Sheikh Jarrah: It's Happening

For a protest to turn into a serious happening, you need two things. First, an injustice so obvious, and so emblematic, that to redress it is to play a kind of historical jujitsu: the force of the grievance pushes more and more people to turn out; and the growing crowd starts to feel that, if they win (and why shouldn't they, when the weight of a silent majority is behind them?), they will have defeated inertia. Second, you need the protest to be so simple, repetitive and doable--so focused on the critical issue of the time--that more and more people join in just for the fun of being right and good, sort of the way they might be going to weekly prayer meeting. Little by little, the protest becomes an enormous political fact. (Think of Rosa Parks and the Montgomery bus boycott.)

Something like this is happening in Jerusalem on Friday afternoons. A few weeks ago, a group of settlers took over most of a house in Sheikh Jarrah, turning its residents out. The family had been living in this house since the 1948-9 war, and the settlers' claim to the house was based on the apparent fact that the home had been deeded to members of a Jewish Sephardi community organization before World War II. By this standard, there is hardly a Jew living in established neighborhoods of West Jerusalem who would not be turned out of their homes (including the one I am writing from).

In consequence, three weeks ago, a small number of protesters gathered in central Jerusalem on Friday afternoon (in the plaza in front of the city's largest department store, to be exact). They began to walk through the streets, with drums and signs and costumes, until they got to the Arab neighborhood in question. The immediate grievance was the expulsion of this family, and the immediate goal was restoring the family to its home.

But there is clearly a larger issue here, made more urgent by exposure of new construction, and all involved (protesters and police) have understood this. The protest is a way of asserting that East Jerusalem should be the capital of a Palestinian state, that the annexations that have gone on since 1967 must stop, and that the only way either can come about is by international intervention; that Jerusalem is an international problem, not Israel's internal affair; that Jews who want a peace deal can at least demonstrate solidarity with our Arab neighbors in a city that, while not divided, is not united either. And there is a subtext here: for the Jews in question (at least, so far) are people who consider themselves a kind of remnant of the secular Israeli intelligentsia that had thrived here in the 1970s, but is now swamped by ultraOrthodox and ultra-nationalist forces. They are, so we hope, the seed crystal for many from outside of Jerusalem to organize around.

Three weeks ago, there were about 30 or 40 protesters, and a number were arrested for tearing down the Israeli flag that the settlers had hung from the house. Two weeks ago there were 50 protesters. Last week there were 250, and East Jerusalem Arabs were cautiously coming out to cheer. Perhaps, eventually, Arabs will join, too. Anyway, Sidra and I will be there this Friday, and most every Friday. So will David Shulman, whose report from last week follows. May I urge anyone who is reading this to join us at 1:30 PM in the plaza before Hamashbir LaTzarchan? We especially need people from Tel Aviv and people from East Jerusalem. The traffic is a breeze on Friday afternoons. Bring your drums.

December 25, 2009 Christmas in Sheikh Jarrah
David Shulman's Diary

This time I was sure they'd arrest me—I'd somehow eluded them, without trying to do so, the last three times I was here for the Friday demonstration—but once again it didn't happen. Maybe I'm too old? Last week they clearly went after the young people. Gabi was standing next to his son, Boaz, who was arrested (though he had done nothing to deserve the honor); Gabi asked the policemen to take him, too, but they refused and pushed him rudely away. It's almost insulting. We had 27 arrestees who spent the Shabbat as guests of the police in the appalling detention cells in the Russian Compound.

Anyway, I came prepared, with the Phaedrus in my pocket. "That's some dialogue," Amiel says to me, "but I'm not sure you'll be reading it under optimal conditions." He's worried: the police have cordoned off Sheikh Jarrah, and they're also making unpleasant noises about our march through town, even though this demonstration is completely legal, permit and all. Many policemen stand watching us as we gather on King George Street and start handing out the large placards inscribed in Hebrew, Arabic, and English. Bernie gets an Arabic one: "Stop the settlement in Sheikh Jarrah!" It's a considerable improvement, he says, on the sign he made for himself at his first political demonstration, as President of Hillel, in the 60's in Montreal. That one read: "Cultural Imperialism Retards the Dialectic." Hm. Times have changed. Not sure I could march to the barricades under that banner. I'm given a small red plastic horn, purchased in south Hebron, and told to blow it in time with the drums.

Today's march through town is mostly easy. Last week people threw rotten eggs, and there were some slaps and punches, too. I get soaked by a sudden deluge from a window on the second floor of one of the houses en route. It's actually almost welcome in the afternoon sun; I look up and see the man who drenched me gloating, happy that he's found a target. The atmosphere, as in earlier weeks, is carnivalesque. Of course we're here, as everyone knows, on serious business—getting more serious every week; there are, we are told, another 25 Palestinian families slated for expulsion from their homes in Sheikh Jarrah. But the protest is taking off, and every week there are more demonstrators: some 250 today right at the start, with more joining us as we approach the site of eviction. The police have clearly fanned the flames, probably doubled the crowd, by their all-too-predictable attempts to quell the protest by force. I suppose no one ever really learns from experience.

We stand at the edge of the somber street in Sheikh Jarrah, almost in sight of the stolen houses; and as we chant our cries and slogans, the arrests begin, this time from deep inside the crowd. Plainclothes Shabak (Israel Security Agency—Secret Service) agents, milling among us, grab the activists who spent last weekend, or the one before, in jail. As it happens, in court this week the judge cancelled the police ruling banning these volunteers from Sheikh Jarrah for thirty days. Apparently, the police didn't get the message; or maybe they didn't want to get it. Maybe someone higher up gave them an order to disregard the court's ruling. Or maybe they're just angry at being mocked, or even—a happy thought—a little jealous. Perhaps they'd prefer to join the protest party; I'm sure it's much more fun that what they're up to.

Still, there's something terrifying about an arrest that happens like that, when a stranger, anonymous, unmarked, suddenly turns against you and starts beating you in fury as he pushes you through the crowd toward the waiting patrol cars. First Amiel is captured, then Koby, then another six; Sarah waves a copy of the judgment in the face of the Shabaknik who is trying to arrest her, but he is utterly uninterested in this document; miraculously, she escapes his clutches and disappears. Leah, our lawyer, is with us, and for once she is reassuring—the police can't hold them in jail for disobeying an order that has been rescinded. I hope she's right.

I think something new is happening in Jerusalem. I see it in the young people who bear the brunt of this demonstration, who organize it and lead it and cheerfully face the Border Police and the blue police and, much worse, the clandestine Shabak operators week after week. Once again, many of my students are here. They, I am sure, are our future, and I trust them to see it through. They are clearly feeling the bizarre happiness that so often floods you at such moments—the happiness that naturally flows from saying "no" to self-evident evil. Hence the drummers and the clowns and, specially for today, the Santa Clauses in brilliant red and even one masquerading demonstrator dressed in an Israeli Army uniform painted totally white, his face and hair also white—the soldiers and the police seem particularly troubled and angered by him and, not unexpectedly, try to arrest him, but I think he manages to get away.

As before, the police head for the drummers. As Natasha says to me—she grew up in Communist Czechoslovakia—it's like in totalitarian regimes; they're always afraid of drummers, of festive resistance, of the disorder and freedom of masquerade. So, naturally, last week in Sheikh Jarrah they arrested the clowns; you can see an eloquent picture by going to

In a way the whole deep foolishness and wrong are present in that moment. It's one thing to arrest peace activists like our Ta'ayush veterans, or even to swoop down at random on non-violent demonstrators, many of them young students, many young women, and drag them off to the police vans. But to attack and arrest a clown? Probably from the beginning of human civilization, clowns play out the essence of our freedom and embody, as no one else, the very possibility of speaking truth. They're also given to a volatile playfulness and an irreducible, insouciant innocence, the true enemies of earnest repression. There is simply no witness like a clown, no one better equipped to plumb the depths of our sadness.

Now look closely at the two grim policemen firmly grasping their prey: could anyone look more ridiculous than they? Think of the immense daring, the superhuman courage one needs to arrest a clown. Only a country, or a city, intent upon a great crime would send its soldiers to do battle with clowns. And since, despite my early morning gloom, I'm in an ever-so-slightly optimistic frame of mind after today's demonstration, after the drums and the masque and the sweet shared moments of defiance, let me follow this hopeful thought as far as it takes me, a Christmas gift for those among us who celebrate this day. Deadly earnestness, for all the vast and brutal machinery that underpins it, is ultimately a disease with a rather poor prognosis. In the end, the clowns—we, that is—will win.