Judaism, Opinion, Politics — November 2010

Not in Our Name: Religious Activism in Sheikh Jarrah

If you happened to walk past the tiny Othman Ibn-Affan street on a Friday evening, you might have been struck by a rather uncommon event: a large group of Palestinians of all ages and left-wing Israeli secular peace-activists gathered around a table on the porch, listening to young religious men and women reciting Kiddush. This anomaly is part of the ongoing activity of religious peace activists who form a small yet dominant part of the Solidarity movement in Sheikh Jarrah, a predominantly Arab neighbourhood in East Jerusalem. The recent eviction of Palestinian families from their homes in Sheikh Jarrah exposes not only the racism inherent in Israeli law but the ugliest side of Jewish religious life. Supported by the police force, and backed by a court ruling, kippah-clad Jewish settlers have entered the evicted houses and transformed the peaceful neighbourhood into a small-scale inferno for its non-Jewish residents. Backed by the Jerusalem police and reinforced by scores of young Shabab (adolescent Charedim, members of an ultra-Orthodox group, who stroll the streets, exempt from military service while officially enrolled in yeshivas), they smash car windows, slash tyres, harass women and children, and provoke fights.
For a growing number of young religious Jews like me, the behaviour of these ultra-Orthodox Jews constitutes a form of blasphemy. For us, attendance at the Friday demonstrations against the house evictions in Sheikh Jarrah has become like going to shul—a mitzvah and testimony to our belief that the Torah must be a source of life and morality, not death, violence and injustice. We stand alongside our secular left-wing friends, integrating traditional methods of protest with our own religious activities in a process that culminates in a uniquely Jewish expression of political and religious belief.

In between beatings and arrests by the police, we managed to hold a bilingual (Hebrew and Arabic) Selichot evening with both Israeli and Palestinian participants. It began with a joint study of Talmud portions on repentance and forgiveness and continued with the chanting of Selichot and Palestinian poems in front of the stolen houses in Sheikh Jarrah. We also built a Sukkah in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood, with young Israeli and Palestinian children working together and preparing decorations. This Sukkah was demolished as an illegal building by the munici- pality’s inspectors minutes after it was set up; they neglected to give any excuse why our Sukkah was illegal while thousands of Sukkahs all over the city are considered legal. And every several weeks we conduct a full Shabbat evening ceremony in this tormented neighbourhood, with prayers, Kiddush, and dinner.
This is not the first time religious left-wing associations have involved themselves in Israeli politics. In the 1980’s the late Rabbi Yehudah Amital founded Memad, a moderate left-wing movement. Deeply upset by the massacre in Sabra and Shatila in 1982 during the first Lebanon war, Amital saw the need to challenge the growing sense that religious Judaism was synonymous with nationalist politics; the people of Israel, he proposed, were more important than the land of Israel. In 1988, Memad failed to pass the election threshold and has since integrated into Labour, where it makes up a fraction of the dwindling party. Memad was involved in leading the Birthright Israel project and in promoting joint secular-religious prayers on high holidays in community centers. They were also a part of the ‘Citizens’ Accord Forum,’ which tried to promote a grassroots dialogue between Jewish and Arab Israelis, but remained quite marginal. Netivot-Shalom and Oz ve-Shalom started as two small movements in the beginning of the 1980’s but soon united to form Oz ve-Shalom- Netivot Shalom. Further to the left than Memad, this group was composed of religious Israeli intellectuals wishing to deliver an ideological alternative to religious Zionism through educational programmes. Apart from periodic seminars and conferences, the movement’s main activity was and still is its portion-of-the-week pamphlet, distributed in selected synagogues, especially in Jerusalem. The most visible group of religious left-wing activists today is Rabbis for Human Rights, which wages campaigns for social and economic justice and protests against human rights abuses such as the intimidation of Palestinian farmers by settlers and military forces; they even escort hundreds of farmers during the harvest, serving as human shields. Most of the rabbis active in this organisation are non-Orthodox and therefore marginalised in Israeli religious discourse. Despite their achievements, these groups have not succeeded in creating an effective counter-voice to the prevailing nationalism among religious Jews. The religious establishment has played a vital role in perpetuating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the occupation, aligning itself with the extreme right since 1967. This phenomenon can be called also clear when setting the moral criteria expected from inhabitants of the holy city: ‘Lord, who shall sojourn in Thy tabernacle? Who shall dwell upon Thy holy mountain? He that walketh uprightly, and worketh righteousness, and speaketh truth in his heart; That hath no slander upon his tongue, nor doeth evil to his fellow, nor taketh up a reproach against his neighbour.’ (Psalms 15, 1-3). Since when is it Jewish to treat your neighbours as inferior and expel non-Jewish working immigrants from your society because they pose an ‘ethnic threat’ to the maintenance of a Jewish majority? Numerous verses in the Torah warn us to remember our time in Egypt as gerim, inhabitants who do not enjoy the full status of citizens. A compelling example is found in Exodus 23:9: ‘And a Ger shalt thou not oppress; for ye know the heart of a Ger, seeing ye were Gerim in the land of Egypt.’ Judaism, unlike democracy or dictatorship, is a not a form of government. The religious activism I’m engaged with is in no way a dominant trend in contemporary Israel. We are a small group within an overwhelming majority of right-wing religious congregations. Some of us belong to the more liberal congre- gations in Jerusalem, both politically as well as halachically, but most of us do not belong to one particular congregation. Within the religious part of Israel we are absolutely anonymous. The only recognition we receive from the wider religious community is through the heated responses we attract from the religious settlers in Sheikh-Jarrah, who fail to understand how a person can claim to be religious and at the same time ‘love the Arab terrorists’. It is mainly through verbal confrontation with the settlers that we, religious peace activists, are addressed ‘in the name of the Whole’. Just as Israel needs a new democratic, anti- fascist leadership, so it is in want of a new (and in the same time very old and original) set of Jewish tenets. These are vital not only to Jews in Israel, but to all Jews, wherever they may be.

Hillel Ben Sasson: born and living in Jerusalem, is a member of the Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity movement. He is working towards completion of his PhD in Jewish Philosophy at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.