Shaiya Rothberg

The Dark Side of Judaism in Jerusalem

Members of the Abu Assab family seen after being evicted from their home by Israeli police in Jerusalem’s Old City, February 17, 2019. ( Published in (Feb. 18, 2019)
Members of the Abu Assab family seen after being evicted from their home by Israeli police in Jerusalem’s Old City, February 17, 2019. ( Published in (Feb. 18, 2019)

Our generation has witnessed a Renaissance of Judaism in Jerusalem; There is much that is holy, beautiful and inspiring. But ongoing state violence against Palestinian residents because of their ethnic-national identity is also an expression of contemporary Jewish identity. We must end the violence now. 

Four days ago, the Abu Assab family – Jerusalem residents like my family and I – were unjustly evicted from their home as a result of discrimination against Palestinians. This family has fallen victim not to an anomaly but to a systematic policy of family evictions which has already claimed many victims and which threatens to claim dozens of additional Jerusalem families. For generations, we Jews have been victimized as a minority in countries across the world. But as our government abuses the Palestinian minority in our midst, we stand idly by. Worse yet: Jewish identity – national and religious – is the major catalyst for this injustice. Where is our Jewish commitment to social justice when we need it most?

The legal background of the evictions is complex but the bottom line is clear. The story begins in 1948. After the war, there were many Palestinian homes in Israeli West Jerusalem whose owners were in Jordanian East Jerusalem. And there were also Jewish homes in Jordanian East Jerusalem whose owners were in Israeli West Jerusalem. Both Israel and Jordan used the homes of these “absentee owners” to house refugees on their own side. The Abu Assab family, for example, lost their home in Baka to Jews but received a home previously owned by Jews in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City.

I do not justify the actions of either Israel or Jordan in this context. I believe that both countries should have protected the property rights of the “absentee” owners. However, there was a modicum of “wartime justice” in these policies: At least refugees found homes. But there is no justice in our policy of family evictions now. After conquering East Jerusalem in 1967, Israel determined by law that Jews can recover lost property in East Jerusalem, but Palestinians cannot recover lost property in West Jerusalem (or elsewhere in Israel). Thus, the Abu Assab family cannot recover their home in Baka.  And we have just expelled them from their home of more than half a century in the Muslim Quarter, making them refugees for the second time. 

Highlighting the injustice of this policy is the fact that those replacing the Abu Assab family, and other evicted Palestinian families, are not descendants of the original Jewish owners but rather ideological settlers organized by right-wing NGOs. This is made possible through government collusion. For example, Israel turned over the ownership of many Palestinian homes which were allegedly owned by Jews prior to 1948 to public trusts. The right-wing NGOs have gained control of these public trusts with help from government agencies. The trusts then use the courts to expel Palestinian families to replace them with settlers.

Such legalized discrimination is a mockery of the rule of law. Furthermore, given that much of the State of Israel sits on property owned by Palestinians prior to 1948, establishing a “right of return” consisting of expelling the current residents to return  properties to their original owners is downright self-destructive. The ultra-nationalist frenzy dominating government policy is dangerously out of control. We need to wake up, and fast.

Palestinian Fahamiya Shamasneh, 75, weeps as Israeli policemen evict her from her family home in the East Jerusalem Arab neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, September 5, 2017. (AFP PHOTO / Ahmad GHARABLI). Published in The Times of Israel: 5 September 2017

Our natural place as Jews is on the front line against such injustice. Settler leaders and government allies champion family evictions in the name of their ultra-nationalist ideology. But collective narcissism is anathema to authentic Judaism. Almost three thousand years ago, the prophet Isaiah walked the streets of holy Jerusalem and denounced the discriminatory family evictions of his own days. He called out,

הוֹי מַגִּיעֵי בַיִת בְּבַיִת–שָׂדֶה בְשָׂדֶה יַקְרִיבוּ עַד אֶפֶס מָקוֹם, וְהוּשַׁבְתֶּם לְבַדְּכֶם בְּקֶרֶב הָאָרֶץ

Woe unto them that join house to house, that lay field to field, till there be no room, and ye be made to dwell alone in the midst of the land! (Isaiah 5:8)

In his commentary to the Book of Isaiah, the great medieval Jewish commentator Rashi explained the prophet’s words. What does Isaiah mean by saying Woe unto them that join house to house? Rashi explains that he is referring to powerful elites who “connected one house to another [for themselves], thereby taking the land of the weak and poor between the two houses…until there’s no place for the poor to live.” And what did the prophet mean by And ye be made to dwell alone in the midst of the land!. He meant that the powerful who evict the weak behave in this way because they believe that “neither God, nor the weak, have a share in the land…[they steal] the land of the weak so that there is room only for themselves”.

At this moment, forty members of the Sabbagh family in Sheikh Jarrah face imminent eviction. We stand to expel them from their homes to replace them with Jewish settlers who have no connection to the alleged original Jewish owners of the property. At the same time, we refuse to return the buildings – still standing! – that they owned in Yaffo prior to 1948. These evictions today, just as those that Isaiah spoke about thousands of years ago, are a desecration of everything holy and beautiful in our sacred tradition. We must leverage the power of Judaism and our people’s living bond to Jerusalem to stop discriminatory family evictions. 

יהי רצון

May it be God’s will that the faithful of Israel rise up and put an end to these unjust policies. 

שַׁאֲלוּ שְׁלוֹם יְרוּשָׁלָ‍ִם יִשְׁלָיוּ אֹהֲבָיִךְ 

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem; may they prosper that love thee.

About the Author
Shaiya Rothberg lives with his wife in Jerusalem Al-Quds. He is a teacher of Jewish Thought and a human rights activist. Shaiya holds a PhD from Hebrew University in Jewish Thought and a B.A. in Jewish Philosophy and Talmud from Bar-Ilan University. He made aliyah in 1988 and served as a soldier and officer in the I.D.F. Shaiya's writing and teaching focus on the transformative potential of Jewish tradition.
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