We don’t notice it here in the quiet neighborhood of Katamon. If it weren’t for my newsfeed and the sounds of firework-like explosions and helicopters I hear each night, I might not know anything out of the ordinary was happening in Jerusalem. I can’t honestly say I wish this were different. I invested so much emotional energy this summer in trying vainly to protect my children’s innocence as sirens wailed and rockets were mercifully blasted out of the sky. Now that Jerusalem is quiet, I’m incredibly grateful that my children have returned to their routines, their biggest anxieties caused by the mean girl in class and the upcoming math quiz. The last thing I want is for their blissful ignorance to be shattered again by violence. I get why so many people here just want to enjoy the renewed calm.
Except that things are not calm. Ever since the horrific killing of Muhammad Abu Khdeir last June, the rioting throughout East Jerusalem has been nearly constant – so much so that it has become the background noise that many of us simply tune out. Until the internal violence explodes into our West Jerusalem world, we feel like it’s just not our problem.
But this is not just “their” problem. It is ours, and not only when “our” innocents are killed.
I’m sure Hamas and other groups bear much of the responsibility for inciting the current violence. I’m upset and angry about this, but there is little we can do to wipe out that influence at its source. What we can and must do is take responsibility for our own part in creating and perpetuating the increasingly bleak atmosphere of frustration, despair and hopelessness which has served as the breeding ground for the current unrest:

We – Israelis – have abandoned more than 100,000 Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem behind the Separation Barrier, leaving them in a state of abject neglect without basic services such as garbage collection, functional sewage systems and sufficient running water from the Jerusalem municipality (which does not service areas behind the wall), but simultaneously denying them the opportunity to be serviced by the nearby PA which (obviously) has no jurisdiction within annexed East Jerusalem1.
We consistently deny building permits to Palestinian residents of Jerusalem and then demolish homes built without these permits, forcing them into a permanent catch 22 – to accept that they can never build, or to build with the knowledge that their homes may be demolished at whim.
We have left thousands of students in East Jerusalem without public school classrooms, compelling those who can to pay exorbitant fees for private school, and those who can’t to simply not attend school at all.
And as crime rates have risen in these destitute areas, we have left many people feeling that the only role the police see for themselves vis-à-vis Palestinian residents is to protect Jewish residents from them. There is a strong sense that what happens inside Arab communities – and even racist threats or actual violence directed at Palestinians by Jews – doesn’t really interest the police.
And then, as if all these acts of omission weren’t enough, Netanyahu goes out of his way to state defiantly that we will build wherever and whenever we want, and the government aids Jewish extremists in purchasing and entering Palestinian homes in some of the most sensitive and overcrowded areas of East Jerusalem. Is this legal? It seems plausible that it is. Is it moral? Perhaps. But as Jeffrey Goldberg compellingly writes, “It is true that Jews have a moral right to live anywhere they want in Jerusalem, their holiest city. It is also true that a mature government understands that not all rights have to be exercised simultaneously. Palestinians believe, not without reason, that the goal of planting Jewish residents in all-Arab neighborhoods is not integration, but domination—to make it as difficult as possible for a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem to ever emerge.”
Making all of this even more distressing to me is the fact that most of those rioting are young people, most in their teens and some as young as nine or ten. These are not hardened criminals plotting Israel’s destruction in organized terror cells. They are kids barely older than my eldest son – poor, desperate, at-risk children whose futures hang in the balance – and we have the power either to help create circumstances which facilitate their future as upstanding members of society, or to goad them even further down the path of hatred and violence.
In no way am I defending the violent acts being committed. I am worried about friends living along the seam line and scared that the violence might soon overflow into our lives. And to the degree that the police are protecting innocent lives from clear and present dangers, I am grateful.
But as much as I object to the violence, I understand that it is arising in a context of extreme despair and impotence. And I am so frustrated and angry at our leaders for persistently fighting violence solely with more violence and intimidation, and for making no effort to take responsibility for our own role in causing this widespread desperation and turmoil.
The Talmud states that when you have to prioritize between the poor of your city and the poor from somewhere else, the poor of your city come first. Most Israeli leaders have made clear that as long as they have any say in the matter, Jerusalem will remain the eternal and undivided capital of the Jewish State. We can’t have it both ways. Either East Jerusalem is part of our city, or it is not. If we are going to continue to claim Jewish sovereignty throughout Jerusalem, and for as long as we have that sovereignty, it is our responsibility to provide and care for everyone in the city – even for those who choose not to accept our authority. We must stop treating the Palestinians of East Jerusalem as members of an enemy state and start relating to them as equals, with equal rights to life, liberty and justice.
In the midst of such a depressing situation (and though I disagree with him on many, many issues) Israeli President Rubi Rivlin has offered important leadership by striving to address past wrongs and build relationships of trust with Arabs in Israel. I hope and pray other leaders join him before it’s too late.
1 In case you missed the embedded links, I strongly recommend viewing this short video and reading these facts and figures, both from ACRI (The Association for Civil Rights in Israel), which offer extremely important information about the dire situation in East Jerusalem.
2 Bava Metzia 71a; Just before this teaching, the Talmud states that between Jews and non-Jews, Jews take precedence. We are very good at taking care of our fellow Jews, and this is right and good. We continue to neglect the non-Jews of our city at our own moral and physical peril.