On meeting Haim Gouri at the shut gate to Sheikh Jarrah
My new article on the Sheikh Jarrah demonstrations is up at The American Prospect. This was written just before yesterday’s demo, which I’d guess drew between 500 and 1,000 people – a large increase from previous protests. During Ramadan, the demos will be held on Saturday night, after nightfall, inside the neighborhood.
I spotted Haim Gouri standing in the East Jerusalem park among several hundred other demonstrators on a recent Friday afternoon. The wind swept the poet’s silver hair over a face scarred by nearly 87 years of history. Paramilitary border police stood next to an impromptu roadblock across the street, barring the protesters from Sheikh Jarrah — an Arab neighborhood of East Jerusalem where several Palestinian families have been evicted from their homes so Israeli settlers can claim real estate owned by Jews before 1948. To remove any doubts: No one is letting the evicted Palestinians reclaim the homes their families owned before 1948 in what is now Israel.
It was Gouri’s first appearance at the weekly demonstration, which has grown since last autumn. Back in 1948, Gouri was a soldier in the new Israeli army. His mournful ballads are the most famous songs of Israel’s War of Independence. As a poet and journalist, he became the articulate voice of Israel’s determinedly inarticulate founding generation. One of his early poems begins, “I am a civil war.” In 1967, after Israel’s conquest of the West Bank, he wrestled with himself before signing a declaration drawn up by impractical poets demanding permanent Israeli rule of the “Whole Land of Israel.” He thereby marked himself as a rightist — though Gouri gradually cast off the fantasy of the Whole Land. In a later poem, from the 1990s, he wrote:
I am filled with abandoned villages, abandoned objects
gaping shoes, ripped blankets, punctured bundles…
an anklet longing till today for its ankle
It may be the best elegy written in Hebrew for the deserted Palestinian villages of 1948. After he wrote it, he has said, “there were friends who wouldn’t speak to me.”
I asked him why he’d decided to come to the protest. What was happening in Sheikh Jarrrah, he said, his gravelly voice almost drowned up by snare drums driving the protest chants, was “the height of indecency.” He paused, and added in English, “It isn’t done.”
Finding Gouri at the protest was the final confirmation that the Sheikh Jarrah demonstrations have gone mainstream. After being comatose for a decade, the Israeli left may be regaining consciousness — woken by an injustice so simple, so public that it cannot be ignored.
Sheikh Jarrah is a residential area just north of the walled Old City. (See map.) Until 1948, a small number of Jews lived in the mainly Arab neighborhood. During the brutal fighting of ’48, the Jews left. Their flight was part of a larger story: In and around Jerusalem, Jews as well as Arabs fled or were expelled from their homes, though the number of Arab refugees was larger.
In 1956, the Jordanian government resettled 28 Palestinian families — refugees from what had become Israel — on abandoned land in Sheikh Jarrah. As a condition for getting homes, the families renounced their refugee status. In this case, at least, displaced Palestinians put displacement behind them and started over.
Except history didn’t let them. …
Read the rest here, and come back to South Jerusalem to comment.