As 2021 drew to a close, 237 American rabbis sent a letter to Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, urging a halt to demolitions in the Palestinian village of al-Walaja, now part of the Jerusalem municipality. Approximately 1,000 people in the village live under threat of demolition. As the new year dawns, the fate of these families lies in the hands of Lapid and his government. This is in part because Israel’s High Court, which was to rule on 26 December on the demolition of 38 homes, postponed the hearings. But a decision of the highest court is only as strong as the government’s will to carry it out. For the moment, with the hearings postponed, those particular homes will not be touched. But any of al-Walaj’s other homes might be, and with little to no warning. Four other homes have been demolished in the past few months alone.
In 1967, approximately half of al-Walaja was incorporated into the Jerusalem municipality, which refuses to issue building permits. Thus some 150 Palestinian homes were declared illegal. Approximately thirty homes have been destroyed in the past 5 years, sometimes injuring residents in the process. Chunks of al-Walaja were carved out to expand Jewish settlements, including a planned 5,000-unit housing project. Meanwhile, the Separation Barrier cuts off access to olive trees harvested by these families for generations. It also cuts off al-Walaja’s largest freshwater spring, now a picnic area for Israelis.
It took courage for these 237 rabbis to sign this letter. American Jews want “spiritual leaders,” and believe that religious leaders should not engage in politics. But Judaism stresses justice over spirituality. The Torah and the Prophets are a call to action, and calling upon one’s government to behave justly – whether the US government or the government of Israel – is not a violation of the principle of separation of church and state.
We hope Lapid will take note of this document. His leadership of the State of Israel demands it. In the short time I have lived in Jerusalem I have seen the interplay of broad apathy on the part of Israelis, and the government taking the path of least resistance – that of doing nothing. If Lapid perpetuates this position-of-not-taking-a-position, he will create the worst possible outcome not merely for the residents of al-Walaja, but for the state itself.
My wife and I made Aliyah on 15 May 2018. We may have been the only Olim – new immigrants – on that Nefesh b’Nefesh flight who were aware that May 15th is Nakba Day, when Palestinians commemorate the consequences they suffered when the State of Israel was established. This is not us trying to be “politically correct,” nor to whitewash any aspect of this complex situation. It is merely part of our ongoing effort to be informed. I am an observant Jew and an Orthodox rabbi, proud and grateful to be both an American and, now, an Israeli. I came to Jerusalem to live as a Jew in the Jewish homeland. For me that means upholding the Torah, fostering an Israeli society grounded in justice, and furthering the Prophetic vision of “My House shall be a house of prayer for all nations” (Isaiah 56:7.)
In our first year here, my wife and I were among the founders of a coalition of religious Jews working against the evictions of Palestinian families from their East Jerusalem homes. We learned about the network of powerful private interests working to take over Jerusalem neighborhoods, including al-Walaja.
Organizations, funded at least in part by American donors, pay for young Jewish men to squat in Palestinian homes, where many are protected by private armed security forces that operate with impunity. These Palestinian families were not combatants – not in 1948, and not since. Some even surrendered their rights as refugees in order to remain in East Jerusalem after 1948. Much of the private funding for these dispossessions comes from outside of Israel, funneled through opaque entities, including US not-for-profits. Anonymous wealthy Americans receive tax deductions for evicting Palestinians from homes they have lived in for generations.
These millions of dollars push easily through Israeli fatigue. If the two-state solution is dying, the moral failings are not all on one side. I did not live here during the Second Intifada – neither did most of the Americans who blithely take Israel to task for everything. Some 1,000 Israelis died during four years of extreme violence, starting in late 2000, with bus bombings and acts of terror a daily occurrence. Now many Israelis are beyond hatred; they simply want quiet. While polls indicate the majority of Israelis favor two states, a two-state solution is far off, not because Israel is bent on oppressing Palestinians, but because Israelis no longer care. Israelis merely want to go about their lives. Since the Second Intifada, they no longer have the stomach for “giving it one more try.”
Even on the Left, for all the furor over the evictions in Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood, only about forty people showed up outside the Supreme Court when a recent eviction case was being heard. It’s hard to make an impact when there are almost as many journalists as demonstrators. No one compels the State to act to protect these residents, and so it does nothing, allowing private interests to drive policy, complete with their obscure sources of funding, their often violent rhetoric, and their private paramilitaries.
Those who look to the court to halt the demolitions should note the West Bank settlement of Homesh, site of the recent murder of a yeshiva student. In 2013 Israel’s High Court of Justice ordered the military to return the land to its Palestinian owners. The Israeli Defense Forces ignored the court’s order and the settlers remained. It took a murder for the government to finally dismantle the yeshiva – though the story is not over. The court’s ruling is only as strong as the commitment of the state to carry it out. While we mourn the murder of Yehuheda Dimentman, it was the state that put him in harm’s way, in defiance of the court. Of course, the murderers should be brought to justice. But will anyone dare criticize the yeshiva, the army, or the government for flouting the very concept of the Rule of Law? Those who still cling to the idea of Two States should look at the one existing state. It’s not in good shape.
I continue meeting with Palestinians in Sheikh Jarrah – it at least lets them know there are Jews who are aware of their situation. I continue speaking with Israelis, some of whom don’t even know that thousands of Palestinians living in East Jerusalem are not citizens and lack basic services and protections. I continue going to demonstrations and seeking to speak with Americans in positions to influence policy. I am only one person. Meanwhile, the Greater Israel project marches on. This is not a story of doughty political will forcing its way against stiff resistance. It is of nationalist and religious single-mindedness, strolling easily through the apathy of a public that just wants to be left alone. At this rate there will be no two states. There is barely one.
I recently spoke with an Israeli who was for many years a high-profile activist. Now she embodies Israel’s fatigue with the whole business. “This is the best we can do,” she said, referring to Netanyahu (to whom she saw no better alternative), to the Occupation (which she does not support), to the occasional flare-ups with Gaza (which she finds inevitable), to the ongoing squeezing of Palestinian society, both within Israel and in the West Bank, all of which she believes is impervious to change. “We’ve tried,” she says. “We really tried. And this is the best we can do.”
As the new year begins, I pray that she is wrong – and I fear that she may be right.
Over to you, Mr. Lapid.
Rabbi Silver’s latest book is The Weight of Gold, a new look at the Torah’s universal messages for personal growth and social justice. All profits from book sales are contributed to charity. See at: https://tikkunolam613.com