Dec 8th 2010

The Last Line of Decency

by Ian Buruma

 


Ian Buruma is the author, most recently, of The Churchill Complex: The Curse of Being Special, From Winston and FDR to Trump and Brexit. 

JERUSALEM - Every Friday afternoon for more than a year, hundreds of Israeli Jews have gathered on a dusty little square in the middle of Arab East Jerusalem. There are some Palestinians there, too, including a couple of boys selling fresh orange juice. The people gather there, in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood, to protest the eviction of Palestinian families from their homes to make way for Israeli settlers.

These evictions are humiliating, sometimes violent, and frightening to other Palestinian families - who are in danger of losing their homes as well. Israeli students were the first to organize a protest, known as the Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity Movement. They were followed by distinguished professors, famous novelists, and a former attorney general, among others.

At first, the Israeli police used force against the protesters, even though such demonstrations are perfectly legal in Israel. This provoked such bad publicity that the police backed off, while still blocking the road to the new settlements. All the demonstrators can do is hold up signs, bang drums, chant slogans, and show solidarity just by turning up.

The background to the evictions is not exactly straightforward. Some Jews did live in the district before they were kicked out in the 1948 war of Israeli independence. Many more Palestinians were kicked out at the same time from neighborhoods in West Jerusalem, and found new homes in areas like Sheikh Jarrah, which came under Jordanian jurisdiction until the Israelis took back East Jerusalem in 1967.

These people were largely left in peace until a few years ago, when Jews began to lay claim on properties lost in 1948. Palestinians who might wish to make similar claims on properties in West Jerusalem cannot do so. Because they settled after 1948 in "enemy territories," such as Jordanian Sheikh Jarrah, they are barred by Israeli law from reclaiming lost property.

Some Arab properties in Jerusalem are purchased by Jewish businessmen or organizations. But some are simply appropriated. Documents, going back to the Ottoman period, are sometimes produced, but their authenticity and provenance are often in doubt. In any case, as is so frequently the case in Israel, the Palestinians are given a raw deal.

Sheikh Jarrah is far from the worst case. Other Palestinian neighborhoods in Jerusalem are cut off from the rest of the city by Israel's so-called "security wall," which means that their inhabitants do not receive proper municipal services, despite being obliged to pay city taxes.

Uncollected garbage piles up in the streets. Water supplies are erratic. Children can no longer go to their schools. People lose their jobs.

Things are even worse in Palestinian towns farther afield, such as Hebron, where Israeli settlers often behave like Wild West gunslingers, flouting the laws of their own country as they drive away Palestinians by cutting down their trees, poisoning their livestock, and subjecting them to other forms of torment, including fatal shootings, which have gone unpunished.

When American diplomats complained about Jewish settlers' forcible intrusion into Palestinian neighborhoods, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu responded that Jerusalem was not a settlement, but the capital of Israel. This implies that Jews can push farther and farther into East Jerusalem, as well as build settlements on Palestinian territories around the city, which Israel now claims to be part of Jerusalem. The ultimate aim, it appears, is to make Jerusalem Jewish, by purchase, by invoking historical claims, and, if necessary, by force.

This effort is so systematic, and backed so vigorously by the Israeli government, that there seems to be little prospect of a few hundred protesters, however distinguished, managing to stop it. So is it all a waste of time? Is it just a radical-chic outdoor cocktail party?

At least one Palestinian gentleman thought not. He lives a few streets away from the spot where the protesters gather. "If it weren't for you people," he said with a joyful smile, "we would all be doomed."

He may be expecting too much. But the show of Jewish solidarity no doubt makes some Palestinians feel less alone. Moreover, it is harder for Palestinians to demonstrate themselves, because they risk losing their precious residency permits in Jerusalem.

But the protests are worthwhile for another reason: they are good for Israel. Protests, or civil resistance, in the face of government force, rarely have immediate, tangible results. Under dictatorships, they can even be counterproductive, leading to violent reprisals. This is especially true of violent resistance, which simply invites greater violence.

Israel is not a dictatorship. On the contrary, it is the only functioning democracy in the Middle East. Despite all the segregation, discrimination, and ethnic and religious tensions, Jerusalem is also one of the Middle East's last truly diverse cities. There are precious few Jews left in Tehran, Damascus, or Cairo. By contrast, the Arab population in Jerusalem is 36%, and growing.

Israel must also defend itself against much Arab hostility. But systematic humiliation of Palestinians, by allowing settlers to get away literally with murder, has a corrupting effect on Israeli society. Citizens are coarsened by the casual brutality meted out to a minority, and become inured to it. Even if most Israelis never see a roadblock, the security wall, or forcible evictions, the habit of looking away, not wishing to know, is a form of corruption.

This is why the Friday afternoon protests, however ineffectual in the short run, are essential. The demonstration of solidarity makes Israel a more civilized place. It keeps alive a sense of decency, a hope that a better society is still possible - for Palestinians and Israelis alike.


Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2010.
www.project-syndicate.org
For a podcast of this commentary in English, please use this link:
http://media.blubrry.com/ps/media.libsyn.com/media/ps/buruma45.mp3

 


This article is brought to you by Project Syndicate that is a not for profit organization.

Project Syndicate brings original, engaging, and thought-provoking commentaries by esteemed leaders and thinkers from around the world to readers everywhere. By offering incisive perspectives on our changing world from those who are shaping its economics, politics, science, and culture, Project Syndicate has created an unrivalled venue for informed public debate. Please see: www.project-syndicate.org.

Should you want to support Project Syndicate you can do it by using the PayPal icon below. Your donation is paid to Project Syndicate in full after PayPal has deducted its transaction fee. Facts & Arts neither receives information about your donation nor a commission.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Jun 19th 2021
EXTRACT: "Xi Jinping’s call for friendship gives us an opportunity to examine Chinese politics on both the domestic and international stage. On the face of it, it suggests the possibility of rapprochement between the rich liberal democracies represented by the G7 and the authoritarian Chinese state. However, despite appearances of a call for a closer relationship, there is more than one way of being friends – and Xi’s idea might be somewhat different to what many in countries attending the G7 might expect."
Jun 12th 2021
EXTRACT: "China’s recently published census, showing that its population has almost stopped growing, brought warnings of severe problems for the country. “Such numbers make grim reading for the party,” reported The Economist. This “could have a disastrous impact on the country,” wrote Huang Wenzheng, a fellow at the Center for China and Globalization in Beijing, in the Financial Times. But a comment posted on China’s Weibo was more insightful. “The declining fertility rate actually reflects the progress in the thinking of Chinese people – women are no longer a fertility tool.” "
Jun 12th 2021
EXTRACT: " I remember recounting fellow leaders of the story of a Rwanda schoolboy caught up in the genocide of the 1990s and now immortalized in the Kigali Genocide Memorial museum, where, in a section devoted to children, one can find his photograph and a plaque that reads: ----- David, age 11 ...... Ambition: to be a doctor ...... Favorite sport: football ...... Favorite hobby: making people laugh ...... Death: by mutilation ...... Last words: the UN are coming to save us ----- In his idealism and innocence, David believed the international community would save him and his mother. We didn’t. "
Jun 8th 2021
EXTRACT: " While many conservative Republicans opposed Trump and saw that he posed a danger to their party and democracy itself, they were hesitant to buck the mass movement they had created, fearing that it would turn against them. Some of these same conservatives assumed that with Trump's defeat, the horror of January 6th, and the former president's banishment from social media, the time had come to restore sanity to their party. But the GOP leadership’s continued cowering in the face of what they now call "Trump's base" has caused them to circle the wagons and purge their ranks of those who call for sanity. "
May 26th 2021
Editor's Note: This article is about the Federal Reserve, inflation in the 1970's, and possible similarities to today.
May 25th 2021
EXTRACT: "Netanyahu claims to be acting in the name of the Jewish people. He certainly is not. Many Jews around the world, including me, despise Netanyahu’s racist politics. As an American, I am also deeply troubled by the US government’s knee-jerk support of Israel. Fortunately, I am not alone in this view. A growing number of Democratic Congressmen, Jews and non-Jews alike, have called on the United States to stop supporting Israel’s lawlessness. The truth is that the US government’s uncritical support for Israel has come to depend more on evangelical Christians, such as former US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, than on American Jews, who are deeply divided by Netanyahu’s actions. And the evangelicals’ real interest in Zionism is not Jews’ security, but Armageddon, the end of the world, which they believe will come only when all Jews are in Israel."
May 18th 2021
EXTRACT: "This period in US history could go down as the moment when America’s democratic system for electing a president – the most consequential duty of US citizens – was broken, perhaps for good."
May 16th 2021
EXTRACT: "While reading Human Rights Watch’s (HRW) monumental report “A Threshold Crossed,” I felt a range of emotions. It also left me with one big question. I was deeply impressed by the report’s rigorous scholarship. At the same time, it brought to the surface feelings of anger and profound sadness. It’s an extraordinarily complete study detailing not only the many ways Israel has violated a broad range of Palestinian human rights, but the ideology of racial superiority and entitlement that Israel has used to justify its repression." ..... "My advice to both Israel’s defenders and weak-kneed liberals is​, “Read the damn report.” "
May 16th 2021
EXTRACTS: .... "He transformed a transitioning market economy into a stable statist project that rests on an alliance of his inner circle," ..... "He transformed Russia from a respected member of the international community into a rogue state" .... ". He energized NATO by providing it with the adversary it lacked after the end of the cold war," ..... "He befriended hopelessly corrupt, dysfunctional, and unstable dictatorships..." ..... "He forged a quasi-alliance with China, thereby enhancing Russia’s dependence on the one country that might have reason to appropriate those Russian territories inhabited by Chinese."
May 15th 2021
EXTRACT: "On the face of it, the latest escalation of violence is following the template of all inter-ethnic wars. Muslims observing Ramadan shouted nationalist slogans and clashed with Israeli right-wing groups chanting “Death to the Arabs.” The Israelis haughtily marched with their national flag on Jerusalem Day, marking Israel’s capture in 1967 of East Jerusalem and the Temple Mount, the site of the biblical Second Temple, and of Al-Aqsa, completed in the year 705. Battles in and around the Al-Aqsa compound erupted, with worshipers inside throwing stones at the Israeli police, who responded by firing rubber-tipped bullets and other projectiles, wounding hundreds."
May 13th 2021
"Regardless of how the current and future violent conflicts between Israel and the Palestinians in Jerusalem will end, there will be no Israeli-Palestinian peace unless East Jerusalem becomes the capital of a Palestinian state while the city remains united."
May 7th 2021
EXTRACT: " Would the United States be prepared to risk a catastrophic war with the People’s Republic of China to protect the Republic of China, better known as Taiwan? "
May 5th 2021
EXTRACT: "Human history, ancient and contemporary, is replete with instances of genocide – that is, the effort to eradicate a people, erase their history, denigrate their culture, and destroy their physical presence. Many of these atrocities have been recognized by the victims and other nations who support them. But, with the notable exception of the German acknowledgment of the Holocaust, rarely have the perpetrators of these crimes accepted responsibility and offer recompense "
May 2nd 2021
EXTRACT: "The best way to defend liberal democracy is to practice it at home and abroad with the “courage and self-confidence” that Kennan touted at the dawn of the Cold War. This is also the best way to ensure the survival of our own conception of human freedom. And survive it will."
May 1st 2021
EXTRACT: "Ann Arbor (Informed Comment) – Sammy Roth at the LA Times/ Boiling Point Newsletter reports that California’s main power grid was powered for several hours last Saturday by 90% renewables. For just four seconds that day, the grid, which covers 4/5s of the state, reached 94.5% generation by green energy. California is the world’s fifth largest economy. The main grid does not cover Los Angeles County. On the other hand, these figures do not include the electricity generated by the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant, which is not counted as renewable but which is also very low-carbon."
Apr 23rd 2021
EXTRACT: "It is no accident that there has been an economic divergence in Central and Eastern Europe. Those countries that have joined the European Union have improved their economic governance, and GDP has begun to converge with Western Europe. Between 2014 and 2019, Hungary, Poland, and Romania grew at an annual average rate of 3.9%, 4.1%, and 4.7%, respectively. Meanwhile, Belarus and Ukraine experienced minimal growth during this period, and Russia’s economy expanded at an average annual rate of just 0.7%. Though Russia had a higher per capita GDP (in terms of purchasing power parity) than Croatia, Poland, Romania, and Turkey as recently as 2009, all of these countries have since overtaken it. Russians today are shocked to learn that they are worse off than Romanians and Turks. Among EU member states, only Bulgaria is still poorer than Russia. With its close proximity to the EU single market, Russia could have had higher growth if it had pursued sound economic policies. Instead,..... "
Apr 22nd 2021
EXTRACT: "As far as anyone can tell, the US military is not on the verge of an internal breakdown, let alone primed to stage a coup d’état. But few predicted anything like the US Capitol riot before protesters equipped with body armor, stun guns, and zip-ties breached the building. Before the US is blindsided again, its leaders must act resolutely to root out extremism in the military."
Apr 17th 2021
EXTRACT: "The new report on 2020 by the International Renewable Energy Agency reveals that the world’s renewable energy generation capacity increased by an astonishing 10.3% in 2020 despite the global economic slowdown during the coronavirus pandemic." .... "In 2020, the global net increase in renewables was 261 gigawatts (GW). That is the nameplate capacity of some 300 nuclear power plants! There are actually only 440 nuclear power plants in the whole world, with a generation capacity of 390 gigwatts. So let’s just underline this point. The world put in 2/3s as much renewable energy in one year as is produced by all the existing nuclear plants!"
Apr 16th 2021
EXTRACT: "When we examined the development of nations worldwide since 1820, we found that among rich Western countries like the United States, the Netherlands and France, improvements in income, education, safety and health tracked or even outpaced rising gross domestic product for over a century. But in the 1950s, even as economic growth accelerated after World War II, well-being in these countries lagged.
Apr 11th 2021
EXTRACT: "Some presidents indulge in the “Mount Rushmore syndrome” making an obvious effort to achieve greatness. Normally soft-spoken and apparently modest Biden is making his own bid for immortality."