Saturday, April 10, 2010

Sheikh Jarrah: Common Decency

David Grossman, Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi, and thirty other writers and scholars, forced from the sidewalk across from the homes of Sheikh Jarrah's evicted families.

The organizers of the weekly Sheikh Jarrah demonstrations are a loose, but hardly amorphous, group; no formal hierarchy, but rather a network of perhaps a dozen thirty-somethings, as closely knit as a basketball team. The ones who more or less act as the point guards are graduate students who've gone to school in America and have come back--Assaf Sharon from Stanford, Avner Inbar from the University of Chicago--to write theses in political philosophy. Instead, they are now practicing political philosophy. The oldest in the group, Dr. Amos Goldberg, is a Hebrew University teaching fellow in Holocaust Studies (and a former graduate student of my wife, Sidra).

Almost none in the group, I hasten to add, are leftists in the ordinary sense. Assaf and Amos are the products of the National Religious Party youth movement, Bnei Akiva, and came by their skepticism honestly. Another, Sara Benninga, is the daughter of a distinguished Tel Aviv University business professor. Most came to this issue because it could simply not be ignored. Little by little, they are becoming radicals of democratic globalism.

The leaders of this group are also gaining a good deal of experience in the management of protest. For yesterday's rally, they planned an operation that seemed to those of us who participated both poignant and instructive. It also wound up exposing the arbitrary ways the Jerusalem police has been dealing with the growing challenge to the city's disgraceful treatment of its Arab residents:

Ever since the Friday demonstrations began back in January, the police had cordoned off the homes of the displaced families after about 2 PM, so that demonstrators were unable to show solidarity directly to the people evicted, or express their disgust with the Jewish settlers. In response--a kind of outflanking operation--the group invited about 30 of us, including the author David Grossman, former speaker Avrum Burg, NIF President Naomi Chazan, Israel Prize winner Zeev Sternhell, to gather at the homes of the families at 1:30 PM, where we conducted a kind of impromptu seminar for a couple of hours (not a hard thing for writers and professors, as things turned out).

At around 3:30 PM, we all suddenly emerged onto the street with our signs, and stood across from the homes that were confiscated, kitty-corner to the others that are under threat. When the police commanders realized that we were actually behind their lines, they quickly organized and sent a phalanx of heavily armed officers to form a line behind us, and began pushing us out toward the main demonstration in a park across the street.

WE HAD ALL agreed in advance that we would not resist, or do anything to challenge police authority. As we were being pushed, we walked very slowly but steadily toward the demonstrating crowd that was gathered in the usual place. Now and then we would scold the police for pushing too aggressively. Most of the young officers seemed a little abashed to be pushing well-known sixty-somethings around, but that was the point.

Then something unexpected and chilling happened. The commander of the police spotted Assaf and recognized him as the group's organizer. He instructed several officers to seize him and put him under arrest. Immediately, Avner, Amos, and another leader sat down, challenging the police to arrest them, too, which is exactly what the police did. The instinctive way the three sat down in solidarity, unwilling to allow Assaf to be arrested alone, touched those of us who were walking beside them in ways that are hard to explain. It reminded me of a sentence in Albert Camus' The Plague, that there is no heroism in fighting something like the plague, just common decency.

David Grossman then addressed the crowd across the street, speaking more passionately than I have ever seen him in public, exhorting the crowd to double its number next week. (Hebrew speakers can see the speech here.) A few of us, including Burg, went to the police station to testify on behalf of those arrested. As I waited, the commander, one Shmuel Ben Yosef, returned to the station, spotted me, asked me if I was one of those arrested, and loudly ordered me from the station. When I reminded him that I was not an officer subject to his command, but a citizen, his syntax changed (from a command to a request) but not his threatening tone.

I found myself out on the street, where I waited for God knows what. But the leaders were released a few hours later, without my testimony; the charges were essentially dropped, as they had been in the past, since the suspects had after all done nothing illegal (so the courts have already stipulated). They were arrested essentially because they had surprised the police and pissed off their commander.

As I waited outside, the group's drummers came and began playing across from the station, so that those detained inside would know they were not alone. I dare say that is the last thing anyone felt.

Drummers coming to be heard across from the police station, as demonstration leaders await release.

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