I moved to Jerusalem more than 35 years ago. I walk to my office most days, and my route often takes me past the outskirts of the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan. It is there that a drama as sad as it is superfluous, as cruel as it is crazy, has been playing out for three decades. It is one case among many, and as I mark the holiday of Hanukkah in peace and security, it is on my mind.
The Sumreen family lives in Silwan. Since 1991 they have been involved in a legal struggle with the Jewish National Fund, backed by the settler group Elad and various other agencies committed to consolidating the Jewish presence in Palestinian neighborhoods of Jerusalem. These groups have been trying to have the Sumreens evicted by arguing that some members of the family were “absentees” – that is, civilians who lived in an enemy country – as a result of which their property was confiscated by the state, which then sold it to the JNF.
This claim is centered on an aggressive and controversial interpretation of the Absentees’ Property Law of 1950. After many twists and turns, a Jerusalem court ruled in September that not only must the family leave, but that they must also pay considerable damages. As the court battle continues, earlier this month, a judge decided the family could stay in the house while they appeal the ruling.
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While the JNF says it is only trying to protect its property, it is acting as a proxy for settler groups in this and similar cases. Months ago, a Palestinian family living on ground owned by the JNF near Bethlehem was evacuated following a request by the organization: several days later, a settler outpost was set up in the same spot. The practical effect of the JNF’s campaign against the Sumreens is that this family of 18, guilty of no crime and accused of no wrongdoing, may soon find itself without a home, bereft and bankrupt.
Such an outcome would be profoundly unjust, even if it were the result of a lengthy judicial process. It is not like the crimes of violence and vandalism which seem increasingly to plague our world – people gunned down, tires slashed and homes defaced. In this case, everything plays out in slow motion, and there are piles of paperwork and precedents. But as I celebrate the freedom and independence symbolized by Hanukkah, this displacement sickens me. Justice is not served. Insisting on the payment of damages adds insult to injury.
One of Israel’s most remarkable poets is Almog Bahar. In a 2010 poem he refers to a protest in which he participated in another flashpoint East Jerusalem neighborhood, Sheikh Jarrah. As the court-sanctioned removal of the Sumreens from their home looms, a verse comes to mind:
And one night I dreamt: We’ll come to Sheikh Jarrah for a protest,
regiment by regiment of the expelled, and with us will march the Yemenites expelled from the Kineret village, the Jewish Hebron refugees of 1929, the Arabs of Ba’ka, Talbieh, Katamon, Meah Sha’arim, Lifta and Ein Karem expelled during the Nakba, the Jewish quarter refugees expelled in '48 by Jordan, and in '67 their homes were nationalized by the government of Israel to be sold for great profit leaving them refugees, the Palestinians expelled from the villages surrounding Latrun in '67, the Mizrahim expelled from the Yemin Moshe neighborhood after years in the eye of the target, to make room for painters and artists, the residents of unrecognized Bedouin villages in the Negev, the mortgage defaulters expelled from their homes by eviction crews, the Jaffa and Musrara residents forced to vacate their homes to make way for the rich, and the people of Silwan, a demolition order threatening their homes.
All of us are divided only by chance from the experience of displacement. A generation or two ago, and possibly again in the space of a few generations, we or the ones we love have experienced or will experience the sting of eviction. My parents did, and I pray my children will not. The awareness of the proximity of this cruel fate to our own lives should spur us to empathize, and then to mobilize. Must the Sumreen family be added to the long list of the displaced? Can a solution not be found that preserves legality and dignity, elementary fairness and due process?
In the 20th century, the Jewish National Fund symbolized the hope for planting and rebuilding. Let’s hope that as the day of the Sumreens’ eviction approaches, the leaders of the JNF remember that trees, and homes, and families, should be planted. Not uprooted.
Rabbi Michael Marmur Chairs the Board of Rabbis for Human Rights.