Last month during Shavuot, the holiday where Jews traditionally stay up all night studying Torah, Sharon Goldberg was studying nonviolence. Goldberg, an Orthodox student at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, helped organize a Shavuot panel that discussed whether being religiously observant was consistent with left wing activism.
“I want the option of interpreting Jewish texts in a way that promotes human rights,” Goldberg told The Jewish Week in an interview from Israel. “Judaism doesn’t say that if you’re religious, you have to be right wing. I want there to be another option.” Her panel gave that option, and over 100 Jews, many of them observant, attended.
Goldberg, 22, is one of several key Orthodox activists within the Sheik Jarrah Solidarity Movement, a group of activists who meet regularly to protest Jews moving into homes in the east Jerusalem neighborhood, sometimes as the result of the eviction of Arabs. Like several other religious activists in the group, she wants to show that being Orthodox does not necessarily translate into having right-wing political views.
To be sure, secular Israelis, in coordination with local Arab residents, tend to dominate the group of between 200 and 300 activists who show up each week at Sheikh Jarrah. (Leading Israeli novelist and intellectual David Grossman is a regular protestor, and the religious left has been represented by the likes of new Reform movement head Rabbi Rick Jacobs.) But what has been overlooked is that many of the leading organizers are themselves Orthodox. And as the movement continues to grow, with five new campus branches opening up on Israeli colleges in the last year, the number of observant participants has expanded along with it.
“There are a lot of religious people who come to Sheikh Jarrah [to protest] every week,” said Netanel Warschawski, a 28-year-old Orthodox activist and organizer. “I cannot speak for them all, but for me, it’s 100 percent a religious matter.” He added, “God teaches us to accept everyone. … For me it’s a mitzvah [to protest] just like any other mitzvah.”
Most of the Orthodox organizers come from liberal homes, which makes them a distinct minority within the Orthodox community, know for its politically conservative views. But they say they are trying to infuse Orthodox Judaism with liberal values, while hoping to avoid giving the movement a religious or specifically Jewish cast.
Hillel Ben-Sasson, 32, is one of the most prominent Orthodox leaders in the movement. His father, Menachem, is the president of the Hebrew University, and he is pursuing a Ph.D. in Jewish theology there himself. He began protesting when the movement started in November 2009, when a settler-affiliated Jewish developer started an aggressive effort to purchase Arab homes for Jews.
In an interview, Ben-Sasson stressed that movement leaders did not want the group to be seen as an exclusively Jewish one, but as an Arab-Jewish, non-denominational coalition. And he noted that the Arab residents he coordinates with — who on the whole are more religious than the Jewish protestors — seem more comfortable with a religious person than a secular one.
“There’s a great intimacy because they are religious people, too,” Ben-Sasson said. “They feel more at home with people like me.”
He also made clear that his activism was deeply tied to his religiosity. “My political motivation is derived from my religious background,” he said. “It’s a matter of fact. If we take seriously that Israel is a Jewish state, then its policies can in no way show a consistent preference for land and brutality over culture and morality.”
Jewish critics of the Sheikh Jarrah Movement say it promotes an anti-Zionist agenda and is opposed to the concept of Israel as a Jewish homeland. The movement has criticized groups like the Jewish Agency for Israel and the Jewish National Fund, and some of its leaders speak of Israel as an apartheid state.
Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, the executive vice president emeritus of the Orthodox Union, said that while the majority of Orthodox Jews today have right-wing politics, Orthodox leaders don’t sanction any one set of political views. “I imagine that these people” — the religious Sheikh Jarrah protestors — “are sincere,” he said. “I wouldn’t label their views as beyond the pale.”
Still, he said: “My view is that it’s a mitzvah to settle the land,” adding that while “it has to be done legally, a lot of the accusations, like the ones the group you’re talking about makes, are misinformed.”
D. Bernard Hoenig, an Orthodox American founder of the Jerusalem Chai organization, which raises money for yeshivas and poor Jewish families moving to east Jerusalem, said: “As far as I know, every eviction that has ever taken place in east Jerusalem has been done legally. These Arabs have been squatters and have been living in these homes illegally.”
He added: “We don’t just take homes away from people. The Arabs are dying to sell these buildings. Many of them are like slums; they charge exorbitant fees to sell to Jews and we fix them up into beautiful homes. Many of the Arabs, by the way, are under threats by the Palestinian Authority, their government, by Hamas, not to sell their homes. There are legal threats of death if they sell their homes to Jews.”
Of the roughly 30 key organizers in the Sheikh Jarrah group, about half are Orthodox or come from Orthodox homes, those interviewed said. As the movement has grown, so has the number of observant participants, leading to an increased number of religious-themed events.
On Tisha B’Av, the Jewish fast day marking the anniversary of the destruction of the Temple (Aug. 9 this year), religious leaders in the movement are planning a learning conference, a popular event that drew at least 150 people last summer, Ben-Sasson said.
“We see a growth of a religious audience coming to our activities,” he added. “More demonstrators with a kippa are seen in the weekly vigils at Sheikh Jarrah,” he said, including several yeshiva students.
In addition to the Shavuot panel in June, co-organized by Goldberg and Warschawski, the group held a Yom Kippur event for Jews and Arabs last fall. Leaders translated Yom Kippur prayers into Arabic, and Muslim prayers into Hebrew, then read them aloud together.
After prominent new outlets like CNN covered the event, Warschawski said he got angry e-mails from a few religious Jews he knew. One childhood friend, Warschawski recalled, sent him an e-mail saying: “What are you doing? It’s a shame to Judaism, take your kippa off — it’s an insult.” Another read: “This year God won’t forgive you.”
For the most part, though, Warschawski and other Orthodox activists said that their religious peers rarely harassed them. If they feel alienated from their communities, they tend to put the onus on themselves. “If I feel uncomfortable,” said Goldberg, “it’s only because of my own feelings. No one has told me anything.”
The Sheikh Jarrah protestors argue that Jewish developers are claiming legal ownership of Arab homes based on land deeds that go back to the days of the Ottoman Empire. Settlers counter that the Arabs being evicted have always been tenants to Jewish-owned property, and have stopped paying their rent.
The history of the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood makes it more complicated. In the 19th century, the neighborhood was inhabited primarily by Arabs. Then at the turn of the 20th century, a small group of religious Jews moved in, compelled by the gravesite of the Jewish biblical figure Simeon the Just, located in the neighborhood. During the 1920s and ‘30s, most of the religious Jews fled as Arab-Jewish relations grew tense and Jews were attacked.
The Jewish homes were left vacant until 1948, when Arabs living in west Jerusalem fled their own homes amid Israel’s War of Independence. Several moved into formerly Jewish homes in Sheik Jarrah, which Jordan annexed during the war. In the 1967 war, Israel captured east Jerusalem from Jordan, making it possible for the previous Jewish owners to reassert their claims to the homes. Arabs, however, were not given the same rights to their former homes inside Israel.
In the subsequent decades, Jewish owners occasionally had Arabs evicted through the courts. But it was only in 2008 that a Jewish development company affiliated with the settler movement launched a large-scale effort for 200 Jewish housing units. If completed, it would require the eviction of about 500 Arabs. Since then an intense legal battle has been making its way through Israeli courts, with a handful of legally sanctioned evictions already.
The Sheikh Jarrah protests, which began in late 2009, have put an international spotlight on the issue. They have significantly slowed the development plans and, for the first time last month, won a victory in the Israeli courts by preventing the eviction of one Arab family.
To many on the left, the Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity Movement has become an international cause célèbre and a battle freighted with symbolism. For them it embodies the most contentious issues essential to any peace deal: who controls east Jerusalem, where Jews can settle, and whether Arabs will have the right of return.
Netanel Warschawski says that he is not bothered by the criticism he gets for his part in the protests. Despite the angry e-mails he received for participating in the Jewish-Arab Yom Kippur event, he felt the program itself provided enough comfort.
“The evening got so emotional,” he said, “that at the end of the day, some of the Arabs told me it was so beautiful that they had tears in their eyes. That was the best answer to those e-mails.”