Israel’s policies in East Jerusalem are outrageous, idiotic and unjust

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Israel’s policy on Jerusalem is an outrage. It is anti-Zionist and anti-democratic. 

And it is turning the world against the Jewish state. Friendly states and allies are appalled by it. And, expertly exploited by Hamas, Iran, and Israel’s extremist enemies, it is poisoning relations with those segments of the Muslim and Arab world that have recently begun to move in the direction of at least grudging acceptance of Israel.  

And I write these words as a “Jerusalem Jew.” Every single one of my 70 or so trips to Israel has begun in Jerusalem. There is no place in the world that I love more or where I feel more at home. For me, Jerusalem is a city of unsurpassed beauty and palpable holiness. And I believe that the ties that bind the Jewish people to Jerusalem form the touchstone of Jewish civilization.

That being so, I am sickened by what is happening there and by Israel’s legislative and administrative blunders on Jerusalem over so many years.

While in recent days the immediate concern has been whether the “Flag March” should be permitted to take place in Jerusalem, and, if so, on what route, this so-called “March” is not the core issue. 

The March itself, of course, is simply another in a long line of provocations by Itamar Ben Gvir, Lehava, and the assorted Kahanist crazies who support them. 

Members of far right organization Lehava protesting the wedding of a Jewish-born woman and a Muslim man in Rishon Letzion, IsraelCredit: Ofer Vaknin

They think that by shouting “Death to the Arabs” in the Old City, they will stir up enough unrest to reignite violence in Jerusalem and other mixed cities in Israel. Then Netanyahu, riding on a surge of Jewish nationalist sentiment, will win over a few defectors in the pro-change bloc, and, they hope, will then have the votes he needs to reclaim his rightful place as Israel’s one-and-only prime minister.

What this means, we now see, is that Netanyahu knew exactly what he was doing when he engineered the creation of the Religious Zionism party, with Ben Gvir as one of its leaders. Thanks to this maneuver, Ben Gvir made it into the Knesset. And as a bona fide legislator with parliamentary immunity, he can stir up tensions on Jerusalem — that most sensitive of all issues — that otherwise would be ignored.

But the irony is that, in a sense, Ben Gvir is right when it comes to Jerusalem. The slogan of the marchers is: “We will demand the unification of Jerusalem forever.” 

Well, yes. Jerusalem absolutely needs to be united. There is no mixed Jewish-Arab city in Israel that is less united.

But Ben Gvir is not looking to unify Jerusalem but to divide it; his goal is to foment hatred, provoke bloodshed, intimidate the Arab population, and ultimately drive the Arabs from the city.

And he can do all of this because he is building on more than a half century of bungled policy on Jerusalem by the government of Israel.

Israelis guarding the newly conquered Western Wall, Jerusalem. June 16, 1967Credit: AP

In 1967, following the Six Day War, Israel extended its jurisdiction over Jerusalem but did not formally annex the Jordanian part of the city. Then, in 1980, Israel passed a law effectively annexing East Jerusalem, with its more than 300,000 Arab residents.  

I supported the unification of Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty, although the international community did not, and neither did most of my friends in the leftist camp.

My view was that it makes sense to partition a country where two national groups have legitimate and competing claims of ownership, but it makes no sense to partition a city.  

I argued then, and believe now, that for Jews, Jerusalem is the heart of the Jewish religious tradition, Israel’s eternal capital, and the religious and political center of the Jewish people. In the absence of Jerusalem, there is no Jewish faith and no Jewish future.  

I believe as well that Israel’s task is to do what no other sovereign power in Jerusalem has ever done: Create a model of municipal coexistence and mutual understanding, and of true tolerance and religious liberty; a city where all residents are equal before the law, and where all have the same access to city services and to the political process.  

And what of Palestinian aspirations? My position was that when both sides had foresworn violence and demonstrated readiness for peace, Israel’s representatives would offer political arrangements for Jerusalem that would meet the needs of all concerned. I did not know precisely what those arrangements would be, but I assumed that if Israel administered a united Jerusalem with fairness and sensitivity, it would have the credibility to offer answers that the other side would seriously consider.   

That was the dream. And what did Israel do? Exactly and precisely the opposite of what I had hoped. It drove a stake into the heart of Jerusalem, separating east from west and Arab from Jew.

The original sin was the 1980 law, which granted the Arabs of East Jerusalem Israeli residency but not Israeli citizenship. It is true that they can request citizenship on an individual basis, but the administrative process for receiving it is so cumbersome and complex that it is essentially impossible to obtain.  

East Jerusalem neighborhood of SilwanCredit: Emil Salman

What could it possibly mean to talk of a “unified Jerusalem” when Jews throughout the city are citizens of Israel, while Arabs in the eastern half are not? This discriminatory reality is a profound affront to Zionism and to Herzl’s vision for the Jewish state.  

And the denial of citizenship is not simply a theoretical matter but a very practical one. The absence of citizenship is accompanied by the absence of legal protections. In Jerusalem, there are two legal system, one for Arabs and another for Jews.    

How this legal inequality plays out is apparent, of course, in the tensions between Jews and Arabs in the East Jerusalem neighborhoods of Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan.

Much has been written about the efforts to evict Arab families from their homes in these two neighborhoods. Israel’s Foreign Ministry has labeled the matter a “real estate dispute between private parties,” as have the usual legal hacks in America who spend their time defending every injustice of the occupation.  

But it is not a property dispute, and it is not complicated. Drawing on a 1970 law, Jews in Jerusalem can expel Arabs from their homes in East Jerusalem if those homes were owned by Jews prior to 1948; but Arabs in East Jerusalem cannot make legal claims on homes in West Jerusalem that were owned by Arabs before 1948.  

Once again, the injustice here is stunning. Why does one segment of Jerusalem’s population have a right that is denied another segment of the population, when both live in a supposedly “unified city”? 

And not only is this practice unjust, but it is also pure idiocy, undermining the fundamental premise of the Zionist cause.

Since its creation in 1948, Israel has, rightly, dismissed the claims of Palestinian refugees to return to Israeli territory or to demand the return of property abandoned when they left the country. But the minute that Jews are given the right to make claims on pre-1948 Jewish ownership, then, logically, and inevitably, Palestinians inside and outside of Israel will be seen, by themselves and by others, as entitled to do the same for pre-1948 Arab ownership. 

Protesters demonstrate against the eviction in Sheikh Jarrah, last monthCredit: Ohad Zwigenberg

What is happening in Jerusalem, in other words, is a tragedy on every level. 

Arab residents of Jerusalem are denied citizenship in Israel and equality before the law. Arab families are being expelled from homes in which they have lived for decades or longer on grounds that, at the very least, are highly questionable, both morally and legally. Jewish extremists are using tensions in Jerusalem as a pretext to foster unrest and violence in the city and throughout Israel, and Arab extremists are doing the same.

And the whole Jerusalem mess is being exploited by anti-Israel activists around the world to promote Israel-hatred. 

The priority for Israel’s next government must be to stop the evictions in Silwan and Sheikh Jarrah. If the Supreme Court will not do it, and it now seems that it may not, then the government should expropriate the land and allow the current residents to stay. 

And then, Israel’s leaders must turn their attention to the fundamental problems of Jerusalem that have gone unaddressed for so long. I thank God every day that the Old City and East Jerusalem, so long inaccessible, are now open to Jews. But this means to me that they must be open to others as well, and must provide safety, security, equality, and full citizenship to Arab and Jewish residents alike.

East Jerusalem can be part of the eternal capital of Israel, offering equal rights for all, or it can be occupied territory. It cannot be both.

Eric H. Yoffie, a rabbi, writer and teacher in Westfield, New Jersey, is a former president of the Union for Reform Judaism. Twitter: @EricYoffie