The pharaoh of Jerusalem

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Palestinian one-room school house inside the occupation In the last two days two guides have taken me through the geography of the Israeli occupation of East Jerusalem, and I’m staggered. I wonder why this monstrous structure is not better known, even to people like me, who study the conflict. I wonder how it is that American reporters are not describing the racist devouring of Jerusalem every day in our newspapers and showing it every night on our television news. I wonder why our politicians, or our liberal Democratic ones anyway, are not holding angry press conferences in front of the repulsive separation wall as it lunges to separate a Palestinian village from virtually all its connections to the outside world, so as to privilege the lifestyle, and short commute, of Jews in the new development on the hilltop above them.

I wonder why Rabbi Arthur Waskow, who calls for boycotting the “pharaoh” of BP as a response to the destruction in the Gulf, cannot see the Pharaoh’s works right here and call for boycott. I wonder how it is that Ethan Bronner of the New York Times, who lives in West Jerusalem, could give lectures back home about covering the story and lament the (remote) possibility of Palestinians moving back into Arab houses in West Jerusalem when the only real movement and dispossession, eastward, is in front of his eyes; and millions of Palestinian ambitions are blighted by lack of freedom of movement and constant insults to their human rights. And believe me, if a fraction of what the Palestinians are experiencing were happening to Jews, it is all we would hear about.

But let me try to be a little more reportorial. 

What I’m seeing is the result of 40 years of Jewish colonization of one of the jewels of world civilization. During the 43-year occupation, the Israelis have essentially constructed a system of spears radiating out from Jewish West Jerusalem into Palestinian East Jerusalem, and on into the West Bank. These new Jewish neighborhoods are designed to solidify Israeli control over greater Jerusalem in the event of any possible division of the place in a two-state solution, but more important, to make Jerusalem into a Jewish city by choking off the Palestinian life of this international city.

And yes, I imagine, there is a security component to the thinking too. They want to kill us, we have to keep them behind fences.

The choking-off is what I saw in my tours. As this colonization progresses, it takes more and more village land around the city and throws out more infrastructure to serve the colonists, special roads and high barbed wire fences and walls to protect the drivers and their communities. The infrastructure isolates more and more Palestinians from one another. You can tell Palestinian villages from the black water vessels dotting the rooftops—because their water is shut off for days at a time. So when Jeffrey Goldberg, pushing the Israeli side in the U.S., says that Gilo is just a neighborhood in Jerusalem, well it is actually a white stucco fortress/colony built on the outskirts of southern Jerusalem on Palestinian village land, and now requiring more of that land so as to expand, with plans to build a wall right through the neighboring village to protect the colonists from the farmers in the valley. And again, all of this on land that international law says is Palestine’s.

Homes are routinely demolished in that village facing Gilo, so as not to prevent the colony’s growth; and as you travel through Greater East Jerusalem you often see the rubble of Palestinian buildings, Palestinians who dared to try and develop their communities. The Israeli authorities come in and destroy the houses or businesses. Even as the Israelis expand a colony nearby. Rubble and palaces. In a word, systemic racism.

Maybe the most pitiable sight I saw yesterday, inside the West Bank but close to the north Jerusalem colonies of Ramot and Ramat Shlomo, is the hilltop tomb of the prophet Samuel, which is worshiped by Jews and Muslims. The tomb is both a mosque with a minaret and a Jewish place of worship. Well when we visited, busloads of Jewish schoolchildren were arriving and Israeli soldiers were in the tomb davening and Hasidic boys were descending, too. A moving sight. We must have seen 150 religious Israelis.

And meantime the Islamic portion of the tomb is dead. The door is chained, pigeons fly into the outer rooms, the Palestinian who runs a store there told us that the authorities had shut down the minaret. There are no Palestinian worshipers.

Alongside the tomb is a Palestinian village in the West Bank, but the occupation has now cut this village off from the rest of Palestinian life in the West Bank. The school serving the village—that is the photograph at the top of this post—is a one-room building. At this point in our travels, my wife walked away for a few minutes so that our Palestinian friend who lives under these conditions all the time would not see her feelings.

And this is a National Park. An Israeli National Park for the tomb of Samuel, inside Palestinian territory! Do you think the Israelis are ever going to part with this colony? Of course not. We are in the West Bank, the home of the Palestinian state, and these Jews will be here forever.

Now let me remind you that the Israeli settlement nearby, Ramat Shlomo, is the one that pissed off Joe Biden in the spring, when he blew up at Netanyahu over the latest construction orders. Biden got really angry. He said you’re endangering American lives. There was a showdown, and in the end what happened, Obama swallowed it.

Still, you can see why Biden was pissed off. This situation is monstrous and racist. If our politicians were not hogtied by the Israel lobby, they would be bringing reporters with them to the tomb of Samuel and saying, Is this right? This is happening with our tax dollars? They are making a National Park inside Palestinian territory and choking off all Palestinian access to the place! Are you crazy?

Our politicians would declare that the road to peace in Jerusalem doesn’t lead through Baghdad or Tehran– no the road is right here in Jerusalem, and it is blocked by Israeli bulldozers.

Now I mentioned a minute ago that my wife hid her feelings from our Palestinian friend, and I want to unpack this somewhat. The Palestinians live with this all the time. They have the boot stuffed down their throat at every turn. Even the educated professionals, their horizons are blocked off, their aspirations. Academics can’t travel, even into Jerusalem; and when I say, Oh they can’t sustain this, my friend responds, They have sustained it as long as I can remember. You cannot normalize this oppressive situation. The polticians talk about all the businesses thriving. Well the Palestinian people are always trying. The Palestinians are not defeatable, and they are always struggling for this and that. You see beautiful restaurants inside the occupation, lovely hotels, good book stories. But it is not a flourishing life. It is not the life that these people would make for themselves if they had any real freedom. If they were able to compete and cooperate as equals with the Israelis, you would see something entirely different.

So they live with this daily humiliation and they stuff their souls down inside their chest somewhere and one day they bring in friends from the United States and show them around, and a visitor is so overwhelmed by the oppression that she starts crying and has to walk away. Well you understand that it is a little rude to show your friend just how pitiable life here seems to us.

I don’t know how they live with this, my wife said later, and of course you ask that question. The other day we met a man who works in Sheikh Jarrah, right up from the house evictions that happened last winter, a funny Palestinian, my wife and he were joking around a lot, when I said to him, “Are they still living in the tent down there?” I meant the Palestinians who had been thrown out of their houses in Sheikh Jarrah and were living in a tent in the road.

The man’s smile disappeared. “I don’t know.“

“Well it’s just a block away.”

“I’ve never been there. It would make me sick. And then I would have to walk away and there would be nothing I could do about it. So I’ve never seen it.”

Imagine feeling so helpless, and feeling that powerless over your own fate and the life of your society that you avoid knowledge of the fierce conditions. Jews were like this during the advance of anti-Semitism in eastern European cities, they tried to ignore it.

And that’s why my wife walked away, she didn’t want to seem a complete tourist of someone else’s suffering.

My rage at this situation is directed at my own community, American Jews, who have allowed this to develop. I can think of only a few responses to Jerusalem that I can honor. Earlier this year Michael Ratner of the Center for Constitutional Rights visited Jerusalem and came back and gave speeches about the colonization and said the two-state solution is finished. Jeff Halper came to the States more recently and described the endless process of house demolition. And Charney Bromberg came back and told a Columbia University audience that this situation reminds him of apartheid.

These are exceptional statements. Liberal Zionists generally can’t face this reality; and our politicians are mute and even the fairly-good piece that Isabel Kershner did on the colonization of East Jerusalem a couple of months back in the Times didn’t convey the monstrous reality. No, liberal Zionsts are are concerned with preserving Israel against the “demographic threat”– a possible Palestinian majority. When you see what Jewish control has meant for non-Jewish residents of Jerusalem,  that seems a particularly filthy euphemism.

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