A Tale of Two Cities

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“The day Jerusalem was liberated was the day that the city heaved a sigh of relief and began to spread its wings, for the benefit of its Arab and Jewish residents alike….We will never again allow Jerusalem to become a separated, bleak and divided city.“ Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

When Prime Minister Netanyahu spoke those words at the Jerusalem Day ceremony in 2010, he was already too late. Unbeknownst to his audience, Jerusalem had already become bleak and divided.

This is a tale of two cities, one rich with parks, well cared for neighborhoods and tourist attractions; the other impoverished and deprived of even basic services. And as for a united Jerusalem spreading its wings for the good of Jews and Arabs alike, well, you decide below on the efficacy of that claim.

As background, as I covered in a post on January 16, A Virtual Tour of East Jerusalem (I urge you to “take the tour” if you haven’t done so already), Israel annexed in 1967 all of what had been East Jerusalem plus 28 nearby villages and incorporated them into the municipality of Jerusalem.

Fast Forward to 2012:

Let’s see how the Palestinian population has fared 45 years later when compared to Jewish West Jerusalem.

Population: There are 303,000 Palestinian residents in East Jerusalem, one-third of the population, out of a total of 835,000 people in the Jerusalem municipality (2009 data).

Poverty: 65% of Palestinian families live under the poverty line as compared to 31% of Jewish families. (This is 2008 data. Economic conditions in East Jerusalem have gotten much worse since then so these figures have deteriorated further.)

Children:  74% of Palestinian children live under the poverty line compared to 45% of Jewish children. (Also 2008 data)

Schools: Average class size is 32 students in East Jerusalem versus 24 students in West Jerusalem. School buildings are neglected, often run down. The Jerusalem municipality’s own statistics listed 50% of East Jerusalem’s classrooms to be sub-standard in 2009 (704 out of 1,360) including 221 that were deemed unfit.

In addition, due to an estimated shortage of 1,000 classrooms in the municipal schools there, an estimated 11,000 Palestinian children (12% of school age children) did not attend school for the 2009-2010 school year due to lack of space. Tens of thousands of others were forced to attend private schools, which posed a severe financial burden on the mostly impoverished population. In 2008, the per-student budget allocation for elementary school children in Jewish West Jerusalem was 400% higher that in East Jerusalem: 2,372 NIS (New Israel Shekels) per Jewish student versus 577 NIS per Palestinian student.

Given all of this, it is not surprising that there is a 50% drop out rate for Palestinian children compared to 7.4% in the Jewish sector.

Several recent court rulings have ordered the Jerusalem municipality to build more classrooms and to increase the East Jerusalem school budget. How these rulings will be implemented is a question that will unfold over time.

Pre-school: There are roughly 15,000 three and four year olds in East Jerusalem. Despite the importance of early education on child development, 90% of them are not enrolled in a pre-school educational program. This is not for a lack of interest. There are only 2 municipal pre-schools in East Jerusalem compared to 56 in West Jerusalem.

Land: One-third of the land in East Jerusalem has been expropriated by the Israeli government from Arab owners since 1967.

Housing: As of 5 years ago, over 50,000 housing units for Jewish residents has been built on this expropriated land. That number is larger today. No housing has been built for Palestinian residents.

Housing density for existing homes in East Jerusalem is almost double what it is for Jewish residents: on average, 1.9 people per room versus 1 person per room. It is nearly impossible for Palestinians to obtain building permits to construct new houses or to repair existing ones due to discriminatory policies. The result is massive illegal construction without safety inspections and the constant threat of demolition by the government.

View of East Jerusalem neighborhood

Municipal Services: There are minimal municipal services provided to East Jerusalem residents. A simple walk through neighborhoods will reveal decrepit roads and sidewalks, and few public parks or playgrounds. Hundreds of streets are not provided with trash collection services that results in trash piling up everywhere.

Street scene in East Jerusalem

Water connections: 160,000 Palestinian residents, over half the population, have no legal connection to the water network. Either they jury-rig connections to the water mains or they use stored water in containers.

Sewage: Estimates state that East Jerusalem is in need of 50 kilometers of new main sewage lines. Entire neighborhoods still use cesspools, not ideal for densely packed urban neighborhoods, and existing sewage facilities are antiquated and poorly maintained. It is not unusual for sewers to overflow and for sewage water to run above ground close to homes.

NOTE: These last few items pose a risk to public health from infectious disease but they continue to be ignored by municipal authorities.

Postal service: 10 post offices serve Palestinian areas compared to 42 in West Jerusalem. Mail delivery is only partial and sporadic making commerce more difficult.

In addition, Palestinian residents face the ongoing menace of home demolitions and eviction, especially in the neighborhoods directly abutting the Old City where the government works closely with several ideological NGOs to evict Palestinians and replace them with Jewish settlers (For details, see my posts of January 2 and January 10).

Home in East Jerusalem shortly after being demolished. Note pile of rubble in the background.

The construction of the Separation Wall, as noted in previous posts, has disrupted the flow of commerce by severing neighborhood from neighborhood and all of East Jerusalem from the nearby commercial centers of Ramallah, Bethlehem, and the rest of the West Bank. This has caused massive economic dislocation and impoverishment.

Separation wall in Jerusalem. Note how it splits this neighborhood in two, severing all connections.

The data above is just a sampling of the comparisons between Palestinian East Jerusalem and Jewish West Jerusalem. For those interested in more details, you can read a full report that was produced by The Association for Civil Rights in Israel, an organization that fights for the rights of all Israelis. (For more details, see http://www.scribd.com/doc/31806771/Report-May10-ACRI-Human-Rights-in-East-Jerusalem-Facts-and-Figures Scroll down to page 38 for English). A preface to the report sums it up as follows:

“Israel’s policy for the past four decades has taken concrete form as discrimination in planning and construction, expropriation of land, and minimal investment in physical infrastructure and government and municipal services. As a result, East Jerusalem residents suffer severe distress, and their conditions are worsening.”

“Life in East Jerusalem can be described as a continuing cycle of neglect, discrimination, poverty, and shortages. These, compounded by construction of the Separation Barrier cutting Jerusalem off from the West Bank, have led to the social and economic collapse of this part of the city. A large majority of East Jerusalem residents do not receive, and cannot afford to buy, the most basic services.

It seems to me that the facts on the ground in East Jerusalem belie the claim that Jerusalem is indivisible. East and West Jerusalem are like two separate worlds, one a modern urban environment, a magnet for visitors, and the other a neglected and impoverished backwater. The demand for a unified city which has been made into a roadblock for peace, the city that tourists are shown with reverence, is a Potemkin Village hiding the truth.

Update on recent Bedouin Home Demolitions:

Two days ago I linked to a late breaking story about a middle of the night demolition of several Bedouin homes. Unfortunately, more details have emerged that make the situation more distressing. In all, six houses were destroyed making many more families homeless than was originally reported. See this update to read what the experience was actually like: http://972mag.com/idf-commits-price-tag-attack-against-activists-resisting-home-demolitions/33866/

Salim Shawamreh's house before it was demolished. See the link above for the view afterwards.

Profoundly disconcerting in the above link was when one of the Israeli soldiers yelled at Rabbi Arik Aschermann, director of Rabbis For Human Rights in Israel who had rushed to the scene, to take off his skullcap because “he was a disgrace to Judaism.” This while the soldiers were escorting a bulldozer from house to house, demolishing them without any advance notice. In the dead of night, entire families – men, women, children and babies, bewildered and disoriented – were evicted into the cold winter rain with no shelter and just the clothes on their backs.

Tzedek tzedek tirdof. (Justice, justice shall you pursue.) Deuteronomy 16:20

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A Personal Note to Readers

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I want to thank you for following this blog.  On average there are well over 100 people who are reading the posts. This is especially gratifying since I began it only one month ago.

As you may have surmised, I am writing the blog mainly because I am worried about the future of Israel, both for its survival and what kind of country it is becoming.
Right now many Israelis share this concern and feel the land they love is being distorted into something unrecognizable.

Last fall a friend who made aliyah 40 years ago posted a column on her blog that was addressed to Sara, a young Israeli who was brutally attacked and beaten by settlers including off-duty police during a violent incident on the West Bank. Our friend used strong language but this only reflected her grave concerns.

In your report you say that before this night you could not imagine fascism. You are not alone, Sara. Most of the people in Israel cannot imagine fascism. Most of the Jews in Germany and Holland, even in the early 1940’s, could not imagine fascism. It’s hard to connect the dots—a law here, a ruling there; broken window here, graffiti there; silence here, apathy there—until it’s too late and the dots become a wall with no exit.  We fail to put the pieces together because we cannot bear to imagine the home we love becoming a fascist state…. As long as the violence against Palestinians took place in the occupied territories, we didn’t see, we didn’t hear, we didn’t know. We could continue to delude ourselves in our quiet lives that we lived in a democratic country.” (To read this heartfelt post, see http://writeinisrael.com/2011/10/09/practice-imagining-fascism/)

Like our friend, I want Israel to remain a country with all the safeguards of a true democracy and one that lives up to the ethical ideals embodied in the Jewish tradition.

Sadly these yearnings are endangered today. Nonetheless I remain optimistic and I believe that America has a critical role to play. But American politicians will not exert the influence they have to convince Israel to change its policies until the American Jewish community alters its perspective. My experience is that the preponderance of American Jews view Israel through a nostalgic lens but have little knowledge of the modern state. I am convinced most Jews would be upset to learn what is actually going on here and would demand a change from their community leaders if they did know.

Which brings me to this blog. The reason I am writing it is to do just that – to inform as many people as possible about what is happening in Israel in the hopes that my efforts, in addition to others who are doing similar work, will begin to change perceptions.

So, as you read future posts, I hope you will forward on the columns that you feel would be of particular interest to your friends, relatives and other contacts. You can do this via email to individuals or community lists, Facebook, Twitter, or other social media. It’s also not too late to do it with prior posts as well.  I realize we all hesitate to do this – no one wants to impose on others and be a bother – and I felt the same when I first launched this blog last month with a series of emails to our friends and family.  But if we don’t actively spread the word we won’t have an Israel that embodies the universal ideals on which it was founded.

For my part, I promise to continue to do research, to dig for more information, and to go out and report on things I see with my own eyes. I will try to keep my commentary and opinions from seeping in too much – although sometimes that is hard to do when I encounter something particularly disturbing – but I will try to let the facts speak for themselves while attempting to provide some measure of balance.

I hope this request is not too chutzpadik and I apologize if I have overstepped the etiquette of blogging.

Regards from the shores of the Mediterranean,

Allen

PS: As I was about to press “publish” to send this note to you I received an email alert from Rabbi’s for Human Rights that three Bedouin homes in the West Bank were demolished between 11:00 p.m. and 4:30 a.m. last night, displacing 20 family members including young children into the cold desert night environment. The bulldozers were accompanied by a contingent of heavily armed soldiers. Their crime was lack of a building permit – which in the Catch-22 of the occupation is nearly impossible to obtain. You can read details of this incident at The Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions at http://www.icahd.org/?p=8107 .

This is just one example of the many events that seldom get reported. I hope to write about these situations in a more systematic way so that readers will understand how widespread these practices are and the strategic objectives behind them.

Haredim and Democracy Redux

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Over the weekend I became a bit uncomfortable with the previous column I posted last Thursday titled “Haredim and the Future of Israel.” This is a complicated issue and in my desire to shorten a long post I edited out some of the nuances.

I fear I may have implied that the Haredi world is monolithic. In fact, there are many different sects ranging from those who support the Jewish state to those who reject it. Some sects are more extreme than others in their religious practice or have different customs altogether.  Although they all share a similar worldview, the actions of the most extreme groups, who have attracted the attention of the media, have been criticized by many in the Haredi world or at the least not supported by them.

To illustrate an alternative lens through which to view the ultra-orthodox community, there was an interesting Op-Ed printed in Friday’s Haaretz that presented a modern woman’s positive experience, some might say even a quasi-feminist perspective, on the Haredi world. See http://www.haaretz.com/jewish-world/can-ultra-orthodox-culture-go-overboard-in-its-quest-for-modesty-1.408262

The writer, Robin Garbose, embraced orthodoxy as an adult and founded Kol Neshama, a Los Angeles-based organization that provides “professional artistic training and performance opportunities for girls and women in a Torah-observant setting….” (Her extensive bio in the entertainment industry and the performing arts can be found at http://www.kolneshama.org/staff-bio-robin-garbose/.)

Garbose directed the recently released film “The Heart that Sings,” a movie by and for women. The cultural divides that fracture Israeli society were on display when the film was shown at the Cinematheque in Tel Aviv. (For those interested, you can read various responses to the event at http://www.haaretz.com/print-edition/news/tel-aviv-cinematheque-tries-to-bar-men-from-screening-of-film-by-ultra-orthodox-director-1.403985 and http://www.jpost.com/Opinion/Op-EdContributors/Article.aspx?id=250905)

On a related note, I felt that my previous post may have inadvertently lumped together the Haredi world with the more mainstream and larger Orthodox community within which there is diversity as well. An example is last Friday’s Op-Ed in The New York Times written by Rabbi Dov Linzer, dean of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School in the Bronx. Rabbi Linzer presented a modern Orthodox perspective and offered a strong critique of the extremist Haredi outlook. See his column “Lechery, Immodesty and the Talmud” at http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/20/opinion/ultra-orthodox-jews-and-the-modesty-fight.html?_r=3&src=tp .

And finally, for those that can’t get enough about this topic, Yossi Klein Halevi, the author and columnist who is a fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, wrote an excellent overview of the Haredi-secular clash in this article from The Globe and Mail: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/opinions/opinion/israel-faces-up-to-religious-extremism/article2305648/

Democracy versus Judaism:

Today’s Haaretz has dueling Op-Ed pieces that also touch on my last post. The first is from Benny Katzover, the influential settler leader whom I quoted last Thursday as advocating the replacement of Israeli democracy with Judaism. Haaretz gave Katzover an opportunity to clarify his position which he did in this morning’s Sunday paper at this link: http://www.haaretz.com/print-edition/opinion/drought-and-emptiness-prevail-1.408550

I think he may have dug himself into an even deeper hole. Katzover presents a morally warped argument, within an Israeli context, to justify authoritarian or theocratic rule in the name of a higher goal.

Even worse, he uses factually incorrect statements to make his point. For example, he wrote, “the destruction of terrorists’ houses is generally prevented by the High Court.” He is referring to the policy of Palestinian home demolitions that the courts in Israel occasionally have prevented. Never mind that over 20,000 homes and other structures have been demolished by government bulldozers, often with little notice, bankrupting untold innocent families and making them homeless. Their crime was not housing terrorists but rather the inability of Palestinians to obtain building permits to meet their families’ needs or simply to do repairs that have to be done. This is just one example of how Katzover and his allies – a powerful and dominant force in Israeli government – has perverted the ethical and moral dimensions of Judaism for their version of serving God or some mythical Jewish destiny.

The response to Katzover was penned by Yair Sheleg at http://www.haaretz.com/print-edition/opinion/father-judaism-and-mother-democracy-1.408549 .

Although I question a few of the examples Sheleg offers at the beginning of his column, the latter half is a clear exposition of the inherent tensions built into any democracy, balancing the collective good against individual rights. By implication he exposes Katzover’s thesis as simplistic and lacking depth.

These two columns taken together are a replay of arguments by those who justify oppression in the name of some higher ideal versus those who defend the human dignity of every person.

Atlanta:

On an unrelated note – or perhaps some would say closely related – I expect many readers have already heard about the infamous column by Andrew B. Adler, the publisher of the Atlanta Jewish Times, who published a column on January 13th suggesting that the Mossad might consider assassinating Barack Obama. It almost slipped under the radar until Gawker.com picked it up last week and it has since gone viral. See: http://gawker.com/5877892/

Some say Adler is an aberration or he simply made a mistake. I think that is disingenuous. Rather he is a symptom of what has gone terribly wrong.

Haredim and the future of Israel

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Recently, the newspapers in Israel have been filled with articles about the clash of the ultra-orthodox, called Haredim, with Israelis who are oriented to the modern world. This conflict has been going on for decades but recently it has attained a new intensity that is galvanizing larger segments of the population. It seems every day there are headlines of new incidents or Haredi protests.

Overview of the Current Clash:

The latest flare-up began in December when two women, one secular and one Haredi herself, refused to move to the back of gender segregated buses that were designated to serve the requirements of the Haredi community. The actions of these women garnered front-page attention that compared them to Rosa Parks in long-ago Montgomery, Alabama. But the issue really gained traction when an 8-year old girl from a religious but non-Haredi family was spat upon and derided by Haredi men in the city of Beit Shemesh for being too immodestly dressed. 10,000 people rallied to support her along with women’s rights after she described on TV how she was scared to walk to school through her neighborhood’s Haredi gauntlet.

But as an article in the New York Times stated, these incidents were just the latest in a long festering clash. “The list of controversies grows weekly: Organizers of a conference last week on women’s health and Jewish law barred women from speaking from the podium, leading at least eight speakers to cancel; ultra-Orthodox men spit on an 8-year-old girl whom they deemed immodestly dressed; the chief rabbi of the air force resigned his post because the army declined to excuse ultra-Orthodox soldiers from attending events where female singers perform; protesters depicted the Jerusalem police commander as Hitler on posters because he instructed public bus lines with mixed-sex seating to drive through ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods; vandals blacked out women’s faces on Jerusalem billboards.” (see the full article for more background at http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/15/world/middleeast/israel-faces-crisis-over-role-of-ultra-orthodox-in-society.html)

More recently the concept of Kol Isha, a Jewish law that prohibits hearing the voice of a woman singing, has caused controversy in the Israel Defense forces (IDF). IDF policy is that all soldiers, no matter what their religious orientation, must attend ceremonies even if women are singing. The chief rabbi of the Air Force resigned in protest and this week, Rabbi Elyakim Levanon, an influential rabbi who directs a hesder yeshiva (a yeshiva that combines Torah study with army service) also said he would be resigning over this issue. He charged that the IDF is “bringing us close to a situation in which we will have to tell [male] soldiers, ‘You have to leave such events even if a firing squad is set up outside, which will fire on and kill you.'” (For some insight into the orthodox perspective on this, see http://www.theyeshivaworld.com/article.php?p=114857 . Note the comments at the bottom.)

Lest you think the conflict is only about gender issues, this week a 3rd grade boy in Beit Shemesh revealed that on two recent occasions he had been physically attacked or threatened by Haredim in his neighborhood, once for walking his dog which is considered “impure.” See http://www.haaretz.com/jewish-world/ultra-orthodox-teens-accost-u-s-immigrant-boy-in-beit-shemesh-1.407677

Some Background:

This controversy represents a clash of worldviews that might have ramifications beyond the particular issues that are causing the current friction. There is huge resentment towards the Haredi world from the general public, especially among those who identify as secular. Two-thirds of Haredi men do not work. Most study in yeshivas full-time supported by government subsidies. Few serve in the army. They have their own school systems where secular subjects are seldom taught (math, science, foreign languages or non-religious history). Thus they are not equipped to participate in a modern economy and have a distinctive worldview.

Government subsidies also provide allowances for each child, making it somewhat easier for them to practice the commandment of “be fruitful and multiply” resulting in very large families. Haredim are mostly very poor. They draw significant resources from the state without contributing their fair share economically. Although one of their main values is the intrinsic worth of Torah study, this is not meaningful for much of the Israeli public.

Because of the way that the political system works in Israel, minority parties like those that represent Haredi interests have inordinate influence in the coalition governments that are formed. Such is the case today as it has been in the past, no matter which major party was in power. However, the breaking point may be approaching, especially given the large social protest movement from last summer when thousands of Israelis took to the streets demanding a change in government and economic policies.

Demographics

Let’s leave the current controversies for a minute and take a look at this from a broader perspective.

The total population of Israel is 7.8 million. This includes 250,000 Palestinians in the annexed part of East Jerusalem, 42,000 residents of the Golan Heights (mainly Jewish and Druze) and the 325,000 Jews who live over the Green Line in the West bank. It does not include the Palestinians who live in the West Bank outside of Jerusalem and over 200,000 migrant workers in Israel.

Out of the total 7.8 million population,

  • 75%, or 5.5 million are Jewish
  • Almost 20% are Arab: 1,240,000 Muslim (16.8%) and 153,000 Christian (2.1%). This includes the 250,000 Palestinians in East Jerusalem.
  • 1.7%  (122,000) are Druze, a non-Muslim group mostly located in northern Israel and the Golan Heights.
  • Roughly 4% are not classified.

Now, getting back to the Haredi/secular divide, let’s look at the religious composition of the Jewish population. A study done by the Israel Central Bureau of Statistics in 2010 asked Jews over 18 years old to define themselves.

  • 8% of these adults said they were Haredi. However, they have a high birth rate with many families having 10 or more children. For example, despite being a minority of 32% of the population in Jerusalem, they account for 60% of the children attending elementary school. Thus their percentage of the total population including children is higher. It is estimated that their population will double in 16 years.
  • 12% stated they were “religious”: non-Haredi orthodox, known as national religious or religious Zionist.
  • 13% said they were “religious-traditionalists”: mostly adhering to Jewish Halacha (Jewish law and observance). Their level of observance probably varies widely.
  • 25% are “non-religious traditionalists”: only partly respecting Jewish Halacha. This probably includes regular Friday night Shabbat meals with family and some observance of holidays.
  • 43% defined themselves as “secular.”

Remember, these figures represent adults. Due to the higher birth rates of the religious, Haredi and non-Haredi, the total percentage including children of the religiously oriented is much higher as is their growth rate.

An article in the Jerusalem Post (http://www.jpost.com/NationalNews/Article.aspx?id=214979) cited a report released in 2011 that forecast that by 2030, only 18 years from now, the majority of Israel’s Jewish population will be religious – a reality that could lead to several different results, including an increase in poverty, the annexation of the West Bank settlements and Israel’s deterioration into an anti-democratic country.

The report, which was compiled by Prof. Arnon Soffer, who holds the Reuven Chaikin Chair in Geostrategy at the University of Haifa, also concluded that by 2030, the Haredi population will reach more than a million people, which will place an especially high economic burden on the secular population.

“As long as the Haredi percentage of the population increases, the economic gaps between the Haredi population and the remainder of the population will continue to grow, requiring a greater transfer of funds [from the secular population] to support them.”

The report goes on to state. “The public agenda, the public square and the cultural aspects of the country stand to all reflect the spirit of the Haredi and religious world…. Education will become Torah-based, courts will be operated according to Jewish religious law and much of the media will undergo a transformation in which a large amount of the content it broadcasts will disappear.”

The report concludes that, without changes in policy, this will lead to greater emigration of the secular population, further accelerating these demographic trends. There is an interesting article by Dr. Lawrence Davidson, professor of Middle East history at West Chester University in Pennsylvania, that plays out this scenario in greater detail at http://axisoflogic.com/artman/publish/Article_63302.shtml?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+axisoflogic%2FAxisFeed+%28axisoflogic.com%29 .

Indeed this narrative is already being reflected on the West Bank with influential settler leader Benny Katzover’s recent call for getting rid of democracy. He stated, “The main role of Israeli democracy now is to disappear. Israeli democracy has finished its role, and it must disassemble and give way to Judaism. All leads toward recognition that there is no other way but to place Judaism at the center, above all else, and this is the answer to every situation.” (http://www.haaretz.com/print-edition/news/dismantle-israeli-democracy-and-replace-it-with-jewish-law-says-settler-leader-1.406035)

But as even Professor Davidson points out, the future scenarios are still conjecture. We need to keep in mind that much could change in the coming decades. The less religious and secular segments of society are feeling embattled, both economically and culturally, and a backlash could easily occur that would change many of these dynamics. There was a fascinating Op-Ed in Haaretz recently that pointed out the coming election could surprise everyone. Almost 800,000 voters, mostly Arab and those on the left, chose not to vote in the last election but are very likely to do so in the next one. They represent 25% of those who last voted (3.3 million) and could change the political dynamic in Israel today – which, by changing government priorities and policies, could impact how the society is structured in the future. For this excellent piece, see http://www.haaretz.com/print-edition/opinion/israel-s-arabs-and-seculars-will-return-to-the-polls-1.406379

Interestingly, Israel’s Arab citizens could play a key role in changing the political dynamic if they choose to participate in greater numbers and if the Jewish parties and their constituencies would be willing to form coalitions with them. The Arab community also has a very high birth rate – their percentage of the population has doubled since 1950 despite the massive immigration of Jews during much of that period. How fast this population grows and how it interacts with the Jewish majority is a wildcard in the mix.

Nothing is a given. In the meantime, the Jewish religious-secular conflict is playing out on the streets of Jerusalem and Beit Shemesh. Depending on one’s perspective, one can be filled with despair or with hope.

A Virtual Tour of East Jerusalem

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Ten days ago I went on a drive through East Jerusalem with Ir Amim, a human rights NGO that works to protect the rights of all of Jerusalem’s residents and to prevent the establishment of facts on the ground from precluding a negotiated settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. On the tour we stopped at high lookout points where we saw large areas of intertwining Jewish settlements, Palestinian villages, and the remaining open land in between. The situation on the ground is complex, especially given the rugged geography, so one really has to see it to grasp the situation in a meaningful way.

This poses a huge obstacle to fully understanding the torturous attempts at a peace process. Jerusalem is central to the negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis – and every new construction project has symbolic importance and impacts the facts on the ground. Yet, if one has never actually seen the landscapes I saw with Ir Amim, understanding the ramifications of Israeli government actions or the rationale for Palestinian reactions is difficult. So I realized on this tour that most American, and even many Israelis, are at a disadvantage when trying to interpret new developments in the headlines.

To read the rest of this post, see http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/a-virtual-tour-of-east-jerusalem/

 

Yaffa Yarkoni, The “Soldier’s Singer”

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Many readers of this blog may remember from their younger days the Israeli singer Yaffa Yarkoni who died at the age of 86 a few weeks ago. She was famous during the early years of the state and was especially known for entertaining soldiers.

Haaretz  printed a moving retrospective article last week by Tom Segev that traced the arc of her life – see http://www.haaretz.com/weekend/week-s-end/striking-a-different-tune-1.405805. It is worth reading, both for the nostalgia of a time long past, but also because her life reflected the evolution of Israeli society. Yarkoni was an important player in reinforcing the new nation’s founding mythos and how Jewish Israelis viewed themselves which, as the article points out, under that legendary tough exterior sometimes there was a quiet questioning voice. She even got into a bit of trouble for that when she let that voice slip out publicly early in her career.

But what is really interesting is how, as the country began maturing and the first cracks in the national Jewish solidarity appeared, she peripherally was tarnished through her husband with allegations of corruption involving Ben Gurion’s son. Much later her public image was badly damaged when, in a deeply polarized political climate, she let slip in an unguarded moment a critical comment about the actions of Israeli soldiers. It was a far cry from the seeming unity of purpose in the late ‘40’s.

Reading Segev’s article will bring you back to those early idealistic days, as reflected in the Bab El-Wad lyrics below that Yarkoni often sang, but also will let you reflect on the torturous journey Israel has taken since then.

Bab El-Wad
Lyrics: Haim Guri
Music: Shmuel Farshko

Here I am passing, standing by the stone.
An asphalt road, rocks and ridges.
Day goes down slowly, sea-wind blows
Light of a first star, over Beit Maschir.

Bab-el-wad,
Do remember our names forever,
Convoys broke through, on the way to the City.
Our dead lay on the road edges.
The iron skeleton is silent like my comrade.

Here pitch and lead fumed under the sun,
Here nights passed with fire and knives.
Here sorrow and glory live together
With a burnt armored car and the name of an unknown.

Bab-el-wad

And I walk, passing here silently,
And I remember them, one by one.
Here we fought together on cliffs and boulders
Here we were one family.

Bab-el-wad

A spring day will come, the cyclamens will bloom,
Red of anemone on the mountain and on the slope.
He, who will go on the road we went,
He will not forget us, Bab-el-wad.

Elad and Jewish Settlement in Silwan

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Last week on January 2nd I posted a column about how the Jewish National Fund (JNF) has been evicting long-time Palestinian residents and replacing them with far-right Jewish settlers in the Palestinian area of Silwan in East Jerusalem. (see https://sevenmonthsintelaviv.com/2012/01/02/silwan-and-the-jewish-national-fund).

Although the JNF story has been in the news a lot lately, a key player in Silwan is Elad, an ideologically-driven settler organization. Their goal is to convert Palestinian neighborhoods close to the Old City of Jerusalem into Jewish enclaves. This post will deal with how Elad and Ateret Cohanim, an NGO with similar goals that is more active in other areas of Jerusalem, acquire property in order to evict the Palestinians who live there.

How Palestinians are Evicted from their Homes:

These right wing NGOs use five main strategies to take over property. Some of these strategies are straightforward legal methods but others are based on allegations of more questionable practices. In these latter cases whenever possible I have cited testimony from Knesset hearings or court proceedings to provide documentation for the allegations. (All of the information below is taken from reports produced by professional researchers at Israeli human rights NGOs, three of which I cite at the end of this post. As a disclaimer, Elad has sued Ir Amim, one of these NGOs, over a report that includes some of these allegations. Ir Amim is defending the report’s accuracy.)

1 – Absentee Property Law: Briefly, this law allows property to be seized by the state if it is proved that the owners live in Arab countries or in the West Bank (see my January 2nd post for more historical background). The application of this legislation to East Jerusalem first began in the late 1970’s.

How this law is implemented is especially interesting.

  •  The process begins when a deposition is filed with the Custodian of Absentee Property, which is an office in the Israeli Ministry of Finance, claiming that a property has an “absentee owner.” These depositions are often prepared by Elad or Ateret Cohanim.
  • The custodian evaluates the claim and, if accepted as valid (more on this below), declares the property as absentee.
  • The property is then transferred to the Jerusalem Development Authority which disposes of the property based on the recommendation of a committee in the Israeli Ministry of Housing. Representatives of Elad and Ateret Cohanim attend those committee meetings.
  • Not surprisingly, the properties are usually turned over to those NGOs for settler use. This completes the closed loop where the NGOs file the claims and then receive the property.
  • This process of registering property as “absentee” is not public. Palestinian residents and owners have no way of knowing it is occurring, they cannot stop the transfer of ownership with legal action, and they are not entitled to compensation. They can undertake legal action after the fact, which can take many years and is expensive, beyond the means of many families.

Allegations of fraud have been made against Elad in preparing the claims of absentee ownership. For example, in a case that resulted in a Knesset investigation, Elad used the testimony of one Palestinian individual as the basis for many claims. Unfortunately, this Palestinian had a background that included perjury. During a 1991 Knesset hearing, Aharon Shakarji, then the Custodian of Absentee Property, testified that this Palestinian had been the sole basis for claims on “maybe ten or fifteen” properties in East Jerusalem that he had declared absentee. He further stated that he was willing to accept depositions from someone whom he knew “had committed perjury” without further investigation. When a Knesset member asked “Is it enough for you to get a letter from somebody and you grab the property?” Shakarji replied “Yes.”

In an unrelated court case involving the Custodian’s actions, a judge wrote in his final ruling, “Not only was the good faith of the custodian [of absentee property] not proven, but it has been proven beyond doubt that both the declaration of the entire property as absentee property and its sale to the Jerusalem Development Authority are both unacceptable because they were done in an extreme lack of good faith and there is no factual or legal basis to legalize them.”

2 – Previously Owned Jewish Property: Buildings and land in East Jerusalem that belonged to Jews or Jewish organizations before Jordan captured the area in the 1948 war (when Israel became a state) can be reclaimed and the Palestinian residents evicted. On the surface, this sounds reasonable as property is restored to the rightful owners. However, it is a one-way street. Palestinians residents of Jerusalem or the West Bank cannot reclaim their property in Israel that they owned prior to 1948. If they could, large areas of Jewish West Jerusalem would suddenly have many Palestinian residents since Jewish families who live in the many beautiful old Arab houses would have to surrender their homes.

One famous case in this category that began in the 1980’s involved Mohamed Gozlan and his family. They occupied a house that had been owned by the JNF. Mohamed’s father had sheltered and saved the Jews in his neighborhood during the 1929 Arab riots and was considered a hero. After a long legal battle the Gozlan family was evicted in 2005 and the JNF leased the property to Elad.

3 – Straw Men: It is alleged that Elad and Ateret Cohanim will sometimes use Palestinian ”straw men” who pose as buyers of property for their own use. After they purchase the property the straw men transfer ownership to the settlers. Because of the deceit and fraud involved in these transactions, they are kept secret. Some of these deals ended up in court when they became known.

4 – Threat of Demolition: As explained in previous posts it is extremely difficult for Palestinians to obtain building permits to build new houses or renovate existing structures. Thus huge numbers of buildings in East Jerusalem are built illegally and subsequently face demolition orders. This can lead to financial ruin for the owners. There are allegations that the settler NGOs take advantage of this by offering to take property off the hands of the owners and assume the risk of demolition. After the sale is completed, the settler organizations get the demolition orders rescinded. In one recorded telephone call with someone instrumental in this process, it was stated that Ateret Cohanim had arranged with the municipal authorities for demolition orders to be issued on the properties they wanted to acquire, thus setting up the process.

5 – Land expropriation for archeological and tourist purposes: Large plots of land in Silwan have been acquired or are being targeted for archeological digs that will become ideologically-driven tourist attractions. The City of David National Park just outside the Old City walls is an example. It is run by Elad and is the only national park in Israel where both the archeology and operations are managed by a private organization. Elad keeps all of the ticket receipts. They are in charge of ongoing archeological work and educational programs that espouse their ideological perspective. Hundreds of thousands of visitors come to the park each year including tourists, students, and Israeli soldier groups for tours and programs.

Across the street from that site Elad is running another large excavation with plans to turn it into a similar tourist destination, and a third site is being pushed hard by the mayor of Jerusalem which would result in a significant number of Palestinian homes being demolished (demolition orders for 43 structures are currently outstanding at that Silwan site).

Additional Allegations of deceit: When I visited Silwan last month I heard more allegations of the use of fraud when taking over properties but I have not found independent corroborating data for those stories. However one accusation, which was detailed in one of the NGO reports I drew on for this post, is worthy of a Hollywood script. One of the mukhtars of Silwan, Lutfi Siyam, testified in court that shortly after the death of his illiterate grandmother, her fingerprints were stamped in the places for a signature on property sale documents.

The Result:

The result of all this property acquisition is that 2,000 Jewish settlers now live in East Jerusalem neighborhoods close to the Old City, often in gated compounds protected by video surveillance systems and private security guards paid for by the Ministry of Housing. These private guards are an armed force unto themselves in the middle of Palestinian neighborhoods with little oversight or controls.

As you might imagine, the resentment and fear of eviction in many Palestinian areas is quite high as these settler enclaves convert these close-knit neighborhoods into areas resembling armed camps. In a future post I will address how this has significantly raised the level of violence and disruption, often making normal life impossible for the Palestinians who live there.

Further Reading:

The information in this post was taken from several research reports produced by Israeli human rights NGOs. For those interested in more details I suggest the following:

1 – The Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), as its name suggests, works to protect the civil rights of all Israeli citizens. Their report “Unsafe Space” provides a good overview of the settlement enterprise in East Jerusalem in the Appendix #1, beginning on page 35. It can be downloaded at this link: www.acri.org.il/pdf/unsafe-space-en.pdf

2 – Ir Amim is an organization that works to protect the rights of all of Jerusalem’s residents and to prevent the establishment of facts on the ground from precluding a negotiated settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. You can download their detailed research report “Shady Dealings in Silwan” by scrolling down to the middle of this page:http://www.ir-amim.org.il/Eng/?CategoryID=254

As noted above, Elad has filed a civil suit against Ir Amim over this report.

3 – Emek Shaveh is a group of archeologists and residents of Silwan who are opposed to the ideologically driven excavations in East Jerusalem that are run by Elad. They challenge how those finds are being presented to establish a solely Jewish narrative to the exclusion of other historical periods and people. Emek Shaveh publishes reports and runs tours that present an alternative archeological story, including pre-biblical and post-temple periods, to illustrate the full range of Jerusalem’s history. See http://www.alt-arch.org/silwan.php and http://www.alt-arch.org/publications.php

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