Night descends on Jerusalem and the Sabbath is nearing its end. The city’s shops, restaurants and cafes prepare to welcome crowds of tourists and locals who are enjoying the end of summer in the Holy Land. I leave my family strolling through the ritzy Mamilla pedestrian mall and head east, to the Palestinian neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah — the latest flashpoint in the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians.
Since last November, Israelis and Palestinians have been holding demonstrations in Sheikh Jarrah over the eviction of long-time residents of the neighborhood in favor of religious Jewish settlers. The Israeli judiciary recognizes the rights of Jews to sue for ownership of properties that were theirs prior to 1948; Palestinians have no such rights. If Palestinians begin filing similar claims on properties that belonged to them prior to Israel’s creation, Israel will be hard pressed to explain this inequality before the law. Over the past few months, the protests have grown in size and significance and the movement is now at the forefront of a resurgence of the long-dormant Israeli left. As I headed to Sheikh Jarrah with my guide, Sara Benninga — a young Israeli leader of the emergent Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity Movement — I did not know what to expect.
We arrived early so Benninga could show me around the neighborhood before the demonstration was to begin. The marches are usually held on Friday afternoons, but during Ramadan, it was decided to hold them on Saturday nights out of respect for fasting Muslims. When we arrived, Benninga tried to take me down one of the main streets of the neighborhood, but it was blocked off by a sizable Israeli police presence that prevented any non-resident from entering. Benninga tried to explain that I was a visitor from overseas, a member of a progressive Jewish organization called Ameinu (“our people” in Hebrew), but they were unmoved. I hastened to add that I was even a Zionist, but that didn’t help much either. The head officer was particularly unfriendly to us and made it clear that we were not welcome around the neighborhood, despite having no legal grounds for preventing us from going wherever we pleased. When Benninga and I did manage to find a street that wasn’t closed off, several policemen closely followed us. I didn’t want a problem — I had read about how enthusiastic the police has been in the past about breaking up the demonstrations — so we made our way back to the square where the rally was to be held.
As the appointed time grew near, more and more people started to join in. They included Palestinians from the neighborhood, Israelis of all stripes — young, old, secular and religious. Even a few families were there — as well as more than a few foreign thrill seekers. Across the street stood a few ultra-Orthodox settlers who, for the most part, watched in silence. Soon enough, there were about 200 people milling about, waiting for the events of the evening to begin.
At 8:30, the neighborhood muezzin began the call to prayer. From the square, drummers started playing, protest signs were pulled out and a couple of Palestinian street vendors hastily assembled a portable orange juice stand. Benninga and another man grabbed bullhorns and started to lead the crowd in chants against the seizure of Palestinian property in Sheikh Jarrah in particular, and the Israeli occupation in general. “Fascism stops here,” they yelled. Passing cars honked in support.
A few speakers gave updates on the situation on the ground since the previous week but no one spoke of politics. The crowd was remarkably well-behaved; not one person seemed the least bit hostile toward the police or anyone else in the vicinity. There wasn’t even one hint of heated anti-government rhetoric. Benninga later explained to me that while the gathering was perfectly legal, any political speech would turn it into a “political rally” — something the authorities would not tolerate in the neighborhood. After about a half an hour, we marched down the street into another part of the neighborhood — the only part that wasn’t sealed off by police. More chants and another couple of speeches, and before I knew it, the rally drew to a close.
I watched as the crowd dispersed and wondered if this was truly the beginning of a significant social movement for justice in Israel and the territories or if it was just a bunch of wannabe radicals with nothing better to do on a Saturday night. I’m still not sure, but after meeting the leadership, I’m convinced that they’re on the right track. They’re in no hurry to co-opt a known figure and become a political party; they’d rather bide their time and grow organically from the ground up. They believe that there are a lot of Israelis who silently support what they’re doing and that this support will become more vocal as time goes on.
It’s too soon to tell if the Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity Movement will succeed in preventing the evictions of Palestinians from their homes. One thing is certain, however: the movement has brought this issue to the fore and shows no signs of backing down or disappearing any time soon.