Will Reform Movement and JNF Prevent an Eviction? Rosh HaShanah 5780

I do my best to be original every year, but see that there is a theme running through my “Rosh HaShanah Thoughts” of the last three years.

On the eve of Rosh HaShanah 5777 (2016) I cited the U’Netanah Tokef prayer, teaching that on Rosh HaShanah God decides the fate of every human being for the coming year, and seals the decrees on Yom Kippur. I asked what would be the fate of the Israeli Bedouin “unrecognized” village of Al Araqib. On the eve of Rosh HaShanah 5778 I asked the same question at a U.S. Senate briefing regarding Susya. On the eve of 5779 I recalled the story of we read on Rosh HaShanah about how Abraham nearly sacrifices Isaac, and spoke about the knife raised over Khan Al Akhmar.   Each of those communities is still in great danger, but Susya and Khan Al Akhmar are still standing.  Al Araqib is re-demolished almost every week now, but has not been finished off.  An agreement reached with the Keren Kayemet L’YisraelJewish National Fund (KKL/JNF) not to complete turning Al Araqib into a forest until their ownership claims are resolved in court still holds. That agreement was reached after thousands of you wrote letters, and international concern has up until now preserved Susya and Khan Al Akhmar.  What we do makes a difference.

This year, my thoughts and prayers focus on East Jerusalem – particularly the Sumarin and Sabagh families.

Last Monday evening I paid a heart rending visit to the Sumarin family in East Jerusalem.  The court ruled on Sunday that they must abandon their home within 90 days, and turn it over to the KKL/JNF. While we still have the possibility of an appeal, the eviction noose is tightening around their necks. The mood was something between somber and distraught. The grandmother Amal’s hair was disheveled, and she was in tears. She spoke about not being able to sleep, asked where they would go, and expressed the hope that she could appeal to the world. It is not mine, but if you click this link, it includes Amal spilling her heart out. I could only listen, be there in the moment, and say that we would do whatever we could.

My “Rosh HaShanah Thoughts” for 5790 are a part of my effort to keep that promise.

We and our partners are in the process of designing our campaign, and will soon be in touch to let you know who to write to and what to demand.  Look at this as a “heads up.”  Just like Al Araqib, your letters and phone calls were a major factor in preventing the eviction in 2011. We will need your quick and massive response.

In the meantime, please read the Sumarin’s story below, and hold the family in your prayers these High Holy Days.  If you are giving a dvar Torah about Israel, please mention their plight.

While I usually try to speak more broadly as a Jew, a rabbi, an Israeli, and a human being, you will understand below my pain that my movement, the Reform Movement, shares responsibility for the Sumarin family’s potential eviction.  In 2011, as a part of the KKL/JNF governing coalition, the Reform Movement responded to your letters, and helped freeze the eviction. They, and the KKL/JNF in Israel and internationally, must do so again. They must take responsibility, and correct what they have contributed to.

Untold numbers of soul searching words will be recited by Jews around the world over the next ten days, as we beg God for forgiveness. However, God isn’t a machine.  We don’t just push the right button, or say the right words, and get forgiveness.  We are taught “For transgressions between a person and and God, Yom HaKippurim effects atonement, but for transgressions between a person and his/her fellow Yom HaKippurim does not effect atonement, until s/he has made things right with his/her fellow.” Mishna Yoma 8:9). This holds true for all of us, and also for the KKL/JNF, the Reform Movement, and the State of Israel.

This past week I was also in court with the Sabagh family, living in Sheikh Jarakh. They are in the midst of desperate last minute legal actions to stave off their eviction, that was originally scheduled for last January. I will also tell their story below.  However, I am going to concentrate on the Sumarin family because your role is going to be more direct and critical. The fate of the Sabagh family basically hinges on international pressure, and getting the courts to take a look at new evidence from Turkish archives that the courts are currently not willing to entertain.  Click here for some additional information.

In the case of the Sumarin family, the home can apparently be saved for a price.  The question is , “Who should pay?”

This summary by “Peace Now” is fairly comprehensive.

The Sumarin family home is located in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan.  They have the bad luck of being adjacent to the Elad “City of David” visitor center.  Elad, whose articles of incorporation state that their true goal is to “Judaize” Silwan, have already taken their yard, and greatly covet the home.

There is no question that the Sumarin family owned the home until it was taken from them through a radical use of the “Absentee Property Law.” This law was originally passed in 1950. It transfers to a custodian lands owned by non-Jews who were not living on their lands after the U.N. declaration on the 29th of November. It was applied after 1967 in East Jerusalem. Originally it was only applied in cases where the property was totally abandoned. However, in the 1980’s much more extreme interpretations of the law were used to declare many properties abandoned, even though they weren’t.

Musa Sumarin died in 1983.  Although his nephew Muhammed and his family had been living in the home and taking care of Musa, and continued to live in the home after Musa’s death, Musa’s three sons were living abroad.  They were the legal heirs.  The home was therefore declared abandoned property, and transferred to the Custodian.

After the Israeli government’s own Klugman Report in 1992, and under pressure from the Israeli High Court, the Israeli government agreed not to apply the law in the way it was used to take the home from the Sumarin family. However, that was too late for the Sumarins. The Custodian for Absentee Property swapped the home and other Silwan properties and lands with the KKL/JNF’s subsidiary HImanuta in 1991.

In other words, the very fact that Israel now considers the KKL/JNF the owner of the family home is a situation that never should have happened because it was taken through a process that even the Israeli government itself acknowledged to be wrong. All of the intricacies of the subsequent legal attempts by Himanuta to evict the family and charge back rent, all the questions whether the family made mistakes in how it has tried to defend itself and whether there is any truth to the claims that Muhammad Sumarin had actually acquired the property, and all of my Movement’s efforts to find a solution allowing the family to stay in their home should not blur the fact that the home never should have been taken to begin with.

After many back and forth court rulings, KKL/JNF’s subsidiary, Himanuta, was poised in November 2011 to evict the family and charge an astronomic sum for “back rent.”  All legal hurdles had been cleared. As mentioned above, following an international campaign and intervention by the Reform Movement, the  KKL/JNF informed me that they agreed to freeze the planned eviction “for now,” and also made a public announcements.

While the family earned a reprieve, the KKL/JNF did not make a permanent commitment to never resume eviction efforts. Israel still said the home belonged to the KKL/JNF.  The KKL/JNF has a history of having turned over many other properties to Jewish settler organizations such as Elad. In fact, the lawyer representing the KKL in the eviction case also works for Elad.

One of the key decisions that almost led to the family’s eviction in 2011 was an in absentia ruling in 2006 allowing Himanuta to evict the family.  The family’s position was further weakened by Muhamad’s death. The family’s new lawyer appealed to have that in absentia ruling erased.

I was not involved in that decision.  If the family had consulted with me at that point, I would have perhaps counseled trying to broker an agreement with the KKL/JNF that, should the KKL/JNF temporary freeze ever be ended, the family would be given an opportunity to petition to cancel the in absentia ruling.  However, I repeat what I wrote above – the KKL/JNF was very clear with me that the freeze on KKL/JNF efforts to evict the family was not a permanent commitment. The court ruling allowing (not requiring) eviction was a Sword of Damocles over the family’s head.  The family had to work within the unjust given that the home had been taken through the extreme and unjust interpretation of the Absentee Property Law.

Again, at any point, including when the family succeeded in petitioning the court to cancel the in absentia ruling and including now, after last week’s ruling, the KKL/JNF could have elected to drop their demand to evict the family.  They could maintain the 2011 freeze, even though the court has given them the “right” to evict the family.  I have heard different takes on whether the fact that the in absentia ruling was cancelled required a resumption of the case, or if the case was resumed because one party or the other requested.  However, the court was only dealing with this because the KKL/JNF brought the case in 2005.

 In my discussions with the Reform faction on the KKL/JNF board, I understand that they are interested in finding a solution avoiding an eviction, and avoiding a massive campaign such as the one that preceded the decision to freeze the demolitions in 2011. The issue is money.  The KKL/JNF doesn’t believe that it can absorb the financial loss involved in giving up its claims on the property.  There could an opening, if they would not take a loss.

I have tried to speak to JNF USA CEO Russell Robinson to propose that KKL/JNF affiliates around the world take responsibility, and ask their donors to raise the necessary funds.  Unfortunately, he indicated that he is not willing to discuss this.  Because of our 2011 campaign, and the growing uneasiness about some of the actions of the KKL/JNF, he has done everything he can to separate JNF USA from the KKL/JNF in Israel.  Of course, this is a smokescreen. Firstly, even though it is apparently true that JNF USA has taken steps since 2011 to legally separate themselves from KKL-JNF, and their funds go only to JNF USA projects, those funds free up other funds to do the work of the KKL/JNF in Israel.  In addition, there was not that degree of separation when the home was acquired by Himanuta, or during the court proceedings up until 2011.  If you or those you know have the ear of Russell Robinson, it would be very helpful to convince him to discuss this issue.  As I wrote him, this is ultimately a win-win situation: “Justice is served, the Sumarin family keeps its home, the KKL doesn’t suffer a financial loss, and JNF USA looks great and can be proud of its role.”

I also believe that the Reform Movement worldwide could and should be inspired to take responsibility for the fact that they are part of the governing coalition of the KKL/JNF, and help raise the needed funds. Last year I was asked by “Truah” to bring first year Reform rabbinical students to visit the family.  Twenty-seven chose to write a letter to Reform leadership that acknowledged all the difficulties that could be created for the Movement by making waves within the KKL/NF, “However, you are our teachers. We learned from you that Judaism demands of us to put principle first. We are only asking of you to act as you taught us, when you inspired us to embark upon the path to become Jewish leaders.”

The State of Israel also shares responsibility, as it passed and applied the Absentee Property Law.  They could compensate the KKL/JNF.

Rabbis meet with Amal Sumarin and her family this summer.

The Sabagh family is one of the 28 Palestinian refugee families from 1948 who found themselves in Jordanian controlled East Jerusalem in the 1950s. Jordan and UNRA offered to give them property in the Sheikh Jarakh neighborhood, in exchange for them giving up their refugee status.  However, Jordan never gave them the deeds.  In 1972, two Israeli groups went to the Israeli Land Registry, and claimed they had owned these lands before 1948. Palestinians in the neighborhood point to properties Jews were forced to abandon in 1948, but not the properties in question.  In fact, before 1956 they were empty plots. The Turkish documents submitted in 1972 were apparently rental agreements, not purchase agreements.  In a court hearing this year, the Land Registry was completely unable to explain how they had agreed to assign ownership to the Jewish groups in 1972. This has let to a recent motion to cancel the eviction notice because it is based on deception.

In the complicated legal battles that have continued from 1972 until today, the Jewish groups consistently lost until the lawyer for the Sheikh Jarakh families agreed in the 1990s, without the consent of most of the families, to acknowledge Jewish ownership, in exchange for protected tenant status. He no doubt thought that this would protect the families for at least several generations. However, the more aggressive “Nakhalat Shimon” group took over the eviction efforts. They argued that the families had violated their protected tenant status, and therefore forfeited their protected status.  One family was evicted in 2008 and two in 2009.  The Sabagh family is next in line.

Beneath the veneer of seemingly legitimate legal actions to reclaim lost property, the Sabaghs and the Sumarins are caught in the web of relentless settler efforts to take over or create enclaves in Palestinian East Jerusalem neighborhoods. Not only are the claims that the Sabagh family home was owned by Jews before 1948 apparently false, but the entire process violates the Jewish prohibition against eifah v’eifah – discriminatory double standards.  Israeli law does not allow Palestinians to go to court to reclaim property taken over by Jews. It only allows Jews to go to court to reclaim property they say was taken over by Palestinians.

Apparently one of the reasons that this case has dragged on for so long is that Jerusalem’s legendary former mayor, Teddy Kolleck, did his best to put a stop to it. He understood that this was opening a Pandora’s Box, as no Israeli would want a principle dictating that everybody goes back to where they were before 1948.  In order to drive this home, we are currently exploring the possibility of a court case trying to reclaim the Sabagh family properties in Jaffa, even though the law does not currently give them the right to do so.

Those of us who love Israel, who aspire to a just Israel, and particularly those of us affiliated with the Reform Movement, must deliver the message these High Holy Days that the way to support Israel is not “Israel, right or wrong.”  It is doing our best to make sure that Israel, the Reform Movement, and the KKL/JNF are right, just, and honor God’s Image in every human being. There are so many actions having nothing to do with Israel’s security, other than the fact that engendering hate endangers our security, that we can prevent or take in order to reach our goal, improve Israel’s image and contribute to Kiddush haShem-the sanctification of God’s Name.

Although I understand how those with no love for Israel eagerly pounce on our desire to work for a better Israel, we must overcome our hesitations about “washing our dirty laundry in public” by weighing on the other side of the scales the real damage done to actual human beings when we fail to act.

The clock is ticking for these families. We don’t have time to hesitate.

When Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel was speaking at one of the major Vietnam war protests in DC, he told the story of how he was terrified every time he would read the story of the near sacrifice of Isaac we read on Rosh HaShannah. He would ask his father, “What if the angel who tells Abraham to stay his hand had come late?”  His father would reassure him that angels never come late. Heschel raised his eyes to the crowd and said  “An angel cannot come too late, my friends, but we, made of flesh and blood, we may come too late.”

Who, if not we, can be the messengers to stay the knife posed against the Sumarin family, the Sabagh family, and so many others?

Let us resolve that we will not come too late.

Shana Tova-Wishing You a Sweet and Joyous New Year as Full of Justice and Human Rights and Decency, as the Pomegranate is Full of Seeds,

About the Author
Rabbi Arik Ascherman is the founder and director of the Israeli human rights organization "Torat Tzedek-Torah of Justice." Previously, he led "Rabbis For Human Rights" for 21 years. Rabbi Ascherman is a sought after lecturer, has received numerous prizes for his human rights work and has been featured in several documentary films, including the 2010 "Israel vs Israel." He and "Torat Tzedek" received the Rabbi David J. Forman Memorial Fund's Human Rights Prize fore 5779. Rabbi Ascherman is recognized as a role model for faith based human rights activism.
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