Lifta

A day after the ex-Education Minister of Israel, Shay Piron, voiced his opinion that the Nakba should be taught in schools, I decided it was high time to pay a visit to the village of Lifta. Lifta was a wealthy Palestinian village on the edge of West Jerusalem and had a population of 3,000 in 1948. In 1947, at the start of the war’s hostilities, the Arab Higher Committee ordered the city to send away its women and children. During the Israeli War of Independence in 1948 (known among Palestinians as the Nakba), the militant Zionist group Lehi attacked a coffeeshop in Lifta, killing 7. After the attack, many of the remaining inhabitants of Lifta fled. By the end of the war, the nascent Israel Defence Force had evacuated every last villager. Today, Lifta borders the Jewish neighborhood Givat Shaul and is the only remaining Palestinian village that was depopulated during 1948 which wasn’t either inhabited by Israelis or destroyed.

Most signs in Israel are in Hebrew, English, and Arabic. As with many signs in Religious Jewish neighborhoods, here, the Arabic is scratched out.

Most signs in Israel are in Hebrew, English, and Arabic. As with many signs in religious Jewish neighborhoods, the Arabic is scratched out.

Today, it’s hard to deny the natural beauty of the site, which is now officially an Israeli nature preserve. Anemones and cyclamens cover the ground, and almond, fig and olive trees bloom in the valley. Syrian woodpeckers and gorgeous Eurasian blue jays hop from branch to branch. Orthodox Jewish teenagers were swimming in the natural springs where the town square once stood, and Israeli families often come for picnics. But then you step inside the cool darkness of one of the dozens of stone houses that remain and 1948 comes rushing back. 

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Many of the houses feature graffiti, some of it beautiful and some of it despicable. Inside one of the homes was a gorgeous and fading mural featuring the Dome of the Rock and a dove. As I walked out of that house, I caught a first glimpse of the village’s mosque on top of which was scrawled in green spray paint “מוות לערבים” (death to Arabs). At first I thought that my Hebrew was lacking – that it had to be a mistake. As I sounded out the letters like an Israeli kindergartener, I realized that I was right. It’s a sickening thing to write anywhere, but in such an insensitive location? I was furious. I’m searching for some insight to provide here, but sometimes, there are no words.

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With the Israeli government’s long running attempt to Judaize the city, It’s a wonder that Lifta still remains – just a few minutes on foot from downtown Jerusalem. As recently as 2012, an attempt to build luxury apartments on the site was rejected by the Jerusalem District Court. For now Lifta is safe as a ghostly open air history museum, but no one can say whether the next inevitable round of apartment proposals will be thwarted or will cause Lifta’s second destruction.

Today, some of the original residents of Lifta live just down the road in East Jerusalem. Others live in Ramallah and Jordan. Though they’re not allowed to renovate their homes and live there, they come sometimes to tidy up their family homes, some of which have become a shelter for Jerusalem’s homeless community, and to make sure the weeds in the ancient cemetery don’t grow too high. They come, and are able to instantly identify the houses where they lived, even after 67 years. They reminisce about the two schools, one for boys and one for girls, the olive oil press, and weddings that took place in the center of town by the spring fed pool. 

Lifta is a symbol of Israel’s history and of Israel’s moral obligation to resolve its conflict with the Palestinians. Those who believe the Israeli-Palestinian conflict began with the occupation in 1967 are mistaken. It goes back so much further, to 1948, to the first war between the Jews and Arabs, to Lifta.

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The Day After

Israeli Knesset (parliament) elections

Today I’m ashamed.

Monday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that a Palestinian state would not be born under his leadership. Election Day, the Prime Minister of this democratic nation warned that “Arab voters are coming out in droves to the polls” so it was imperative for people to gather their friends and family to go vote for Likud. Imagine the prime minister of any other country cautioning his constituents that “black voters are coming out in droves to the polls.” What’s even more despicable than Netanyahu’s statement and his disavowal of ever supporting a Palestinian state is that it seems to have driven hundreds of thousands of voters in his direction. On Friday, Netanyahu’s Likud was polling at around 20 seats and less than a week later, come Tuesday’s election, he gained 10 seats – totaling 30 for his right-wing Likud party and effectively securing his reelection.

Today I’m amazed.

A week ago Likud was crumbling. Some projected that they would win less than 20 seats in the Knesset. The momentum was very clearly with Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni’s Zionist Union party. Netanyahu pulled off an undeniably stunning victory by going from 4 seat down in the polls last Friday, to being tied during the first exit polls on election day, to being 6 seats up by this morning. Netanyahu is sly and cunning and willing to say anything to keep his job – making him one hell of a politician.

Today I’m relieved.

The silver lining of this utterly gloomy cloud is that the racist and homophobic Yahad party didn’t receive enough votes to gain seats in the next Knesset. That’s not to say that other racist and homophobic parties didn’t make it in, but it is a consolation that the worst of the worst will be watching from the sidelines.

Today I’m disappointed.

I happened to see Herzog pay a visit to the Western Wall on Sunday and I truly believed that I was laying eyes on the next Prime Minister of Israel. Herzog at the helm wouldn’t have been able to stop the occupation tomorrow and it wouldn’t have been able to guarantee a stop to rockets from Gaza. However, I’m confident that he could have thawed relations with Washington and could have stopped settlement growth outside the blocs and could have presented a more viable socioeconomic plan for a society where the poverty rates are far too high. Herzog was a step in the right direction. Netanyahu is two steps back.

Today, I’m scared for tomorrow.

This morning senior Palestinian officials said that due to Netanyahu’s lack of support of a Palestinian state, Israel is not a partner for peace. I absolutely agree with them. Now, the Palestinian internationalization bid (a process of which I initially was skeptical, but now support) will continue full steam ahead, with the Palestinians seeking recognition at the UN and suing Israel for war crimes at the ICC. At the outset of the internationalization move a few months ago, Israel responded by withholding tax money from the Palestinian Authority. With no change in Israeli leadership and the Palestinians motivated by the election results to intensify their bid, the likelihood of the funds being released are slim. If Israel continues to withhold these funds, the PA’s security won’t get paid and they’ll eventually stop coming in to work. In that event, a third intifada is closer than we think. The Palestinian internationalization bid will likely cause things to get worse before they get better, but after yesterday’s elections one must ask what other choice do the Palestinians have?

The EU, the UN and the US will not take lightly Netanyahu’s disavowal of support for a Palestinian state either, and the coming months will be diplomatically trying for Israel, especially if Netanyahu builds a narrow, right wing coalition. Sanctions and international isolation are a few of the things Israel has to look forward to now that the electorate has chosen to continue down King Bibi’s path.

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The Sorry State of the Israeli Right

Israeli elections are tomorrow and millions of people will vote for Israel’s right wing parties. Voting right wing in Israel is a bit different than voting for Republicans in the states. Some of these right wing politicans – people who will sit in the next Israeli Knesset, people who will hold and have held ministry positions have said things that even the most extreme Republican congressman wouldn’t dream of uttering. So without any further ado, let’s take a look at the Israeli right. 

Leading the religious Shas party is Aryeh Deri, who is is expected to get somewhere around 7 (out of the Knesset’s 120) seats in the elections. Deri spent two years in prison for corruption charges in the early 2000’s. The story of Shas is a story of a party embroiled in embezzlement and corruption, but hell – what politician doesn’t get into a little financial trouble once in a while? Let’s turn then, to the poster-child of the religious right, Naftali Bennet, whose ‘Jewish Home’ party wants to annex 60% of the West Bank. In 2013, Bennet was put on the hot seat for saying (in reference to his army service) “I’ve killed lots of Arabs in my life – there’s nothing wrong with that.” His minions, almost exclusively middle and high school boys are out in full force these days, distributing flyers, posters, and stickers with caricatures of Bennet’s Bugs Bunny-like face on them. One can’t mention the ‘Jewish Home’ party without mentioning Bennet’s cohort Ayelet Shaked, who holds the third place on the party’s list. In July, Shaked published an article on her Facebook page which called Palestinian children “little snakes” and said that Israel wasn’t fighting a war against Hamas, but rather than against the entire Palestinian people. 

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Aryeh Dery

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Naftali Bennet

Saving the worst of the religious parties for last, it’s time to look at Eli Yishai’s Yachad party, which recently splintered from Shas. Yishai should be remembered for such eloquent gems as “Muslims that arrive here do not even believe that this country belongs to us, to the white man” and “we must blow Gaza back to the Middle Ages, destroying all the infrastructure including roads and water.” Baruch Marzel (who looks a bit like Nick Offerman, if Offerman let himself go and donned a kippah) holds the fourth seat in Yahad, and is considered by many to be the most right wing politician running in these elections. Marzel has called for the assassination of 91 year old journalist Uri Avnery, advocated for a holy war against gays in Israel, and was recently indicted for battery for an event in 2013 when he attacked a Palestinian in Hebron, where Marzel lives in an illegal settlement.

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Eli Yishai and Baruch Marzel

But these are the religious parties. These are the parties that believe that God promised the land to the Jewish patriarch Abraham and his descendants. There must be some more level-headed people in the Israeli secular-right, right?

Avigdor Lieberman is the head of Yisrael Beitanu, a secular right-wing party that caters towards Israel’s many Russian immigrants. He has served as Israel’s Foreign Minister since 2013 and lives in an isolated settlement deep in the West Bank but has said that he would leave his home under a future peace accord. Not so bad? Just wait – there’s more. Lieberman (who was once convicted of assaulting a 12 year old) referenced Israeli Arabs this week stating that “Whoever is against us… we must lift up an ax and remove his head.” Whenever there’s a security incident in Israel, Lieberman takes the most extreme stance, stating for instance, this August that there was no choice but for Israel to conquer the Gaza Strip and level Hamas. Thankfully, his party has faltered in the polls and if the stars align, he won’t have enough seats to be allowed in the next Knesset due to an electoral threshold law he himself introduced in an attempt to keep smaller Arab parties out of the Knesset.

And then there is the Prime Minster, Benjamin Netanyahu. What’s he done in the past 6 years? Everything and nothing. He’s strained ties with the Israel’s most important ally – the United States, expanded settlements in the West Bank, and while he used to pay lip service to the idea of a two state solution, today claimed “If I’m elected there will be no Palestinian state”. In the ‘non-action category’, you can put Netanyahu’s inability to fight rising housing and cost of living prices, the lack of any sort of peace plan promoted by his cabinet, and while he’s got no problem bursting into Congress to criticize those who are trying to create a nuclear deal with Iran, he doesn’t actually have any version of a deal to offer himself.

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Benjamin Netanyahu

The right scares me. They are trying to lead this country in a very dangerous direction. Why do people vote for the right? A mixture of legitimate security fears, religious and nationalistic sentiment, Bibi’s fear-mongering, and to some extent President Reuven Rivlin’s recent statement that “Israeli society is sick”.

So that’s the right. And what is the left? The left is anemic and milquetoast (with a few exceptions: notably young guns from the Labor Party, Yitzhik Shmuli and Stav Shaffir).  The left would get walloped if they weren’t running against the villainous clowns detailed above, but polls show that head of the Labor party, Isaac Herzog has a chance, albeit a small one, of beating Bibi. Herzog is a small and seemingly timid man, not anyone’s textbook idea of a prime minister. He’s not a war hero and he’s not beloved by the masses, he’s a lawyer from North Tel Aviv. Though he comes from a long line of Israeli leaders (his father was the President of Israel, and his grandfather was the first chief rabbi of the state), he’s often ribbed for his nasal-y voice and Israeli journalist Ari Shavit recently described him as looking like a bar mitzvah boy. He has said that if elected he would freeze settlement building outside the existing blocs and restart talks with the Palestinians, fly to Washington in an attempt to thaw relations with President Obama, and would present a housing plan prepared by his choice for finance minister, esteemed economist Manuel Trajtenberg.

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Isaac Herzog

While Herzog’s party is projected to draw somewhere between 22-25 seats, Israel’s true left wing party, Meretz, which advocates gay rights, marijuana legalization, and a two state solution, is also hovering around the electoral threshold. It will be a terrible blow to Israel’s vibrant democracy if Meretz does not sit in the next Knesset. The left is uninspiring and in Meretz’s case, on the precipice. And what else is the left? Israel’s best chance.

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