I’m writing this article with my Jerusalem travel notes on one side of my desk and a box of documents on the other. These contain my father’s family tree, Ashkenazi Jews from Berlin with a line to the acclaimed Jewish writer and philosopher, Moses Mendelssohn.
His most important work, Jerusalem, from 1783, was a radical tome challenging contemporary orthodoxies and promoting democracy and equal rights for Jews and, the separation of church and state. It was a fundamental work of the Jewish ‘Haskalah’ or Enlightenment.
I’m musing on this in light of two radio documentaries I’ve recently produced that focus on Israeli human rights abuses and violations of international law in Jerusalem. Many of the Israeli law makers and settlers who’ve claimed this world heritage city as their ‘eternal Jewish capital’ are Ashkanazi Jews and their claim negates the rights of Palestinians to the city. It’s also incidentally a claim that’s not been recognized by any major governments who all base their embassies in Tel Aviv.
This article is in part a response to an attack on these programs and on my journalistic integrity by Alex Ryvchin (Spectator August 22 ‘Radio Gaga’), Public Affairs Director of the Executive Committee of Australian Jewry, a position not acknowledged in his article.
The irony doesn’t escape me as Ryvchin’s work as a paid lobbyist for an organisation that supports Israel’s approach in the Occupied Territories and in East Jerusalem, is known as ‘hasbara’ – a form of propaganda that sounds a bit like ‘Haskalah’, but the similarity ends there.
Hasbara is Israeli PR writ large and focused internationally on discrediting all critics, particularly those who support the global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. Ryvchin and others consistently misrepresent the BDS in Australia and those who support this non violent protest movement.
By using the tried and true slur of anti-Semitism to characterise critics of Israel, they aim to divert attention from the facts of the brutal Israeli occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem which are uncontroversial and damning. And so, myself and other supporters of BDS, are labelled ‘fanatical and anti-Israel’ because we call for justice according to international law.
I’ve been making radio documentaries and features with the ABC for over 25 years. Earlier this year I spent 3 months leave in the West Bank, basing myself in Ramallah. During this my second visit to the area, I spoke mostly with Israeli Jews who were deeply concerned and critical of Israel’s policies and actions in Jerusalem. All of these speakers were labelled by Ryvchin as having, ‘relentlessly one-eyed anti-Israel perspectives’ but he didn’t pause to ask why there are an increasing number of Jews and Israelis prepared to speak out against the policies of Israel. He even chose to attempt to discredit a former Australian ambassador to Israel and a former Jewish Jerusalem council member.
I chose to focus on Jerusalem as the city had experienced an intense period of violence in 2014. It seemed that Western media had largely ignored the magnitude and impact of Israel’s continuing project to seize the whole of this city and instead focussed on the grisly details of each incident. Unlike most Palestinians living in the West Bank, I was able to travel by local bus to Jerusalem quite easily, without getting a prior permit or being questioned or searched by armed Israeli soldiers. Although Ramallah’s only 20 kilometres from Jerusalem, this holy city is light years away from the reach of most Palestinians. Access to the city and maintaining roots there and to the Al Aqsa mosque, the third holiest site in Islam, is fundamental to Palestinians but the city’s been virtually cut off from the West Bank and Gaza for many years now.
The current unrest in Jerusalem goes back to 1967 and to Israel’s unilateral annexation of East Jerusalem including land from adjacent Palestinian villages.
Since then, a process that’s described as the ‘Judiasation’ of the city began. Increasing the Israeli Jewish population and decreasing the Palestinian population, is at the heart of Israeli policies in Jerusalem and indeed throughout Israel.
Jerusalem permits, ID’s, regulations and many discriminatory laws work to isolate Palestinians from Jerusalem and to remove rights from those remaining ‘residents’ of the city. Jerusalem has been effectively cut off from approximately 4.2 million Palestinians who live in the Occupied West Bank and Gaza as it’s extremely difficult to obtain a permit to simply enter the city.
There are now over 200,000 settlers living on internationally recognised Palestinian East Jerusalem land and this process, along with the removal of Jerusalem ID’s from the city’s Palestinian population, has worked to alter the demography of the city in favour of Israelis. According to B’Tselem, an Israeli NGO, 14,000 Palestinians have had their Jerusalem IDs revoked since 1967.
Palestinians living in suburbs in Occupied East Jerusalem close to the Old City are facing increased settler incursions directly into their villages and more frequent forced evictions and demolitions of their homes. Large Israeli flags fly defiantly from homes that have been taken over by settlers, often with the support of the Israeli armed forces. This is justified by a largely fictitious and one-sided biblical narrative that claims Jerusalem as the sole spiritual and historical home of Jews. Never mind the extensive Christian or Muslim heritage.
The difference between the urban, wealthy Israeli neighbourhoods in West Jerusalem with suburbs in East Jerusalem is stark. East Jerusalem neighbourhoods are poorly resourced and there’s a significant and well documented shortage of health, education and basic infrastructure and services.
And the military presence makes normal life impossible. I regularly saw squads of armed Israeli guards in East Jerusalem and numerous surveillance drones over Palestinian neighbourhoods. At any time, any Palestinian home can be raided or listed for demolition. Just last month Israel detained 150 Palestinians in Jerusalem, including 70 minors (Wadi Hilweh Information Centre). Less than 10 minutes away in Jaffa Street in West Jerusalem, throngs of Israelis and tourists sip coffee and eat fancy cakes, oblivious to the reality of life for nearly half the city’s inhabitants. It’s an untenable and darkly surreal situation.
Cathy Peters is a freelance journalist and radio documentary & features producer