Why It’s Wrong to Evict Arab Families in East 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]
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]

We all know that the international scene is marred with bigoted hatred of Israel. And Jews are often subject to racism and violence. In such times, it’s hard to hear Israel criticized. But when that criticism is morally justified, faithfulness to Israel requires facing the truth.   

Before I describe what I see as the painful truth, I want to make clear that I am an Israeli, a religious Jew and a Zionist. I made aliyah from the U.S. in 1988 at the age of 19 because I believed then, as I do now, in the importance of Jewish national life in Eretz Yisrael. For me, that meant serving as a soldier and officer in the I.D.F and then making my life here with my wife and three sons. I completed my doctoral research, on religious-Zionist thought, at Hebrew University in 2009 and have taught Jewish thought and Kabbalah in Jerusalem ever since. I see myself as part of Jewish national life and, as a religious Jew, believe that life carries special significance in Eretz Yisrael. Now that you know who I am, I’ll tell you about the painful truth that I see:

The State of Israel is seeking to evict roughly 150 Palestinian families — more than 1,000 individuals — from two neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, Sheikh Jarrah and Batan Al-Hawa (part of Silwan). If completed, the evictions will effectively destroy the communities who live there now.

Two basic facts about the evictions make it clear that they are immoral:

Fact #1. These families are being evicted because they are members of an ethnic-national minority (Palestinian Arabs). 

Fact #2: They are being evicted to be replaced with members of the ethnic-national majority (Israeli Jews). 

Both facts are clearly apparent in two areas of state policy.

The first area is the law. Many Jewish and Arab residents of Jerusalem live today in homes which were owned before 1948 by people who fled (or were expelled) from one side of the border to the other. Jordan housed Arab refugees in homes previously owned by Jews. Israel housed Jewish refugees in homes previously owned by Arabs. But as a result of discriminatory legislation, these two populations face very different legal realities. Arab families are now being evicted from their homes so that Jews can recover property they lost in 1948. But Jews are protected from evictions because the law does not allow Arabs to recover their lost property.

According to the law, Arabs become refugees twice: First in 1948 when they lost their property in West Jerusalem and again today when evicted from their homes in East Jerusalem. In stark contrast, Jews receive double compensation: First, when they moved into homes previously owned by Arabs in West Jerusalem (as compensation for property lost in East Jerusalem); Second, when they reclaim their original East Jerusalem properties by evicting Arab families. (In reality, it is not descendants of the original Jewish owners who receive the properties, but rather “Judaification” activists who have acquired title to the property, often through unethical government cooperation, as we will see below.)

The second area is government policy. Numerous Israeli government bodies actively seek to evict families who are members of the ethnic-national minority in the city in order to replace them with members of the ethnic-national majority. There are many well documented examples of unethical cooperation between government bodies and private organizations seeking to “Judaize” Arab neighborhoods.

I’ll bring one recent example that vividly captures the overall reality. Just a few months ago, Ilham Siyam and her four children were evicted from their apartment in Silwan and replaced by Jewish settlers. Ilham was evicted in spite of the fact that her mother had owned part of the compound in which her apartment is located. That was possible because the Custodian for Absentee Property in 2003 declared her mother an “absentee” since she lives in an Arab country. According to the Absentee Property Law  of 1950 (see discussion of  discriminatory legislation above) that means that her legally recognized ownership is simply annulled – forfeited – without compensation. Her part in the property was transferred to the state for no reason except that she lives in an Arab country. As a result, her daughter and grandchildren were evicted from their home.

The Custodian declared her an “absentee” in the middle of a decades long legal battle for control of the compound between the Siyam family and Elad (an NGO seeking to expand Jewish settlement). The Custodian then sold “it’s part” in the property to the highest bidder, which was Elad. Now that Elad “owned” a larger portion of the compound, the court ruled that Ilham Siyam and her children be evicted from their apartment so that the NGO could take “it’s share”. If you click on the examples linked above, you’ll see that such behavior is the rule, not the exception.

Compounding the injustice is the fact that the people who face evictions do not have the right to vote in national elections (they are legal permanent residents, but not citizens). They are not represented in the Israeli government bodies that legislate the laws which determine their fate.

In summary, it is clear that these families are being evicted from their homes because they are members of an ethnic-national minority (Palestinian Arabs) so that the state can achieve its aim of replacing them with members of the ethnic-national majority (Israeli Jews). Obviously, such a policy is deeply immoral. None the less, many fair-minded people I know are prepared to rationalize the injustice. In my experience, this seems to be the result of one of the following six misconceptions.

Misconception # 1. The families are being evicted because Israel respects the right to property: “The families being evicted simply don’t own these homes.”  

The right to property, which is a universally recognized human right, is blind to ethnic-national identity. If Israeli policy reflected the right to property, then Jews and Arabs in the same circumstances would face the same legal reality. Since only Arabs are expelled, and only Jews receive both compensation for their lost property (in the form of Arab property) and also the return of the original property (by evicting Arab families), clearly Israeli policy is about ethnic-national discrimination and not about the right to property.

Misconception # 2: The evictions are justified because the Arabs were at fault for the 1948 War.  

The more than 1000 individuals facing evictions from their homes have nothing to do with the 1948 War of Independence. They are legal residents of Jerusalem like myself and my family. Most of them have lived their entire lives as law-abiding tax-paying permanent residents of the State of Israel (with Israeli I.D. cards). They are the doctors and nurses who care for us in Jerusalem hospitals; they are business people, lawyers, teachers, cab-drivers,  contractors and engineers with whom we interact all the time. They are our neighbors. These people are not and have never been at war with Israel.

It is true that there are Palestinian Arabs who engage in racist violence against Israelis. Those people should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. But the 1,000 Jerusalem residents facing eviction are not an abstraction – they are not “The Palestinians” – they are real people, our neighbors, who have not been accused of any crime.

Misconception #3: The evictions are a painful dilemma: Either these Palestinian families lose their homes or the Jews who lived there before remain homeless. 

First, the Jews who lost their homes in East Jerusalem in 1948 were not homeless because they received compensation in the form of property previously owned by Arabs. Second, the people who are replacing the evicted families today are not descendants of the original owners but rather NGOs seeking to expand Jewish settlement. Often these NGOs have acquired control of the properties through unethical government cooperation. Therefore, the only ones being rendered homeless are the Palestinian families who are losing their homes, often for the second time.

Misconception #4: The law is the law, it doesn’t matter if it is blatantly discriminatory.  

This claim flies in the face of the Jewish experience in history. We have learned time and time again on our own bodies that when the state seeks to victimize a minority what results is terrible suffering and injustice. The law can be illegitimate. We as Jews are uniquely positioned to appreciate the necessity of standing up against immoral discriminatory laws.

Misconception #5: If the families received compensation, the evictions would be legitimate, like when the state expropriates somebody’s home to build a highway. 

It is true that the state has the authority to expropriate private property to build a highway. But that’s because building highways is a legitimate goal ostensibly pursued for the public good. Evicting families from their homes because they are members of an ethnic-national minority is not a legitimate goal. It is an abuse of state power for an immoral end. Compensation would not make it right.

Misconception # 6: It is justified to expel these families because Israel expelled hundreds of Israeli families from the Gaza strip.

A strong argument can be made that Israel significantly violated the human rights of those Israelis who settled in Gaza. However, it makes no sense to argue that since the State of Israel caused unjust suffering to residents of Israel in the past, it should now cause more unjust suffering to residents of Israel in the present. The 150 families who will suffer displacement, destruction of their neighborhoods and the social and economic security they afford, financial devastation, and the psychological trauma of being forced out of one’s home, had nothing to do with Ariel Sharon’s disengagement plan from Gaza.

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Two brothers of the Sabbagh family outside their former home in Yaffo (confiscated by the State of Israel in 1950). They now face eviction from their home in Jerusalem, which would make their family refugees – God forbid – for the second time. Is this the meaning of a “Jewish and Democratic State”?

The Sabbagh family in particular is in imminent danger of eviction from their home of more than sixty yearsThese unjust evictions are not who we are.  It is not too late to  save these families. In the past, public pressure caused an almost ten year hiatus in which no families like these were evicted. For love of Israel  – and in faithfulness to what she represents –  we must stand together to protect our neighbors!

About the Author
Shaiya Rothberg lives in Jerusalem and teaches Jewish Thought and Kabbalah at the Conservative Yeshiva. He's also a human rights activist focused on resisting the abuses of Israel's discriminatory West Bank regime. Shaiya holds a PhD from Hebrew University in Jewish Thought and a B.A. in Jewish Philosophy and Talmud from Bar-Ilan. He made aliyah in 1988 and served as a soldier and officer in the I.D.F. from 1990-1993 in the military government of the Gaza strip. The opinions in his blog are his own and do not represent any institution.
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