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Jerusalem 2009: The Light in the Tent

Jerusalem 2009: The Light in the Tent January 1, 2010

Left to right: Khawla and Majid Hannoun, Fawzieh al-Kurd, Nasser Ghawi and his father

I sat in the tent and it was full of light.

Fawzieh al-Kurd is the matriarch of one of the three families who were forcibly expelled from their homes in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of Jerusalem between November 2008 and October 2009. In all, close to 60 people, all 1948-era refugees from West Jerusalem and other parts of what is now Israel, were resettled in this neighborhood in the 1950s by international agreement. They have now been evicted by the Israeli government, their homes turned over to fundamentalist Jewish settlers. Fawzieh’s family was the first – ejected forcibly in the middle of the night by Israeli military on November 9, 2008. Fawzieh’s husband Muhammad, confined to a wheelchair and in fragile health, died 11 days after the eviction. Read the background in the report of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

The evicted Palestinian families have erected temporary shelters on the streets and on adjacent properties in protest: they are not leaving.

When you visit Sheikh Jarrah you are in the heart of the beast of the occupation. Yes, one can say the same thing about Hebron, or Jayyous, or the Bethlehem checkpoint at 4AM. But there is something about this latest outrage that drew me, on my way out of the country after attending the World Council of Church’s launch of the Palestinian Kairos document to pay a visit to these families. What is happening in Sheikh Jarrah is part of the project, plain for all to see, to create a wholly Jewish Jerusalem. “Greater Jerusalem” is a microcosm of Israel’s all-but-completed colonial West Bank: maintained for Jewish settlers, with enclaves of controlled, imprisoned Palestinians. Sheikh Jarrah, along with existing and planned Jewish neighborhoods, creates a ring of Jewish settlement that encloses the entire city to the south, north and east. The OCHA report summarizes the competing claims of the parties. Lawyers for each side will continuing to make their cases about who owns the houses. But the source of this suffering is not a dispute between two parties each claiming the same piece of property. This is something else: a dispute between a party that is willing to share and a party that is not.

I sat in the lean-to with Fawzieh, who seemed at peace despite the trauma, indignity and loss she had suffered. Not that she did not have questions and a lot to say: how, she asked, can they accuse me of wanting to make war when one of the names I call God five times a day in my prayers is Salaam – Peace? Why, she continued, are they doing this to us when we believe in the unity and community of all peoples? She then recited, at length and from memory, the sura from the Kur’an that asserts the holiness and value of all the prophets that came before Muhammad, including Moses and Jesus, and the duty of all Muslims to honor them.

I walked across the front yard, garbage-strewn and littered with the ruined kitchen appliances and furniture that had been the al-Kurd’s property, and approached a group of black-suited and black-hatted young men – the current occupiers of the al-Kurd home. I spoke with them in Hebrew, providing my Jewish credentials (“My grandfather was born less than a mile from here, a fifth generation Jew in the Holy Land.”) They regarded me — quite correctly — with suspicion. Having observed me sitting with Fawzieh, they knew where my sympathies lay. As we talked I realized that facing me from across a very bright line was fine with them. They didn’t expect to change my views, and they were clear about theirs. In fact, as I attempted to engage with them I understood that a sense of being embattled was an essential part of their identity – in their minds they were the present-day Jewish pioneers, God’s warriors. Covering the front door of the house were stickers reading “The People of Israel will triumph”– using the Hebrew word for military victory. For them, suffering calumny and enraged protest for stealing the home of an innocent family was a source of pride, part of the hard work of reclaiming the land for God. They dismissed my suggestion that they consider the suffering and the human rights of the people they had displaced. God, they said, has given this to us, we are supposed to be here.

Having heard that claim so many time before, it didn’t affect me very much to hear it again. What did hit me, however, was their assertion that the people they had displaced deserved to be supplanted by God’s Chosen because they were teaching their children to hate the Jews. This too I had heard before, along with the other racist beliefs that so many Israelis hold about the Palestinians (dirty; thieves; bad parents). That day, however, this statement threw me because I had just listened to Fawzieh’s pain – not about losing her home, but about what was happening to her grandson. This is a boy, she told me, who had been earning high grades in school but whose only wish now was to grow up to be a pilot so that he could kill Jews. This was her pain: that her future, the future for her family and her community that she had planned and had wished for, that indeed her faith directed her toward, was being stolen. A house could be rebuilt — but a future generation could not so easily be redeemed. It hurt her heart.

The battle is joined. It is the conflict between those who plan a future based on dispossession, grasping and fear, and those who desire to live in a community of inclusiveness. Here, in this little neighborhood: the Jews barricade themselves behind gates and doors and declare victory. The Palestinians sit in their tents, like Abraham of old, and, indeed, like Palestinians in any West Bank or Gaza village or city, opening their homes to all comers. They serve coffee. They offer their hope and they share their pain. They appeal to the international community to witness their situation and to not sit idly by.

When I was there the street was quiet and empty except for a smattering of other internationals like myself, my dear friend Nora Carmi from Sabeel who visits daily, and the families. Two days later there was a big protest and some arrests for civil disobedience. Last month Rabbi Arik Ascherman of Rabbis for Human Rights wrote a piece entitled “Armageddon, Straight Ahead.” His language in the piece is telling. Arik, arriving at the scene and clearly shaken, wrote that “I see a Palestinian anger burning so strong that, unlike what usually happens, neither the threat of arrest or the use of overwhelming force is a deterrent. “In similar situations,” he continued, “I have urged Palestinians to calm down, but here I felt that I had no right and that it would do no good… Israel’s democracy has failed up until now. International pressure has failed up until now. The activist community has failed up until now…I see Jerusalem in flames – I see Armageddon straight ahead.”

Ascherman is a man who has committed his life to nonviolent opposition to the occupation. Witnessing the settlers moving into the homes under the noses of the dispossessed families, he could only stand and watch the growing violence. As I read his words and as I identify with his feelings, I find myself wondering: is there a wish here that the seething violence at this outrage will finally break out, into what he terms “Intifada 3?” I will not second guess what might have been going on in Arik’s mind or heart, but I will confess to what is going on in mine – the wish that something will happen to break the deadlock and stop, finally, the suffering of the Palestinians and Israel’s headlong rush into disaster. I imagine that Arik at that moment was thinking that no one, certainly not him, had the right to deny to these people their right to resist – even with violence — the crime that was being committed against them.

Resistance and Hope

I was in the country — along with over 60 Palestinian and international religious leaders, theologians and peace activists, including my good friend Rabbi Brian Walt, to attend the conference organized by the World Council of Church’s Palestine-Israel Ecumenical Forum to launch the Kairos Palestine Document. The document is entitled “A moment of truth: A word of faith, hope and love from the heart of Palestinian suffering.” Like Rabbi Ascherman’s piece, is a cry of pain and desperation, written, in the words of its preamble, “because today we have reached a dead end in the tragedy of the Palestinian people. The decision-makers content themselves with managing the crisis rather than committing themselves to the serious task of finding a way to resolve it. The hearts of the faithful are filled with pain and with questioning: What is the international community doing? What are the political leaders in Palestine, in Israel and in the Arab world doing? What is the Church doing?”

The Kairos document thus asks the same question as Rabbi Ascherman. In contrast to the understandable pessimism of Arik’s piece, it reaches for hope. For the authors of this document, the end of days is not the final battle between good and evil, but the vision of a community of love shaped by the redemptive vision that was articulated so long ago in these very hills, in this very city. I had heard Fawzieh express that same vision. Sitting with Fawzieh, I found myself telling her that I had come to her tent to support her, but that it was my bruised heart that was being healed by her loving spirit. The light in that tent is the same light that emanates from the Kairos document. It is a cry of pain that points to hope. This hope is grounded in community. It reaches out to the enemy.

Jerusalem is the heart of our reality. It is, at the same time, a symbol of

peace and sign of conflict. While the separation wall divides Palestinian

neighbourhoods, Jerusalem continues to be emptied of its Palestinian citizens,

Christians and Muslims. Their identity cards are confiscated, which means the loss of

their right to reside in Jerusalem. Their homes are demolished or expropriated.

Jerusalem, city of reconciliation, has become a city of discrimination and exclusion, a

source of struggle rather than peace.

We say that our option as Christians in the face of the Israeli occupation

is to resist. Resistance is a right and a duty for the Christian. But it is resistance with

love as its logic. It is thus a creative resistance for it must find human ways that

engage the humanity of the enemy. Seeing the image of God in the face of the enemy

means taking up positions in the light of this vision of active resistance to stop the

injustice…

Our message to the Jews tells them: Even though we have fought one

another in the recent past and still struggle today, we are able to love and live together.

We can organize our political life, with all its complexity, according to the logic of

this love and its power, after ending the occupation and establishing justice.

Arik’s biblical reference is apt: Armageddon is the battle between good and evil. We are seeing this battle waged here in the conflict between the occupiers and the dispossessed. Because it is not in the courts, the casuistry of lawyers, or the declarations of politicians that the conflict is to be resolved. It is in the higher court of immutable principles of human rights and universal justice. It is in the realm of the spirit. And the spirit points to the power of community.

In a recent LA Times opinion piece, Palestinian human attorney and human rights activist Jonathan Kuttab proposes that peace will be found not in separation, but in coexistence. What is this “two state” future, he wonders, as Israel continues to take more and more control of the entire territory? “As the options keep narrowing for all participants,” he writes, “we need to start thinking of how we can live together, rather than insist on dying apart.”

small front yard

This is the front yard of the al-Kurd home today. This is the future of this land if Israel’s project of dispossession continues. You can see the same thing all along the separation wall and by the checkpoints up and down the West Bank — in the cities, in the countryside. Kalandria. Hebron. The deepening horror of Gaza. Disaster, chaos, loss, ruin –for both peoples.

Or it can be the light in the tent: Fawzia’s vision of peaceful coexistence — her smile, in spite of it all. The open tents of the al-Ghawi and Hanoun families. The growing realization that, as Kuttab suggests, if we cannot live together we will die together. In a recent piece, human rights activist and Ali Abunimah characterizes Israel today as resembling a failed state. He too points to a “shared future” for Israelis and Palestinians as the only path to peace, writing that “despite the failed peace process industry’s efforts to ridicule, suppress and marginalise it, there is a growing debate among Palestinians and even among Israelis about a shared future in Palestine/Israel based on equality and decolonisation, rather than ethno-national segregation and forced repartition.”

This is how it will be won: through the spirit of people who believe in community and in shared hope. Through the resistance of men and women like Fawzieh, Nassar, Khawla and Majid, sitting in their tents in the shadow of the occupiers. Through the resistance of the women, men and children who awaken every day in their occupied land and go on with their lives fully claiming their identity as Palestinians. Through the witness of the 1400 internationals – including Jews and Israelis – camped out in the streets of Cairo and Aqaba challenging the powers who have barred them from entering the concentration camp that is Gaza on the last day of the first decade of the twenty first century. Through the witness and resistance of the authors of the Palestinian Kairos document, who as an act of witness and resistance have thrown down this challenge to the rest of humankind:

The mission of the Church is prophetic, to speak the Word of God courageously, honestly and lovingly in the local context and in the midst of daily events…Our future and their future are one: either the cycle of violence that destroys both of us or a peace that will benefit both.

The Kairos challenge is the same that confronts seekers of justice in every age and every place, the same appeal to those spiritual values which must form the heart and the driver for the struggle. William Sloane Coffin, American clergyman and long time peace activist, wrote this in his final autobiographical work, Credo:

We see ourselves walking not alone with our Lord, but with all the peoples of the world whom we now view as fellow walkers, not as those who fall in behind. And all are marching to Zion, to the mountain of God, where—can anyone doubt it?—God will cause the nations to beat their swords into plowshares and return to the people the peace that only God could give and no nation had the right to take away.

Bethesda, MD

(In the photo, left to right: Khawla and Majid Hannoun, Fawzieh al-Kurd, Nasser Ghawi and his father.)

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