Thursday, November 15, 2012

A Seed of Insecurity in Jerusalem

By: Maggie Krueger

In a season when local food donations might otherwise loll, Rabbi Danielle Leshaw of Ohio University’s Hillel community explains that Jewish students are revving up for their annual Athens County food drive.
The drive falls about a month before Thanksgiving, when other religious organizations might not be collecting as heavily, says Rabbi Leshaw. The push, she says, is in honor of the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, a Jewish holiday celebrated after Yom Kippur, the holy day of atonement.
“[On] this holiday, we are incredibly grateful for the houses that we live in and the shelter that protects us,” Rabbi Leshaw explains. Intern, the Jewish community takes this time to be more aware of people who may not have the same resources, she says.
Rabbi Leshaw’s awareness finds particular resonance in the story of shelter for two men living out this holiday in their own community - the city of Jerusalem.
For the seven days of Sukkot Israeli Rabbi Arik Ascherman left his home to sleep outside, within the confines of a booth, called a sukkah – a traditional Jewish custom.

During Sukkot many Jews like Rabbi Ascherman shelter themselves under wooden beams, with a white cloth wrapped around the walls. Rabbi Ascherman emphasizes that his temporary dwelling lends itself to a feeling of delicacy.
“According to Jewish law, it has to be a structure where the thatching on top allows rain to come through,” he explains.

About three miles away from Rabbi Ascherman’s sukkah, in the neighborhood of Al-Bustan, East Jerusalem, lives another man, also mindful of the delicacy of his living situation.

“Every time I sit down [in this place] for dinner,” says Fakhri Abu-Diab, “I do not know if it will be for the last time.”

Abu-Diab is a Palestinian who has been living in the Silwan quarter of East Jerusalem since 1962. He resides in one of 88 homes originally intended for demolition by the Municipality of Jerusalem in 2005. 

Silwan quarter of East Jerusalem. Courtesy of Emek Shaveh. Academic Fair Use.
While Abu-Diab’s residence has managed to avoid destruction, many homes in East Jerusalem have not. According to B’Tselem, the Israel Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, 1,636 people living in East Jerusalem have been left without homes since 2004 after demolition orders. From January to July 2012, 47 people have been uprooted, including 18 minors. 

“When I come home, my children and my grandchildren ask when will they come to demolish our homes,” says Abu-Diab. 

Although Rabbi Ascherman describes the process of preventing Palestinians from legally owning homes as intentional and systematic, Abu-Diab’s predicament is unusual. As archeologist Yonathan Mizrachi explains, clearing orders by the Municipality of Jerusalem have been made for the purpose of constructing an archeology-themed tourist park called “King’s Garden.”

Rabbi Ascherman, head of External Relations and Special Projects for Rabbis for Human Rights in Israel, describes the Silwan area as particularly seductive to Jerusalem’s municipal leaders, as the Al-Bustan neighborhood lies within a religiously revered area. He says people believe Al-Bustan to contain archeological remains of the residence of King David, an important figure in Jewish scripture.
Disputes center on current plans for the proposed park that would require the relocating of families in 56 buildings, according to Ir Amim, a non-profit that advocates for equality and stability in Jerusalem. Their report, called “The Giant’s Garden,” details these demolition plans.
Moreover, Mizrachi claims that archeological evidence to support the location of King David’s gardens is not something that can be supported through excavation.
“It is a reasonable theory that cannot be proven,” says Mizrachi. He notes instead that the garden’s location was an intentional decision of municipal leaders, a fact many people find telling of a larger Palestinian-Israeli issue.
“The right wing [municipality] understands,” says Mizrachi, “if they make a situation that has nothing to do with Palestinians, then it will be easier to claim sovereignty over these areas.”
The Silwan quarter is home to approximately 33,000 Palestinians, according to the Ir Amim report. As Rabbi Ascherman explains, there is tension between Palestinians and Israelis over population demographics. He says that Israeli leaders have taken part in a silent transfer of land in Jerusalem since the time of Prime Minister Golda Meir.

View of Old City Jerusalem from Mt. of Olives. Provided by: Maggie Krueger
Joshua Bloom, the North America Director of Israel Programs of Rabbis for Human Rights, says that intentions for King’s Garden are part of a larger plan to create a green belt of parks surrounding Jerusalem.
Rabbi Ascherman explains that about 35 percent of what is today greater Jerusalem has been expropriated under a kind of eminent domain legislation. However, instead of taking property to build public highways, roads, or facilities, around 99 percent of that land, he adds, has been used to create Jewish neighborhoods.
“So it is not really eminent domain in the way we think of it, but more taking from one group to give to another,” says Rabbi Ascherman.
In answer to a petition addressed to the institutions involved in the City of David archeological projects, Professor Benjamin Kedar of Hebrew University writes that excavations are in preparation for a City of David National Park and ongoing academic research. 
Further, as detailed in the Ir Amim report, the intentions of the Municipality’s King’s Garden plan will involve the construction of housing, storefronts, hotels, and a park. The plan grants permission for residents evicted from their home to live within the new housing area – a kind of compensation in light of the fact that the Municipality says many residents do not currently have housing permits.
“[The Muncipality has] offered them a plot of land and license to build new houses,” says city council member Meir Margalit. “People are willing to accept.”
Margalit says he sides with the Palestinians, but that there is a gap in the claims of Palestinian community leaders found in the media, and the desires of Al-Bustan residents. This discrepancy is echoed by many Palestinian activist voices, such as Bloom’s.
“The community has been very united in their position,” says Bloom. “There is a lot of community pressure [on] individuals not to give up claims to land.”
While international pressure froze plans in 2005, park supporters reconvened in June 2010, according to the Ir Amim report. Betty Herschman, the Ir Amim Director of International Relations and Advocacy, says that plans are now stalled at the district planning committee.
While Rabbi Ascherman confirms that the courts released a statement that they will make no more postponements on demolition orders after September 2012, city council member Margalit says that nothing will happen until the end of the year.
Abu-Diab is not so sure.
“We do not have hope,” he says.
But Rabbi Ascherman sees the Jewish holiday as an opportunity, a chance to send a message of sensitivity and tolerance to his congregation.
“We find it fun to be in a sukkah for seven days,” he says, “but we are condemning people to be without any stable roof over their heads all year round.”
Back home in Athens, Rabbi Leshaw explains that Hillel is trying to contextualize the student’s small battles for social justice within a global perspective.
“Overwhelmingly Jewish students arrive at Ohio University really only having heard about life in Israel in a sort of celebratory, positive way,” Rabbi Leshaw reflects. She says that while there is much work to be done in creating a global awareness, Hillel is striving to infuse its conversations with a kind of universalism.
“I think that everyone can understand terror and fear, and can possible imagine what it would be like to have their home destroyed,” Rabbi Leshaw says. “There is a lot … we have to be witness to and do our best to educate ourselves and other people about.” 

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