilian issue and the government of Israel will say they are not a party, no sensitive move in the tinderbox we call Jerusalem can be taken without the approval of the Prime Minister, or those close to him. Certainly not now.

Sheikh Jarakh residents recall the visit of former U.S. President Jimmy Carter in 2010. He may not be familiar with Pirkei Avot, but he did note that, even if the eviction of families is “legal” according to Israeli law, it is a violation of international law.  Whenever Muhammad Sabagh speaks to visitors he recalls Carter’s visit as an event that gave the Sheikh Jarakh families strength to continue their struggle. So, when Muhammad’s eviction seemed imminent after a January 2019 court ruling, Torat Tzedek asked President Carter to exercise his moral authority, and he wrote a letter expressing his concern.  We never released the letter because further legal steps have up until now prevented the eviction.  That eviction is again potentially imminent, although the four families are in even more immediate danger. President Carter has just reissued a revised letter that also acknowledges the additional endangered families.  Click the letter to see the full letter on stationary:

The injustices the Jewish State perpetrates against non-Jews in East Jerusalem are not limited to Sheikh Jarakh.  Jawad Siam is a generally soft spoken social worker who has set up a community center for Silwan’s children, an alternative information center to counter the settler narrative of the well-funded Elad visitor center and archeological site, and has been at the forefront of efforts to thwart Elad’s efforts to “Judaize” the neighborhood.

About a year ago Jawad’s family suffered a defeat in the courts at the hands of the settlers, who have taken over many Palestinian houses, including the Siam family home. Jawad’s cousins and a divorced sister in law were living in the house. Jawad led the long legal battle and took financial responsibility for its consequences. When a family is forcibly evacuated from its home—as happens all too frequently in Silwan—the state imposes heavy costs on them, including, in this case, payment for dozens of policemen, two movers’ vans, a locksmith, and so on. The cost came to 140,000 Israeli shekels, to which the court added further expenses, and thus Jawad’s debt came to 174,000 shekels.

In addition, the settlers’ organization Elad outrageously demanded payment for rent over the period that Jawad’s family had continued to live in their own house. The court imposed another 386,000 shekels on Jawad along with 90,000 shekels in legal costs. Jawad’s debt now came to the astronomical sum of 650,000 shekels. When this money was raised, Elad’s bank tried to return the money transferred to them. I believe that they really want is an excuse to bankrupt Jawad, and take over the rest of the house.  My guess is that they were stunned and dismayed when the money came through in time.  But, they continue to look for additional ways to extract more money and to silence him.

I have written extensively about the Sumarin family. We are waiting for Attorney General Mandelblit’s opinion, and to see what will be with the additional High Court petition the family has filed based on the new information that has been revealed about the collusion between Elad and the Keren Kayemet JNF to abuse the Absentee Property Law in order to steal the family home.

I was asked the other day whether I celebrate Jerusalem Day. My answer was “Yes, but.” I rejoice that the Jewish people can again pray at the Western Wall. I do not rejoice over occupation, injustice, neglect and double standards. My Jerusalem includes Muhammad Sabagh, Jawad Siam and the Sumarin Family. Jerusalem is not united when they are left out in the cold.

In this week’s Torah portion opening the Book of Numbers (BaMidbar), we leave Mt. Sinai and continue in the desert towards the Land of Israel. I have often said that our annual counting the days between Passover and Shavuot that mark the days of our journey from slavery to Sinai reminds us that we are still on our way to Sinai, even though we have entered The Land.  We will truly have reached Sinai when there is truly an end to the disparities between East and West Jerusalem. We will have received Torah when Jerusalem, in whatever political arrangement will be mutually agreed upon, will be a place where the earthly Jerusalem (Yerushalayim shel mata) will be united with Yerushalayim shel Ma’alah, the heavenly Jerusalem representing our highest ideals.  The Temple Mount/Haram Al Sharif is supposed to be, and could still become, the gateway linking those two Jerusalems

Let’s Get Closer To Sinai. Let’s unite heavenly and earthly Jerusalem.

Shabbat Shalom

Last night in Jerusalem. “Not in our name..” “We refuse to be enemies.”
About the Author
Rabbi Arik Ascherman is the founder and director of the Israeli human rights organization "Torat Tzedek-Torah of Justice." Previously, he led "Rabbis For Human Rights" for 21 years. Rabbi Ascherman is a sought after lecturer, has received numerous prizes for his human rights work and has been featured in several documentary films, including the 2010 "Israel vs Israel." He and "Torat Tzedek" received the Rabbi David J. Forman Memorial Fund's Human Rights Prize fore 5779. Rabbi Ascherman is recognized as a role model for faith based human rights activism.
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