So What's It Like Being Called an Israel-hater?

Far-right Web sites have dubbed Israeli Sahar Vardi, 19, a traitor and the daughter of a traitor.

Neri Livneh
Neri Livneh
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Neri Livneh
Neri Livneh

Sahar Vardi, 19, has excellent reasons to be afraid. Far-right Web sites have dubbed her a traitor and the daughter of a traitor. Sahar's father, Amiel Vardi, a researcher and lecturer in classics at the Hebrew University, is among the founders of Ta'ayush and other leftist groups. He was shot in 2006 by a settler when he and friends tried to help Palestinian farmers reach their vineyards during the grape harvest.

This seems only to have increased the determination of the father and his daughter in their struggle against the injustice, discrimination and denial of rights that are the Palestinians' daily lot.

Sahar is rightly singled out by the far right as a key activist in the weekly demonstrations at Sheikh Jarrah against the "Judaization" of the Jerusalem neighborhood by evicting Palestinians. Virtually all of them are refugees who were expelled from Jerusalem's Talbieh neighborhood in 1948. Several days ago, hate graffiti was sprayed on the wall of her father's house - by mistake, because Sahar no longer lives there. "A price tag for Sheikh Jarrah," it said. "Sahar Amiel, a leftist who brings trouble to Israel."

What's it like being called someone who brings trouble to Israel?

Well, of course it's a little scary and it's not true either. Everything I do is because I care and because I want to continue living here, and because I believe that there is injustice and we have to fight it to change the situation.

What motivates you aside from optimism?

My sense of responsibility. I'm responsible for the injustice because I pay taxes to the government that uses them in such a misguided way. And also because although I didn't vote for the parties in the coalition, I'm responsible for the government because I'm a citizen of the State of Israel.

When did you begin political activity?

My father started being politically active in Ta'ayush during the second intifada and I began through him - at first at demonstrations in front of the Prime Minister's Residence every Shabbat. From there we both began to go to the territories for the more relaxed activity of planting trees. Very soon we switched over to more serious activities such as the demonstrations at Bil'in. It's a short way from there to Sheikh Jarrah.

And how did Sheikh Jarrah begin?

It began in November a year and a half ago. One of the families was evicted and I was already active in Ta'ayush, which tried to fight the eviction and wasn't successful. All the families from Sheikh Jarrah are refugees from 1948, and one of their claims was that if there are documents proving that the land in Sheikh Jarrah once belonged to Jews, it's not fair that Palestinians can't return to the land and homes that belonged to them before 1948. After all, the whole story is that it's one-sided. The right of return in Jerusalem is for Jews only, and don't forget that for every settler they also bring in security guards and Border Police who, not surprisingly, threaten only the Palestinians in Sheikh Jarrah.

We resumed activity in August eight months ago. And then we already had people who for several weeks slept all night in homes that were about to be evicted, in the hope that we could prevent the eviction. I also slept there, and after you see the Palestinians you can't remain indifferent to this suffering and injustice. But we weren't able to prevent the eviction and another two families were thrown out.

And then came the latest eviction, which in human terms was the least dramatic because they evicted only half a house. Then we decided on marches from the western part of the city to raise awareness. During the first march there were 30 people and we decided to do it every week, and a week later more people came, and later a hundred. The police decided that they had had enough and there was the first wave of arrests. There were 24 detainees.

Were you arrested?

Not there. I was arrested once at a demonstration against the plea bargain with [former president Moshe] Katsav in Tel Aviv, and another time I was arrested at a demonstration against the Na'alin brigade commander.

In any case, when the police arrested 24 people at our demonstration in Sheikh Jarrah, that gave our struggle a big push. A week later 200 to 300 people came to the demonstration. There were more arrests then, too, and since then every week, including in hail and rain, at least 200 people come, which we really hadn't expected. Of course we were pleasantly surprised at the big demonstration when we managed to bring in 4,000 people two weeks ago.

At your age, don't you have more pleasant things to do?

I'm really not capable of standing on the sidelines and allowing this injustice to take place. And certainly when you stand with Palestinians and see how they are forced to endure this, I feel that it's unconscionable for me to live in my home in the German Colony and study whatever I like, and I can leave the house half an hour before my class at the university and the Palestinian kids who live 10 minutes from the city center can't. And when they leave home in the morning they don't know if they'll have a home to return to in the evening.

You're studying history at the university, so I assume you didn't enlist in the army.

I refused in August 2008. I was in jail for several months. Two weeks in jail and another three months of confinement to the base and a complicated relationship with the army.

How did people around you react to your activity?

Because I arrived at Leyada, the Hebrew University high school, in 10th grade, when I was already going to Bil'in every week, anyone who became my friend already knew who I was. On the first day of school I came in with fliers of the 2005 letter of the high school seniors. [More than 250 Israeli high-school students sent a letter to the prime minister, defense minister, education minister and chief of staff declaring that they would refuse to take part in the occupation.] And from that moment there were people who never talked to me. But anyone who was a friend of mine knew who I was, so the process of refusal wasn't hard for me.

What's your read on the fact that young Jews living in the heart of the conflict totally ignore what is being done in Jerusalem's occupied neighborhoods?

It's very easy to live in Jerusalem without knowing anything. Jerusalem is a bubble like Tel Aviv. It's very simple to live in the western part of the city without knowing what's going on in the eastern part.

How involved is the mayor? He's responsible for what happens to the Palestinian residents. After all, he's their mayor too, and he doesn't say a word. And that's not all - the people evicted from Sheikh Jarrah set up a tent to sleep in, and the municipality evacuates the tent time after time. Everyone knows which side he's on and what his opinions are. He approves settlements right and left.

How did you feel when your father told you about the graffiti?

It's not a pleasant feeling. But on the other hand, it means that something we're doing there is working - as though we're interfering with something. In recent weeks there's been graffiti on all the cars of all the Palestinians in Sheikh Jarrah, so it was clear that it would get to us, too. This little street in Sheikh Jarrah has become the focus of the conflict.

What will happen in the end?

Everything will be fine in the end. In the end everything will be fine. In the historical perspective such struggles succeed, but it can take decades and even hundreds of years. The occupation will finally end because the Israeli government is also afraid of the demographic possibility. I'm pessimistic that many people will pay the price before it ends.



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