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There goes the neighborhood: Revisiting Sheikh Jarrah

A film about Sheikh Jarrah obscures the Jerusalem neighborhood's Jewish history and misrepresents the wider political reality

I last visited the Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah in July 2012. I was leading a group of graduate students on their first study abroad trip to Israel. Sheikh Jarrah, not far from the Old City, was our final stop. My students were flagging. A cold drink in the shaded courtyard of Nabil El Kurd’s home promised some welcome relief from that week’s brutal heat wave. As we sipped our chilled water, we learned about the travails of the Palestinian El Kurd family who since 2009 have been forced, by court order, to share their street with a group of Jewish settlers who hold an original deed to the land. From our seats in Nabil’s courtyard we could see the rooftop of a nearby house, festooned with Israeli flags.

At a recent screening of the new documentary My Neighborhood, I had the chance to revisit the conversation with Mr. El Kurd. The 25-minute film, which was made by the Israeli-Palestinian group Just Vision and recently won a Peabody Award, chronicles his struggles with the Israeli courts and Jewish settlers. Unfortunately, the Israelis portrayed in My Neighborhood are remarkably unappealing. The only religious Jew interviewed comes off as arrogant, chauvinistic, and oblivious to the day-to-day hardships of his Arab neighbors. Black-hatted haredi men are mostly seen shouting curses at protesters. Juxtaposed with these unattractive characters is El Kurd’s eleven-year-old son, Mohammed, an utter charmer. As with most documentaries on the conflict – produced by the largely secular Israeli peace camp – we, like Mohammed, can’t help hating the religious Jews, who are obviously ruining the neighborhood.

For Just Vision, which is committed both to exposing the plight of Palestinians under Israeli occupation and to non-violence, Sheikh Jarrah is no different from any other Jewish housing development in east Jerusalem, or for that matter in the West Bank. They are all illegal settlements to which Jews are unentitled.

In fact, the film’s simplistic rendition of Israel’s current Jerusalem policy obscures more than it clarifies. After all, the neighborhoods of “greater Jerusalem” that were captured in 1967 are much more contentious than tiny Sheikh Jarrah. There is a broad Israeli consensus that in any final peace deal the growing Jewish settlements of Givat Zeev, Maale Adumim, and Gush Etzion should be incorporated into the state of Israel. The Palestinians have consistently rejected this position.

In the film, the focus is on the city’s innermost belt, communities that circle the Old City (and include Jewish housing purchases in the Muslim and Christian quarters of the Old City itself). The controversy over these communities is quite different from the larger towns, which have been nurtured by the government and have attracted middle-class Israelis looking for affordable housing. For one, the prime agent of growth is not the Israeli government, but private settler organizations, financed by wealthy Jews and Christians from abroad. To be sure, the government spends millions of shekels to guard the few thousand Jewish residents living there. But it is private organizations such as El-Ad and Ateret Cohanim – through fundraisers hosted in the U.S. and Canada primarily – that are footing the bill for the home purchases.

Historically, Sheikh Jarrah is a place where Jews lived before being expelled by foreign rulers. Jewish residents present nineteenth century documents showing many of the present-day properties were owned by Jews. It is also the site of the compound of Shimon HaTzadik (Simon the Just), the great high priest from the second Temple era who is believed to be buried there. What drives the religious Jews to live in Sheikh Jarrah is a fear that if they left, the tomb would be desecrated, or Jews would be denied access to it. These views are not entirely without foundation.

A small Jewish community that had settled near the tomb in the late 1800s was forced to leave the area in 1948. From 1949 to 1967, when Jordan controlled east Jerusalem, Jews were not allowed to visit any of their holy sites. The Jordanian authorities demanded that all visitors produce a baptismal certificate to pass from west Jerusalem to the eastern part of the city. During the nineteen years of Jordanian rule, more than forty synagogues were destroyed in the Old City and tombstones from the Mount of Olives were used for military latrines.

Even after the Six Day War, there were next to no Jews living among the Arabs in east Jerusalem. Teddy Kollek, who was mayor during all these years, never supported it. His model was what he called the “mosaic policy” – a live-and-let live approach, whereby the city would be open, as much a city for Arabs as for Jews. Living in Jerusalem in the 1980s, I felt that he struck a different tenor. The place really felt like a cosmopolitan city – Jewish Jerusalemites shopping and eating their way through Arab east Jerusalem (especially on Shabbat); Arab Jerusalemites working in the western part of the city. With the Likud’s rise to power and Kollek’s retirement, it was the end of the mosaic policy. And the beginning of neighborhood tensions.

While Jews try to strengthen their hold on the city, it’s clear that Palestinians aren’t eager to share control of Jerusalem. We know from poll data that only six percent of Palestinians would agree to grant access to Jewish holy sites in a future state of Palestine. We also know that for over four decades there has been a growing, international campaign to denigrate the Jewish connection to Jerusalem. Yasir Arafat certainly, but even moderates like Mahmoud Abbas and Saeb Erekat, the Palestinian chief negotiator, have at one time or another each made public statements that no Jewish Temples ever existed. A recent poll sponsored by the Palestine Center for Public Opinion found that seventy two percent of Palestinians deny Jerusalem’s Jewish history. We also know from recent reports by the International Crisis Group that Hamas’ presence in east Jerusalem is growing along with Islamic radicalization. Many residents now support groups like Hizb-ut-Tahrir (the Liberation Party) – a group that denies Israel’s right to exist and seeks to reestablish the Muslim caliphate.

My Neighborhood is about a single part of Jerusalem engaging in non-violent protest. But what happens in Sheikh Jarrah is clearly influenced by the larger conflict and its bloodshed. From 2000 to 2006 during the second intifada, west Jerusalemites experienced more suicide bombings than did the residents of any other Israeli city. After the West Bank separation barrier was erected, some of the most notorious acts of terrorism have been perpetrated by Palestinians from east Jerusalem, who have killed and maimed Israelis in the western part of the city. (I happened to be in Jerusalem for a conference in March 2008 on the very day that a young Palestinian man from the city killed eight students at the Mercaz Harav yeshiva.)

The Sheikh Jarrah demonstrations, which emerged in 2009 with the eviction of Palestinian families from their homes there, brought hundreds of Israelis into the neighborhood, including luminaries such as author David Grossman. While Just Vision’s documentary gives the impression that the protests are still drawing crowds, in fact, the demonstrations have more or less petered out. The reality is that the Sheikh Jarrah solidarity protests have been one of the many casualties of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. These days there is such an aversion to working with Israelis that the likelihood of Palestinian Jerusalemites forging an alliance with Jews to protest occupation is next to nil.

In the present atmosphere of anti-normalization, My Neighborhood seems almost quaint. And yet, say what you will about the BDS movement, it is not a campaign of suicide bombings. At a time when a perpetually stalled peace process is giving way to murmurs of a violent third intifada, Just Vision’s call for nonviolence, and the central message of its recent documentary, that non-violence pays, is both admirable and more timely than ever.

About the Author
Miriam F. Elman teaches and writes on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from her hometown in New York. She is a political scientist and security studies specialist at the Maxwell School of Syracuse University.