Leading the demonstrations of solidarity with Palestinian residents of Sheikh Jarrah are some young Israelis with a religious background. They explain their activism and how it correlates to their conception of the true meaning of the Torah
By Nir Hasson
Not long before Hillel Ben Sasson attended his first demonstration in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem, Aryeh King − perhaps the person most identified with Jewish settlement there − declared that in the battle over the capital of Israel, the left had been defeated.
“In the past they organized demonstrations,” King told Haaretz last November, “but now we have made them understand that they have lost the battle. They can’t even recruit 20 people, and if there is a demonstration it’s Europeans who take part. Israelis don’t show up anymore. We have won.”
A demonstration in Sheikh Jarrah. The settlers plan to demolish the 30 homes and establish a new neighborhood there.
Photo by: Yuval Tebol
But King was wrong. A few days later, Ben Sasson and his friends joined the demonstrations in support of residents of Sheikh Jarrah, and thus launched a rearguard battle not only on behalf of the residents’ rights, but on behalf of both the status of the left in Jerusalem and their own identity.
“From my point of view, being in Sheikh Jarrah is the full and supreme realization of my religious existence,” Ben Sasson says, as he walks on a recent day through the neighborhood. “When I don’t show up on a Friday, I feel as though I have not put on tefillin [phylacteries] in the morning. When I am here, I am fighting against the expulsion of people who will become refugees for a second time, but also against the settlers − because they are trying to expel me from the boundaries of legitimacy. They are double enemies: They are trying to plunder the homes of the Palestinians and, by contrast of course, also the religion to whose God I pray.”
The eviction of a few families from Sheikh Jarrah last summer spurred one of the most intriguing protest movements in Israel in recent times. Like the weekly demonstrations against the separation fence in the West Bank villages of Bil’in and Na’alin, there is no single body behind this movement. A few dozen activists, in partnership with the residents, are its driving force. They have been joined, every Friday afternoon since last November, by between 200 and 300 people, only a few of whom are Palestinians or are not Israeli citizens.
It is possible to estimate cautiously that about half of the 30 key activists in Sheikh Jarrah are now or were in the past religiously observant. Most are young people in their twenties and thirties, and they represent an entire spectrum: religious, datlashim (formerly religious, but usually people for whom religion and tradition are still important to some degree), datlafim (sometimes religious), “transparent skullcaps” (bareheaded people who describe themselves as religiously observant), secular, and those who do not want to specify their position along this continuum. In any event, nearly all consider Judaism and their religious education and background to be important elements in their political thinking and activism. They also wonder if their presence in Sheikh Jarrah spells the advent of a new phenomenon in religious society, or whether they represent a disappearing breed of the religious left.
The most veteran beard and skullcap in Sheikh Jarrah probably belong to Rabbi Arik Ascherman, the executive director of Rabbis for Human Rights. For years the Reform rabbi, who speaks Arabic with a pronounced American accent, has fought shoulder to shoulder with the Palestinians in Sheikh Jarrah and many other locales.
“I think this is a new phenomenon,” he says. “Something that crosses religions is emerging in Jerusalem today. [These are] young people who are not bound to their parents’ conventions and don’t care whether their partners in the struggle are religious or not, but all of them share the feeling that our future is in danger.”
“I can imagine one of my cousins saying, ‘Again those leftists are identifying with the other side and not with the unfortunate people among us,’” Ben Sasson says. “But in Sheikh Jarrah there is no mistaking the good guys from the bad guys. No matter how you look at it or describe it − there is no way the settlers living there can be considered the good guys and the Palestinians the bad guys. Maybe in other places you can consider Palestinian suffering to be somehow relative, but here it’s so clear. And it doesn’t matter how what additional data you factor in or even if you ‘recruit’ Herzl [in your arguments]: It won’t make a difference.”
A few dozen Palestinian refugee families have been living in Sheikh Jarrah for the past 60 or so years. Of late, a company called Nahalat Shimon, an operative arm of settler organizations, has started to evict them, based on Jewish ownership documents from the end of the 19th century which have been validated by the courts (See box). The settlers have already taken permanent possession of three homes. Many more Palestinian families are in danger of eviction.
Israeli law permits people to claim Jewish property abandoned almost a century ago, but does not permit Arab families to claim ownership over property they abandoned during Israel’s War of Independence. Thus, refugee families of 1948 are liable to become refugees again, in 2010 − and this asymmetry is nourishing the struggle in East Jerusalem.
Ben Sasson, son of the president of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, historian Menahem Ben-Sasson, is currently writing his doctoral dissertation in Jewish studies. The subject: the explicit name of God. He describes the Sheikh Jarrah demonstrations as “worship of Hashem [the Hebrew name for God]” and is very eager to engage his settler-adversaries in theological debate. It’s clear he has already rehearsed these arguments in his mind many times.
“If you take away their Uzis and kick out the police, sit us down and remove the media − they will leave with their tail between their legs,” he says emphatically. “In the Middle Ages disputations were held between learned Jews and Christians. Sometimes the Jews won, in which case they had to escape to avoid being killed. If you bring [the settlers] for a disputation now, I will win. All the Jewish sources are on my side. Their whole activity is twisted. What they are doing is desecration of God’s name, in the most explicit way.”
Asked to illustrate his thesis, he recites rapidly: “Ezekiel 33: ‘O mortal, those who live in these ruins in the Land of Israel ... and you shed blood, yet you expect to possess the land!’”
Another longtime activist who has been prominent in the struggle, Assaf Sharon, 35, is less assertive in this regard. “There is no such thing as [one form of] Judaism,” he says. “There are many ideas and streams and motifs − some of them on our side [politically], others not. Unfortunately, the latter are more dominant in the society I grew up in.”
Sharon, now secular and a Ph.D. student in philosophy at Stanford University, attended a hesder yeshiva (combining religious studies with army service), studying at Alon Shvut in the Etzion Bloc south of Bethlehem and Otniel Yeshiva, also in the West Bank.
“In one of the left-wing actions in the southern Hebron Hills, we escorted Palestinian children to school, with about 100 settlers surrounding them and the Jeep,” Sharon recalls. “They started hitting us and in the midst of all this I heard my name called. It was a friend of mine from high school, who was with them. In the middle of everything there were hugs, and the Border Police removed all the left-wingers, but took no notice of me, because I was with the settlers.
“I was alone facing 40-50 guys, who started to engage in a theological debate. ‘Plunder is plunder,’ I shouted at them, citing verses from here and there. It was interesting and enjoyable to argue, and it’s important for me to feel that Judaism is on my side, not theirs. I really do think that the right and beautiful parts of Judaism are with me, but there is also a great deal of racism and violence in Judaism. Roughly speaking, they are still with the early prophets, at the stage of the conquest of the land, and I am in the era of late prophets, building society. I say we have finished conquering the land, the War of Independence is over and the question that remains is what type of society we will have.”
Like most of his friends in the protest movement, Sharon is from a liberal religious family, a relative anomaly in the religious-Zionist landscape. One of the turning points in his political thinking and on the path that ultimately led him into the secular world was November 4, 1995 − the night Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated.
“It wasn’t done in my circles, but I went to the square that evening [for the peace rally] and after the murder I stayed until almost dawn. In the morning I went to the yeshiva. I was very religious then. That day the rabbi of the yeshiva told me that people from [the left-wing youth movement] Hashomer Hatzair wanted to meet with us.
“Just think what a crazy reversal it was,” he continues. “Rabin’s body wasn’t yet cold, and instead of us looking for a way to reach them and ask them for forgiveness − they come to us, on top of which the rabbi approached me because he knew I was considered left wing and that most of the students would not agree to meet with them. In the end, we met, but not in the yeshiva; in an apartment, so people wouldn’t see. The Rabin assassination became a ‘lever’ for the settlers: Not only did they not back down, but since then they’ve gained key positions, influence in the media, in politics and in culture. Most important, they seized control of the ‘symbolic capital’ of Israeliness. They are now identified as owners of the Jewish cargo. They constitute the hegemony.”
Some members of the Sheikh Jarrah group associate themselves with the remnants of a liberal left-wing religious community which once existed in Jerusalem, but disappeared within the nationalist currents of religious Zionism.
“Sociologically, Jerusalem religiosity is far more pluralistic,” says Amos Goldberg, 44, who teaches in the contemporary Judaism department at the Hebrew University and is a major activist in the struggle. “The Jerusalem left is far less anti-religious and contains many more people who are now religious or were observant in the past.”
Sharon proposes a different explanation for recent left-wing religious activism: “Maybe it’s precisely because we did not come up through the intellectual left, but through Gush Emunim [Bloc of the Faithful], where the principle is that politics must be manifested through activity − you have to be where things are happening and not only where it’s convenient to be. The idea is that political activity means action, not persuading someone you are in the right. Maybe from this point of view we are a lot closer to the ‘Zambish’ types [nickname of Ze’ev Hever, a settler activist] than to others. We also learned from them how to confront the state’s mechanisms.”
Goldberg mentions a “formative moment,” when he experienced the change that led him to Sheikh Jarrah − and even to a detention cell. A few years ago, he joined an escort group provided by peace organizations for Palestinian farmers who were being harassed by settlers.
“I was always left wing, but also a soldier. Suddenly I saw an elderly Palestinian who wanted to plow his field being chased away by a soldier. You identify instinctively with the old man, and you say, ‘That soldier is a brute,’” says Goldberg, a doctoral student who is writing his dissertation on Holocaust survivors.
“Suddenly you’re in reverse mode: My solidarity is unequivocally not with the state, not with its symbols and not with the police. I consider them ... I hold myself back from saying ‘the enemy.’ After that you can no longer see things as you did beforehand. I have not switched sides, but one’s map of identification changes and once it does, there is no going back.”
As a researcher who deals mainly with the Holocaust, Goldberg lets history direct his conscience: “At the personal psychological level, this is a matter of moral duty, the duty of those who are bystanders. It might be a large or a small injustice, but there is no need to wait until the situation becomes so extreme. When one sees injustice and racism such as we have here, you have to intervene.”
Goldberg ceased being religiously observant years ago but refuses to define his status today. His children are religious and he wears a skullcap. “It’s for protection against the sun and does not make it possible to define me. It’s also convenient, because I am getting bald,” he quips.
Indeed, he still sees hope in the thinking of some members of religious society, even settler circles: “The discourse of large swaths of the religious public is saliently racist. Their conceptual world resonates with ideas espoused by folk movements in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s. But at the same time, we have to remember that the greatest wrongs against the Palestinians were perpetrated not by the settlers, but by secular nationalism. To pin the blame on the settlers is a type of internal cleansing process that you find in Israeliness. It’s precisely within the religious-settler discourse that the potential exists for a different type of political discourse − one that is far more egalitarian. I am referring to ideas that spring from a religious worldview that will sanctify the entire region, because the land is God’s and not a nation’s. That is where ideas of equality can spring from.”
Goldberg draws the ire of his fellow protesters by not rejecting the name Simeon the Just, as used by the settlers, the Jerusalem Municipality and the police to denote the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood, because the Second Temple high priest’s tomb is there. The debate around the name is the symbolic manifestation of the struggle for the neighborhood.
Goldberg: “The tomb of Simeon the Just was there for a great many years and did not bother the Palestinians. Jews came and there was no violence,” he notes. “I want to believe that a joint struggle should also give rise to new language. We have to find a way to say that it’s both Simeon the Just and Sheikh Jarrah.” Religion, he says, can be helpful in this regard.
To which Ben-Sasson responds, “If only the day will come when the name Al-Quds [the Arabic name of Jerusalem] will also appear at the entrance to the city. If only we will be deserving of this.”
Practice and belief
“To grow up in religious society means to translate your beliefs into deeds,” says Elisheva Milikovsky, a 27-year-old social worker who was raised in a national-religious home in the settlement of Efrat, near Bethlehem. “You don’t just sit at home and cogitate. You put into practice the things you believe in.”
Milikovsky gained fame a few years ago, when she became a one-woman institution looking after the African refugees who reached Israel. The standard operating procedure was for the army to leave the refugees it had rounded up crossing into Israel from Egypt on a street in Be’er Sheva, after which someone from the army would call Milikovsky and inform her. She did all she could to help the refugees get through their first days in the country. Since then she has continued to work with refugees, and this, she says, is what eventually brought her to Sheikh Jarrah as well.
“In Efrat it’s very obvious that the Palestinians are transparent people. You live in the settlement and don’t have the slightest notion of what’s going on around you. As a teenager I viewed myself as left wing, but the true change was fomented by my activity with the refugees. I made an effort to see the other side.”
Gil Gutglick, 44, production director at Keter Publishing House in Jerusalem, was not a political activist before joining the Sheikh Jarrah protest movement. He has long been secular, but admits that his religious past is one of the reasons he demonstrates in the East Jerusalem neighborhood.
“My Jewish identification is very strong. I feel ashamed that the Jewish settlers are entering the homes [of the Palestinians in Sheikh Jarrah] while the beds are still warm. That feeling of shame was the first thing that induced me to participate. Amos [Goldberg] sent me an email saying they needed people to be with them. I went after work that day and since then I have been in the neighborhood, whenever possible.”
Gutglick is one of 14 activists who are under court order to stay away from the neighborhood for five months, after being arrested in a demonstration on May 14.
“I am religious, but there was a period in which, even though I did not stop believing, I did not want to walk around with a skullcap,” says Netanel Warschawski, 27, who also works at Keter. “I was a bit ashamed that in the name of the beliefs of the settlers, and in the name of the skullcap, as it were − people say and do terrible things. I did not want to identify with that society, did not want them to think that I was like them, that we share the same views. Eight years ago I had an argument with friends, during which one said I was ‘shaming’ the skullcap on my head, and since then I decided that it is precisely an opposite symbol. I am proud to be religiously observant and I represent the religion better than they do. That is why I still wear the skullcap and go to demonstrations with it.”
The group of religious and formerly religious activists in Sheikh Jarrah includes young adults as well as people in their mid-forties. Their life stories are illustrative of the changes religious society has undergone in recent decades. Years ago, Goldberg and Gutglick participated in peace demonstrations of religious youth. Sharon, 35, attended the rally after which Rabin was assassinated. The young women in the group, Milikovsky and Shira Wilkof, 29, an M.A. student in town planning at the Technion − Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, are amazed to hear that such activities even existed.
“What I remember from the sixth grade, three years before the Rabin assassination,” Wilkof says, “was a rabbi who taught us Gemara in a special girls’ class. When he arrived for the first class he wrote on the blackboard, ‘A good Arab is a dead Arab.’”
On the night of the assassination she was in the Ra’anana branch of the national-religious Bnei Akiva movement. “I remember the spontaneous cheers of joy of children in the ninth grade when they heard about the murder,” she relates. “There were very few left-wingers where I grew up. That probably has something to do with the difference between Jerusalem and Ra’anana. In Jerusalem you had the liberal intellectual elite. But I am from the intermediate generation, in which there was a facade of open religious Zionism. An atmosphere of ‘You are either with us or against us’ has now taken over, so I suppose it’s 10 times harder these days.”
In contrast to Ben Sasson, Wilkof considers her activity the opposite of “worship of Hashem”: “My experience is totally different,” she explains. “There is no dimension of religiosity in my going to Sheikh Jarrah. On the contrary: It constitutes a very clear decision between the particularist, isolationist messages of religious society and messages of universalism.”
Gutglick, who until three years ago lived in the Galilee, has a distinctive take on the whole process: “I lived in a bubble and am missing 14 years of acquaintance with the changes that have occurred in Israeli society. Since I moved back, I have not been able to understand the hatred. I grew up in a right-wing society; we were taken on trips to Judea and Samaria, but there were other things, too. I don’t remember hatred like there is today − of Arabs, left-wingers, Tel Avivans, of the other.”
It seems that there is no simple answer to the question of what will be considered a victory in the Sheikh Jarrah struggle.
“It’s not the kind of thing where if you just solve something, everything will be all right,” Sharon explains. “What is happening there is a reflection of the foundations of the Israeli regime: the race-based privileges. So in a profound sense, success in the struggle will be almost a revolution.”
The struggle between the Sheikh Jarrah demonstrators and the Jerusalem police recently took a very peculiar turn. At 5 A.M. on Wednesday two weeks ago, police arrived at the home of the parents of one of the main activists, and asked her to accompany them for questioning. Her mother told the officers that her daughter was not living at home and refused to give them her address.
The next day, the young woman went to the police station at her initiative. An officer asked her to join him for a “conversation.” He told her that she had been summoned to the station in the wake of intelligence information, to the effect that she intended to set herself ablaze at the next demonstration. “I was told that I had written in Facebook that I was going to throw Molotov cocktails and set myself on fire to cause provocations,” she says.
The woman, who had never written anything remotely resembling that, told the interrogator, “You should question whoever gave you the information.” She was released after 20 minutes.
The activists believe that the fabricated report was given to the police by right-wingers as part of a harassment campaign. The activist’s name, along with the names of many others, was recently placed in right-wing websites calling for the harassment of protesters.
“Instead of dealing with the lawbreakers on the right, the Jerusalem police are continuing to pester the Sheikh Jarrah activists,” Assaf Sharon notes. “We filed complaints about harassment and threats from extreme right-wing activists three months ago. The police did nothing to investigate the threats or to put an end to them. That is another manifestation of the dangerous bias of the district police, which has become an operative arm of the right-wing associations. The police find themselves wasting their meager resources in futile pursuit of ghosts.”
A spokesperson for the Jerusalem police stated that, in the wake of “serious statements and grave actions attributed to the female activist, policemen searched for her the whole day to hand her a summons for questioning. Someone was found to be home before dawn, so the policemen arrived. At midday she appeared for questioning accompanied by her lawyer, was questioned and released.”
A simple question
The Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood was built in the 19th century as a luxury Arab quarter. The homes of some of the most distinguished and best-known Palestinian families, such as Nashashibi and Husseini, are still there. For centuries, the burial cave in the center of the neighborhood has been considered the final resting place of the high priest Simeon the Just. A small Jewish neighborhood sprang up around the tomb toward the end of the 19th century. Like similar Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, it was abandoned during the 1920s and 1930s, in part because of harassment by Arab neighbors.
During Israel’s War of Independence the Jordanians nationalized the land of the Jewish neighborhood in question and in the 1950s, 28 Palestinian families who were uprooted from their homes inside the Green Line were relocated there. The Jordanian government and UNRWA, the United Nations relief agency, settled the refugees for a symbolic price on land that had been purchased by Jews. In return, the Palestinians gave up their refugee certification and paid low rent.
In the early 1970s, two groups − the Sephardi Community Committee and the Knesset Israel (a term referring to the Second Temple period) Committee − succeeded in receiving rights to land there from the Israeli custodian of absentee property, and registered it in their name. In 1982, the Palestinians made what, in retrospect, appears to have been a crucial mistake in terms of the continuation of their struggle. In the wake of misguided legal counsel, they signed an agreement recognizing the committees’ ownership of the land and in return were granted the status of protected tenants. Since then, the Palestinians and their lawyers have tried to disavow and annul the agreement, but all attempts have been rejected by the courts.
The situation of the Palestinian residents was aggravated after the Nahalat Shimon company purchased part of the land from the two committees. It is this company that has been waging the legal battle to remove the residents. To date, three families have been evicted. Legal proceedings are under way to evict many others as well. The evicted families erected protest tents on the sidewalks opposite their homes, which have become permanent sites of friction and confrontation with the settlers.
The legal proceedings over Sheikh Jarrah have serious political and moral implications. The Palestinian residents, who have almost despaired of the Israeli judicial system, are planning international action based on a simple question: Why did the Jewish committees receive their property, which was abandoned in the 1930s, by presenting Ottoman documents in court − whereas the Palestinians are unable to put forward an identical claim to property they abandoned in 1948? The families that were evicted say they are ready to forgo their homes in Sheikh Jarrah in return for properties they abandoned in the past in Jaffa, Tzrifin and elsewhere.
The settlers plan to demolish the 30 homes in Sheikh Jarrah and establish on their ruins a new neighborhood of 200 residential units, which will be part of a string of other communities planned in the area: the Shepherd Hotel compound, which has been acquired by the settlers’ American patron, Irwin Moskowitz, the Kerem Hamufti section and others. In such a scenario, the veteran Palestinian neighborhood will undergo rapid Judaization.
Given Israel’s current sensitive political situation, and in the light of the difficulties involved today in receiving authorization for housing projects that are far less provocative − it’s hard to see such a plan being approved in the foreseeable future. But in Sheikh Jarrah it sometimes looks as if not much more provocation is needed to ignite the powder keg called East Jerusalem.
‘This land is our land’
The leading spokesperson for the Jewish settlers, in what they call the Shimon Hatzaddik (Simeon the Just) neighborhood, is Yonatan Yosef, grandson of Shas spiritual mentor Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and the son of former MK Yaakov Yosef, who has led the current struggle to integrate Sephardi ultra-Orthodox girls in the Haredi school in Immanuel.
Yosef downplays the phenomenon of religious demonstrators in the other camp. “I am there seven days a week and we have a photographer who films all their demonstrations,” he says. “The number of religious people is minuscule to the point of a non-presence. There are maybe a few with small skullcaps.”
In any event, Yosef continues, “Anyone who is religious and acts against the religious belief that the Land of Israel belongs to the Jewish people, anyone who has doubts and adopts the Arab narrative and marches under the PLO flag and pesters Jews who come to pray on a Jewish tomb − he has removed himself from the religious community.”
Nor does Yosef fear a theological disputation. “Why does the Torah begin with Genesis and not with basic precepts? The answer that is given is that the Holy One blessed be he created the world in order to give the Land to the people of Israel. They tell us that we are coming to steal, but how can you steal something that belongs to you? Anyone who argues otherwise is violating an explicit rule of the Torah − any infant who has studied a little of it knows that.”
Yosef also mentions large-scale demonstrations organized at the site by the right. “On Lag Ba’omer we had 27,000 people and on Jerusalem Day many thousands more, and the media make a fuss over 150 anarchists.”