March 20, 2015, Schmoozing East Jerusalem style

Friday is a get-over-jet-lag schmooze-with-friends-and-colleagues kind of day, much of it spent in a lovely modern apartment in the Germany Colony, a neighborhood in southwest Jerusalem established in the second half of the 1800s by the German Temple Society and populated by Christian Arabs as well. The Germans were run out by the British as Nazi sympathizers and the Arabs dispossessed in 1948, leaving a pleasant blend of Ottomon and art deco architecture and homes conveniently “emptied” for Jewish immigrants. In the bad old days, one of the main streets, Emek Refaim, was the site of a horrific suicide bombing during the Second Intifada in 2003 and another nearby bombing on bus #14A. Emek Refaim is now a trendy, gentrified area with excellent coffee shops, a decent burrito place (although they do not know from corn chips, try lost in translation fried pita) and a host of yuppie shops reminiscent of a combo between Harvard Square and Newbury Street. Except for all the Hebrew signage, I could feel right at home. Our host with her bright eyed delicious baby, talks about her exposed bulging belly being poked and wanded for explosives at a previous ridiculous day at airport security.  Did the Israelis seriously think there was a bomb in her uterus or is that just the metaphor for another non-Jewish baby in the demographic wars? And she is not even Palestinian. She reports the kid kicked back.

The rest of the day we drink coffee, tea with mint (ahh), and nibble on Arabic salad in the  unexpectedly trendy Gallery Café in Sheikh Jarrah, near the Mount Scopus Hotel (currently closed), where a steady stream of activists, medical folk, journalists, and friends of friends just happen to be passing by.  So we schmooze.  It is Friday after all.

I learn about attempts to establish an ob-gyn department on convent land at Saint Joseph’s Hospital, a Christian hospital (do we hire veiled women?) where 90% of the patients are Muslim, the ten year fight to get a license to build, (this is East Jerusalem after all).  And then there are the struggles of recently trained docs and old fashioned more hierarchical types, issues of gender discrimination and establishing competency, the dynamic of a hospital under the Israeli Ministry of Health staffed mostly by West Bankers.  Add to this the challenges for Palestinian women with East Jerusalem residency IDs (and no Israeli citizenship) with Israeli  medical insurance coping with the institutional racism of high quality Jewish hospitals like Hadassah and orthodox Jewish hospitals like Shaare Zedek where the care is technically excellent but culturally insensitive. Is it possible to have a modern, high quality ob-gyn hospital with Palestinian staff speaking Arabic, culturally appropriate, credentialed by the Israel Ministry of Health? Insha’allah, time will tell.

Then we meet a longtime Israeli activist and a young Norwegian journalist just returned from a protest in Azaria near Bethany and Abu Dis on the other side of the wall that slices through this city where refugees are under threat of displacement again. Norway tends to be sympathetic to the concerns of Palestinians, but the young man explains almost apologetically, they were responsible for the Oslo Accords as well! He talks about a family “self-demolishing,” a mind boggling practice where Palestinians destroy their own homes in order to save whatever personal belongings and family treasures they can grab and to avoid the heavy fines imposed by the occupiers when a bulldozer does it for you and sends you the bill.  Honestly, I cannot make this stuff up.

An Egyptian journalist born in Libya stops for a cup of coffee as his young son runs around the café and garden.  The father animatedly talks about his responses to the special interrogations he routinely receives in Israeli airports, “Israel is a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  These intrusions are illegal!” When he challenges the security, sometimes they back down, sometimes they don’t. He is a bearded “Arab” appearing male with a charming British accent and a quick and passionate mind.  Obviously a threaten to your average 25 year old Israeli security person, steeped in the stereotypes that buttress the educational system in this modern democracy. This conversation drifts into a fascinating discussion about racism: the usual Jewish Israeli of course I am fine with Arabs, my gardener is an Arab variety, to the Palestinian form where the Arabic word for a black Arab is “a slave.” Racism in every society also intersects with class; the professional academic Indians living in London (the Empire comes home) fare far better than the poor Arab immigrant families from Algeria and Morocco unemployed and angry in the suburbs of Paris. But the Egyptian via Libya argues that 9/11 changed everything, Islamophobia became acceptable. (Yes I know Muslims are not a race, I am talking concepts here). In essence, Islamophobia is now an acceptable form of racism. If you don’t believe me, substitute any derogatory comment using Muslim with Jew, Black, gay, etc and you will see what I mean.

We wander back through the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood where an unrelenting process of Judaization has been occurring since 1967. A cluster of hardy protestors stand on the corner across from the sign to the Shimon HaTsdadik tomb, holding posters in Hebrew and English: “No to the Occupation,” “Stop the settlements in East Jerusalem.”  I recognize Arik Ascherman, founder of Rabbis for Human Rights, and Nasser al-Ghawi who with his family was dragged from his longtime home in 2009 along with the Al-Hanoun family by Israeli security, police, and fanatical Jewish settlers. The Palestinian homes are scarred with graffiti, the Star of David now a symbol of racism, hatred, and entitlement.  In the 1950s Palestinian refugees from West Jerusalem and beyond were offered homes here by the UN and the Jordanian government in exchange for giving up their refugee status and since 1967 a quasi-legal, violent, and tortured battle has been fought in the courts and the streets around the this is mine/no I was hear first and here are the manufactured documents to prove it variety. Currently 500 Palestinian families face the threat of eviction. Nearby, young Jewish boys with peyos, in short black pants, black jackets, and white yarmulkes, munch chips and play before the Sabbath services in one of these acquired-by-Jewish-settlers buildings, while down the dusty street tens of Palestinians families, victims of evictions and home demolitions, have established a squatters camp devoid of basic services (like water and electricity) in a large white stone edifice, glass shattered, in poor repair, protected under Islamic Law as a wafq, just a block from the upscale American Colony Hotel where I can bet no one chooses to see this crushing disaster. Contradiction upon contradiction. Injustice upon injustice.

We pick up a collection of maps from the UN OCHA building (Office of Coordination for Humanitarian Affairs), not the usual google map types, but a set of damning, crisscrossed, multi-colored affairs that present a visual of the tortured realities of occupation, walls, land confiscation, checkpoints, (more on that later). We complete our journey, picking our way through trash  strewn streets (see non-existent garbage collection and no recycling bins in East Jerusalem), torn up roads (a small portion of the municipal services goes to East Jerusalem compared to West Jerusalem and did I mention that East Jerusalemites pay the same taxes as their West Jerusalemite neighbors and get a fraction of the city budget in this the united capital of the State of Israel?) to the lovely Educational Book Store run by the Muna family on Salah Eddin Street.  They have a fabulous collection of books in English on Middle Eastern culture and the Arab/Israel conflict.  Mahmoud welcomes me at the door, Ahlan wa Sahlan, and I see my book, On the Brink: Israel and Palestine on the Eve of the 2014 Gaza Invasion prominently displayed in the front window.  Oh happy days! I feel a little less invisible in this crazy making place on just another typical Friday afternoon.