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Postcard from Arab East Jerusalem

July 19, 2011 – 1:16 pm82 Comments

A photo from the Sheikh Jarrah protest

By Liam Getreu

While in Jerusalem a few weeks ago, I decided to go to East Jerusalem properly for the first time, and posted this originally on my blog. While my Jewish education was occasionally punctured by more honest accounts of Israel, overwhelmingly the narrative and issues I discovered below were missing from my ten years in a Jewish day school – it was all land of milk and honey, all the time, something consistent with all my peers’ experiences. It is integral that in supporting Israel from Australia to be the best democratic home of the Jewish people it can be, we understand the issues that face all of Israel’s citizens on the ground, including Palestinians in east Jerusalem, something I had never before been given the chance to do. Next time you’re in Israel, I can’t recommend highly enough going to see what I saw with a group like Ir Amim; it will provide a very strong, realistic understanding of just one terrible situation in Israel, and how important it is for us, as Australian Jews, to support efforts to correct it.

I had a very busy day that Friday in Jerusalem – not only did I go to check out the Sheikh Jarrah solidarity protests, but I also went on a tour of east Jerusalem neighbourhoods with Ir Amim.

First, a bit of background: As I’ve written here countless times, the nature of a divided or shared, or a united Jerusalem is frequently cited as one of the main stumbling blocks to peace. Palestinians demand that they have east Jerusalem as their capital, whereas the current government of Israel wants to keep the land it conquered from the Jordanians in 1967 as Israel’s ‘eternal, undivided city’

More and more, however, it is increasingly untenable for Israel to sustain such a demand. Whether we like it or not, Jerusalem retains significance for the Palestinian people, which is no more or less legitimate than our claim of significance of the city. We are in no place to judge, or compare who ‘wants’ the city more – this is counterproductive and a zero-sum game. We must accept the current reality of the city, and the aspirations of both people, and share the city between Israel, the state of the Jewish people, and a future state for the Palestinian people.

It is in some way from that position that Ir Amim comes, the organisation describing itself as committed to “an equitable and stable Jerusalem with an agreed political future”. Ir Amim investigates and researches the reailty on the ground in Israel – for example, the inequity in the resources provided to the paving and re-paving of roads in neighbourhoods in Palestinian east Jerusalem as opposed to Jewish communities. Given that Israel annexed east Jerusalem and includes it in its territory to this day, it stands to reason that the division of resources should be fair and equitable.

The tour I went on visited various Jewish neighbourhoods1 over the green line in east Jerusalem, including Gilo and Har Homa.2 We also visited Palestinian neighbourhoods over the green line in Jerusalem, including Beit Safafa, Sheikh Jarrah, Jalal Mukaba and Abu Dis.

The difference between the Palestinian and Jewish neighbourhoods is stark, impossible not to notice, and even harder to dismiss. While Jewish neighbourhoods have municipality provided swimming pools, well-paved roads and lots of schools, the case is the diametric opposite for Palestinians. In Jerusalem, despite west Jerusalem Jewish suburbs of Malcha and Rehavya being under the same municipal jurisdiction as east Jerusalem Palestinian neighbourhoods like Sheikh Jarrah and Abu Dis, and Palestinians making up almost 35 per cent of the entire population of the city, only around 10 per cent of municipal funds are directed to them.3 When Israel claims to be all embracing of its Arab minority, where equality supposedly not only written in law but also evident on the ground, this is surely unfair, unjust and wrong.

In my opinion the most clear and alarming difference is in education of Palestinian youth in east Jerusalem. Ir Amim has commissioned many reports on the matter and has concluded that there is vast inequality. While Israeli law entitled all Palestinians in east Jerusalem to free, public education (something the vast majority want, because private education is so expensive), a shortage of more than 1,000 classrooms makes it impossible for them to receive their rightful benefits. As it stands, because there is that huge gap, and because many Palestinians can’t afford education or the schools run by UNRWA are too full, there are more six per cent of Palestinian children who are unable to attend a school.

For all the talk of a defunct and hostile Arab school system, where textbooks preach antisemitism and the destruction of Israel, here Israel is, with a chance to educate Palestinian children along pluralist and tolerant lines, and the opportunity is ignored. It is at best negligent and at worst criminal. If education is the key to a lasting peace, where both Jews and Palestinians are taught mutual respect and tolerance, then Israel is failing itself here.

It is a crying shame that when Israeli politicians speak of an undivided Jerusalem the reality on the ground is that the municipality and the state are dividing it already – not necessarily geographically, but ethnically, dividing services unequally and ruining chances of a credible labelling in the international arena of Israel as free, democratic and equal for all its citiens.

After the excellent Ir Amim tour I had a break (a smoked salmon sandwich at Aroma on Hillel St, naturally) and then went to join the weekly demonstration by the Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity Movement. The demonstration is in protest against civil inequality and the occupation, but has stemmed for a particular situation in Sheikh Jarrah, where Jews are allowed to claim properties they lost when Jordan took over east Jerusalem and the West Bank in 1948, while Palestinians are unable to do the same to properties lost in either 1948 or 1967.

It is atrocious that Israel allows such blatant inequality and discrimination. In Sheikh Jarrah and many other neighbourhoods of east Jerusalem, Jews are now using Ottoman deeds to re-claim their properties. For the most part I don’t have a problem with that – if there is a genuine consensus on the need to re-settle all refugees from the ’48 and ’67 wars in their original homes then fine. However, if Jews are going to be able to do that, then there must be the same opportunity afforded Palestinians who lost their homes using the same type of documents. Allow both or allow neither, but allowing only one is racist.

The demonstrations, which targets the mostly religious settlers occupying the homes of former residents, occur weekly and seem to aim to raise awareness, build a community of Israelis and Palestinians, together, against the occupation, and to try (however in vain it probably is) to convince the settlers to move out. They marched through the neighbourhood and shouted chants, like the most poignant, “1, 2, 3, 4 Occupation no more / 5, 6, 7, 8 Stop the settlers, stop the hate”. Even as the settlers tried to drown out their shouts with religious music on big speakers, it was as if the power the demonstrators gained from pursuing a noble cause managed to overcome it all.

The protests have been joined by public intellectuals, academics and writers in the past, including Bernard Avishai, Peter Beinart and David Grossman – while regrettably they are not part of the mainstream Israeli psyche, they are well on their way. After all, it is only so long that Israelis can go on, increasingly isolated from the world and not looking internally at their own problems, seeking to solve them to re-gain the moral high ground.

Many will criticise what some members of SJSM have said, or what they stand for, or other initiatives they have joined. Indeed, while some there who would prefer an Israel with no Jewish character and only a single secular, democratic state between the Jordan and the Mediterranean, there are far more who are campaigning for a two-state solution. You cannot delegitimise an entire organisation or an entire political movement based on the political affiliations, or the Facebook friends of some of its members, as some have tried to do.

That Friday was enlightening – I did not realise the strength of the new Israeli left, a movement that centres around organisations like SJSM and blogs like 972 magazine. I had not understood the extent of the inequality in east Jerusalem, something that I refuse to stand for, something runs contrary to the intentions of the founders of Israel and of central elements to Jewish faith and culture. The next time you’re in Israel I can’t stress enough how worthwhile these tours are, and how great it is to be involved in the New Israel Fund, an organisation that supports SJSM and Ir Amim in the work they do.

Liam Getreu is a graduate of Bialik College and Habonim Dror and is a former chairperson of the Australian Zionist Youth Council and the Australasian Union of Jewish Students. He is a director of New Israel Fund Australia. These are his personal views.

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