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"There's a New Left in Town"

By Sarah Benninga

Last fall, a small group of young Israeli activists began gathering on Fridays in Sheikh Jarrah to stop the eviction of Palestinian families from this East Jerusalem neighborhood. Three of those families, spawned by (once-and-future?) Palestinian refugees who had lived in West Jerusalem before 1948, have now been thrown out of their homes to make way for Jewish settlers. Other Palestinian families in the neighborhood are at risk of eviction, waiting on Israeli courts to adjudicate claims made by would-be settlers. The demonstrations on behalf of Palestinians in Sheikh Jarrah grew slowly until early in March when thousands of protesters showed up at (what CNN) called “ground zero.” Lift-off happened in part because the young activists managed to get the Israeli High Court to rule against police who aimed to suppress a proposed protest march. The police’s ongoing efforts to strong-arm demonstrators helped turn a seemingly marginal cause into a focal point for the (formerly dormant) Israeli Left. But it’s not just free speech issues that have roused folks. Demonstrator/commentator Bernard Avishai explains why Sheikh Jarrah’s local issues have national resonance in Israel:

Throwing out Jerusalem Arab families from their homes of more than 50 years, and making way for Jews affiliated with Ateret Kohanim, could not be more revealing of the ethical autism Israelis in Jerusalem have suffered from and the political dangers we are sliding toward. The demonstrations against this are the most perfect way to oxygenate the embers of the peace process.

What other issue so exposes how the security rhetoric justifying military occupation of Palestinian territory since June, 1967 eventually came to cover for a romantic scheme, whose signal event was the annexation of Jerusalem in June, 1967, and the quadrupling of its municipal boundaries? What other stand focuses on the collusion between the Jerusalem and national police and settlement organizations? What stand so dramatizes the importance of East Jerusalem, Palestine’s largest city, and its historic commercial hub, as the capital of a Palestinian state? What stand so reveals the pathos of refugees losing property on both sides during this awful century of war, and the importance of moving forward with a sense of reciprocal fairness – the importance of not opening up pre-1948 land claims on either side of the green line?

The logic of Sheikh Jarrah speaks to Old Lions of the Israeli Left but the demos include more than the usual suspects. Protestors are Jewish and Palestinian, from a wide range of backgrounds and with diverse political views. (The New York Times noted the presence of Moshe Halbertal, who is perhaps best known to Americans as a lucid critic of the Goldstone Report’s biased conclusions about IDF actions in Gaza.) Reporting on Sheikh Jarrah has recently highlighted the presence of elders with a long history of involvement in the Israeli Peace Movement, but most accounts underscore the fervency and fresh thinking of the protest’s youthful organizers. Ynet, for example, zeroes in on “the small bunch of youngsters devoid of any legal experience” who managed to beat the State in the High Court of Justice.

Avner Inbar (29), a Ph D student in Philosophy at the University of Chicago told Ynet about the petition’s course. "We soon realized that we could not afford the services of a lawyer so we decided to write the petition ourselves. We spent two-or three days churning through it, in an intensive fashion, day and night. We studied the subject. We read previous judgment on the subject of freedom of assembly. We went down to the site to photograph the relevant area. We took down affidavits from demonstrators and neighborhood residents and wrote down the petition."

When it became clear that the police had no intention to authorize the demonstration the struggle deepened. "We planned a major event for Saturday night," Inbar told us. "The police’s refusal was immediate and was not accompanied by any explanation or reasoning – even though they are obliged by law to provide those. We recognized that this was a police campaign against the protest on site. We presented the petition on Sunday and by Thursday we were already representing ourselves." According to him, this self-representation typifies the Sheikh Jarrah struggle – self-organized, independent and not tied to any institutions.[1]

The spring protests in East Jerusalem bring to mind other seasons of freedom and fearlessness. There are echoes of such world-historical moments in the following speech given at Sheikh Jarrah by a 28 year-old student-protester named Sarah Benninga who spoke to (and for) the “New Left in Town.” But Ms. Benninga (and her comrades) have their own sound too. It’s louder than bombs.

There is a New Left, and it is not a left that is content with peace talks; it is a left of struggle. There is a New Left that knows that there are things you have to fight against even when they are identified with the state and even when they are sanctioned by law. There’s a New Left that knows that this struggle will not be decided on paper, but on the ground, on the hills, in the vineyards, in the olive groves. There’s a New Left that is not afraid of settlers – even when they come down on us from the hills, masked and armed. This left does not succumb to political oppression by the police, nor does it care what Ma’ariv writes about it.

There is a New Left in town. This left does not want to be loved, does not dream of filling town squares and does not bask in the memories of 400,000 demonstrators. This left is a partnership of Palestinians who understand that the occupation will not be stopped by missiles and bombs, and of Israelis who understand that the Palestinian struggle is their own.

The New Left links arms with Palestinians in a cloud of tear-gas in Bili’in, and with them, bears the brunt of settler violence in the South Hebron Hills. This left stands by refugees and work immigrants in Tel-Aviv and fights the Wisconsin Project [Editor’s note: a privatizing “welfare-to-work” program.] This New Left is us, all of us.

All those who came here tonight; all those who dared to cross the imaginary line separating West and East Jerusalem despite the threats and intimidation – we are all the New Left that is rising in Israel and Palestine. We are not fighting for a peace agreement; we are fighting for justice. But we believe that injustice is the main obstacle to peace. Until the Ghawis, the Hanouns and the El-Kurds return to their homes, there will be no peace; because peace will not take root where discrimination, oppression, and plunder exist. There is a New Left in town and this left stands with the residents of Sheikh Jarrah tonight, and it will continue standing with them until justice overcomes fanaticism.

But there is also a New Right in town. A Right filled with envy and racism that seduces the masses with its jingoistic rhetoric. The New Right has no interest in the well-being and the welfare of human beings. The New Right is only interested in a narrow ethnic and tribal loyalty a la Avigdor Liberman. For the New Right only the Jewish poor deserve attention. And what makes someone Jewish is that they're not Arabic. The New Right has nothing to offer but never-ending war. The New Right has nothing to offer but hate for the other: Arabs, refugees and leftists.

This New Right creates the fanatic settlers against whom we are demonstrating tonight. These settlers hate Jerusalem. They have no love for Israel and no love for humankind – they love only themselves. There are many amongst the settlers who we can and should carry out a dialogue with. But the settlers in Sheikh Jarrah who sing songs of praise to Baruch Goldstein – must be defeated.

The New Right created the mayor of Jerusalem Nir Barkat. He is a technocrat who doesn't understand or care about Jerusalem. He is a mayor who uses administrative terror against the residents of East Jerusalem and neglects the residents of West Jerusalem, while mouthing empty clichés. If Jerusalem is a powder keg, then Nir Barkat is the one who is striking the match. But Barkat doesn't scare us and neither do the settlers or Liberman.

We will continue coming to Sheikh Jarrah and everywhere that justice is crushed by the forces of occupation and oppression. Take a look around you; we are not as few as we thought we were! And we will prevail!


1 Thanks to Didi Remez for compiling/translating Israeli reporting on Sheikh Jarrah at www.coteret.com.

From April, 2010

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