Protesters at weekly demonstration in Sheikh Jarrah
Protesters at a weekly demonstration in Sheikh Jarrah in April, 2010. Photo by Emil Salman
Text size

SHEIKH JARRAH, East Jerusalem – You have to have a key to play in the tiger cage.

And if you're not Jewish, you can’t have a key.

Though it looks like one, bars and chain-link and a padlock, this is not, strictly speaking, a cage at all. It is an enclosed playground for the toddlers and smaller children of the makeshift urban settlement which surrounds it.

And the beast in question is not in the cage, but in the tension that weights the faces of the settlers, their children, the Israeli police and border guards and riot officers who keep the Arab residents of the neighborhood at a distance. And that weights the faces of  Arab children who - under the strictly enforced and entirely arbitrary bylaws of this Jewish colony which marries ancient ritual, manifest destiny, and science fiction - cannot enter the cage to play.

There's a reason why Israel's New Left is being born in this neighborhood of the city's largely Palestinian eastern half. There's a reason why the two-state division may well be spurred by this place. There's a reason why the demonstrations only grow in strength and impact, week after week after week. The reason is the extremism and the delusional reasoning of the settlement enterprise here, a reductio ad absurdum so exquisite, so cryingly self-defeating, that the Palestinian national movement should have thought of it years ago.

Settlers here have simply applied the Palestinian Right of Return to themselves. Hoping for – and winning – a court ruling that could have been handed down by a bizarro Ismail Haniyeh, they argued that if Jews lived in homes here before Israel's creation in 1948, Jews should be able to return to those homes.

As fate would have it, many of the Palestinians expelled from their homes a year ago to make way for the settlers, were themselves driven from their original residences in predominately Jewish West Jerusalem by the 1948 war.

The settlers' tiny archipelago of settlement in Sheikh Jarrah, a speck in relation to most West Bank settler enclaves and even to many illegal outposts, has thus managed to call into question the basic underpinnings of Zionism itself. It gives new meaning to the settlers' old and, at the time, markedly unsuccessful motto, Yesha Zeh Kahn ["The West Bank Is Here," which is to say, all of Israel has the same status as the West Bank].

But it suggests something else as well. It suggests that for the true Messianist, a status which encompasses all the ultra-Othodox and a growing segment of the "Knitted Kipot" [also called National Zionist or Modern Orthodox] community, Post-Zionism Is Here.

Is it only coincidence that Haredi youth are increasingly drawn to pro-settlement activism and Knitted Kippa youth are increasingly drawn to ultra-Orthodox observance?

What matters, at root, is that whatever destruction comes of wanton settlement, disproportionate military actions with attendant casualties among Arab non-combatants, or artful dodging of peace possibilities, the Almighty will come and clean up the mess.

What matters, under this worldview, is that the rabbinical establishment wield deepening and widening control over the affairs of daily life for the Israeli population, from diplomacy to matrimony, from marriage eligibility to citizenship eligibility, from deportation of non-Jews to demonizing pro-democracy groups, from ruling out peace concessions to disqualifying foreign conversions.

The consequences for the State of Israel, in this approach, are secondary. In fact, carried to its logical extreme, under this approach, the existence of a State of Israel is secondary.

If what really matters is rabbinical control of daily life and the sanctity of leaving settlements where they are, the answer is obvious: Leave everything to the Haredim, the Kahanists, and Hamas. Many of the Haredim are ambivalent about the idea of a Jewish state. Some are overtly opposed, even hostile. For many settlers, the trauma and sense of betrayal caused by the abrupt withdrawal from Gaza has shifted their focus from the primacy of the state to the necessity of settlement.

In their goals and in their view of governance, Hamas, Kahanists and Haredim have much in common. Why not just let them run the Holy Land.

Let go and let God.

Who needs democracy when you can have an enormous archipelago of tiger cages where just Jews can play? Why not simply leave everything to the mega-pious? The United States of Jerusalem, the United States of Crazy, a holy land of cantons where everyone can declare independence and live out his or her personal End of Days ideal.

A Bantustan for everyone and everyone in their own.

Before we decide once and for all to let this play out, however, it would be worth everyone's while to recall that End of Days movements, just like the revolutions that they actually are, tend to go gray and turn irrelevant.

And while waiting for the Messiah to sort out the United States of Jerusalem, there's still room on that street corner in Sheikh Jarrah, where on a clear day, you can actually see a future.