David Myers v. Gary Ratner

First Prof. David Myers at UCLA wrote an Op-Ed piece for The Jewish Journal decrying the treatment of a Palestinian family he encountered in East Jerusalem:

And yet, the thrilling sense I had on Mount Scopus’ heights was quickly dissipated after traveling a few miles down the hill to the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah. There, I encountered Maher Hanoun, whose extended family was evicted by Israeli police from his home in a raid on Aug. 2. The Hanoun family — along with the Gawi family — has for years been subjected to unrelenting pressure from various Jewish groups to leave their homes. Immediately after the eviction of 17 members of the Hanouns and 38 members of the Gawis, religious nationalist settlers occupied the houses — yet another step in their plan to “Judaize” Jerusalem and rid it of its Arab residents.

Then Gary Ratner, national executive director of the Zionist Organization of America,  wrote a Letter to the Editor attacking Myer’s position:

Jerusalem Needs No “Judaizing”

David N. Myers takes the side of illegal Arab squatters on Jewish-owned property in Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood and criticizes Israel’s Supreme Court for their decision, which was based on property documentation, to award the land to Jewish owners as casting a “dark pall over the Israeli legal system” (“Jerusalem 2009: A Tale of Two Cities,” Aug. 14).

This is not a case of insensitivity to Arab residents or Arabs in general; it is a case of determining ownership, something that is a sometimes painful but necessary task of law courts. History and documents, not nationality or religion, determined the result.

In any other case or country, one can be sure that Myers would call for judicial review of documents and the upholding of the law. Here, he doesn’t, because he doesn’t like the results. Instead, he wants the courts to ignore documentation and important matters like actual ownership so it can rule in favor of illegal squatters and thus frustrate what he offensively calls, using Arab parlance, the “Judaization” of Jerusalem.

Jerusalem does not need to be “Judaized.” It is part of Jewish history and was the capital of the Jews when Washington, D.C., was a marsh. It is the only city to have had a Jewish majority since the 1880s. Only Palestinians who deny every Jewish claim or right in the city speak of Israel “Judaizing” the city. Myers should think twice before parroting their malicious talking points.

Gary Ratner

National Executive Director

Zionist Organization of America

New York, N.Y.

Now David Myers responds in this post for Bloggish he sent to jewishjournal.com:

Gary Ratner has every right to express his opinion.  But much of what he writes is just plain wrong.  First, the Hanoun family was not illegally squatting in the house in Sheikh Jarrah from which it was evicted.  The family has occupied the house for fifty years; it was built in the wake of the 1948 war by the United Nations on land assigned the Hanouns by the sovereign power in control of East Jerusalem at the time, Jordan.  Ratner’s insistence on primogeniture blithely ignores the changing historical landscape of Palestine, the shifting legal and political regimes under which the country was ruled, the property law doctrine of adverse possession, and the very possibility that his own principle could easily be turned on its head.  Would Ratner be just as ready to advocate FOR the restitution of property in West Jerusalem to its former Palestinian owners from 60 years ago? Second, the attempt to “Judaize” is not a matter of “malicious (Arab) talking points.”  It is language used by Israeli leaders, both sotto voce and explicitly, to assure Jewish domination of different parts of Israel, from Jerusalem to the Galilee (where the Hebrew term “yehud ha-Galil,” Judaization of the Galilee, has been widely and openly invoked).  Third, Jerusalem, where a Jewish majority probably arose in 1896, is hardly “the only city to have had a Jewish majority since the 1880s.”  What of the early Zionist settlements of Rishon Le-Tzion, Petah Tikvah, and Zichron Yaakov?  Perhaps Mr. Ratner should stop parroting the talking points of the far right and study a bit more Zionist history.

Anyone else want to weigh in here?

Roberta Seid did:

Response to the David Myers-Gary Ratner Exchange

Roberta P. Seid, PhD

Israel’s eviction of two families from Sheikh Jarrah is far from a predatory, unjust “raid” to “Judaize” Jerusalem, as David Myers argues. The families had consistently refused to pay their rent.

Twenty-six other Palestinian Arab families, who do pay their rent, remain.

Ownership issues are complex in Jerusalem, but the Sheikh Jarrah case has been well vetted in the courts. Bought jointly by the Sephardic and Ashkenazi communities in 1876, the land was occupied by invading Jordanian forces in 1948, and turned over to the Jordanian Custodian of Enemy Property.  In 1956, UNRWA moved Palestinian Arabs into the Jewish homes. They paid rent to the Custodian, and were told they would receive ownership papers to the property, though this transaction apparently never took place. When Israel reunited Jerusalem in 1967, the land fell to Israel’s Custodian of Absentee Property. After several court cases contesting whether the Sheikh Jarrah residents or the Jews owned the property, it was returned to the Jewish owners.  A 1988 court settlement determined the Palestinian Arab residents did not own the property but enjoyed “protected tenancy” status, and could continue to live in the homes if they paid rent. The two evicted families had refused to comply with this agreement.

The Sheikh Jarrah suit is a civil case about individual property ownership between Israeli citizens and Palestinian Arabs with Israeli IDs that is properly handled by Israel’s court system, just as other countries have courts that handle civil disputes.  Meyers erroneously conflates this civil dispute with the larger national conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, warning that Palestinians may then justifiably make ownership claims to their pre-1948 property just as the Jews did with Sheikh Jarrah.  This suggestion does not hold up. Most, if not all, of the formerly Arab homes in West Jerusalem were abandoned when, like most Palestinian refugees of 1948, the former occupants fled voluntarily in anticipation of the coming war, and never sought to return or reclaim ownership.  Those who stayed, however, were allowed—as are all Israeli Arab citizens—to maintain ownership of their property. This bears no resemblance to the case of Jewish property in eastern Jerusalem.  Rather than merely take over abandoned houses, Jordan forcibly conquered the neighborhoods in an illegal invasion in 1948, and as a matter of policy, expelled Jews and forbade Jewish ownership.  To treat these homes as “abandoned,” like those west of the Green Line, would be to ignore Jordan’s aggressive role in their unnatural change of hands.

Furthermore, Israel has sought to redress the plight of the 1948 refugees for decades now in its negotiations with the PA.  Israel has repeatedly said that such collective national—as opposed to individual—claims will be settled in as part of an overall peace agreement.

Myers’ interpretation that the Court decision reflects Israel’s purported effort to rid Jerusalem of Palestinians is not supported by the facts. Israel offered citizenship to all Jerusalem Arab residents after 1967.  The vast majority refused but received “blue cards’ which entitle them to all citizenship privileges except voting for the Knesset. Far from dwindling, the Jerusalem Arab population has grown from 67,000 in 1967 to over 230,000 today. In the past several years, tens of thousands of Jerusalem Arabs from areas that might be ceded to the PA have moved into Jewish neighborhoods that are expected to stay under Israeli sovereignty. They can—and do—buy and rent homes throughout the city.

Myers’ evidence for Israel’s “Judaizing” efforts is equally misguided. He merely cites outdated phrases of Israeli leaders who were talking innocuously about the Jewishness of the Galilee.

The real effort afoot is not “Judaizing” the city, but de-Judaizing or Palestinizing it by changing its character and rewriting its history. It is widely known that Jerusalem has been the Jews’ spiritual and earthly capital for 3,000 years. Less well known is that the documentary record attests that for the two millennia after the Roman conquest, Jews continued to try to live in the city, their numbers rising or falling depending on the harshness of the subsequent ruling empires. As Jesuit Michael Naud observed on his pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 1674, “Jews prefer being prisoners in Jerusalem to enjoying the freedom they could acquire elsewhere.” They were once again the city’s majority religious group by the mid-1850’s, and depending on which sources one uses, became the numeric majority sometime between the 1860’s and 1870’s, not 1896 as Myers states.  The British Consulate reported to London headquarters in 1864 that 8,000 of the city’s 15,000 residents were Jews.  Jews subsequently remained the majority in the city.

In contrast, Jerusalem is Islam’s third holiest city, has never been the capital of any Arab state, and Muslim interest in it has arisen only periodically, and briefly, in the past 1400 years, generally when non-Muslims got control of the city.  Throughout most of this time, Jerusalem remained a neglected backwater.  In fact, 42 years after Saladin recaptured Jerusalem from the Crusaders in 1187 and began a building and restoration program, his grandson ceded the city to the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II in exchange for arms. When it reverted to Muslim control, it again became an unimportant provincial backwater, flourishing briefly when Suleiman the Magnificent rebuilt the Old City’s walls in the 16th century, and then languishing in obscurity again until the Jewish revival of the city began in the second half of the 19th century, and when the British made it the capital of Mandatory Palestine.  Jordan captured the Old City in the 1948 War, but also neglected it, preferring to bring prestige to Amman instead.  Jordan also tried to erase all Jewish presence from the city, destroying or vandalizing 57 Jewish synagogues and yeshivas, and used Jewish gravestones from the Mount of Olives to build footpaths and latrines.  It is instructive that the PLO Charter of 1964 didn’t mention the city, nor did the revised PLO Charter in 1968 after Israel had reunited the city.

Yet, in the past several decades, the Palestinians have turned Jerusalem into their cause celebre, wantonly plagiarizing the Jewish narrative. Salaam Fayyad’s declaration of Palestinian statehood last month unabashedly claimed that “Jerusalem is our people’s religious, cultural, economic and political center” and must be “the eternal capital of the future Palestinian state.” Wealthy Arabs, from the Gulf States to Saudi Arabia to Palestinian millionaires, have frantically rushed to buy up land and homes in Jerusalem to stake their claim.

European governments have abetted this “de-Judaizing” effort. The process began under the Mandate.  Though Jews were a 65% majority in 1922, the British appointed an Arab mayor for the city. In 1947, when Jews were 60% of the population, the UN still refused to accept the possibility of Jewish sovereignty over the city, recommending that it be internationalized for ten years after which its status was to be reconsidered.

More recently, Western democracies have refused to put their embassies in Israel’s capital, and will not even formally recognize western Jerusalem as Israel’s capital—though Jews were the first to expand outside the walls of the City (1867) to the west, always formed the majority, and the area lies within the pre-1967 Green Line that these nations contend should provide the basis for any territorial settlement between Israel and the Palestinians. This non-recognition continues despite the fact that only under Israeli control (and the Mandate authorities) have all religions had absolute liberty to practice their faith, and to control their own holy sites and structures in Jerusalem.  It continues despite the fact that Israeli sovereignty has turned the city into what many claim it should ideally be—a place where all faiths mingle and their rights are safeguarded.

David Myers might also do well to remember that his visit to Hebrew University would not have been possible between 1949 and 1967 when, despite agreements it made, Jordan would not permit Israelis to go to Mount Scopus and use Hebrew University (built in 1918-1925)  or Hadassah Hospital (founded 1934).

Misusing the Sheikh Jarrah court decision assists those who deny Israel’s rights, and gives credibility to a false narrative that violates history, facts on the ground, and justice.

David Myers responds to Ms. Seid below.  But note to all participants: since I have a pretty big day job, please respond from now on in the Comments section, which is very easy and DIY.  Other people can join in the conversation as well.  Shana tova.:

There is a certain futility in addressing Roberta Seid’s arguments in her response to my exchange with Gary Ratner.  There is simply not a common language.  On her view, it is not the Judaization of Jerusalem that is at issue, as the eviction of the Hanoun and Gawi families would seem to represent.  Rather, “the real effort,” she asserts in a sweepingly ecumenical indictment of the Muslim and Western worlds alike, is about “de-Judaizing or Palestinizing it by changing its character and rewriting its history.”  It is hard not to take that as a willful (and decidedly unempathic) misreading of the situation on the ground.  A more charitable reading would be that her view of history issues primarily from concern for the well-being of Jews.  This is a noble concern, and one to which I am deeply committed.  But it is no excuse for misunderstanding the fundamental nature of power relations in Jerusalem and Israel, nor for constructing a fantasy world in which Jews are once again in the familiar position of being victims.  I am not sure how Ms. Seid arrives at her conclusions, but she might see things differently were she to read the book written by former Jerusalem municipal advisor on Arab affairs, Amir Cheshin, along with co-authors Bill Hutman and Avi Melamed.  In Separate but Unequal: The Inside Story of Israeli Rule in East Jerusalem, Cheshin and his colleagues conclude with the following epitaph: “Israel has treated the Palestinians of Jerusalem terribly. As a matter of policy, it has forced many of them from their homes and stripped them of their land, all the while lying to them and deceiving them and the world about its honorable intentions.”

This is a harsh and unsettling judgment, but one that we can’t simply dismiss because it upsets our self-image or efforts at advocacy.  Nor can we accept Ms. Seid’s claims simply because they allow us to feel good as underdogs. 

1) In the first instance, she doesn’t quite get the story about the Hanoun family right.  From her account, the Hanoun family appears as little more than a bunch of lawless squatters who refuse to pay rent.  In fact, the family has lived in its house for more than fifty years.  Moreover, it was promised ownership rights from the Jordanian authorities who controlled East Jerusalem from 1948 to 1967 if the family paid rent and taxes for three years, which it did.  (For a detailed account of the case, see http://www.ir-amim.org.il/eng/_Uploads/dbsAttachedFiles/SheikhJarrahEngnew.pdf.) While the Hanoun family never received the promised title to the property, it is not at all clear why the Israeli courts would privilege the claims of the Sephardic Community Council from more than a hundred years ago (based on an Ottoman-era document whose veracity is itself questioned) over its own.  This is all the more vexing given the involvement of the Nahalat Shimon International corporation on the side of the Sephardic Council.  After all, the Nahalat Shimon group, a private corporation, aims to gain control of land in East Jerusalem, evict hundreds of Arab residents of the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood, and build new homes for Jewish residents.  How is this not an overtly political act (rather than a mere civil matter, as she implies)?  And how is this not a clear case of Judaization?

2) It is true, as Seid says, that “ownership issues are complex in Jerusalem.”  One of the reasons why long-time Jerusalem mayor, Teddy Kollek, was wary of Jewish groups buying up land n East Jerusalem was precisely because of the precedent he feared it would set in encouraging displaced Palestinians to assert their rights to property in Jerusalem.  It is unclear why Said argues that the property claims of Palestinian refugees are not comparable to the claims of Jews (for example, those from the Sephardic Council and the Nahalat Shimon corporation).  At one level, would it not make sense that the more recent the ownership claim, the stronger the case?  Ought not courts be disposed to consider more sympathetically the interests of actual dispossessed owners over those of a corporation which represents neither former residents nor descendents of residents, but rather the abstract principle of populating East Jerusalem with Jews (at the expense of local Arab residents)?  To insist that this is not a political/national matter, but rather a civil legal matter is naïve at best. 

3) On Seid’s reading, Arabs “can—and do—buy and rent homes throughout the city.”  I don’t know how familiar she is with Jerusalem, but one is hard-pressed to encounter a single Arab resident, not to mention homeowner, in Talbieh, Rehavia, Talpiot, Bet Ha-Kerem, Bayit Ve-Gan, Har Nof, Me’ah She’arim, or many other Jewish neighborhoods in the city.  In fact, there are formal and informal obstacles to Arabs’ buying property in Jewish neighborhoods throughout Jerusalem.  (To take one particular example, article 19 of the standard lease of the Israel Land Administration, which regulates property distribution in the country, effectively precludes foreign nationals, including Palestinians in East Jerusalem, form buying an apartment or home.)  By contrast, there is active government support for individuals and groups like El Ad and Nahalat Shimon to establish a strong Jewish presence in Arab neighborhoods such as Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan.  Moreover, there is not only a vast disparity in municipal funding for Jews and Arabs, but Arab residents of East Jerusalem, with their blue identity cards, face routine discrimination in receiving building permits, moving freely about their city and beyond (due to the Wall), and even returning to their homes after spending time abroad. 

4) It is far from accurate to state that Israel has “sought to redress the plight of refugees from 1948 for decades.”  On the contrary, Israel has consistently resisted redressing their plight.  It is true that at the Lausanne armistice talks of 1949, Israel, or at least Foreign Minister Moshe Sharett, was briefly willing to consider the repatriation of some Arab refugees under what was known as the “100,000 plan.” But the idea was short-lived and almost never revisited.  Since that time, Israel has preferred to postpone discussion of the refugee question—and specifically the provision of United Nations General Assembly Resolution 194 dealing with compensation—until the very end of peace negotiations. 

5) In the master narrative that Ms. Seid seeks to advance, the Jews have a stronger purchase on Jerusalem than the Muslims.  I am hesitant to establish such hierarchies.  Just as I find utterly foolish those who deny the existence of a Holy Temple in Jerusalem (whose remnant is the Western Wall), so I find senseless those who seek to deny or diminish the presence of Arabs or Muslims in Jerusalem or Palestine.  In this regard, I’d counsel a bit more caution when throwing around demographic figures regarding a Jewish majority in Jerusalem.  Counting Jewish or other souls in late nineteenth-century Ottoman Jerusalem is a notoriously precarious matter.  Seid is certain that a Jewish majority surfaces in the 1860s or 1870s.  It’s possible, though far from certain.  Baedeker counts 4000 Jews out of 24,000 residents in 1871.  At least three other European chroniclers from 1876 to 1885 suggest that Jews constituted a plurality, but not a majority in that period.  By the 1880s and surely 1890s, one is on much safer ground in making this kind of claim.  (See Kark and Oren-Nordheim, Jerusalem and its Environs: Quarter, Neighborhoods, Villages.)  But even so, what’s the significance?  To pretend that one can measure the relative merits of Jewish and Muslim ties to Jerusalem in quantitative terms?  That hardly seems a wise or self-serving tack.

One can certainly debate and disagree over how to interpret the past.  But Roberta Seid’s world is one in which history serves to validate Herzl’s famous proposition that “if you will it, it is no dream.”  Alas, her willful account does nothing to advance truth or justice in the case of the Hanoun family.  Nor sadly does it bear much resemblance to the complex and disturbing realities on the ground in Jerusalem.