On Yom Yerushalayim tell the KKL-JNF: Don’t evict the Sumarin family

Yom Yerushalayim (Jerusalem Day) and the eve of the Shabbat preceding the Shavuot holiday.  Two thoughts come to mind.

  1. On Yom Yerushalayim, the Sumarin Family Coalition, of which Torat Tzedek-Torah of Justice is a member, has launched an international campaign for the soul of Jerusalem—for bringing closer together in some way Yerushalayim Shel Ma’alah and Yerushalayim Shel Matah—the earthly Jerusalem of stone and concrete, and urban and international politics, and the heavenly Jerusalem representing our highest ideals and our vision of the world as we and God believe that it ought to be. We can debate to what degree West and East Jerusalem are united, but Yerushalyaim Shel Ma’alah and Yerushalayim Shel Mata are most certainly still far apart. The Talmud teaches that God will not enter heavenly Jerusalem until s/he has entered earthly Jerusalem. Not only must our earthly Jerusalem reflect the ideals of heavenly Jerusalem, but we must create holiness and decency on earth for their to truly be holiness in Yerushalayim shel Ma’alah.
  2. The Hassidic Rebbe Menachem Mendel of Warka said that this Shabbat should be called “Shabbat Derekh Eretz” the Sabbath of basic human decency, because we are taught, “Derekh eretz kadma l’Torah” Acting with common sense human decency precedes the Revelation we received on Shavuot, both figuratively and chronologically. This should be a rule for life. All of our high falutin’ talk about Zionism, Jerusalem as the “eternal undivided capital of the Jewish people” the law, and Torah values are worse than meaningless—they are Khilul HaShem, a desecration of God’s Name, when Israel and the Keren Kayemet L’Yisrael-Jewish National Fund invokes them to unjustly and cruelly evict a family from their home.  After all the words and concepts, there is the scared family I spent time with last night, allowing them to share their story via Zoom with people of conscience.  Ahmad told of how he has been living in fear and uncertainty since he was 6 years old, and now has to watch his teenage daughter live with that same fear. Only, now, he said, the feeling in the pits of their stomach is more and more palpable because the appeal of their eviction on June 30th may be the end of the road.  His mother told of how she has lived in that home since getting married 40 years ago.  Having raised children and grandchildren there, it is her life. She feels inseparable, attached to every stone.

It goes without saying, that when we ask what will be if Israel proceeds with annexation plans, we may very well see a resurrection of laws such as the “Absentee Property” law used against the Sumarin family and many others after Israel annexed East Jerusalem. And, I suppose it is naive to believe that the heightened corona induced sensitivity to the importance of a home would make those who covet this home think twice.

“Oy to those who plan iniquity And design evil on their beds; When morning dawns, they do it, For they have the power. They covet fields, and seize them; Houses, and take them away. They defraud men of their homes, And people of their land.” (Micha 2:1-2)

The Sumarin family literally lives in the shadow of the Temple Mount/Haram Al Sharif/Al Aqsa mosque, in the neighborhood of Silwan. There, several settler groups, most prominently “Elad” are dedicated to “Judaizing” the neighborhood. Exploiting the intoxicating idea that Silwan may have been the Biblical “City of David,” they have sponsored archaeological digs literally under people’s homes, causing floors to buckle and walls and ceilings to crack.  They have used various unethical means, such as the “Absentee Property Law,” to take over homes in the neighborhood.

There is no home they covet more than the Sumarin family home, literally next to the entrance to the archaeological visitor’s center Elad has created. They have already taken over most of the family’s yard, but they want the home.

“Oy to those who add house to house And join field to field, Till there is room for none but you To dwell in the land!” (Isaiah 5:8)

Although other family members were always living in the home, Israel exploited the fact that the three sons who were the legal heirs were living abroad. In 1989, at the request of the KKL-JNF, the home was declared “absentee property,” and transferred to a custodian. The property was then traded to the KKL-JNF. The KKL-JNF did the same thing for many other properties. Most of them were then turned over to settler groups.

In this case, the KKL-JNF has been trying ever since the 1990s to evict the family. They almost did so in 2011, but were deterred after thousands around the world wrote to the KKL-JNF. Many Jews who for several generations were putting coins in the KKL-JNF “pushke,” to buy land for the Jewish people, made it clear that they did not do so in order to throw a non-Jewish family out of their home. On Yom Yerushalayim, a broad and diverse group of Israeli and international organizations are again calling on all people of conscience to write and/or call the KKL-JNF.

In 1995, after the damming “Klugman Report,” Israel agreed not use the Absentee Property Law, as it was used against the Sumarin family.  However, despite all of the self-aggrandizing words from the KKL-JNF that they operate according to the law, and citing one ruling or another, the problem is that no court as ever seriously considered how the confiscation of the family home can still be considered legal, legitimate, or moral, after the Israel government acknowledged that what they had previously done was wrong, and promised Israel’s High Court not to do so again.  Secondly, no court has ever ordered the KKL-JNF to evict the family. Courts have permitted it.  The KKL-JNF would not be violating any law or order, were they to say, “We acknowledge that what was done was wrong.  We are officially returning the Sumarin home to the family.”

We hear from KKL-JNF affiliates and former affiliates around the world, “We are not responsible. Talk to the KKL In Israel.” While it is true that some former affiliates, such as JNF USA, have taken steps since 2011 to legally separate themselves from the KKL in Israel, they cannot deny or escape responsibility. They were affiliated when the KKL-JNF created the problem, and they must help solve it now.  As I have suggested to JNF USA CEO Russell Robinson, “If your mantra today is, ‘We are not the KKL,’ then prove it.  Raise the money required for the family to “buy back” their home, and demonstrate that you are not a part of the efforts to evict this family. Demonstrate remorse for the fact that you were once affiliated with the organization responsible for this injustice.”

This week’s Torah reading is B’Midbar, the desert. Many have asked why the Torah was given in the desert. Another Hassidic rebbe, Naftali Tzvi of Ropshitz taught that the Holy Torah can spread to all of the most degraded places, enter the depth, and raise up from them. He also taught, “By our service to God, we build Jerusalem daily. One of us adds a row, another only a brick. When Jerusalem is completed, redemption will come.”  We will bring the earthly Jerusalem closer to unification with the heavenly Jerusalem when we correct injustice after injustice, and begin to treat each and every human being with derekh eretz.

Wishing a Yom Yerushalayim in which we take actions to unite the lower and upper worlds, and a Shabbat of both peace and derekh eretz. And, before Shabbat, write a letter.

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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