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Fasting for Peace

The Kotel on Tisha B'Av

By Diana Saverin

JERUSALEM–Starting last night, the Jewish fast of Tisha B’Av began. At 7 P.M., restaurants closed, and a strange quiet hung over the city. Recreational spots across the country have also been shut down for the 25 hours of the fast.

The fast honors the destruction of the two Holy Temples in the Old City, which are said to have been demolished out of a senseless hate. They were destroyed over 600 years apart, but both on the ninth day of the month of Av. Today I watched as hundreds of Jews congregated at the Kotel to commemorate the loss, and read from the Book of Lamentations.

The fast has been expanded over the years to mourn other hardships the Jewish people have faced over thousands of years, which are said to have happened all on this one day. From the Roman conquerors in the city of Betar, to the Crusaders in France, to Jewish expulsion from England and Spain, to the beginning of World War I, to deportations during the Holocaust, to a bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, the withdrawal from Gaza which forced Jewish settlers to move in 2005, and more, the fast honors mass suffering of the past.

Today in Jerusalem, the concept of a baseless hate seems pervasive. Hundreds have flocked to the Gilad Shalit protest tent, where I attended a march last week, to lament his captivity, and hope for his return. At the same Wall where hundreds of prayers from the Book of Lamentations will ring today, just last week a woman was arrested for carrying a Torah because of her gender. Just outside of the Old City walls, the residents of Silwan I wrote about a couple of weeks ago await demolitions of their households. Is baseless hatred truly a thing of the past to commemorate, or a continuing characteristic of this crazy city?

For where else in the world do two nations live together on one land, and fight on the battlefields of civilian neighborhoods with construction and demolition? And where else does a religious minority control a democratic government to the point where prayer, religious conversion, and marriage have to follow the rules of the most extreme sector of the religion? And where else do all three of the most prominent religions of the world flock to visit holy sites within yards of each other?

These unique qualities of the city are pulling it apart. A Ynet-Gesher poll of 505 Hebrew-speaking Jewish Israelis revealed 42% of respondents believe the religious-secular divide causes the most tension in Israel and 41% said it was the Jewish-Arab situation. The baseless hatred is palpable amid these divides: 54% believe Arabs are the most hated in Israel, while 37% believe the Haredi Orthodox are the most hated. Jerusalem is a microcosm of this polarization. With the city 35% Arab and 22% Haredi, racial and religious divides are everywhere.

None of this is news. We are all at least vaguely aware of the constant tragedy and complexity of this ongoing conflict, and can recognize the baseless hate on both sides. I often think of the different sides as looking through mirrored windows, only reflecting back the very real pain each has experienced as a result of the continuing tension and the absence of any sustainable or long-term solution, without being able to see past the wall to the suffering on the other side. The tragedy for me lies in this blindness. Both sides have blood on their hands, both sides have pain in their hearts, and both sides bear the responsibility of making it better.

On this holiday, though, I appeal specifically to the Jewish people. Among the many Jewish traditions I have learned to love and admire this summer is the social justice teachings in Judaism. In a lecture last week, a religious man spoke about the role of this Jewish morality in the conflict, and used the metaphor of a grasshopper to describe the respective positions of Israelis and Palestinians. He said that for centuries, the Jews have been the grasshopper, and continue to ask for sympathy for this terrible position they were in for so long. On Tisha B’Av, it’s impossible not to be aware of the gross hardship the Jews have faced, and I sympathize deeply with this position. As the lecturer said, though, Israel is not the grasshopper in this particular conflict anymore; Israel has the upper hand and has become the aggressor. The Palestinians are now the grasshoppers, and Israelis, he says, have a responsibility to realize their privileged position and incorporate Jewish values into their actions moving forward.

This is not to say Jews or Israelis do not continue to face hardship inside and outside of the conflict, or have not in the past. They have, they do, and they will continue to face baseless hatred and adversity. Today, though, I implore Israelis to look past the mirrored window, and see the hatred and adversity Palestinians are facing in this conflict. Israel’s success enables it to change the ongoing tragedies in the region. The Jewish state has been created. Israel has internal and external problems, but it is a recognized and developed nation. Today, Jews can celebrate their promised land, but what can Palestinians celebrate?

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Municipal Discord: East Jerusalem settlements and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.

By Diana Saverin

JERUSALEM-Around the world, the phenomenon of settlements captures headlines. Before coming to Israel, such headlines for me provoked images of Haredi families living in caravans in the middle of the dessert or old-fashioned couples in Oregon trail-esque wagons settling beyond the “green” frontier. My understanding of the situation was an oversimplification of the reality; I thought of a narrative of the greedy, Israeli, extreme right-wingers who wanted to take away any possibility of a Palestinian state. In some cases, especially in the West Bank, this narrative holds, but living here has shown me that, like with most of the conflict, it isn’t always so simple. So far from simple, in fact, that on Friday I found myself amid a crowd of extremely well armed police and protesters screaming “1, 2, 3, 4, occupation no more!” and other various Arabic and Hebrew chants, debating whether the two bangs I just heard down the road were gunshots fired at protesters.

After weeks of seeing the Israeli flags in Arab neighborhoods, hearing from Palestinians and left and right wing settlers (and everything in between), I remained unclear about the nature of settlements in East Jerusalem. Last weekend, though, I spent a day touring these neighborhoods with a human rights organization, Ir Amim. Throughout the internationally unrecognized conquered land beyond the green lines, settlements have continually grown and developed.

Contrary to my image of them, there’s quite a wide range. There is Gilo, which is beyond the Green Line, but home to 30,000 Jerusalemites and looks identical to West Jerusalem, if not even spiffier. Stone complexes are surrounded with ample parking, sidewalks, overflowing gardens, and more. The area boasts the addresses of many left-wingers, including people I know. Many don’t realize it’s technically a Palestinian settlement; they live there because it’s cheaper, not for ideological reasons. More than half of Jews live in neighborhoods beyond the green lines.

View from the settlement of Gilo (Saverin/TYG)

Moving closer to the headline narrative, enter: clear-cut Palestinian neighborhoods in East Jerusalem where Israelis have bought “outposts.” On face value, these unofficial Israeli settlements appear obnoxious. They wave huge Israeli flags, post menorahs the size of houses in their backyards, and offer absurd amounts of money to buy out current Palestinian residents (unless they take over the land illegally). One resident in the Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan told me about dozens of times settlers have offered up to $7 million for his father’s small plot of land.  Those who sell, though, often face violence if they stick around: a Palestinian who sold his house to a settler on top of the Mount of Olives was found butchered in the back of a car a few years back. Beyond the obvious appearance of invasion, though, the government differential treatment of the two demographic groups becomes stark in such neighborhoods.

A settlement on the Mount of Olives, whose seller was brutally murdered (Saverin/TYG)

A settlement in the Arab neighborhood, Sheikh Jarrah, where Israelis and Palestinians protest together every Friday (Saverin/TYG)

In the Palestinian area, 1,200 schools are missing.  Roads in Arab neighborhoods haven’t been repaved since an American project in 1966 and disallow two cars from comfortably passing each other. They are marked by an absence of sidewalks, and are lined with run-down shops and political graffiti for Hamas, Fatah, and Popular Front.

Most Arab-Israelis refuse to vote because they do not recognize Israel’s occupation of the area, and this leads to little representation in the government. Without representation, trash doesn’t get picked up, schools don’t get built, permits are not given, and the systematic racism perpetuates, but this happens largely within Israeli law. Palestinians are only allowed to be permanent residents, not citizens. Only Jews, spouses of Jews, or citizens can own land.

75% of children in East Jerusalem live in poverty, and seeing such poverty in any context is disturbing. The moment the area becomes a settlement, though, the road becomes perfectly paved with multiple lanes, the previously nonexistent sidewalks arise with perfectly striped red and white paint, and the view is filled with stones and flowers. The suddenness of this change is not something any headline could depict. The difference between this and typical juxtaposition with wealth and poverty is that it is based on systematic racial differences, and thus begets the question: can Israel continue to stake a claim to shared values of liberal democracy and a Jewish state? I had just heard the Deputy Mayor of Jerusalem speak a few days back defending the demolitions because the houses are dangerous and illegal. Perhaps this is true, but it is the system based on racial inequities that is causing this.

The poverty and lack of infrastructure that characterizes many East Jerusalem neighborhoods (Saverin/TYG)

The tour ended in a Jewish settlement, which faces the Shuafat refugee camp across the wall. Since it was a Friday afternoon, Muslim sermons filled the air. The amplified Arabic rang off the divisive barrier, and even though all sermons must be approved by the Israeli government to prevent incitement, I felt incited.

Shuafat refugee camp (Saverin/TYG)

The injustices I had just witnessed felt reactionary, and I was compelled to do something. That afternoon, I stumbled upon a friend attending a protest against demolitions in Silwan, and joined. Every Friday, the same group marches to Sheik Jarrah, as reported in Peter Beinart’s explosive article about American Jews and Israel, but this time Silwan residents requested the group’s presence to shed light on the 22 demolitions that were just approved by the local municipality, to move onto more committees for approval.

Friday protest of the 22 Silwan demolitions (Saverin/TYG)

This situation is complex, and deserves no oversimplification, but for Israel to hold the party line that it is legal ignores the flaws in the current system. It is unsustainable. Following the protest, Israel’s blatantly false coverage of the event reveals its unwillingness to face the current situation in Israel and its territories. Before change or peace can be brought about, there must be truth, and mutual understanding. How can two viable states coexist, when their representations of one city differs so dramatically? There is the Israeli settler Hebron, and the Palestinian Hebron where Israel is mysteriously missing from the map.

I would like to disagree with Foreign Minister Liberman and believe that peace is possible soon, but the settlements reveal to me what stands in the way. Extremists on both sides block peace.  However, I don’t think they’ll have enough power to deter it if the majority of both populations commit themselves to a solution.

The settlements clearly provide a physical barrier to peace as their scattered nature makes dividing the city in the case of a two state system nearly impossible. They reveal a larger wedge between the two groups, though: the unwillingness to acknowledge the truth, whether it is Israel writing off settlers as extremists that have nothing to do with the state and pretending Jerusalem is a united and equal city, or Hamas and other groups holding onto hope that Israel will evaporate from the Middle East. To get to a point where peace is possible, there must be open dialogue at every level from the entire spectrum on both sides.

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