Artists Talk: Israel/Palestine: Politics and Art in Sheikh Jarrah

By Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi and Chana Morgenstern

I.

On Friday afternoons the streets of Jerusalem begin to empty out. Friday is a holy day of rest for both the Muslims and the Jews of Jerusalem, and as the Jewish Sabbath is about to begin, the Muslims’ afternoon prayers have just concluded. But for the hundreds of Israelis and Palestinians who gather to demonstrate against the eviction of Arab families from their homes in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, this quiet, sanctified hour is precisely the time in which the work and struggle begin each week. The demonstrations, which have taken place every Friday since last November, have been compared to weekly prayers, pilgrimages, and even the laying of phylacteries, by protestors who see them as a deliberate, restorative religious act of protest against the actions of the Orthodox Jewish settlers that have evicted hundreds of Palestinian families and moved into their homes here in East Jerusalem.

 

 

Sheikh Jarrar weekly protest. Photograph: Yotam Ronen Sheikh Jarrah weekly protest. Photograph: Yotam Ronen

The white hot July sun blazed down on us as we made our way to the demonstration site, through the Old City souk and into the emptying streets of East Jerusalem, past the pale limestone buildings, closing fruit and vegetable stalls, military jeeps and gated embassies and courthouses, down to the protest in Sheikh Jarrah Park. When we reached the top of the hill, we spotted the crowd of hundreds gathered at the park in the valley below. They were congregated at the entrance to the park, directly across the street from the settler homes that have displaced the families of Sheikh Jarrah, where a convoy of police vehicles was stationed. Two women with bullhorns led the crowd in a chant of slogans in Hebrew, English, and Arabic; they played drums and homemade instruments, holding up Palestinian flags and signs that called out in multiple languages: “Jews and Arabs refuse to be enemies,” “Stop the Occupation of East Jerusalem,” “Free Palestine=Free Israel,” and the movement’s slogan, which speaks to its activity on a traditional holy day: “There is No Sanctity in An Occupied City.” This small, grassroots neighborhood struggle has become one of the key issues in the Palestinian-Israeli peace talks taking place this month in Washington and in the Middle East, an emblem of the escalating battle over Jerusalem. According to human rights organizations, the establishment of settlements and Israeli cultural sites in East Jerusalem has long been a part of a strategic settler-driven campaign aimed at strengthening Israeli sovereignty around the Old City in East Jerusalem, an area that is seen by the international and Palestinian community as the heart of the capital of a future Palestinian state. The Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity Movement is made up of Jewish-Israeli, Palestinian-Israeli, and international activists and artists who work with the local Palestinian community to resist settler takeover and the eviction of families, as well as to support the families that do get evicted.

Sheikh Jarrar weekly protest. Photograph: Yotam Ronen 13-year-old Sheikh Jarrah resident Mohammed al-Cord. Photo: Silan Dallal.

Halfway into the demonstration, the crowd broke up into small groups and was taken to survey the homes of the evicted families. We were led down a small neighborhood street, past settler homes bedecked in Israeli flags and guarded by soldiers and police to the former house of the Hanoun family, where Maher Hanoun talked to us about the history of his family in the neighborhood and in the region. “I was born near a small village in Haifa, my father and grandfather were born here,” Hanoun told the crowd. The Hanoun family was evicted from their home in Sheikh Jarrah last year and has been tied up in a court battle since. The family moved here in the 1950s as refugees who were displaced from their village in the north in 1948. Like many Palestinians who live in Sheikh Jarrah, they were settled here by the United Nations and Jordan when East Jerusalem fell into Jordanian hands after the war. After the recapture of the West Bank and East Jerusalem by Israel in 1967 the Israeli state annexed East Jerusalem, an act that has been condemned as illegal by the international community. Soon after, Jewish organizations began to file lawsuits against Palestinian residents in East Jerusalem, claiming that the land belonged to them based on Ottoman ownership deeds dating back to the turn of the century, well before the establishment of the state of Israel. The evictions are being upheld on the basis of these deeds. Mr. Hanoun and Israeli activist Silan Dallal talked about joint organizing efforts in the months before the eviction when Israeli and international activists took shifts living at the Hanoun house and holding night watches to provide protection for the family from settlers and police. “By coming here you are helping us,” Maher Hanoun told the crowd of protestors. “When a lot of people know about our story and how we’re struggling to get back our houses and how they want to build settlements on the top of our houses--when you tell other people our story, you are helping.”

The weekly protests at Sheikh Jarrah are linked to a burgeoning network of local grassroots movements that fight evictions, displacements, and demolition in various parts of the country. Led by Palestinian village and neighborhood residents and supported by Israeli and international activists, similar campaigns have been initiated in places like Silwan, another East Jerusalem neighborhood that has been subject to evictions,   and Budrus and Bil’in, villages threatened by massive land confiscation as a result of the construction of Israel’s Separation Barrier.

                                                           

II.

 

Sheikh Jarrar weekly protest. Photograph: Yotam Ronen Sheikh Jarrah weekly protest. Photograph: Yotam Ronen

One of the unique aspects of this movement—particularly in Sheikh Jarrah—is the crucial role that visual and literary culture play in it. There exists within the movement a live, engaged practice of bridging the arts and activism, culture and politics. On both the Palestinian and the Israeli sides there is a recognition of art as a powerful and nonviolent political tool that can be used to practice freedom of expression as well as to enhance socio-political consciousness among the people. The arts have come to provide a central role in digesting and exposing the fragmentation that marks the region, and act as a tool of resistance against the violence spurred by the Israeli occupation.

One of the artists we spoke to was Israeli photographer and organizer Silan Dallal, whose work attempts to bridge these gaps. Dallal is also one of the principal activists in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood and a member of the Israeli photography collaborative ActiveStills. She and the other members promote the convergence of the arts and grassroots activism. Founded in 2005, ActiveStills operates within Israel/Palestine and currently consists of a group of ten Israeli and international documentary photographers. The guiding principle behind the group’s collaborative work is their shared view of visual images, and in particular of photography, as a productive means for enhancing social and political awareness within Israel. The members write: “We believe in the power of images to shape public attitudes and to raise awareness about issues that are generally absent from public discourse. The work as a collective is based upon the belief that mutual work serves each photographer’s personal statement, and that joint projects will create shared statements that are more powerful than individual ones.”

What ActiveStills is proposing through their work as artists is a radical transformation of the visual culture in Israel. One of their main objectives is to disrupt the status quo and make visible what, on a day-to-day level, remains unseen and unspoken within Israel: the occupation and the human rights violations and abuses that are inherent in it. Dallal says, “The majority of Israel does not see this as an occupation, but rather as an act of self-protection.” The collaborative has used the city of Tel Aviv as a public gallery space to exhibit their documentary work. The members write: “We find it important to create alternative media channels that reach a wide public in more independent, unfiltered, and direct ways. The use of city walls as a platform to exhibit our work grew out of this agenda. In Israel, as in other places around the world, it seems that what isn’t shown in the mainstream media doesn’t exist; therefore, a need for public debate does not exist.” Using the city as a platform for public art has provided the collective with a means for nonviolent and thought-provoking direct action.  Certainly, in Tel Aviv, where one could easily live in denial of the occupation, disrupting the status quo by transforming the visual field of its citizens in order to call attention to the human rights crisis affecting the region is a necessary and transformative practice.  Examples of the Collaborative’s photographic essays, which document grassroots human rights campaigns in Israel/Palestine, can be seen on the ActiveStills Web site.

Palestinian writer Raji Bathish. Photo: Silan Dallal Palestinian writer Raji Bathish. Photo: Silan Dallal

ActiveStills has also gone beyond the realm of photography to collaborate with networks of writers and artists who are involved in social justice organizing efforts throughout Israel/Palestine. Most recently, they published a book of poetry and photographs about Sheikh Jarrah in conjunction with a major poetry event put on by the literary organization Guerilla Culture, an Israeli-Palestinian poetry collective that stages poetry readings which support labor, immigrant and anti-occupation struggles in Israel/Palestine.

Guerilla Culture’s organizing model is simple and surprisingly effective. They collaborate with local movements, organizing travel for writers to various parts of the country where political protests, labor strikes, housing or land evictions are taking place. Using a portable sound system, writers, young and old, emerging and established, read their works to the crowds. The actions draw media attention to the issues, and promote education, culture, storytelling and art-making as potential vehicles for social change. Most recently the group staged a reading in Al Araqib, where a Bedouin village was razed by the Israeli government. The poetry event that Guerilla Culture staged in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood drew over two hundred people. A group of twenty Israeli and Palestinian poets from various religious and ethnic backgrounds traveled from all over the country to read at this event. They performed poems in Hebrew and Arabic that were simultaneously translated into both languages by on-site translators, and then the microphone was opened up to the general public and members of the neighborhood stood up to speak to the audience. Protestors are generally barred from congregating in the neighborhood, but because of the cultural nature of the event, the police allowed the readings to be staged in the heart of the neighborhood, right in front of the settlement and the houses of the evicted.

Many of the Hebrew and Arabic poems read during that evening are being published alongside photographs taken of the Sheikh Jarrah struggle by the ActiveStills collective, in a book with a trilingual title: Lan Nar-hul / Lo Na'azov / We Will Never Leave. (published by ActiveStills, edited by Mati Shemoelof and Oded Yedaya, translated by Tayeb Ghanayem). The book chronicles the year-long political struggle in the area by documenting demonstrations, arrests and evictions.The photographs record families standing outside of their homes with all of their furniture, children sleeping and doing their homework in a tent, settlers standing on a roof with Israeli flags, protestors gathering at a night vigil, a child painting a Palestinian flag.  Accompanying one photo of a family eviction, the poem Rooms!, read at the poetry event by the Palestinian writer Raji Bathish, reads: 

Where is exile?..where is my exile?…is it here or is it there?” 

[ . . . ]

I have arrived at a room that drips everything that has passed, and turns it into piles of dust, into a perfume of dust that does not end, from which nothing passes but the loss of memory. 

The photographs and the poems are a testament to the residents, artists, and activists who have continued, despite ongoing hardship, violence and hatred, to work together for a common future in the region.  

 

For more information on Sheikh Jarrah and East Jerusalem:

http://www.en.justjlm.org/

http://www.merip.org/mero/mero091710.html

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/03/world/middleeast/03israel.html?_r=1

http://www.ir-amim.org.il/eng/

http://zeek.forward.com/articles/116781/


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