By Daniel Sokatch, International CEO of the New Israel Fund
The new year has barely arrived, and already so much has happened.
On Tuesday the Jerusalem municipality evicted fifteen members of the Salhiye family from their house in the contested Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood in the middle of a freezing Jerusalem night. They then immediately demolished their home. Fifteen more people are homeless in Sheikh Jarrah today than were at the start of the week, their home a pile of rubble. Our project partners and some staff were there, standing with the family, in the middle of the night, documenting this disgrace.
It’s also hard to believe that this past Saturday, I once again found myself praying for the safety of a rabbi and his congregants as a gunman took them hostage at a synagogue in Colleyville, Texas. I’m relieved that all four emerged physically unharmed, but I know that this attack leaves another Jewish community traumatized, and instills in all of us the fear that our synagogue might be next.
It has never been more clear that, wherever and whoever we are, our path to safety lies in solidarity with each other.
This path can be a tough one to walk. It requires the difficult work of building alliances, and coalitions and true partnerships – but this is the work that NIF was built for.
The new year has brought a breathtaking amount of news from Israel. And—as it always is for us—it’s everything at once: the good, the bad and the ugly.
The good was great. The Supreme Court ruled that Israel’s Interior Ministry that it could not continue prevent Palestinian couples—where one partner is from the West Bank and one is from Israel — from living together in Israel. The law that previously enabled the Ministry to do so expired last July. The Supreme Court’s ruling was a response to a petition by organizations funded by the NIF global network: the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), Physicians for Human Rights Israel (PHRI) [NIFC project partners] and Hamoked: Center for the Defense of the Individual. We hope this will mean that families can live together again – that the norm will shift from the Ministry of the Interior denying petitions for family unification to a new normal of accepting them. Rest assured though: we and our partner organizations will be watching and monitoring the situation.
Some of the “bad” is painful to write about. Alongside evictions and demolitions in Sheikh Jarrah, over the last two weeks two elderly men died at the hands of the Israeli military. An 80-year-old Palestinian-American was beaten, handcuffed, and left at a construction site in the northern West Bank, and the beloved 75-year-old activist Haj Suleiman Hathaleen, who was run over by an Israeli military vehicle a few weeks ago, died in a Hebron hospital. These tragedies represent a grim reality of Israel’s 54-year-old occupation and settlement enterprise occupation for the millions of Palestinians who live under it.
NIF is dedicated to building a different reality and a better future for everyone.
Some of this work — work to stop displacement, to end home demolitions, and provide basic services to people who need them — is being done in Israel’s Negev right now by organizations funded by the NIF global network.
This is where the “ugly” comes in.
Ahead of the holiday of Tu B’shvat (also known as “the new year of the trees”), the Jewish National Fund – Keren Kayemeth Le’Yisrael (JNF-KKL) resumed a project (at the request of a government body — the Israel Lands Authority) to plant trees in and around Bedouin communities in the Negev. While planting trees sounds innocuous, the JNF project represents a decades-long effort to prevent Bedouin communities from expanding or obtaining legal recognition—and the basic services that come with it—under the pretext of making the desert bloom.
Shatil, NIF’s action arm, called the project “a political act aimed at constricting development and preventing recognition of Bedouin villages,” and said that “the planting is taking place on land where the government is working to dispossess the Bedouin; the goal of the planting is to encircle the Bedouin communities.” In large part as a result of these government policies, some 80% of Negev Bedouin live under the poverty line. Many live without running water or electricity because their villages are “unrecognized” by the state. It was with all of this in the background that local Bedouin residents began protesting the JNF project. The police and Shin Bet (Israel’s “General Security Service”) responded aggressively, arresting over 100 protesters (including minors) and injuring several others. It was truly ugly.
But, NIF has been working with these communities for years, and we are deeply invested in making sure all Israeli citizens — including, and perhaps especially, the Bedouin in the Negev — have access to all the services a country like Israel has to offer.
Of course, this is always true: we were dedicated to equal rights and access for all before the news of last week and we’ll be dedicated to it after the headlines fade. This time though, the story in the Negev turned into a national political fracas. Ra’am, the tiny conservative and religious Arab party in the governing coalition, draws nearly 80% of its constituency from the Negev Bedouin. Mansour Abbas, the party leader, decided his party would boycott Knesset votes until the JNF planting matter was settled. His decision to do so brought the coalition’s ability to function to a screeching halt– a moment that starkly reflected the historic political reality of this government: for the first time in Israeli history an Arab party in a ruling coalition cobbled together with a bare majority can, just like any other party, demand its interests be taken seriously. Ra’am is a power broker, not a token party.
Of course, NIF partners and our action arm, Shatil, were also working alongside the protesting Bedouin. Adalah — Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel together with Shatil released an open letter to the government, calling on Israel to halt the plantings, deescalate police involvement, disband and reallocate resources from the committee that oversees the planting, and move forward recognition of the Bedouin communities. Adalah is representing those who were arrested while protesting; NIF’s flagship project partner, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), is working to hold police accountable for violence against protestors. A number of other organizations funded by the NIF global network, including Bimkom — the Regional Council for Unrecognized Villages in the Negev [an NIFC project partner], and the Negev Coexistence Forum for Civil Equality, are working towards recognition for unrecognized Bedouin villages.
It is not lost on me that this Monday we marked Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. King implored us to not remain passive in the face of injustice and discrimination. In May 1958, he addressed the National Biennial Convention of the American Jewish Congress and told the story of the first Jews to arrive in the U.S. — refugees fleeing religious persecution in Europe. He noted that instead of leaving America in the face of discrimination, the Jewish immigrants “peacefully and in dignity asserted their moral and political right to remain to settle as equals and to contribute to the building of a new society.”
It is my hope for all of us and for those with whom our project partners work — whether its Palestinian families simply trying to live together, the now-evicted residents of Sheikh Jarrah, or the Bedouin in the Negev crying out for recognition – that this spirit of dignity and the assertion of moral and political rights guide us as we persist in our fight for a more just, equitable, and democratic society for all.