Last year a friend who had just finished participating in a Birthright program was telling me of his harrowing journey and mentioned that they had gone to the City of David. I said something along the lines of, “Right, Silwan. The tour through people’s backyards” in a tone that implied that I thought my friend, a fellow politically active organizer, would know what I was talking about. But, instead, he said something like, “Wait, that was Silwan?”
It became clear at that moment that the JNF’s aim via subsidiary support for ELAD to dispossess Palestinians of their homes in Silwan and replace them with settlers and a tourist site at the City of David was working. The process is barely noticeable to those who don’t know to look, which is most people.What’s worse is it all seemed (seems) normal to the hundreds of thousands of soldiers, Birthright participants and other tourists who visit the neighborhood without ever meeting a Palestinian resident whose land is systematically being taken.
It’s normal enough that the new Israeli ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer, presented U.S. President Barack Obama with cufflinks from the City of David site. Believe it or not, I’m a big fan of biblical history and literature. I love it, but the City of David put that interest in direct opposition with another interest of mine: Self-Determination.
When the choice is between liberation for my fellow humans or creating a reality of fear of losing shelter to politicized archaeology the former obviously wins… For me. Not for the state of Israel. Also not for the Jewish National Fund. Oh, and also not for everyone that donates the pennies and millions to organizations like the JNF without so much as asking where it goes.
Take the case of the Sumerin Family of Silwan who I came into contact with just weeks after moving to Israel.
In Silwan, once an independent village, now a neighborhood in the shadow of the old city and swallowed by Jerusalem, home is exactly what is being taken away. In the name of archaeology an organization called Elad, supported by the Jewish National Fund (JNF) has found it more important to continue the “City of David” archaeological dig than to let the people of Silwan live in their homes. They have found it more important to bring tour groups through potentially interesting sites than to allow human beings the right to home.
Earlier this month I was present when the Sumerin family learned that they would be able to keep their home despite the previous eviction order, which was requested by Himnuta, a subsidiary of the JNF. After losing much of their property to the ticket sales booth and welcome centre for the City of David project, the Sumerin family breathed a sigh of relief that their roof was still their own, for now. There may be more eviction notices to come.
Sitting by the fire in a wheelbarrow in the front yard of the Sumerin house I was happy to be able to share a moment of relief from the constant onslaught by the State of Israel since their land was entered into the nationalization process after the patriarch of the family passed away in the early 1980’s.
The Sumerin family’s struggle is just one case among millions. They are subject to the will of Israeli courts, Israeli organizations trying to take their homes, and Israeli organizations trying to save their homes. Whether this family (or others) wants to be included in Israel or would rather build a Palestinian homeland, the institutions that control their fate represent the Jews of this land and particularly not the Palestinians. Self-determination is an aspiration that eludes them thus far. The self-determination that Israel may represent to Jews here and around the world is currently standing in the way of Palestinian self-determination. Our autonomy cannot be real or lasting if it is infringing on the autonomy of others.
The occupation is clear and present in Silwan and yet it is hard to see.
As if it were the most normal thing in the world, President Obama accepted cufflinks that, in the end, represent a reality in which the law of the land, the government of Israel, and a slew of non-governmental organizations (funded in large part through American donations) have come together to take homes and property from people in the name of digging up history.
As if it were the most normal thing in the world, NBC has given a green light to an archaeological action show that will take place in Silwan and deal with the ancient history of the place while using the “City of David” moniker. This is a good indication that the show will only add to the normalization of the inequality at work there without so much as mentioning the neighborhood of Silwan whose residents have to deal with the digging for Judaica below, tourists on walkabouts above and the possibility that state sanctioned, JNF funded organizations will come after their homes next.
As the recently JNF-honored Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper plans his first ever trip to Israel, President Obama puts on his ancient cufflinks, and friends and strangers track dirt from unethical dig sites through the backyards and roofs of Silwan I can only implore that more of us (humans) stand up and say that this is not normal and it never will be normal.
The presentation of those cufflinks normalizes the idea that a peoples’ consent is not needed to dig in their homes. It makes plain that the residents of Silwan can have their homes and futures taken away and that the “leader of the free world” doesn’t mind. Maybe the presentation of those cufflinks can remind us that we shouldn’t donate to and applaud those that dispossess others and that we should shut off the television when a program tries to erase the injustice it is recording.
Presidents and Birthright participants and all should know that when they are walking in the City of David they are walking on Silwan.
A. Daniel Roth is an educator and journalist living in South Tel Aviv. He was born and raised in Toronto and lived in a commune of the Hashomer Hatzair movement in New York City. Daniel is a member of the All That’s Left collective. You can find more of his writing and photography at allthesedays.org. Follow him on Twitter @adanielroth.