June 26, 2011 by IJV
News from the Levant #24: Jerusalem Day
June 1st was “Jerusalem Day,” an annual celebration of what Israelis call the “reunification” of the city at the time of the 1967 War. For many years it involved a parade down Jaffa Street in the center of the city, but lately, under the Netanyahu government, the parade’s path has been shifted to pass through Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem–another form of making a point. I headed to town hoping to kill two birds with one stone (I realize this is an unfortunate metaphor around here just now!): I was planning on picking up some books at the Hebrew University Library on Mount Scopus, then walking downhill to Sheikh Jarrah, to join the counter-demonstration there. The books were for one of one M.A.T. students, novels by the Iraqi Jewish writer Sammir Naqqash (1938-2004), who, after emigrating with his family toIsraelin 1951 had refused to abandon his native Baghdad Arabic. I found the books and started downhill, thinking of what I’d heard recently from Palestinian friends about the emigration of the Iraqi Jews. Hanada had told me that many Baghdad Jews had never been Zionists and had been loathe to leave, but that the Mossad, she’d read somewhere, had stirred trouble up between them and their Arab neighbors to force their departure. Omar had heard that, too, adding the lurid detail (which he wouldn’t vouch for) that the Mossad had strapped grenades to the sides of dogs and sent them into mosques to create havoc and build distrust and hatred between the two communities. Or was it that the dogs were sent into synagogues? I can’t remember. And does it matter? The results would have been much the same–if not the results “on the groun d” at the time, then the results in the minds and memories of today’s Jews and Arabs. This is one of those stories that keeps getting told and believed–maybe not even fully believed, but still rehearsed. Like the story, more recent (and more gruesomely documented by video), of the brutal murder of two IDF reservists who had mistakenly strayed into Ramallah in October of 2000, shortly after the start of the Second Intifada.
That story, commonly referred to as the Ramallah Lynching, I was to hear later on my walk that afternoon, in the mouth of a young settler, when I caught up with his group, assembling before the parade, on my way to Sheikh Jarrah. These were a couple of dozen mostly teenagers from Elon Moreh, a well-established religious settlement outside Nablus, not far from (and affiliated with) Itamar. I had seen this young father cradling his two-month-old in a shawl and stopped to ask him about his contingent. I had picked him because he was short and slender and, burdened as he was, seemed unlikely to respond in a brutal (i.e., stereotypically “settler”) fashion. This notion of mine about “settlers” was then matched in triteness by this young man’s sense of Ramallah: “You live in Ramallah?? It isn’t dangerous?? They know you’re a Jew?” (I leave you to fill in the rising inflections of disbelief that accompanied these questions.) His English was halting, so he referred me to the group’s leader, an older man named Moshe Katz, originally from Brooklyn and educated, he told me, at SUNY Binghamton. We talked for a few minutes before they all disappeared down some steps into a guarded compound of East Jerusalem settlers, where they would presumably get lunch before they went off to march. The Young Father: “You know Hebrew? You were Bar Mitzvah? You can maybe recite a few lines?” And Katz: “So you’re a retired pro-fes-sor! A what-you-call-it…e-me-ri-tus, yet!” [a distant echo of college idiom drifting in across miles, across years of choices!]
“You’re an intellectual! So you should maybe come visit us!” He gave me his cell phone number. I may take him up on it. From the look at the Elon Moreh website, I can roughly imagine the shape of a visit there, but of course you can never imagine exactly how it would go, what one would see and hear, so I’m tempted and I’ve been trying his number for the last couple of days, without success.
[Postscript: I reached Katz a couple of days later and arranged to visit on Monday the 6th, asking if I could bring with me my Egyptian-American (woman) colleague, Ginan Rauf. He said he thought that would be O.K. and would get back to me with directions to the settlement. But I never heard from him again and, after my trip to see settlers-in-action at Hebron, my own eagerness to visit Elon Moreh cooled. Too bad.]
At Sheikh Jarrah a hundred or so of our Solidarity group had gathered in front of one of several settler houses interspersed among the still largely Palestinian-owned properties, got out the bull horn and started their chants. The occupants of the house responded with blasts of music they’d set up on the roof along with a large flag and a huge cardboard menorah. Soon they were joined by groups of chanting, flag-waving settler youth, coming down from the main parade up the street from us, but accompanied by police who seemed to be intent on keeping order, insisting on some small distance between our group and the settlers. Their youth formed a line and started their signature bounce—which at moments looks like a chorus line, at others like a fascist rally. The face-off seemed to have stabilized, not without a few nasty crossings of the line. I was impressed with the police and, spotting a tall man who seemed to be in charge I went over to him and complimented him and his men for treating both the settlers and the protestors so evenhandedly. Why, I asked, hadn’t they done the same the other day at Ras al-Amoud, where they descended on the protest with clubs and tasers. “Oh,” he said, “they were breaking the law that time!” [Technical difficulties; to be continued!]
Jerusalem Day, Part II:
Never compliment the police: it turns their heads. Shortly after this exchange, the evenhandedness I had been so surprised to observe disappeared. The police line, until now facing outward towards the settlers, keeping them from mobbing the smaller group of protestors, now did an about-face and started herding the Solidarity protesters back from the middle of the street, first back up onto the sidewalk, then down the sidewalk into a tight crowd bumping into another group of settlers. The more the police pushed, the more impossible it was for the protestors to avoid the settlers; the groups clashed, arguing and pushing, until the police moved in and started beating up and arresting….the protesters, of course. I went back to the police commander: “You created this violence!” I said. “I watched you do it! Your men pushed until fights were bound to break out! You did this!” He turned away from me, “I don’t understand English,” he said. As the arrests were being made, the settler youth cheered; a right-wing parliamentarian in jacket and tie appeared, made a little speech and was hoisted on the kids’ shoulders for an uncomfortable moment.
It was time to leave. Another Sheikh Jarrah regular, a German graduate student, joined me in heading for theOldCity, where, we knew, the parade was scheduled to end at the Wailing Wall. This so-called Jerusalem Day draws tens of thousands of marchers, but very few of them are Jerusalemites. Most, like my Elon Moreh friends, have been bussed in for the day from settlements all overIsrael. They poured through the narrow gates of theOldCity, whooping and chanting past the closed Arab shops.
We tried keeping up, walking alongside the crowd, but it was a crush and my companion was feeling overwhelmed, dismayed and agoraphobic, so we broke away, cutting through some deserted back streets to cool off. Once beyond the walls, she headed home. I looked downhill towards the plaza outside the Damascus Gate, and was startled to see that that, even more than the Wailing Wall, had been the goal of the parade. Its route had been planned, as pure provocation, right through the central shopping district of Arab East Jerusalem. A float hadbeen driven in and parked across from this landmark building; music blared; crowds cheered. Kids were shouting “Death to the Arabs!” among other charming slogans. The message was clear–and clearly vectored at the Palestinians: “The city is ours. The whole city. You must go away. Somewhere. We don’t care. It’s not our concern.”