Building a sukkah in Sheikh Jarrar
September 22, 2010
It may sound unlikely, but we’re in ‘Uthman ibn ‘Affan Street in Sheikh Jarrah and, together with Salah and other Palestinian friends from the neighborhood, we’re building a sukkah. The Sukkot holiday, my favorite, starts tonight. Religious Jews build little booths covered with palm fronds and eat and sleep in them for seven nights, a memory of the forty years of wandering in the desert and a reminder of the precariousness of all that exists, all that we value and love. You’re supposed to be able to see the stars through the fronds that provide a make-shift roof; honored guests, beginning with the Patriarchs and ending on day seven with King David, are invited to visit each day.
But why build one in Sheikh Jarrah, in the street where the al-Ghazi and al-Kurd houses have been taken over by Israeli settlers and the Palestinian owners driven out? Mr. Al-Kurd, dignified and calm as always, is watching over the construction. New and surprising forms of Palestinian-Israeli friendship have sprung up in this neighborhood in the course of the ongoing struggle, with its weekly demonstrations—often violently suppressed by the police (over a hundred demonstrators have been arrested during the last eight or nine months). The demonstrations are usually on Friday afternoon, but last week’s was cancelled because of Yom Kippur. Two nights before the fast, however, there was a joint prayer session in Sheikh Jarrah, and the exquisite texts of the Selichot—supplications for forgiveness—were read out together, in Arabic and Hebrew, by the activists and the evicted families, standing on this same tortured street, with the settlers jeering at them. I heard that many of our people had tears in their eyes.
There’s no question that the Jews have a lot to ask forgiveness for. There’s something shocking to me, still, in the High Holiday time in Israel. I live in a mixed neighborhood that has, over the years, like most neighborhoods in Jerusalem, becoming increasingly right-wing. Many of my neighbors are religious and, of course, strident nationalists, and some of them are even what I would call soft-core racists. They find it convenient to hate Palestinians, or Arabs in general, and they feel no compunction whatsoever about the Israeli settlement project and the ongoing theft of Palestinian land, on the West Bank and in East Jerusalem, proceeding apace day by day. So how is it, I ask myself—you have to forgive my stubborn innocence—that these same neighbors can spend Yom Kippur praying for forgiveness for their sins without even noticing that we, the people of Israel, are guilty of terrible crimes against our Palestinian brothers and sisters? Why bother going to the synagogue at all if you are so blind to the suffering of others, if you are living a lie? I know I’ll never understand.
So here we are building together a sukkat shalom, a Sukkah of Peace—another resonant phrase from the prayer book—and the police are, of course, here in force together with the Jerusalem municipality’s building inspectors, and they’ve given us notice that what we are doing is illegal and they will destroy the sukkah as soon as it’s built. You should know that the city is absolutely filled with sukkot, thousands of them, many of them built (without permits, of course) on sidewalks and other public thoroughfares (in some areas, such as Nahlaot, you can barely negotiate your way along the street), and none of them, it goes without saying, is in danger of being demolished—since they are good Jewish sukkot, after all, respectable appurtenances of the tribe. But a Palestinian-Israel Peace Sukkah, that’s clearly another matter. There’s no way the police will let it stand. It’s a public menace. It might disturb for a few moments the proper order of a world in which Palestinians can be ruthlessly driven from their homes, and those who protest against this cruelty will be thrown in jail. It might even make some ordinary person stop and think when he or she reads the inscription on the cloth panel forming one of the sukkah’s sides: “The Sheikh Jarrah Sukkah of Peace.” Who knows what unsettling thoughts this rickety structure of poles and tinsel decorations might engender? Besides, we’re building it right outside the houses the settlers have stolen, and the pious settlers might take offense.
It’s somehow comforting to engage in these doomed, purely symbolic actions; it feels right. The very futility of it all makes it all the better, all the more necessary, even fun; in fact, the more absurd the better. Credo quia absurdum est. And there is the friendship infusing this moment and giving it meaning. We were here ten days ago for a joint ‘Id al-Fitr/Rosh Hashana party, and Mr. Al-Kurd spoke with his usual gracious forbearance, thanking us for standing beside them, and a little Palestinian girl took the microphone and said, “We are tired of the settlers’ stealing our homes and our toys.” I have to confess, though, that today, as the afternoon wears on and the sukkah is destroyed, not once but twice, I’m also feeling very angry. This has been a tough day. In the early hours of the morning, a security guard employed by the Jewish settlers in Silwan, under the walls of the Old City, shot and killed a 32-year-old Palestinian man, Samir Sirhan, a father of five. I wasn’t there to see it, I don’t know exactly how it happened, but I can say with confidence that if there were no Israeli enclave planted by force in the heart of Palestinian Silwan, with an armed mercenary militia to “protect” it, Samir would probably still be alive. Another two, at least, were wounded (the police have clamped down a news blackout, no one knows for sure how many were hurt). Amiel got there early and was, of course, arrested. (You can be quite sure that nothing will happen to the security guard who shot and killed.) Silwan, meanwhile, has erupted in violent protest. It wouldn’t take much to spark off another Intifada, especially the way things are going, with Netanyahu refusing to renew the “freeze” on building in the settlements. If the talks collapse over this, as they may, or over some other piece of wicked foolishness, another round of violence is all too likely: that was the Chief of Staff’s assessment, as of yesterday. You have to remember, too, that every single housing unit that goes up in the territories is a crime under international law as well as a crime against ordinary human decency and against God, if there is a God.
So our sukkah is also planned as a Booth of Mourning for Samir, as is customary among Palestinians—another reason, no doubt, for the authorities to attack it. The Sheikh Jarrah protest, perhaps the most hopeful development in the Israeli peace movement in recent years, is closely allied with grass-roots Palestinian protest in Silwan. Three weeks ago we held a medium-size demonstration in Silwan against El’ad, the settler organization that effectively rules the village and that has been given responsibility for the archaeological site there, which they call the City of David, the most sensitive such site in the country (another unthinkable outrage, possible only in Israel). Every year El’ad runs an archaeological conference and tour in Silwan, open to the public, and we were there to protest. We managed to make ourselves heard, at considerable cost; Daniel, standing right beside me, was brutally battered, kicked, and trampled by the police, without provocation, and taken off, bleeding profusely, his glasses shattered, to jail; Ram was seriously wounded in the foot by a border policeman; several others were also hurt, and eight arrested. I found it more depressing than usual, though in our terms these days the demonstration counts as a success. I had just returned from India, and the renewed encounter with hard-core monotheists was something of a shock.
For the record, and in brief, here is how the Sukkah comes crashing down. It’s standing there on the sidewalk, miraculously held together by strings and poles, as a Sukkah should be, and gaudily decorated with paper cut-outs and bright paintings and shiny flowers which we prepared together with the Palestinian children. Looks not bad. Nissim says we should apply to the annual competition for the Most Beautiful Sukkah prize. It huddles under a large fig tree whose branches spill over the courtyard wall; indeed, the Sukkah could easily be taken as no more than a slight extension of this beautiful tree. We’re rather proud of it. We stand inside it as the police advance, and of course it’s not very sturdy so within about three minutes it’s been ripped apart, the poles strewn over the street, the palm fronds snapped, the decorations mangled and torn. At just this moment one of the settlers walks into the courtyard of his stolen house carrying a large palm frond for his sukkah, which, I assure you, no one will demolish; he wishes us a happy holiday. I can also assure you that ours is the only sukkah to be destroyed by the municipality this year.
Silan is arrested during this short altercation. As soon as it’s over, we start again. This time we forget about the poles on the sidewalk; we will hang the cloth panels down from a few wooden rods resting on the enclosure wall and reaching into the fig tree. There’s even room for a few more decorations. Salah works happily, defiantly, at making this half-sukkah fit the classical model, more or less, and after half an hour or so it is, indeed, a passable specimen, and even less of an Obstruction to the Public than its noble predecessor. However, it quickly shares the former’s sad fate.
Before the police move in the second time, I take my stand inside this lovable little booth; it’s where I want to be. Hillel is standing beside me; he knows Jewish law inside out, so when I say that I’m afraid that this is not quite a kosher sukkah—for one thing, you definitely can’t see the sky (to say nothing, in theory, of any stars)– he laughs and at once confirms this thought. Still, I decide that since I’ve helped build it, and I believe deeply in the almost hopeless idea that it embodies, I might as well say the holiday blessing. You’re supposed to utter it sitting down, but there’s nowhere to sit in the Palestinian-Israeli Sukkah of Peace in its final moments, so I change the formula just a little: “Blessed art Thou, Lord of the Universe, who has commanded us to stand in the Sukkah.” You know what, maybe He does, after all, exist. Hillel, who knows I’ve been away in India, asks me if I’m back to stay a while, and I say yes and, a little bitterly, quote the old Zionist song: “I’ve come up to the Land to build and be built.” I wave my arms at our fragile, tacky, quixotic creation. “As you can see,” I say, “so far it’s not going very well.”