The Other Protest
It was almost 2 p.m. on July 15th and there was an atmosphere of tense expectation at the Jaffa Gate, with perhaps a thousand people gathered in the narrow plaza. The sun was blistering and the flagstones were radiating heat. Within the milling scrum, Israeli hippies and hipsters, with a sprinkling of grizzled, ex-kibbutznik-types and gentle-looking professors with beards, jockeyed for position.
There was also a significant minority of Palestinians—paunchy men, wiry teens, boys with giant Palestinian flags. But Palestinian women were conspicuously absent. Perhaps this is why two middle-aged women, in headscarves and sunglasses, had pride of place at each corner of the banner that read, in huge Hebrew letters, Solidarity. An Arabic word in one corner of the banner presumably said the same thing.
This was the weekly protest of the Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity Movement. Solidarity is a small but dedicated group, meeting every Friday in a park in East Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood. The organization began its protests in November 2009 in response to the forced eviction of four Palestinian families from their homes in East Jerusalem. As the Israeli government has accelerated its support for the settlers in this neighborhood and elsewhere, Solidarity continues to be one of the very few Jewish voices to condemn the encroachments and call, unequivocally, for Palestinian independence.
But there was a more recent inspiration for the July 15th protest. On June 1st, Jerusalem Day, tens of thousands of religious Zionists marched from Sheikh Jarrah to the Western Wall. According to Haaretz, a left-leaning English daily (or seething nest of self-hating Jews, depending upon your politics), as the marchers moved through the Old City’s Muslim Quarter, some shouted “Death to the Arabs,” turning the march into “a frightening demonstration of nationalism, racism and violence.”
Today the plan was to create a mirror image of the Jerusalem Day march—a peaceful demonstration with Israelis and Palestinians walking from the Old City to Sheikh Jarrah. Earlier in the week, the march was given even more urgency when the Israeli parliament—the Knesset—passed what was called the Boycott Law, a measure that makes it a civil offense to speak out in support of boycotts against Israel and the settlements.
Thus this week’s crowd was bigger than usual. On a good day Solidarity might get five hundred people to show up; the papers estimated today’s crowd at between two thousand and four thousand five hundred. It wasn’t the tens of thousands of Jerusalem Day. But since arriving in Israel we’d been hearing, repeated like a mantra: The Israeli left is dead. The Israeli left is dead. Today, at least, that pronouncement seemed untrue.
Someone with a bullhorn made announcements in Hebrew, Arabic, and English: “Stay on the designated path. Drink water.” Then the march began. The first part of the route took us around the western edge of the Old City, past the ramparts and narrow strips of greenery. The marchers waved Palestinian flags and held up signs, many quoting, in English, Nelson Mandela: Only free people can negotiate. They chanted in Arabic, but with the same cadence heard round the world for fifty years: “The People. United. Will Never Be Divided.” And: “United Palestine, from Bil’in to Sheikh Jarrah.” (Bil’in is a village in the West Bank that, since 1991, has been strangled by settlers on one side and the wall on the other, though, recently the wall was moved.)
The sky was expansive, cloudless, and the paving stones warm through the thin soles of our sneakers. The roadside was sparsely lined with spindly palms. The Israelis, as they usually are, were dressed for hiking, the Palestinians like they were off to play soccer. The marchers stayed on the sidewalk, following the instructions of the Solidarity members in black t-shirts. There was a fairly heavy police presence—significant but not interfering—and Solidarity wanted to make sure that everyone kept off the grass, as it were.
We cornered a thirtyish Israeli woman whose t-shirt read, They say apartheid we say fight back. Who are they, we want to know; and does they say apartheid mean that there is no apartheid so we must fight back? And if that’s what she believes, what’s she doing here?
Her English was serviceable, and she seemed both amused and embarrassed by the pronoun confusion—she was here to march for Solidarity. On other matters she was deadly serious. The Israeli demonstrators are risking much less than the Palestinian demonstrators, she said. The Palestinians face pressure from inside their community for supporting a dialogue with any Israelis, period. Another pressure is the Israeli police, who with little provocation, detain and arrest Palestinians at whim.
“They’re isolated,” she said. “Part of what we’re trying to do is open a space for joint struggle so they can do something. For twenty years, there was no joint struggle.”
The path of the march reflected that divide, and the fraught geography of Jerusalem. The walls of the Old City were behind us now; we’d reached Chel Handasa Street, which runs along “the seam”—the pre-1967 border between Israel and Jordan.
Across the lanes of traffic was the Tourjeman House, a three-story structure of gothic arches and Jerusalem stone, its façade scarred and broken by war: from 1948 to 1967, the house was a military outpost overlooking the Mandelbaum Gate, the only crossing point between the divided sections of Jerusalem. In 1999, the house was turned into a museum with a well-meaning but unwieldy name: the Museum on the Seam for Dialogue, Understanding, and Coexistence.
A few days earlier, we’d met Raphie Etgar, the museum’s curator and founder. Etgar is an earnest and charming man with thinning, graying curls; he wore wireless glasses and art-world black. He talked about “bridging culture through the language of art.” The current exhibition, “Westend,” “investigates the meeting point between Islam and the West.”
But such meetings don’t often happen at the museum. “It is painful in a way,” Etgar said. “Palestinians visit us but not often.” And it is easier (if by no means easy) to acquire works from Saudi Arabian or Iranian artists than Palestinians.
Etgar explained that many Palestinians simply don’t go to museums. But one wonders also if the Museum on the Seam does not speak to them—or if they even know about it. In our short time in Jerusalem, it became evident that an invisible seam still exists. Arab cab drivers didn’t know the streets of West Jerusalem; Israeli cab drivers were equally lost in the East. The genial Palestinian clerks at our Old City hotel spoke more English than Hebrew.
(And what were we to make of the Palestinian boy, perhaps five years old, who watched the march go by, holding a toy rifle? What message was his father, a young man in knock-off Aeropostale, trying to impart? Or was there no message at all—was it just a toy? Or is even the consideration of that idea profoundly naïve?)
But the separation is not only a matter of language and culture. The march began near the gleaming new Mamilla Mall, an architectural love letter to market capitalism. But East Jerusalem is a mixture of run-down buildings and posh hotels, their barricades tastefully hidden with greenery. We saw more trash in the gutters, breathed more dust in the air. As we turned up the “seam,” a few young men watched the demonstrators roll by. Some looked amused, some anxious, perhaps conscious of their position on the border and the dangers implicit in their being there.
We turned onto the less trafficked Nablus Road, which was narrower, with higher walls. Graffiti, not the Banksy kind, but the angry kind, dotted the stone. At one spot, someone had scrawled Fuck Jessus. From a corner building, the home of some sort of Christian youth hostel, the sound of a female voice emerged, singing gentle, gentile folk rock.
Then somehow the ethnic mix shifted. If earlier it seemed that 70 percent were Israelis (as recognized by their dun-colored shorts, their Velcro sandals), it was now close to the reverse—a lot more Pumas and Palestinian flags, women in brightly colored hijabs. The mood changed as well; the march felt more crowded and there was more urgency to the chanting.
A Palestinian boy of about 10, sweating hard, asked for water. Or not quite asked: he grabbed one of our bottles, glugged half of it down. “Can I,” he said as he handed it back to us, batting his eyelashes. He hustled away without a backward glance.
The international press had been in evidence since we left the Jaffa Gate, a phalanx of photographers in safari gear, Italian and German and Danish freelancers. We met a correspondent from Israel’s Ynet News, an online outfit that was the only Israeli press in evidence. The American press seemed to have skipped out as well, except for Fox, which had sent a tall, square-jawed guy with greased-backed hair to interview protestors in English. Knowing exactly how Fox would spin the story, we stepped up and ruined his shot.
At the vanguard of the march a hard-looking old Israeli, barrel-chested, the sort who looks like he works fourteen-hour days hurling around machine parts at the kibbutz, brandished a load of bread with 2003 burned into it. Through an interpreter, he gave us a longish, semi-coherent rant about Netanyahu and how he lost his office the first time due to food prices.
We headed downhill, past a gas station with an end-of-line feel, past slums, past hotels with verdant terraces. We were herded into the square past a line of police with bazookas and do not fuck with me expressions on their faces. Within the park we found a little shade. It seemed to be a soccer field. One of us (the lefty) was excited, happy, engaged, purchasing a commemorative t-shirt. The other (the new father) noted with unease the small boys jumping from the roof of a shuttered concession stand onto filthy mattresses, also the dusty, abandoned cars. Though he admonished himself, he was helpless to avoid wondering if any were rigged with bombs. He wasn’t the only one to jump when Arab youths, in celebration, set off a box of fireworks.
We fell into conversation with a tall Israeli (fit, mid-40s, and yes, dressed for a hike). We asked him to explain the law to us, how was it that Israelis, in Jerusalem, were able to appropriate Palestinian land. The explanation was convoluted and difficult to follow—the Israeli’s English was excellent, but the laws are like something out of Brave New World. The upshot is that Jews can reclaim their pre-1948 property and other assets; Palestinians cannot, and if a charge of abandonment is brought against a Palestinian property owner, in all likelihood the house or land will be confiscated.
We asked him how he thought the issue could be resolved.
He opened his mouth to speak, closed it, put one hand on his chin.
“I have no idea,” he said.
If the aim of the July 15th demonstration was to respond to the violent nationalism of Jerusalem Day, in that it seems to have succeeded. If the aim of the Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity Movement is to open up “a joint struggle against the occupation,” its ultimate success remains to be seen. That it exists at all is encouraging, though.
And the size of march was a harbinger of things to come. The robust older guy, brandishing his loaf: he seemed like a harmless crank, but a few days after the Solidarity demonstration, tent cities began popping up in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem; then nationwide protests against soaring housing costs and food prices, with attendance estimates in the hundreds of thousands, broke out.
It seems that the Israeli left is not dead. But in the form it’s taken during the tent city protests, how leftist is it? Called J14, after their supposed start date, these demonstrations are about how Israel acts toward Israeli citizens, not the plight of the Palestinians. The Israelis are fed up with the high cost of living, the low salaries. When the Occupied Territories are discussed, it is more in terms of their economic drain than rights for Palestinians. If there is an enormous, left-leaning, grassroots movement in Israel, it is Israelis advocating for themselves.
Let us then give the last word to a Palestinian. A few days after the Solidarity march, we were introduced to an Arab who lives in Jerusalem. He said something, almost in passing, that stayed with us. We were discussing the aversion that Palestinians currently have to dealing with Israelis, even on the (supposedly) neutral ground of the arts.
Our new friend shrugged. “It’s very simple for me,” he said. “I’ll talk to the Israelis when they admit that East Jerusalem is an occupied territory.”