Military Law Office:
The Defence Department says it may go to court to block a military watchdog from investigating a complaint about Canada's handling of prisoners in Afghanistan.
I speak, of course, of ritual. Purging and cleansing and purifying and, truly, burning a nicely dried, blessed smudge stick can be a terrific slice of personal magic, to rid a space (or perhaps even your own body) of negative juju or vicious spirits or just to make way for the new and the moist and the good. You can smudge a room. You can create a divine smoldering cloud and then move through the smoke, invoke change, purge the negative, invite hot licks of yes. It is a thing to do.
But here's the thing: Can you smudge an entire nation? Do we have enough lavender for 300 million? It is, all things considered, a big goddamn country. Windy. Rocky, in places. Could be tricky. Not to mention, you know, hazy. From all the smoke. Think of the potential traffic accidents. Coughing.
Important considerations, really, because it is becoming increasingly evident that a great national purifying ritual is just about exactly what we need. We are, after all, almost at that point. The Great Bleakness is nearing its end and you can veritably feel the swarm of uptight BushCo demons and malicious energies swirling around the country like happy karmic leeches, like a giant intellectual rash, like black raindrops of dank sweat from Karl Rove's evil mealy thighs.
To make matters worse, these dark energies, these base spirits were actually invited here by the Powers That Be, by those quivering, shivering, terrified armies of evangelical right-wing neocon bonk jobs and attorneys general and sour Supreme Court justices and scowling defense secretaries lo these past half-dozen years, and this means they shall not leave easily, despite how it is quickly coming time for them to be shoved back down into the bowels of fear and shrill egomania whence they came.
We must, therefore, do like the Mayans do. We must follow their divine and entirely appropriate example, set just recently.
Apparently, George W. Bush -- famed warmonger, despoiler of lands, despiser of gays and women and science and earthly resource, hapless fascist-wannabe -- it seems George just visited Guatemala, where he happily trod upon a holy Mayan site or two and shook hands with wary diplomats and blinked a lot and mispronounced a hundred different names. You know, same old, same old.
But then something interesting happened. Seems Bush left behind huge steaming piles of banality wherever he went, and therefore the first thing Guatemala's holy guardians of the sacred did as soon as Air Force One's wheels lifted off the ground was, of course, to purify the hallowed ground our president's shockingly low, nefarious energy had infected.
It's true. Those Mayan priests rushed in right after George left and cleansed the sacred archeological site upon which Dubya had trod, shooed away the snickering hordes of bleak spirits that trail behind America's Great Embarrassment like a sickly fog of ignorance and misprision and shockingly humiliating grammar.
Yes, we need a grand American ritual. We are, after all, far more deeply infected than that Mayan site. Does it not seem entirely appropriate? Does it not make perfect sense? Of course it does.
Ah, but maybe you scoff. Maybe you say what those highly regarded Mayan priests did was just quaint tribal nonsense, a little savage, silly, pagan. Truly, most Christians tend to sneer at such things, mock and deride and denounce even as they kneel before giant gruesome crosses and flock to pieces of suspiciously burnt toast and make Mel Gibson insanely wealthy.
Christian rituals, if they exist at all, are largely tepid and bland and might involve, say, a little rosary bead here, a little sip of wine there, maybe a quick bologna sandwich followed by 4,000 Hail Marys and a bunch of blind fervent prayers to some grand unhappy deity because, well, most Christians don't really understand the notion of spirit guides or negative energies unless it looks really sexy in red leathery skin and black boots and sharp pointy horns.
I bring this up only because an estimated 75 percent of Americans at least vaguely identify with the Christian faith, and we can safely presume that only a wizened handful know how to burn, smudge, cleanse with anything resembling deep laughter and honest pagan intent and the understanding that Bush has been more toxic to this nation than Adam Sandler and MySpace and cheap piss-water domestic beer combined. Would this fact be an obstacle? Can we please try, anyway?
We could try water. Sacred baths. Not-so-sacred baths. Any sort of bath, shower, divine scrub-down involving divine intent and maybe some candles and a little dish of salt and some blessed soap and the prayer-full idea that you are sloughing off skanky Bush demons and old skin and past loves and idiotic politicians.
Can we bathe each other? Hose each other down? We do, after all, have a lot of water laying around. Bottles and bottles of it stacked to the rooftops of the nation's Costcos and Wal-Warts like wet plastic kindling. Would this be sanitary? Do we have proper drainage? Enough soap? Ah, logistics.
Ah, but wait. There is another fabulous possibility. There is, of course, fire. I love fire. Fire is God's own enema. Fire is the devil's dental floss. It is beautiful and powerful and dangerous and obvious and fun. As purgatives go, it can't be beat. Ritualistically, you can burn it all: incense, candles, locks of hair, photographs, bedsheets, foreign policy documents, Dick Cheney's black charcoal heart, Jenna Bush's beer bong. Fire is good. Fire kicks serious spiritual butt. This is what they say.
Sure, it won't be easy. We will have to get around the law. Skirt the federal fire marshal's implied edict that we cannot really have, say, a National Day of Fire, a grand torching of the toxic memory that is eight miserable years of the Bush administration.
No matter. It's still worth a try. It is, in fact, mandatory. And this being America, we can just keep it simple. Obvious. Keep the metaphor so clear that even celebrities and teenagers and recovering born-again Christians will understand.
Here is what we can do: We shall burn a bush. Ten thousand bushes. Maybe a million. Bushes laced with sage, lavender, pine, incense, with eight years of warmongering and intolerance and those beady squinty vacant eyes. We shall gather in parks or street corners or fire pits at the beach sometime next year, and ignite.
We will burn bush. We will burn away Bush. We shall purify and rinse and cleanse the nation of this horrific and banal poison, once and for all, and it shall be Good. And those Mayan priests? Why, they'll simply look over and nod, smile knowingly. They understand completely.
Thoughts for the author? E-mail him.
Copyright 2007, Hartford Courant
Tomgram: Rebecca Solnit on Not Forgetting New Orleans
[Note to Tomdispatch readers: A small addition to my Tuesday post, "A Journalist Writing Bloody Murder... And No One Notices": With a little help, I finally came across a single newspaper editorial on Seymour Hersh's New Yorker piece, "The Redirection." It appeared in Alabama's Decatur Daily under the headline, "Unintended Consequence: U.S. Funding Radical Islam." If anyone has seen a similar editorial anywhere, please write me. If you feel in the mood to be grimly amused, check out a small piece I posted at the Nation Magazine's The Notion blog, "An Ambassador, An Iraqi, and a Penguin."]
So Halliburton is leaving the neighborhood. If I were you, I'd start selling. It's a sign that property values are heading down in looted and Katrina-tized America. With full protestations that it really isn't going anywhere, Halliburton, with its $19 billion in Pentagon contracts, with its $2.7 billion in estimated Iraq overcharges, is moving its headquarters to Dubai, the Las Vegas of the Middle East where almost anyone is welcome to plot almost anything on the indoor ski slopes or private mini-islands. If I were the head of Halliburton, I'd be heading for Dubai, too, or at least for parts unknown while the Bush administration is still in office and I still had a roof over my head. Enron's Ken Lay could have taken a tip or two from Halliburton Chief Executive David Lesar on the subject. Far too late now, of course. And I wonder whether Al Neffgen, the ex-Halliburton exec running the privatized company, IAP Worldwide Services, that was put in charge of Walter Reed Army Medical Center in 2006 as part of the privatization of the military, might be considering a holiday there as well. No mold, no rats (other than the human kind), just honest sun and sand, surf and turf, oil money and… well, everything that goes with it.
We always knew that there was a link between Iraq, hit by a purely human-made flood of catastrophe, and Katrina, which had a helping hand from nature. Halliburton had a hand in both, of course, picking up some of the earliest contracts for the "reconstruction" of each -- the results of which are now obvious to all (even undoubtedly from Dubai). The inability of either the Bush administration or its chronically cost-overrun crony corporations to genuinely reconstruct anything is now common knowledge. But it's worth remembering that, though the disaster of Iraq's "reconstruction" preceded it, Hurricane Katrina was the Brownie-heck-of-a-job moment that revealed the reality of the Bush administration to most Americans.
The various privatization-style lootings and catastrophes since then have all been clearer for that. Katrina, in fact, has become a catch-word for them. So when the Bush administration's treatment of the wounded -- though reported well beforehand -- suddenly became the headline du jour, it was also a Katrina-comparison scandal. ("Dems Call Walter Reed Scandal ‘Katrina of 2007";"The Katrina of Veteran's Care"; "Like Brownie in Katrina, Rummy did 'a heckuva job.' So has Lt. Gen. Kevin Kiley, Army surgeon general, who commanded Walter Reed from 2002 to 2004.")
As Rebecca Solnit so eloquently reminds us below, however, Katrina isn't simply some comparison point from the past, a piece of horrific history to keep in mind; it's an on-going, never-ending demonstration that we have been changed from a can-do to a can't-do society (except perhaps at the neighborhood level). Katrina, the hurricane, was then; Katrina, the New Orleans catastrophe, is right now and, given what we know about government today, that "right now" is likely to stretch into the interminable future. Solnit is Tomdispatch's ray of hope (and the author of the remarkable book Hope in the Dark), but also the writer who deals with the largest of disasters. And here she is, as always not to be missed. Tom
Unstable FoundationsLetter from New Orleans
By Rebecca Solnit
Riflemen and Rescuers
On March 5, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama went south to compete for the limelight on the 42nd anniversary of "Bloody Sunday," the day in March 1965 when Alabama law enforcement drove Civil Rights demonstrators off the Edmund Pettus Bridge and back into Selma. Somehow, the far larger and more desperate attempt of a largely African-American population to march across a bridge less than two years ago, during the days after Hurricane Katrina, and the even more vicious response, has never quite entered the mainstream imagination. Few outside New Orleans, therefore, understand that the city became a prison in the days after 80% of it was flooded (nor has it fully sunk in that the city was flooded not by a hurricane but by the failure of levees inadequately built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers).
According to a little-noted Los Angeles Times report from that moment, "Authorities in St. Bernard Parish, to the east, stacked cars to seal roads from the Crescent City." Not only were relief supplies and rescuers kept out of the city, but many who could have rescued themselves or reached outside rescue efforts were forcibly kept in. The spectacle of the suffering and squalor of crowds trapped without food, water, or sanitation in sweltering heat that so transfixed the nation was not just the result of incompetence, but of malice. While the media often tended to portray the victims as largely criminals, government officials shifted the focus from rescue to the protection of property and the policing of the public. There's no way to count how many died as a result of all this.
The Mississippi-straddling Crescent City Connection Bridge was closed to pedestrians by law enforcement from Gretna, the mostly white community across the river. They fired their guns over the heads of women and children seeking to flee the dire conditions of the Superdome and Convention Center, as well as the heat and thirst of the devastated city, driving back thousands attempting to escape their captivity in squalor. There have been no consequences from any of these acts, though Congressional Representatives Cynthia McKinney and John Conyers have denounced them as hate crimes and called for investigations, and the Reverend Lennox Yearwood said, "Can you imagine during 9/11, the thousands who fled on foot to the Brooklyn Bridge, not because they wanted to go to Brooklyn, but because it was their only option? What if they had been met by six or eight police cars blocking the bridge, and cops fired warning shots to turn them back?"
During my trips to the still half-ruined city, some inhabitants have told me that they, in turn, were told by white vigilantes of widespread murders of black men in the chaos of the storm and flood. One local journalist assured me that he tried to investigate the story, but found it impossible to crack. Reporters, he said, were not allowed to inspect recovered bodies before they were disposed of. These accounts suggest that, someday, an intrepid investigative journalist may stand on its head the media hysteria of the time (later quietly recanted) about African-American violence and menace in flooded New Orleans. Certainly, the most brutal response to the catastrophe was on the part of institutional authority at almost every level down to the most local.
These stories are important, if only to understand what New Orleans is recovering from -- not just physical devastation, but social fissures and racial wounds in a situation that started as a somewhat natural disaster and became a socially constructed catastrophe. Nothing quite like it has happened in American history. It's important to note as well that many racial divides were crossed that week and after -- by people who found common cause inside the city -- by, for instance, the "Cajun Navy" of white boat-owners who got into flooded areas to rescue scores of people.
Ex-Black Panther Malik Rahim says that he witnessed a race war beginning in Algiers (next to Gretna) where he lived and that it was defused by the young, white bicycle medics who came to minister to both communities; since then the organization Rahim co-founded, Common Ground Collective, has funneled more than 11,000 volunteers, mostly white, into New Orleans.
Parades and Patrols
New Orleans may have always been full of contradictions, but post-Katrina they stand in high relief. For weeks in February, parades wound past rowdy crowds in the uptown area as part of the long carnival season that leads up to Mardi Gras. Since June, camouflage-clad, heavily armed National Guardsmen have been patrolling other parts of the flood-ravaged city in military vehicles, making the place feel as much like a war zone as a disaster zone -- and perhaps it is. (On March 8, for instance, a Guardsman repeatedly shot in the chest a 53-year-old African-American with mental problems. He had brandished a BB gun at a patrol near his home, in which he had ridden out Katrina, in the Upper Ninth Ward.) New Orleans' poverty was, and is, constantly referenced in the national media; and the city did, and does, have a lot of people without a lot of money, resources, health care, education, and opportunity. But its people are peculiarly rich in networks, roots, traditions, music, festive ritual, public life, and love of place, an anomaly in an America where, generations ago, most of us lost what the depleted population of New Orleans is trying to reclaim and rebuild.
I've long been interested in ruins, in cities and civil society in the wake of disaster, and so I've been to New Orleans twice since Katrina hit and I've tried to follow its post-catastrophe course from afar the rest of the time. On this carnival-season visit, even my own response was contrary: I wanted to move there and yet was appalled, even horrified, by tales of institutional violence that people passed on to me as the unremarkable lore of everyday life.
If New Orleans is coming back, it's because a lot of its citizens love it passionately, from the affluent uptowners who formed Women of the Storm to massage funding channels to the radical groups such as the People's Hurricane Relief Fund dealing with the most devastated zones. Nationally, there have been many stories about people giving up and leaving again because the reopened schools are still lousy and crime is soaring; the way people are trickling back in has been far less covered.
Of a pre-storm white population of 124,000 more than 80,000 were back by last fall, while about the same number of African-Americans had returned -- from a pre-storm population of 300,000. Though some have chosen not to return, many are simply unable to, or are still organizing the means to do so. Other roadblocks include the shuttering of all the housing projects in the city, including some that sustained little or no damage in the floods. A few have been occupied by former residents demanding the right of return. It's little noted that not all those who are still in exile from the city are there by choice. And while, once again, the mainstream media story of exile has been grim -- that refugees from New Orleans have brought a crime wave to Texas, for instance -- one longtime Austin resident assures me that they've also brought a lot of music, public life, and good food.
I visited New Orleans 11 months ago, during Easter Week 2006, and it was then a ghost town, spookily unpopulated, with few children among the returnees; 10 months later, after more than 50 of its schools had reopened, there were dozens of high-school marching bands in the pre-carnival parades. But the bands were mostly monochromatic -- all white or all nonwhite – and 30 of the reopened schools are charter schools. Of course, in the slogan "Bring Back New Orleans" lurks the question of how far back to bring it. Once the wealthy banking powerhouse of the South, New Orleans had been losing economic clout and population for decades before Katrina hit and already seemed doomed to a slow decline.
With Katrina, no one can say what the future holds. Many fear the city will become just a tourist attraction or that it will simply go under in the next major hurricane. The levees and floodwalls are being rebuilt, but not to Category 5 hurricane levels, and the fate of the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, the shipping shortcut that funneled the storm's surge right into New Orleans, is still being debated. The Associated Press just reported that more than thirty of the pumps installed last year by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to drain floodwater are defective. (The manufacturer is a crony of Jeb Bush's and, like so many looters of the rebuilding funds, a large-scale donor to the Republican Party.)
The city's major paper, the Times-Picayune, recently revealed that the maps people have been using to represent the amount of wetlands buffer south of the city are 75 years out of date and there are only 10 years left to save anything of this crucially protective marsh-scape, which erodes at the rate of 32 football fields a day.
Signs of Life in the Lower Ninth
That doesn't mean people aren't trying all over the city. It's easier, however, to get out the power tools than to untangle the red tape surrounding all the programs that are supposed to fund rebuilding or get governmental agencies at any level to act like they care or are capable of accomplishing a thing.
"Are you trying to rebuild?" I asked the woman who'd come into NENA, the Lower Ninth Ward Neighborhood Empowerment Network Association in the part of New Orleans most soaked by the floods Katrina caused. She politely but firmly corrected me, "I am going to rebuild."
I ran into this kind of steely will all through my eight days exploring the city. NENA's office in a small stucco church building in the heart of the Lower Ninth, the neighborhood of black homeowners that sustained several feet of water for weeks after the storm, is full of maps and charts. The most remarkable is a map of the neighborhood itself with every home being rebuilt marked with a green pushpin. They are lightly scattered over the map, but there are green dots on nearly every block and clusters of them in places, about 150 in this small neighborhood that looked as dead as anyplace imaginable not so very long ago.
When I visited the Lower Ninth six months after Katrina, the gaping hole where a barge had disastrously bashed through the levee above the Industrial Canal was still there, as were the cars that had been tossed like toys through the neighborhood when the water rushed in so violently that it tore houses into splinters and shoved them from their foundations. The Lower Ninth was a spooky place -- with no services, no streetlights, no inhabitants.
That nothing had been done for six months was appalling, but so was the scale of reconstruction required to bring the place back to life. Throughout New Orleans, even homes that have no structural damage but were in the heavily flooded lowlands have severe water and mold damage. Along with the Ninth Ward, many more middle-class neighborhoods near Lake Pontchartrain also took several feet of water and they too are now but sketchily inhabited. Even the tacky row of condos alongside the Southern Yacht Club on Lake Pontchartrain are still mostly wrecked, though some are being rebuilt. Sunken pleasure boats are still in the surrounding waters and one wrecked boat remained on the street in a devastated middle-class neighborhood nearby.
Across from NENA's headquarters was a FEMA trailer with a wheelchair ramp in front of one house. In front of another, right next door, a sign spray-painted on plywood read, "NO TRESPASSING NO DEMOLITION. WE ARE COMING BACK." And printed signs, scattered among those for demolition and building services, bore this message in red, "Come hell and high water! Restoration, revitalization, preservation of the Ninth Ward! Now and forever!" These signs mean something in a neighborhood so gutted and abandoned that many of the street signs disappeared, some of which have since been replaced by hand-painted versions.
That people are even making their own street signs is one sign of a city that has gotten to its feet. Or of citizens who have anyway. Failed by every level of government from the Bush administration and its still barely functional FEMA to the Louisiana bureaucracy with its red-tape-strangled Road Home program to the city government, people are doing it for themselves. NENA was founded by Patricia Jones, an accountant and Lower Ninth homeowner spurred into action by the dire situation, and it's co-directed by Linda Jackson, a former laundromat owner from the neighborhood. People are doing things they might never otherwise have done, including organizing their communities. Civic involvement is intense -- but individual volunteers, no matter how many, from outside and local passion can't do it all. It's been said before that New Orleans represents what the Republicans long promised us when they spoke of shrinking government down.
The returnees, Jackson told me, are mostly doing their own rebuilding -- but sheet-rocking and plumbing are far easier to master than the intricate bureaucracies applicants must fight their way through to get the funds that are supposed to be available to them. Even those who are not among New Orleans' large population of functional illiterates, or whose lack of electricity and money means that sending off the sequences of faxes required to set things in motion is arduous, or who lack the phones and money to make the endless long-distance calls to faceless strangers shuffling or losing their information have problems getting anything done -- other than by themselves. Louisiana's Road Home program, for instance, is such an impenetrable labyrinth that the Times-Picayune recently reported, "Of 108,751 applications received by the Road Home contractor, ICF International, only 782 homeowners have received final payments." Rents have risen since the storm and home insurance is beyond reach for many of the working-class homeowners who are rebuilding. Others can't get the homeowner's insurance they need to get the mortgages to rebuild. In February, State Farm Insurance simply stopped issuing new policies altogether in neighboring and no less devastated Mississippi.
The disaster that was Katrina is often regarded as a storm, or a storm and a flood, but in New Orelans it was a storm, a flood, and an urban crisis that has stalled the lives of many to this day. Katrina is not even half over.
The Great Flood and the Great Divide
Volunteers have been flooding into New Orleans since shortly after the hurricane, and they continue to come. Church youth groups arriving to do demolition work were a staple for a while. This time around, I ran across a big group of Mennonite carpenters, some from Canada, doing rebuilding gratis.
Many young people -- often just out of college and more excited, as several of them said to me, by "making a difference" than by looking for an entry-level job -- have come to the city and many of them appear to be staying. Some have compared the thousands of volunteers to Freedom Summer, the 1964 African-American voter-registration drive in the South staffed in part by college students from the North. Most of the volunteers in New Orleans are white, and one concern I heard repeatedly is that they may inadvertently contribute to the gentrification of traditionally black neighborhoods such as the Upper Ninth Ward. Others see the outreach of white activists as balm on the wounds inflicted by the racism apparent in the media coverage of, and the militarized response to, Katrina.
The Ninth Ward symbolizes the abandonment of African-Americans by the government in a time of dire need, and bringing it back is a way of redressing that national shame and the racial divide that went with it. But if it does come back, it will be residents and outside volunteers who do it. The government is still largely missing in action -- except for the heavily armed soldiers on patrol and the labyrinthine bureaucracies few can navigate.
To rebuild your home, you need a neighborhood. To have a neighborhood, you need a city. For a viable city, you need some degree of a safe environment. For a safe environment, you need responsibility on the scale of the nation; so, every house in New Orleans, ruined or rebuilding, poses a question about the state of the nation. So many pieces need to be put in place: What will climate change -- both increasingly intense hurricanes and rising seas -- do to New Orleans? Will its economy continue to fade away? Will the individuals who are bravely rebuilding in the most devastated areas have enough neighbors join them to make viable neighborhoods again? Will the city government improve itself enough to make a better place or will incompetence continue to waltz with corruption through the years? Will the nation revise its sense of what we owe our most significant cities (before my own city, San Francisco, undergoes the big one) or recognize what they give us? Will the solidarity of many anti-racist whites across the country outweigh the racism that surfaced in Katrina and still lurks not far from the surface?
Despite its decline, New Orleans remains a port city and a major tourist destination. But it also matters because it's beautiful, with its houses -- from shacks to mansions -- adorned with feminine, lacy-black ironwork or white, gingerbread wood trim, with its colossal, spreading oaks and the most poetic street names imaginable; because the city and the surrounding delta are the great font from which so much of our popular music flows; because people there still have a deep sense of connection and memory largely wiped away in so many other places; because it is a capital city for black culture, including traditions that flowed straight from Africa; because, in some strange way, it holds the memory of what life was like before capitalism and may yet be able to teach the rest of us something about what life could be like after capitalism.
One of my friends in New Orleans was telling me recently about the generosity of the city; the ways that churches and charities kept the poor going so that poverty wasn't quite the abandoned thing it too often is elsewhere; the way that people will cook up a feast for a whole neighborhood; the ways the city never fully embraced the holy trinity of the convenient, efficient, and profitable that produce such diminished versions of what life can hold. The throws -- glittery beads, cups, toys -- from the carnival floats are a little piece of this. Life in New Orleans is grim in so many ways now, and all the beauty with which I end this letter coexists with the viciousness I began with. But the recovery of the city from this one mega-disaster could do much for the longer disaster that has so long now been part of our national lives -- the social Darwinism, social atomization, the shrinking of the New Deal and the Great Society and the attacks on the very principle that we are all woven together in the fabric we call society. If New Orleans doesn't recover, we aren't likely to either.
We all owe New Orleans and those who suffered most in Katrina a huge debt. Their visible suffering and the visibly stupid, soulless, and selfish response of the federal government brought an end to the unquestionable dominance of the Bush administration in the nearly four years between New York's great disaster and this catastrophe. In China, great earthquakes were once thought to be signs that the mandate of heaven has been withdrawn from the ruling dynasty. Similarly, the deluges of Katrina washed away the mandate of the administration and made it possible, even necessary, for those who had been blind or fearful before to criticize and oppose afterwards.
One hundred and one years after my city was nearly destroyed by the incompetent response of the authorities to a major earthquake, we are still sifting out what really happened. In a hundred years, we may see Katrina as a crisis for the belief that the civil rights movement had moved us past the debacle on the Edmund Pettus Bridge -- and as a crisis of legitimacy for a federal government that had done nothing but destroy for five years.
Rebecca Solnit's essay for Harper's Magazine on disaster and civil society went to press the day Katrina struck New Orleans. She recently trained to join San Francisco's Neighborhood Emergency Response Teams in the next big earthquake and hopes to return to New Orleans for a more extended stay in a few months. She is the author of Hope in the Dark, among other books.
|ERICA CHERNOFSKY, THE JERUSALEM POST||Mar. 15, 2007|
The Jewish families in east Jerusalem hope their Arab neighbors will eventually leave and be replaced by Jews. The Arabs hope the Jews will realize they are unwelcome and move back out
A few hundred meters from the Museum on the Seam, a sociopolitical art museum dedicated to coexistence located on the former border between Israeli and Jordanian Jerusalem, lies the mixed neighborhood of Shimon Hatzadik. According to tradition, the high priest, who was among the last members of the Great Assembly, was buried in a cave built into these sloping Sheikh Jarrah hills, where dozens of hassidim can be found praying and learning throughout the day.
Just a few meters away, in a smaller cave, is the traditional burial site of 23 former heads of the Sanhedrin. Here, a lone hassid sways back and forth as he prays in the dark, damp underground tomb.
The land surrounding the burial caves had lain barren of inhabitants for almost two millennia. The graves, however, were continuously visited by Jewish pilgrims.
In modern times, Jews started this neighborhood in 1895 and lived there until they were evicted by the British army during the Arab riots in 1947, says a source in Lomdei Shalem, an organization responsible for the renewed Jewish presence in the area. In the interim, he explains, the Jordanian government took over the land and permitted Arab families to move into the Jewish homes, where many still remain.
In 1998, a small group of men who went to pray at the ancient burial site reported that the synagogue there was being used as a goat shed and garbage dump by a local Arab family, which also was reportedly planning to build on top of the site, threatening to destroy the entire foundation.
After acquiring power of attorney from the Sephardi Community Council, the original owner of the property, MK Benny Elon shepherded a group of young yeshiva students to the old synagogue. They cleaned it up and began to study there regularly.
In the meantime, says the Lomdei Shalem source, apartments in the area "became available." Slowly, Jews began to move back in.
Today, seven Jewish families live in the Shimon Hatzadik neighborhood, interspersed among dozens of Arab families. Though they're living together, the neighborhood is far from a model for coexistence.
The old synagogue has been restored and is now a kollel, where men study Torah on a daily basis. On the grassy yard outside, Lomdei Shalem and the organizations responsible for supporting the Jewish neighborhood have built a small playground, which is often the site of nasty arguments with the Arabs, whose children also want to play on the new equipment.
"We don't hate them," says Bryna Segal, a resident of Shimon Hatzadik. "But the neighborhood decided not to let them play here so they'll know who's in charge and won't give us trouble."
Segal, her husband and two young children moved to Shimon Hatzadik a little over six months ago from the northern Samaria settlement of Ma'aleh Levona because they wanted to live in Jerusalem and in an ideologically meaningful place. She says the adjustment was difficult and that when they first moved in, she was afraid to let her children go out alone.
"In the beginning, the Arabs would curse at us when we would walk by them," says Segal, who has had rocks thrown at her car, her antennas stolen and her tires slashed.
The Dagan family, which moved in a year ago, recalls an outdoor community meal the Jewish families made one Shabbat that led to a violent encounter with their Arab neighbors.
"They threw feces on the tables we had set up," says Iska Dagan, "and after we started arguing with them, they stabbed my husband Emanuel three times in the back with a screwdriver."
The perpetrators were arrested, held for two days and released, she says. Although the government pays for two 24-hour security guards, the Jewish families complain that they don't get involved.
"One time an Arab threw a cinder block at us as the guard watched, and instead of doing something he told me I should learn to get along with the Arabs," says Dagan.
Now, the families "coexist" in an almost quiet denial of the other's presence.
Segal's next-door neighbors, the Kurds, ignore her completely, she says, because she lives in the home they had built for their son. One of the Jewish associations took the Kurds to court, claiming they built the home illegally.
As protected tenants (residents who cannot be evicted from an apartment that was built under the British Mandate) in a home originally owned by Jews that was later taken over by the Jordanians, the Kurds could not be evicted.
But according to the court, they were prohibited from building an addition to the home that they didn't own in the first place, and Jews were permitted to take it over.
"It's my house," says Fawziya Kurd angrily. "I built it, but Jews are living there. How am I supposed to feel?"
Segal says Fawziya yelled at her when her family put up a mezuza and when they built a succa, but that in recent months her neighbors won't even make eye contact with her.
"We don't talk to them and we don't like them," says Fawziya, "but we don't give each other problems. We both want to live in peace."
The Jewish families in Shimon Hatzadik hope their Arab neighbors will eventually leave and be replaced by Jews, to accelerate the fulfillment of the Jewish dream of Jerusalem as the undivided capital of Israel. The Arabs hope the Jews will realize they are unwelcome and move back out, enabling Jerusalem to be the capital of a future Palestinian state.
BUT SHIMON Hatzadik is not a singular phenomenon. Throughout east Jerusalem, similar Jewish enclaves are being zealously established with the goal of reigniting Jewish life in what is termed "the heart of Jerusalem" rather than "east Jerusalem," says Daniel Luria, spokesman for Ateret Cohanim, the organization championing the movement.
"Zionism didn't end in 1948 or 1967," he says. "The Jewish dream of having a safe, thriving Jewish community in the heart of Jerusalem hasn't been achieved yet."
Ateret Cohanim, not to be confused with the Old City yeshiva of the same name, was established in 1979, when it helped its first Jewish family move into the Muslim Quarter.
Now, says Luria, there are 800 Jews living in the Muslim and Christian quarters of the Old City, along with 50 families in Ma'aleh Hazetim - also known as Ras el-Amud - on the Mount of Olives. There are also plans for a new project on empty plots of Jewish-owned land on the Jerusalem side of Abu Dis, to be called Kidmat Zion.
Nine Jewish families are also living in the old Yemenite neighborhood of Shiloah, which the Arabs call Silwan, across from the City of David. Just a few weeks ago, however, they were ordered to evacuate by a Jerusalem court because the building they are residing in was built illegally.
The property on which the building sits was owned by Yemenite Jews who were expelled in Arab riots 70 years ago, explains Luria. Arabs built illegally on the property in the last few years, he says, and this specific building was purchased - and then populated - by Jews.
Though he admits there was a lack of adequate building permits for the project, Luria says they are fighting the eviction because of the fact that illegal building is rampant throughout east Jerusalem and the municipality does little to enforce the law on the Arabs living in hundreds of illegally built homes.
In fact, both Luria and Elon say that illegal building in Arab neighborhoods is one of the biggest problems facing the Jerusalem Municipality today.
"It's a very sensitive issue and the government is scared to put its foot down," says Luria. "It's scared CNN or BBC is going to show up and show an old woman crying and a little boy playing in the street outside an Arab home that was destroyed for being illegally built, so it only enforces the law with the Jews."
But Ateret Cohanim and Lomdei Shalem aren't acting alone in their fervent efforts to reestablish Jewish life in the disputed section of the city. Other organizations, the most popular of which are Elad, responsible for renewing Jewish life in the City of David, and Beit Orot, which operates a yeshiva of 10 families on the northern side of the Mount of Olives, are actively involved in bolstering the Jewish presence in these Arab-populated areas.
Supported by funds raised mostly from private donors here and abroad, these organizations work to acquire property from the Arab residents either by purchasing the title from the Arab owner or the protected tenancy right from the Arab resident.
"Contrary to what some may think, nobody is kicked off any land," Luria says. "There are Arabs ready to sell and we take the opportunity to buy. If they are protected tenants and they don't want to leave, we can't make them."
In many instances, he says, the land is in fact Jewish owned but has been occupied by Arabs for many years, rendering many of these residents protected tenants. As such, as Luria points out, they cannot be evicted - unless they sold the property without the permission of the original owner or built illegally on the premises, as occurred in the case of the Kurd family in Shimon Hatzadik. In such cases, or if the resident is not actually a protected tenant but an illegal squatter, the Arab family can be taken to court and evicted.
"Everything that's done is done legally," says Elon, who has pioneered this movement in order to "wipe out the Green Line in Jerusalem" by having a meaningful Jewish presence in the eastern part of the city.
"Everyone says don't worry about Jerusalem, it will be our capital forever and ever, but when [Ehud] Barak was prime minister, Jerusalem was on the table," he says. "We need to unite Jerusalem, not just on maps but on the ground, and the only way to do that is if Jews feel safe and secure there and know this is the only capital of the Jewish state."
While the stakes are high, Luria maintains that the process is simple - if an Arab wants to sell, a Jew should be able to buy. Indeed, 100 percent of Ateret Cohanim's activity is buying from the Arabs and does not involve the courts - unless the Arab himself requests a cover story.
"There have been many instances in which Arabs were killed for selling land to Jews," Luria says, clearly hinting at the highly-rumored notion that if an Arab wants to sell to Jews but is afraid for his life, he can be taken to court and go through the motions of being "evicted" so his Arab neighbors won't know he willingly sold to Jews. "We go to great lengths to protect the Arabs, even if it means looking bad in the eyes of the community."
For all the bad press it receives for its controversial activities, he says his organization shouldn't have to exist at all - it's really the responsibility of the government or the Jewish National Fund to act on behalf of Jewish landowners, research the old properties and synagogues and make sure the current Arab residents aren't destroying or defiling them.
"The whole world is talking about Jews as the occupiers of Arab land," he says. "But in Jerusalem, it's totally the opposite."
THE ARABS, of course, disagree.
Karim Arafat lives in Wadi Hilweh in Silwan, where he owns a tailor shop. When asked if there are Jews living in his neighborhood, he responds in the negative, saying that it's not Jews but "settlers" who have begun moving in.
"No one's happy they're here," he says. "We don't want them living in our neighborhood."
Arafat says his new neighbors aren't friendly and interfere with his lifestyle, explaining that on Jewish holidays, the streets are closed off and while he is trapped in his home, the "settlers are dancing in the streets."
He says he thinks it might be possible for Jews and Arabs to live together one day, but that "Jews and settlers are not the same thing. I can't live with settlers," he says. "And I don't think you could either."
Though he acknowledges their claim that the property in question was Jewish-owned, Arafat says that doesn't change the fact that they are kicking Arabs out of homes they've lived in for years.
"They say they owned it a hundred years ago," he says, "but if someone steals your house, or even your friend's house, how can you live with them?"
Correspondingly, dovish city councilman Pepe Allalo says every effort to bring Jewish families into east Jerusalem homes is a violent provocation against the Arabs and straddles the boundaries of what's legal and what's not.
"First of all, according to international law, nothing here is legal because the world considers east Jerusalem occupied land," he says. In Israel, he adds, it's also illegal because many of the homes being purchased by Jews are illegally built, and as an example he refers to the case of the Jewish families in Silwan recently given eviction notices.
But it's impossible to say whether all these transactions are legal or not, says attorney Daniel Seidman of Ir Amim, which describes itself as an organization that promotes Israeli-Palestinian coexistence in Jerusalem. Each house in east Jerusalem, he says, has its own, complicated story.
Seidman became involved in the issue in 1992, when he petitioned the High Court of Justice on behalf of former Meretz MK Haim Oron, arguing that Jews moving into east Jerusalem reflected a covert government policy to turn over Palestinian properties to extremist settlers. Seidman contends that "the settlers" have an "ambiguous relationship" with the rule of law and tons of political clout that they use to the utmost. The government, he says, has practiced a systematic policy of collusion with the settler organizations, with Ariel Sharon as their "patron saint."
There have been plenty of cases in east Jerusalem, he says, in which there are illegal allocations of government funds or in which "settlers" are given the inside track by government agencies. He says he has even witnessed situations in which land is declared "absentee property"(property in a captured territory that is managed by a government appointee), turned over to Jews and the Arabs living in the house find "their stuff being thrown out the window and themselves evicted."
Widespread illegality reigns, he alleges, but nevertheless admits that there are circumstances in which properties in east Jerusalem are turned over in a completely legal manner and by the consent of the Arab owner. He points out that Shimon Hatzadik is one distinct example.
"The property was owned by Jews prior to 1948 and the Jordanian custodian for enemy property built homes on this land to house refugees - so the title here clearly belongs to the Jews," he says. Confirming the Jewish claims, Seidman elaborates that Jews have been able to legally repopulate the area because Arabs sold to them or violated contract agreements and were evicted by a court.
But the bottom line is that both the Arabs and Jews, determined to force the other out of east Jerusalem, claim the other side is wrong, lying, cheating, stealing or forging documents. At the end of the day, says Seidman, "you'll never hear a settler say I've ripped off a Palestinian, and you'll never hear a Palestinian say anything but that he's been ripped off."
AT THE HEART of the issue is the controversial piece of land itself, over which Israelis and Palestinians have been competing for some 120 years, says Yisrael Kimche, a geographer at the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies and 70-year Jerusalem resident.
"Each side thinks that if it settles in this place, it will own it," he explains.
Documents clearly show that most of the land in question was owned by Jews many years ago, he says, similar to land in west Jerusalem that was once owned by Arabs but was turned over to the government after they left during the War of Independence.
It's difficult to examine whether all the transactions going on today are legal, he continues, because most of it is done in secret to protect the Arabs who are thought to be betraying their brethren by selling to Jews.
"The Jewish organizations try to do everything legally, but no one knows exactly what's happening there because everything is kept very quiet," he says.
But the phenomenon, he adds, is nothing new.
"Most of the Jewish neighborhoods in west Jerusalem were purchased from Arabs since the middle of the 19th century," he says. "It's just in the last couple of years that it's become a major political issue."
The issue itself has been greatly exaggerated, Kimche says, because the actual number of Jews moving into Arab areas of east Jerusalem is small and the number of Jews already living in what is considered east Jerusalem - in neighborhoods such as Pisgat Zeev built north, south and east of the Green Line - is more than 180,000, only slightly fewer than the number of Palestinians residing there.
The Arab population in east Jerusalem stands at about 240,000, 33% of the total population of Jerusalem, according to figures provided by Kimche.Of that, more than half are studying in the Israeli education system, and as such are considered by Kimche to be a population that Jews can enter and live with peacefully.
"I personally don't think it's a great idea for Jews to purchase land in the middle of Arab neighborhoods. I think it's better to live side by side but not to mingle." he says. "But there are hundreds of Arab families moving to Jewish neighborhoods because of housing shortages, so I don't think it's so problematic for a Jewish family to live in a Muslim area."
Kimche remains optimistic, pointing out that "there were times when Jews and Arabs lived together in peace."
"I think it's possible for us to live together," he continues. "So perhaps this [situation in east Jerusalem] could encourage peace because you already have Jews and Arabs living together."
From the hostility and tension tangible in the air around Shimon Hatzadik, it doesn't seem very likely.
"There is no chance for coexistence today," says Allalo. "They're living in a bad situation," he says of the Jews in Shimon Hatzadik. "There's violence, arguing, and two guards right next to them. If there was coexistence, we wouldn't need guards, but we do because each side doesn't want the other."
Today, Allalo determines that the only course of action is for Jews and Arabs to separate from each other completely and have two states. Only after friendly relations are established between the states can either side even consider living in the other's communities.
"We are at war now," he says. "Maybe one day when there's peace a Jew can buy a house in Silwan and an Arab can buy a house in Neveh Ya'acov. But it's not possible today."
Though they live mere meters apart and pass by each other morning and night, the two communities in Shimon Hatzadik continue to exist as if the other doesn't.
"We don't expect everyone to get along," says Luria, "just to be cordial and coexist."
Segal says she isn't scared anymore and now lets her children play freely in the plaza outside her home and feels comfortable walking around the area alone.
But perhaps it's just too soon to tell. In the home across the way from Segal's, an Arab woman smiles at Segal and her children as they walk by. They wave and smile back. Segal says the two women don't speak, but that she's always friendly.
"It would be interesting to speak to the Arabs, to find out about them, to learn who they are," says Segal, "but unfortunately, that's not the atmosphere here."