…For the Help That You Can Bring

On meeting Haim Gouri at the shut gate to Sheikh Jarrah

Gershom Gorenberg

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.

'Jewish-Arab solidarity in Sheikh Jarrah': Protesters, August 8, 2010
‘Jewish-Arab solidarity in Sheikh Jarrah’:
Protesters, August 8, 2010 (Gershom Gorenberg)

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.

9 thoughts on “…For the Help That You Can Bring”

  1. It might be stretching things to see this as a birth of a peace movement. Not to diminish the importance to the families involved, this whole issue is negligible to the current Arab-Israeli war. Even symbolically it’s not relevant except to those who are fighting against the original occupation, the one that occurred in 1948. My guess is that some of the “establishment doves” involved here would oppose the kind of peace movement you mean.

    The so-called right of the Jews to return to their homes does not establish a so-called right of Arabs to return. To say that it does is a sign of sloppy thinking, of treating different situations identically.

  2. Correction: strike what I said about 1948. Careless thinking on my own part. But at least since September 2000 Israelis have understood that being against the occupation does not put you in the peace camp.

  3. The Jews moved into the houses as a result of a court order. You “progressives” have a beef with the court ruling, NOT with the Jews living there. It is claimed that the court order “wasn’t fair” due to the nature of Knesset legislation that is supposedly not symmetrical. So I suggest it would be more fitting for you to protest against the court or the Knesset. So why don’t you “progressives” protest at those locations? Because it wouldn’t be FUN. The Supreme Court is made up largely of fellow “progressives”. If you called for a protest there, or at the Knesset no one would come. Protesting against SETTLERS is a lot more fun and motivating to get demonstrators out.

    You can all go and protest for years if you want. The Jews aren’t leaving.
    If you really care about the refugees, don’t wait for a peace agreement which will take years if it is achievable at all. I say track down the pre-1948 Arab owners of the land your Yedidya Synaogue is sitting plus the land and houses many of its members are sitting on in the German Colony, Baka ,etc and give it back to them! Then you will be real humanists.

  4. YBD, why don’t you upload your text somewhere on the web? That way you’ll only need to post the link whenever the opportunity arises, and you’ll be saved a lot of typing.

    The court gave an indecent ruling, based on an indecent law. It did not order the settlers to move to Sheikh Jarrah, this indecency they took upon themselves entirely. Without them asking for the Palestinians to be kicked out in the first place there would never have been a court case.

  5. Life must trump law collapsed through war. Who owned land in 48 or 67 is immaterial; it is who lives now that matters. The issue should be present safety and happiness, to use old American Independence terms. The question is whether the Israeli Courts can get there, and how far the Knesset may override.

    One does not protest courts; one creates a new fact on the ground from which appeal is possible. Life must trump race. A terrible proposition in any land. The genesis of law is on the ground; one provides an opportunity for the Courts to act anew or change their past or, in outside chance, for the Knesset to change its mind.

    These battles are not unique to Israel but occur in any ethnic war translated into legal conflict. After the Mexican American war c 1846 new US land was subject to often conflicting titles from the Mexican government. The California Supreme Court mostly annuled them. Squatters, good old American squatters, were given legal right by their simple presence. One Justice of the California Supreme Court was appointed by Linclon to the US Supreme Court precisely because he understood title conflict in the acquired territory. And guess how that Court resolved them.

    The battle is over the law throughout Israel, and the obvious solution for me is to void ALL title derivitive of military occupations (48 and 67; 48 including Jordanian as well as nascent Israeli documents) not currently supported by a living, resident presence. That is, a Palestinian in a home, having an old title, may use it to justify his holding; but a Palestinian not resident may not; and so for Jews too. One may still argue for repossession on other grounds (say, that one was resident 10 years ago but kicked out through shady business deals or outright bodily threat), but title old in itself would have no standing. There will be injustices, for these old titles are sold on the market (as in the case of the Jewish Settler group), and buyers assumed the law in this area was stable.

    But it cannot be stable and conform to any view of equal protection for Arab Israelis, let alone Palestinians stateless.

    I have already suggested on this blog a no one wins solution to the right of return: let Jews holding title throughout Israel be allowed to sell to Palestinians descendent from refugees; let the State of Israel protect this sells against angry Jews who claim Israel has lost its mission. In reality few such sells would ocurr, for one needs a willing Jewish owner and a financially adequate Palestinian. Even so, the barrior of past victory would be breached. And that is all one can do, just breach it, absent violence. In fact, this just breach is the only way to preserve something of return without thereby creating a new refugee class.

    Sheikh Jarrah battles life against war and law, a battle for natural rights of the lived. It has the potential to cascade into a constitutional change throughout Israel, but faces great hurrdles, for the underlying issue will be how basic right is created in Israel. Apart from race and vengeance, this conflict festers because the Israeli constitutional system is not yet fully defined. How are natural rights, the tools of livelihood and advance, to be asserted to exist? That “to be” is important, for as yet I suspect, but do not know, that no clear mechanism exists.

    This struggle transcends all race, all argued history, resident in the eyes of someone now living in a tent; but as resident in the eyes of David Grossman’s.

  6. what exactly do you think would happen if the Palestinians won the war? Do you think they would allow Jews to remain in their houses?

  7. Gregory, small point: most of the land by far in Israel (some 90% IIRC) is not owned by Jews who live on it, it’s only leased from the ILA, precisely to prevent the sale to non-Jews. (OTOH, most of the land inhabited by Palestinians is privately owned.)
    So the “willing owner” you’re looking for would have to be the state itself, which leads to the issue of compensation for past injustice. *Selling* land, whether or not the original parcel, to refugees would add insult to injury, since the land was robbed from them in the first place.

  8. Fiddler,

    I know. In the UK much land is owned by those other than what most would call holders of property right. Buying property then means buying use rights. True too in Israel, where Israelis who buy and sell land are really being allowed to transfer use rights. So what I advocate is simply that the State allow such transfer (upon a willing Jewish “seller”) to the kind of descendent of refugee Palestinian I mentioned. The “willing owner” would not be the State but the citizen holding use rights on land, an extension of standard Israeli practice. As said in the earlier comment, I do not think many such transfers would occur, for lack of buying money and willing seller. But you never know: corperations care more about profit than ideology.

  9. I find it curious that the history is being spun so that the neighborhood in question is being described thus: “Sheikh Jarrah is a residential area just north of the walled Old City. Until 1948, a small number of Jews lived in the mainly Arab neighborhood. During the brutal fighting of ‘48, the Jews left. ”

    In fact, the name of the neighborhood was Shimon HaTzadik, after the grave of the Jewish sage buried there; it was founded originally by Jews in the 1800s because there was no more room within the safer Old City walls; it was originally majority Jewish; the name was changed by the Jordanian occupiers; the Jews didn’t “leave” in the passive sense of this sentence but were driven out by death threats by the Arabs both during the war and earlier during the Arab pogroms of the 1930s.

    This knee-jerk and biased outrage on the part of the Left and their Arab clients is silly agitprop in light of the fact that Arabs own and rent apartments all over “western” Jerusalem, including Baka.

    A crucial point always omitted in Left wing articles such as this is that the Supreme Court gave the Arab tenants an alternative to eviction: they would have a special tenancy for life, and could not be evicted, as long as they payed rent to the original owners. They refused. As a result of turning that option down, the other option, eviction, was implemented.

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