Weekly demonstration at Sheikh Jarrah, April 23, 2010. (Photo: Yotam Ronen/Activestills)
Last Friday marked exactly one year since the beginning of the protests against the eviction of Palestinian families in the East Jerusalem neighborhood Sheikh Jarrah. The protest has grown from a handful of Israelis, and some international activists, to hundreds of Israelis that attend the weekly Friday demonstrations. Unlike one year ago, key Israeli political and cultural personalities associated with the Zionist establishment such as Avraham Burg and David Grossman now make weekly appearances addressing the crowd with passionate speeches about the future of the Israeli left. Going into its first year, the movement in Sheikh Jarrah now faces its biggest challenge – Zionism.
Despite the enormous recognition of the struggle in Sheikh Jarrah in Israel and abroad, the movement is becoming to split over important questions about its character and future aspirations. Many of the original Israeli protesters are growing disenchanted with the current direction of the movement. They feel that the movement is transitioning from a joint Palestinian-Israeli struggle to a fight to save the Zionist soul. An example of this tension can be found in the coordination committees which run the protest and its strategy. From the beginning, a joint Israeli-Palestinian coordination committee has been meeting weekly to discuss upcoming and previous actions as well as media strategy. Since last fall, another committee which is only Israeli has been meeting as well in order to plan the actions from the Israeli point of view. As the protest has grown to include more and more Israelis, the Israeli committee has increased in size dramatically, and slowly taken over the guiding duties of the movement. The character of the Israeli committee is becoming a Zionist one, as political parties such as Meretz have begun to take central roles in the protest movement. Some of the “official” spokespeople of the Sheikh Jarrah protest do not even attend the joint Palestinian-Israeli planning committee instead preferring to organize solely from the Israeli side. This gulf between the committees presents one of the most profound challenges to the future of the joint struggle.
Internal issues have often destroyed leftist movements in Israel. Due to schisms that arose about the direction of the Peace Now protests in the nineties, a new direct action left was created by groups like Ta’ayush and the Anarchists Against the Wall around the time of the second intifada. To this day, these groups refuse to take joint positions on major political questions and theory instead preferring to focus on joint Palestinian-Israeli action in the field. Zionist rhetoric is also completely absent from their few political manifestos.The Israeli involvement in Sheikh Jarrah was largely started by people associated with these groups. The ability to maintain the philosophy of direct action in the streets of Sheikh Jarrah is now a decisive issue among the Israeli protesters as the Zionist left has found a more visible role in the movement.
Despite internal issues of character and identity, the protests have served to galvanize the Israeli left. Many people in Jerusalem and even Tel Aviv, who would have never thought about entering East Jerusalem, now make regular weekly visits to Sheikh Jarrah, and bear witness to the Israeli government’s policy of unequal application of the law. Israelis have a psychological barrier when it comes to the West Bank, East Jerusalem and other Palestinian areas. Maybe it is the army or the education system but the thought of entering a Palestinian neighbourhood in East Jerusalem is simply beyond the comprehension of reality for many mainstream Israelis. Sheikh Jarrah has helped to break down this barrier, and people that before would have feared for their life in East Jerusalem attend demonstrations in Sheikh Jarrah on a weekly basis. Because of Sheikh Jarrah there is a ‘new blood’ in the Israeli left and many Israelis are now joining groups like Ta’ayush in other demonstrations in the West Bank. Ta’ayush, the Arab-Jewish partnership group who have been conducting direct action demonstrations in the South Hebron Hills since 2002, has seen a dramatic increase in the levels of participates for their weekly activities as a result of the popularity of the Sheikh Jarrah movement.
Sheikh Jarrah has become the gateway drug for a new breed of Israeli leftists which are slowly understanding that the walls between Israeli and Palestinian society are not high and can easily be brought down. In the landscape of the direct action Israeli left, Sheikh Jarrah is also unique because of the age range of people that have joined the struggle. While a core component of the movement is made up of young university age people, many older people from all segments of Israeli society have become regular fixtures in the movement. Often, older participants in Sheikh Jarrah harbour stronger Zionist politics than the younger protesters thus helping to reinforce the tension with Zionism in the movement.
For many Israeli activists in Sheikh Jarrah, the past year has brought profound psychological changes. One of the core activists involved in Sheikh Jarrah, who did not wish to be named, told me , “I am a law-abiding citizen. I pay my taxes. I come from a good family and have never done anything illegal in my life but in Sheikh Jarrah I am criminal in the eyes of the police. Why? Because I am non-violent activist standing with Palestinians. In Sheikh Jarrah, I realized for the first time in my life that the police were against me because of my political views and this is scary.” This story is not uncommon among protesters in Sheikh Jarrah, and helps explains the incredible growth of the movement. Once Israelis are confronted with the uncomfortable reality that their state does not represent them and is in fact against them, returning to normal life becomes very difficult. Continued protest is often the only way to maintain sanity.
According to one of the earliest Israeli activists in the Sheikh Jarrah struggle, the growth of the movement is incredible. She told me that, ‘I never expected to see this day, when hundreds of Israelis would go to East Jerusalem and risk arrests or personal violence in order to protest on behalf of solidarity and co-existence with Palestinians.” Despite her positive views on the protest’s growth, one can see the tension in her eyes about the types of Israelis who are joining the protest. She is worried that the protest will lose its character as a Palestinian struggle which Israelis can assist. At one point in our conversation she told me that on certain protest days she would prefer to have five hundred less Israelis in order to maintain a clear Palestinian character.
Zionist leftists associated with grassroots groups or political parties such as Meretz are beginning to see Sheikh Jarrah as an outlet for Israelis to deal with internal issues. Sheikh Jarrah has become a symbol of the nature of the Israeli legal system and the unequal application of law. Most Israelis understand that violent elements in society (e.g. settlers) control an unusually high amount of state resources and attention. Until now, there has not be an public outlet for expressing this criticism in a popular way. Sheikh Jarrah has become that outlet but at the cost of joint Palestinian-Israeli character of the struggle. Zionist parties are looking to hijack the struggle as proof that Israel has the ability to be a vibrant democracy, and to help establish the character of Israeli society. This goal does not necessarily have anything to do with the Palestinian struggle against Israeli occupation. The clarity of the injustice that is taking place in Sheikh Jarrah against Palestinians, coupled with the fact that it is centrally located in Jerusalem, has made the protest movement a fertile ground for the re-creation of the Israeli left.
Currently, Zionists, both in Israel and abroad, are involved in a fight to save the soul of Zionism. Israelis have lived with the uncomfortable reality that Zionism is at odds with issues of human rights, liberalism and equality for as long as the state has existed, but have used an obsession with ‘security’ to ignore these contradictions. A change is under way in Israel as the country takes a turn to the right in terms of its leadership and the way it views the outside world. Many Israelis who still believe in Zionism as containing some form of classical liberal theory, but are uncomfortable about its current/future application, have found a voice in the Sheikh Jarrah movement. They look to Sheikh Jarrah as a chance to show themselves, and perhaps the world, that Israel does have the ability to exist democratically and extend basic rights to even its enemies. They are able to use the movement as a struggle against rightist elements associated with Zionism, such as the settlers and the armed forces of the state. The movement is becoming a place where the contours of a more equitable state of Israel are discussed with incredible hope amond Zionist leftists.
The difficulty in all of this is that the more Sheikh Jarrah becomes ‘a fight for the Zionist soul’, the less it is about a Palestinian struggle against Israeli occupation. Zionism has not yet learned co-existence with Palestinian society, and especially not with unarmed Palestinian resistance. Sheikh Jarrah is becoming an example of one of the most perverse forms of Zionist domination – the hijacking of a Palestinian struggle in order to play out internal issues of Zionist practice within Israeli society. Non-Zionist Israeli leftists have realized this trend a long time ago and left the movement. The challenge facing the Israeli left will be to deprioritize their own Zionist struggle, and instead embrace the ideas of Palestinian solidarity that the movement was founded on. If these political movements can co-exist in Sheikh Jarrah, the struggle will be truly revolutionary.
In the next year, the Israeli left will have to face difficult questions about the parameters of its political philosophy. The protests will continue to grow, with more and more Israelis descending on the neighbourhood on Friday afternoons. Zionist left parities such as Meretz will continue to use Sheikh Jarrah as an example of Israeli aspirations for democracy while minimizing the Palestinian character of the struggle. The challenge for the Israeli activists who began this incredible movement will be how they deal with the forces of Zionism in the demonstrations and in the planning committees. For the model to grow, issues of Zionism will have to be dealt with directly at the risk of alienating large segments of the Israeli population who are curious about joining the movement. The forces of Zionism see an opportunity in Sheikh Jarrah to exploit the work of a group of dedicated Israelis and Palestinians that believe in co-existence and co-habitation. The strength of the movement will be seen in whether they can weather the Zionist storm that has already begun to take over the movement.
Joseph Dana blogs at josephdana.com.