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Facts on the Ground

A Columbia professor tours East Jerusalem, where national histories clash, converge, and intertwine

Todd Gitlin
December 10, 2010
On guard in Silwan.(Photos by Todd Gitlin)
On guard in Silwan.(Photos by Todd Gitlin)

“What Is ‘Occupation’?”

In October, I took part in a conference at the luxurious, tourist-stuffed Mount Zion Hotel, a stone’s throw south of the Old City wall in Jerusalem. My group debated “delegitimization,” the current Israeli catch-all term that clumps together hostility to the post-1967 occupation with hostility to the existence of a Jewish state, hostility to everything Israeli, and hostility to Jews everywhere. The air was thick with anxious and angry embattlement, sarcasm and abstraction. A government minister told a nasty joke itemizing a long list of Palestinian sins. An official of the Foreign Ministry, his voice bristling with air-quotes, asked, “What is ‘occupation’?” An American participant spoke of “the alleged occupation.”

From this depressing session I drove to the Palestinian village of Silwan, just east of the Old City wall. It took all of three minutes before we passed soldiers with a water cannon poised for trouble—stone-throwing episodes had erupted near where a Palestinian cab driver was shot and killed a month earlier by a security guard working for the settler group Elad. “We are almost a branch of the government of Israel,” an Elad official has said, “but without getting buried under government bureaucracy.” Elad receives 47 million shekels, about $13 million, from anonymous donations each year, according to my guide, Hagit Ofran, director of Peace Now’s Settlement Watch Project. We were accompanied by two retired ambassadors, one Canadian, one American, members of an

international group, the Jerusalem Old City Initiative, which for years has been promoting an administrative plan that would expedite a peace settlement—professional optimists, in other words.

When we stopped at a border police outpost, I aimed my camera—discreetly, or so I intended—toward a Palestinian kid leading a picturesque donkey down the street. He wheeled and shouted, No! Hagit explained that the Israeli military use photos to identify Palestinian boys, who are not infrequently arrested, late at night, then taken to police stations to be interrogated. I felt like an invader, ashamed of myself.

The Archeological Weapon

Throughout Silwan, on land annexed by Israel after 1967, Israeli archeology tunnels on, beneath Palestinian houses and in one case, Hagit said, close to a mosque, causing damage there and to nearby homes. Hagit spoke of these digs as acts of “impunity.” Her grandfather was the renowned Israeli scientist-philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz, an early editor of the Encyclopaedia Hebraica, who frowned on the sanctification of physical sites and once wrote: “Holiness consists only in observance of the Torah and its Mitzvoth: ‘and you shall be holy to your God.’ ”

Alongside the Givati parking lot on the slope to the Old City is another extensive archaeological dig. Plastic bags of unscreened dirt piled up alongside a Herod-era road boring into what the Jews call the Temple Mount and Palestinians the Haram al-Sharif—suggesting that after years of digging (never cleared by UNESCO, though Jerusalem is a World Historical Site), the dig is complete.

Hagit explained that the land where the parking lot stands was cleared of a Palestinian dwelling and then, as open space, became fair game for parking. Once open land is seized by the Jerusalem municipality for parking lots—there are seven in all—Palestinians cannot use it for other purposes. The owners have protested in court, arguing that the lots are empty only because the municipality won’t permit them to build there. They say they need kindergartens, schools, clinics, and playgrounds. (The Palestinians won in the local court, but the municipality’s appeal is pending.) Indeed, parking lots are not the most conspicuous need of this impoverished neighborhood, where,

according to the Palestinian information center, some three-quarters of the children subsist beneath the poverty line.

Across the street from the lot, just southeast of the Old City, Elad, the settlers’ group, runs the City of David, an archeological theme park the group developed in the early years of the previous decade. There’s an archeological consensus that the area was settled in the 12th century B.C.E., but the consensus breaks down over the question whether the Iron Age ruins actually originated during the 10th century reigns of Kings David and Solomon. Elad’s City of David brooks no ambiguity or entanglement, however. It claims absolute historicity in a place where national (and notional) histories clash, converge, intertwine, and interfere with each other.

Half a million tourists arrive by the busload each year—this is one of Israel’s top tourist attractions. Taxes subsidize visits to the City of David for every Israeli child.

The Lawn of Solomon

The City of David is a public place, admission free, with pathways up and down the steep hills connecting the ruins of Iron Age walls, stone staircases, roads, and the Pool of Siloam. Palestinians rarely venture here. In fact, it’s easy to walk through the entire site—exiting through a tunnel for a fee, payable to Elad—without ever setting eyes on any of the roughly 55,000 Palestinians who live in Silwan.

On one scenic hillside in the City of David stood a Palestinian café. When its picture went up in the local Palestinian information center and a brochure a few years ago, to recall earlier, more cooperative days, vandals blacked out its sign.

Amid the restored ruins stand a few modernized homes with iron gates—occupied by Jewish settlers who hold special permits. The house pictured here, belonging to a Palestinian family, the Abbasis, was declared “absentee property” and in 1991 was taken over by the family of Elad leader David Be’eri, who sang, danced, and waved the Israeli flag from the rooftop. When the Abbasi family went to court in protest, a Jerusalem district judge found “no factual or legal basis” for the takeover. Subsequently, the settlers managed to buy part of the house from one member of the Abbasi family—a purchase still pending in court after an Abbasi appeal. Three settler families live there now, along with one Palestinian family, while legal proceedings continue. All told, some 60 to 70 Israeli families share 18 houses in the vicinity of the City of David, living among 4,500 Palestinians. In Silwan as a whole, the Israeli post-1967 settlers number no more than 400.

At the bottom of the slope of the City of David, dedicated to the authenticity of biblical origins, stretches an anomalous green stretch called the Garden of Solomon. Planted a few years ago on a barren stretch of land, this recently planted space will eventually link up with other green spaces stretching around the Old City. If Solomon actually strolled across this ground, perhaps accompanied by one or more of his 700 wives, perhaps pausing to write his glorious psalms, it was probably not on a bright green lawn.


Elsewhere in East Jerusalem stands a tawny, up-to-date stone settlement built on land purchased for Israeli use through the offices of Irving Moskowitz, an 82-year-old retired American physician and hospital developer with extensive gambling interests in South Florida and California. Fifty Israeli families already live in this particular complex.

The multimillionaire Moskowitz, dubbed the “Bingo King” in a 1996 Los Angeles Times, has been buying up East Jerusalem properties for more than 40 years and turning them over to settler groups. After Moskowitz’s foundation bought this plot of land, Israeli Jews moved into the small Palestinian house that stood here, then demolished the house in order to build a compound that included 50 housing units for settlers. Pictured here is a second complex of 60 housing units, into which Israeli settlers have just begun moving.

Moskowitz, a longtime ally of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, had many of his relatives murdered by the Nazis. He has long viewed peace talks as a “slide toward concessions, surrender and Israeli suicide,” and he has put his millions where his mouth is, principally in East Jerusalem. He has cited a 1967 letter that he says David Ben-Gurion wrote to him declaring: “We need more Jews [in] the liberated territories.” (At other times Ben-Gurion wavered on keeping Israeli settlements on the West Bank, though not in Jerusalem.) By spreading Jewish settlements throughout an area that Palestinians insist must become the capital of a Palestinian state, Moskowitz is financing the facts on the ground that stand in the way of a deal.

In Hagit’s view, the security wall that snakes through East Jerusalem and the West Bank is not an absolute impediment to an eventual two-state solution. She maintains that if Jewish settlers, like Palestinians, are made to pass through checkpoints on their way into West Jerusalem, half of them will leave.

“Carr-terr! Carr-terr!”

Hagit and I drove to the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in northern Jerusalem, where every Friday at 3 p.m. protesters demonstrate against the expulsion of Palestinians from their homes—homes where 28 Palestinian families were resettled in 1956, having fled their homes on the other side of the Green Line during the 1948 war. This past August, two families were evicted in favor of Jews who owned these properties before they fled the Jordanian army in 1948. Now the victims of one ethnic cleansing insist on undoing it by conducting a second ethnic cleansing. Jews who reject Palestinians’ right of return to Israel, arguing reasonably that it would undermine the Jewish state, are insisting on their own right of return to properties that their families owned before 1948.

On this occasion, the 300 to 400 demonstrators, some banging drums, were in a festive mood, perhaps because they knew that former President Jimmy Carter and former Irish President Mary Robinson were expected. They were mostly young, almost entirely Israeli, and cheered on by an encampment of young Palestinians. These Friday afternoon gatherings have evolved into the quintessential rituals of the Israeli left. On a Saturday evening last March, some 3,000 protesters showed up.

At the dot of 4 p.m., Carter’s limo drove up. Chants began: “Carr-terr! Carr-terr!” Carter and Robinson waded into the crowd, Carter was handed a bullhorn and offered “congratulations” to the protesters for “trying to resolve this injustice peacefully.” He deplored “demolition” and “confiscation.” Carter, the president who brokered a peace treaty between Israel and its most formidable military enemy, is regularly, vehemently, reviled by the Israeli right and its American supporters. At the Mt. Zion Hotel, his name was synonymous with the devil incarnate.

I watched the ultra-Orthodox Israeli men across the street, strolling purposefully in and out of their gated community, wearing black hats and frock coats, showing their white cuffs in the unseasonably hot sun under the armed guard of Israeli troops, displaying minimal curiosity about the demonstrators, turning their backs to these interlopers who may well have appeared to them rowdy, immodest, treasonous, treyf, retrograde nuisances willfully ignorant of their manifest destiny. Were the settlers thinking that they were, themselves, the saving remnants, instruments of divinity? And/or, more earthily, did they fancy themselves the practical vanguard of an inkblot strategy that would forever scotch talk of an independent East Jerusalem that might stand as the capital of a Palestinian state? Were they convinced, as pilgrims have long been convinced, that a Roman-era tomb in the neighborhood holds the remains of Shimon Ha-Tzadik, Simeon the Just, high priest in the time of the Second Temple, although the inscription on the tomb, now defaced, marks it as the resting place of a Roman noblewoman?

What did these studious men, and the women who share their mission, make of Numbers 15:16, “There shall be one law and one custom for you and for the stranger that dwells with you”? What do their rabbis tell them? Do they define away the “strangers” of that verse in such a way as to disqualify Palestinians?

Do they feel vindicated now that the Knesset has belatedly discovered the merits of direct democracy when it passed a bill that would require a referendum of Israeli voters to confirm any agreement with the Palestinians?

Devout of spirit, “stiff-necked,” as the Torah said, were they untroubled by the fact that the great majority of Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan residents will not be granted the vote on that matter, or any other, because they are not the chosen among the chosen, the unelected elect?

Are they so confident that the Almighty, the Original Settler, made them, and only them, in his own exclusive image?

Todd Gitlin, professor of journalism and sociology and chair of the Ph.D. program in Communications at Columbia University, is the author, with Liel Leibovitz, of the recently published The Chosen Peoples: America, Israel, and the Ordeals of Divine Election.

CORRECTION, December 12: After publication, the author learned of a number of factual errors were noted in this article. They are: Elad receives 47 million shekels annually in anonymous donations, not 52 million from the government. Gitlin attempted to photograph a Palestinian youth at a border-polie outpost, not a military outpost. A tunnel in Silwan recently caused damage to a mosque and nearby homes; it did not cause a house to collapse. The Israeli government did not revoke the license for a Palestinian cafe in the City of David, but vandals did black out its sign. The status of the Abbasi house was incorrectly described; in fact, currently both settlers and Palestinians live in parts of it while legal proceedings continue. The article characterized Hagit Ofran as saying that Moskowitz has purchased land for two East Jerusalem buildings that would block the new Palestinian parliament’s view of the Old City; she denies making that statement. And, finally, the opinion that half of the settlers would leave if they were required to pass through the same checkpoints Palestinians are on their way to East Jerusalem was attributed to Peace Now; it should be attributed to Hagit Ofran. These errors have all been corrected.

Todd Gitlin (1943-2022), was a professor of journalism and sociology and chair of the Ph.D. program in Communications at Columbia University, and the author of among other books The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage; Occupy Nation: The Roots, the Spirit, and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street; and, with Liel Leibovitz, The Chosen Peoples: America, Israel, and the Ordeals of Divine Election.