Shaiya Rothberg

We must not evict the Sabbagh family

Mohamed Sabbagh - together with 32 members of his family - face eviction from their home of sixty years. If evicted, God forbid, the Palestinian residents will be replaced by "Judaification" activists  associated with private NGOs. [Photo by Free Jerusalem]
Mohamed Sabbagh - together with 32 members of his family - face eviction from their home of sixty years. If evicted, God forbid, the Palestinian residents will be replaced by "Judaification" activists associated with private NGOs. [Photo by Free Jerusalem]

The Sabbagh family are our neighbors in Jerusalem. And they are members of an ethnic-national minority. Their fate is our test: Can we still remember that we were strangers in Mitsrayim?  

I often hear the claim that interpreting Pesach as about human liberation is “galut mentality”, that is, the way Jews think in exile. The authentic Israeli take on Pesach, so the logic goes, is all about Jewish power. Perhaps it’s true that identification with the oppressed is only a real option for those who are oppressed. A people in its own land will always think like Pharaoh.  If that’s true, it is a sad truth. It means that the Jewish mission in history was ill conceived. The choosing of Avraham; the covenant at Sinai; the Promised Land; It was all just a recipe for majoritarian chauvinism.

But I don’t believe that such cynicism is justified. Israel was conceived as a homeland for Jews, but one founded on “the vision of freedom, justice and peace of the prophets of Israel” and also on the  human rights principles of the U.N. Charter. Just as “America First” is not true patriotism, so too authentic Jewish commitment to Jerusalem, the city whose streets were walked by the Israelite prophets of old, cannot involve the victimization of her Palestinian residents.

The Abrahamic mission of Israel is to realize the human potential to be in צלם אלהים – the image of God; to reflect the חסד, דין ותפארת – the love, justice and beauty of our divine source. We can – we must! – wake up and recall why God said to Avraham  גר יהיה זרעך בארץ לא להם –  your children will be strangers in a strange land. It was so we would remember what it means to be oppressed and remain faithful to our mission by protecting the minority in our midst.

The story behind the looming Sabbagh eviction is complex but the bottom line is simple: Discrimination. It begins in 1950 when Israel legislated that “absentee” Palestinian property is forfeit, and so the Sabbagh family lost their properties in Yafo, Ashdod and Yavneh. The family fled to the Jordanian side of Jerusalem, where homes were built for them by the U.N. in cooperation with the Jordanian government on property which was allegedly owned by Jews before 1948.

I think that both the Israeli and Jordanian policies of expropriating the property of refugees (who are “absentees” only in the newspeak of military conquest) were wrong, and that the original owners should be compensated. But there is truth  in former Israeli Attorney General Michael Ben Yair‘s observation that there was a modicum of  “wartime justice” in settling refugees from one side in homes left behind by refugees from the other side. Ben Yair’s family themselves lost property in Sheikh Jarrah when they fled before 1948 but later received Palestinian properties in West Jerusalem as compensation. The Sabbagh family lost their property in Israel but received homes in Sheikh Jarrah.  At least refugees from both sides found homes.

But after conquering East Jerusalem in 1967, Israel legislated that Jews would recover properties they owned previous to 1948 while also holding on to the Palestinian properties they received in compensation. The Sabbagh family, on the other hand, cannot recover their homes from before 1948 and are now facing eviction from their present home of sixty years because the land on which their homes stand was allegedly owned by Jews from that same time. I say allegedly because the High Court refused on a technicality to address evidence that the property was not in fact owned by Jews: too much time has passed. So we’ll never know who owned the land way back then. But we know beyond doubt that the eviction of the Sabbagh family is a grave injustice.

That is because if these evictions were really about returning property to its original owners, then the policy would be blind to race, gender and religion, just like the right to property. The fact that only Jews can reclaim their pre-1948 properties, and only Palestinians will be evicted, proves that the issue is not property but discrimination. The policy is truly Kafkaesque: Those who stand to replace the family have no connection to the alleged original owners but are “Judaification” activists associated with private settler NGOs. The Sabbagh family has fallen victim to blatant and brutal injustice. They are our neighbors. We must protect them.

Members of the Sabbagh family outside the home from which they were banished in Yaffo after 1948. Photo by Haggai Matar.

It is not too late to stop the eviction. And that means it is not too late for us, too. We can abandon this self-destructive path of discrimination and violence and return to our holy mission; to who we are meant to be; to who we most truly are. Our mission is not to dominate and dispossess but to flourish in Eretz Yisrael through justice: ציון במשפט תיפדה. The People of Israel is holy –  גוי קדוש – in the sense that we are consecrated, not to wealth and power, but to God. The ongoing brutalization of the Sabbagh family constitutes, in the deepest sense, a desecration of God’s Name.

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.