RHR2010: How Long Before Indefinite Detention Without Charge Becomes Permanent Betrayal of Our Values?
RHR2010: Whose Rights? Where does Judaism require us to focus our efforts: Global justice, Community Organizing or Israel?

RHR2010: The Crisis in East Jerusalem

I'm blogging from Human Rights Under Fire: A Jewish Call to Action, Rabbis for Human Rights - North America's third conference on Judaism and human rights.

Break-out session: The Crisis in East Jerusalem

This session is led by Maya Wind, Columbia University; Ruth Carmi, New Israel Fund; and Wendy Zerin, Congregation Nevei Kodesh.

Maya Wind begins by showing us a map of Jerusalem, explaining the Green Line and the various definitions of East Jerusalem and West Jerusalem. In 1967 came the unification of Jerusalem. She shows us the old city walls of Jerusalem; the Old City is east of the Green Line, which means that early on, the Israeli authorities were clear that they didn't want to leave the old city (with the Western Wall) under Palestinian control. The old city is only 1 square kilometer, but Israel wound up annexing 70 square km into the municipal border of Jerusalem.

"What happened to the Palestinians living there? Today there are 740,000 people in Jerusalem; 36% are Palestinians living in East Jerusalem." They have a special ID; they have a residency permit, a unique status only for East Jerusalem Palestinians. They can technically, by law, receive social services and benefits from the municipality, and can travel freely in Israel, which their counterparts in the West Bank cannot do. The map she's showing us also shows settlements; there are 200,000 settlers living in one area to which she points. There are also more disputed settlements, in an area the settlers call the "Holy Basin," a ring around the Old City. The settlers have targeted this area specifically because should Jerusalem be divided, they want to ensure that the Old City remains within Israel. This is where we find Silwan, Sheikh Jarrah, etc.

Four main issues faced by Palestinians in East Jerusalem, says Wind, are: 1) settlement expansion, in the Holy Basin and around East Jerusalem. The consequence of this expansion is displacement; settlements may be built atop the former houses of Palestinians. Also harassment. Some of the settlers are here for theological reasons, not economic ones, and they can be hostile and quite violent to Palestinians. 2) House demolitions. Much of this land is called "green land" in Israeli law; it's technically public land, which means it's difficult to get a building permit. The Israeli government has not granted zoning plans since 1967; with no zoning plan, there can be no legal house-building. So Palestinians have no ability to build legally. They build illegally without a permit, which means the Israeli municipality can demolish their homes and also fine them for the privilege. 22,000 houses in East Jerusalem are considered illegal, of which 6,000 have pending demolition orders.

The third issue faced by Palestinians in East Jerusalem is budget discrimination. They pay land tax, arnona, to the city, but receive only 7.2 percent of the budget. This means that there's a severe lack of infrastructure, facilities, schools, clinics, etc. And the fourth issue faced by Palestinians in East Jerusalem are arrests of children. There are many demonstrations going on, and "one of the results of the political unrest in the area is that Israeli forces are arresting people, including small children," Wind says, "which is against international law." This whirlwind tour we've been given is, she says, "East Jerusalem 101."

Wendy Zerin tells us we're going to primarily be focusing on Silwan and on Sheikh Jarrah. She's going to offer her reflections from the recent RHR study tour. "This experience blindsided me," she says. "I will cop to my own ignorance about the gravity of the situation there." They attended a demonstration in Sheikh Jarrah; and not one block away, they witnessed a car accident where a driver intentionally attempted to run over a Palestinian resident, and apparently was not going to suffer any consequences for that act. "I was not prepared for the brazenness, the audacity," of that, she tells us.

She also reminds us how close everything is. "Cheek by jowl," she tells us. "The dissonance is magnified by the fact that everything is in such close proximity." (I remember feeling that way when I went on a day tour with ICAHD in 2008.) It is easy, she notes, to go to Israel and walk these same streets without experiencing or recognizing these realities. "The human cost, the indignity... one man said to us, do you have any idea what it would mean for your children to be sleeping in their own bed one night, and the next night to be sleeping on the street? What this does to them, and what it does to me as a parent to not be able to provide something else for them?" I remember hearing these kinds of stories when I was in Jerusalem, too -- but now that I am a parent, I hear them in a different and more powerful way. Zerin also notes the counterproductivity when it comes to the ultimate goal, which is peace.

She shows us a photo of a Palestinian house in Sheikh Jarrah, taken over by settlers, with a giant menorah on top. She shows us a photo of a woman from the Chanun family -- "so you can put a face on who are the people who've been displaced" -- the photo taken at a demonstration in Sheikh Jarrah. She shows us a photo of the man who was evicted from his house -- the very house we just saw in a previous photo, with the giant menorah on top as a symbol of its Jewishness now. "He's the man who spoke to us about the psychological toll on his family," she tells us. "He's standing in the courtyard of the house that his family has been evicted from. Settlers come every day, walk right past him."

Zerin shows us evicted families living in a tent structure, homeless, not three feet from the building that they had been evicted from. "The children are coming and going every day from the house that they had been evicted from." Another woman in the room points out that this has been going on for more than forty years, and that our shock, in this room and in this community, is a sign of our blindness to a longstanding reality. "That we are just waking up to it now -- I don't want us to think that this is somehow something new! It is not." A Norwegian woman in the room who works with the Norwegian Refugee Council tells us a story about a family who used to sit under a tree and gaze longingly at their house from which they had been evicted, and they're now being prosecuted for ostensibly being a public nuisance -- for sitting under a tree outside the house which had once been their own.

(As the conversation gets rolling, it becomes clear that many people in this room have experience in this area -- a lot of the people here have been to East Jerusalem and have met families who have been evicted, and so on.) Then Zerin shows us a photo of the demonstration which takes place every Friday at 3pm at the entrance to Sheikh Jarrah, with a variable crowd size which sometimes numbers in the thousands. The photo shows people with drums and instruments, marching, holding signs in Hebrew and English and Arabic which say things like "Stop the Occupation" and "אין קדושה באיר כבושה" ("there is no holiness in an occupied city.")

(If you are unfamiliar with the Sheikh Jarrah protests, here are some links: Just Jerusalem: Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity | The Israeli-Palestinian struggle against the settlement in Sheikh Jarrah; Sheikh Jarrah's peaceful protests at the Guardian; Sheikh Jarrah demonstration at Mystical Politics.)

Then we move on to photos of Silwan, the "City of David." Everything in Jerusalem has archaeological ruins under it, she explains, but this particular region was given over not to archaeologists but to a settler group with ideological motivations. People were displaced in order for the archaeological investigations to take place. This is a popular tourist destination, beautifully organized; "how easy it would be to wander in there as a tourist, and to be unaware [of what's really going on]." We also see a slide of schoolchildren at computers in a community center. "They are here, after school, inside, on the computer instead of kicking a ball around, because this is where their parents consider it safe for them to be."

Our next speaker is Ruth Carmi, a lawyer who works for IRAC, the Israel Religious Action Center. Her organization takes principles of tikkun olam and applies them to life in Israel, including the life of Palestinians in East Jerusalem. They work primarily with big-picture issues, resource allocation and so on, rather than smaller situations such as individual home demolitions.

She talks to us about mental health; everyone in Israel has health insurance, but for the 290,000 citizens of East Jerusalem there is only one clinic for mental health, located in Kfar Sha'ul, built on the ruins of Deir Yassin. The clinic is a trailer; there is nowhere to sit. There are two psychologists, one social worker, and one secretary for almost 300,000 people; they only treat grownups, not kids; there is no privacy. The doctors see 40 patients a day, basically just to dispense meds.

As an ordinary Israeli, she can get free therapy if she needs it; but the residents of East Jerusalem can't. It takes two buses, about 50 minutes, to get from East Jerusalem to Kfar Sha'ul. The IRAC has taken this case; "we're now leading a coalition of organizations, dealing with mental health in East Jerusalem." They wrote to the CEO of the health ministry; they come up with various excuses about reform, saying that mental health is going to be reformed in a few years, but her organization is not satisfied with those answers.

For the sake of comparison: for the 500,000 people in West Jerusalem, there are 13 clinics. On average, there are 11 people working in each clinic. There is art therapy, group therapy, bibliotherapy, and so on. But only the clinic in Kfar Sha'ul has Arabic-speaking psychotherapists, and it's also the only clinic where the residents of East Jerusalem are allowed to go. One of the people in the room tells us about the children of Silwan, hearing that they are wetting their beds at night because they are so terrified of home demolitions, and reminds us that this is the clinic to which they would be assigned -- except that the clinic doesn't work with children in any event.

What exactly do you ask for, another woman asks, when you ask the government for change? To move the clinic, to create other clinics, Carmi tells us; "at least to man the clinic, to make it a workable clinic, but also to move the clinic, to build it in East Jerusalem, to build more clinics..."

The second case she tells us about is one having to do with education. "I live in Jerusalem," she tells us; "I have a complex relationship with that city -- but I married someone from Jerusalem, it's hard to move him away!" The room laughs with understanding. She tells us about the education system there. There are Orthodox schools in Jerusalem which are known to exist but are not official, though they get money from the government. Someone wrote criteria for funding which only benefit Orthodox religious schools; "he said that they can get their money, they don't have to even write a request. So we went to the court and said, it's wonderful that the municipality wants to help education, but you cannot write criteria which will help only one kind of school!" The judge ruled in their favor, and made them change their criteria.

"Now we know that in East Jerusalem there is an education system, which will get a budget from the municipality, because we made them change their criteria." She's skeptical because she fears that the municipality will find a way to work around that, but in theory, the East Jerusalem school should now receive funding. It was hard to find Arab schools to join us to file the petition, Carmi says, "because they were afraid that the [little] amount of money they do get, the city would take it away.

She also offers a note on home demolitions. "They are the mechanism of the Israeli government to deal with problems," she notes. (She also works with Bedouins, whose homes are also often demolished.) Another audience member notes that December is the season for home demolitions. Maya Wind adds that a demolition order has no date; it just says that the city reserves the right at some point to come and destroy a home, and a family may live with that for years. The gentleman in the audience adds a clarification: a municipal demolition order has no date, but a judicial demolition order does have a date and can be fought in the courts.

Maya Wind offers what she says is an oversimplified story about Sheikh Jarrah. Until 1967 it was under Jordanian rule. The residents were '48 refugees, evicted and displaced then and refugees in Sheikh Jarrah. The Jordanian government allowed them to build houses; if they gave up their refugee status, granted by UNRWA, they were told they would be given deeds to their houses. But they never got those deeds; and now they no longer have refugee status. Once the land became Israeli in 1967, Jewish organizations said, this land was Jewish before 1948, so we demand right of return, we want the land back! "To make a very long story short," Wind says, "the Israeli courts accepted that argument, and have evicted these people, with legal approval from the Israeli legal system."

Wind continues, "We've been saying, as Israelis, to an Israeli auience, that this is basic discrimination in terms of right of return. These Palestinians are not allowed to return to Yaffa, where they were made refugees in 1948; but you are demanding right of return to take over their homes." There are inherent problems with the legal system in this regard. Parallel to the legal work that's going on, a group of activists decided to try to bring the conversation into the political realm; hence the protests in Sheikh Jarrah.

The intention was to have nonviolent protests in East Jerusalem; they formed a coalition of Israelis and Palestinians, who meet weekly to plan the demonstrations. "It's their neighborhood," she points out, "so they get the final say." They do marches from West Jerusalem into East Jerusalem. "It's a 15-minute walk from downtown West Jerusalem," she says, and as a lifelong Jerusalemite she never went into East Jerusalem until she had her political awakening! So they started taking other West Jerusalemites by the hand, saying, walk with us for 15 minutes; it's safe; come with us. In the beginning they were maybe a dozen people; now hundreds gather each week.