I Lived in Sheikh Jarrah; What I Saw There Shocked Me
Living among Palestinians showed me the truth about Israel
I am an American who has lived in Sheikh Jarrah, the East Jerusalem neighborhood that has been making headlines recently as it has triggered protests leading to bombing and more violence in the Israel-Palestine “conflict.”
Before moving to Jerusalem, I liked to believe that I had a neutral stance on the conflict. In my last year of studies, I was offered an internship with a UN donor agency in Jerusalem. Growing up in the States, I had always heard how amazing Israel was from my Jewish friends who did Birthright and voluntary service with the Israeli Defense Forces. I am embarrassed to admit, I moved to Jerusalem without actually studying, reading or understanding the history of the city.
I was raised culturally Catholic, and all I knew was that Jerusalem was equally important to all the Abrahamic religions. At the time, all I really knew about Palestine was war-torn Gaza, which I thought was only in a conflict because of Hamas’s Islamic terrorist control over the territory. Israel has a right to defend itself from terrorists—that’s what we always heard in the U.S., and that is what I strongly believed.
When I landed in Tel Aviv, my organization sent a driver to pick me up at Ben Gurion Airport. As soon as I saw him holding my name I went up to him and happily said, “Shalom,” to which he replied, “Sorry, I don’t speak Hebrew, only English. I am Palestinian.” My first thought was, how could a Palestinian be allowed inside Tel Aviv? I thought they only lived on the other side of the wall, in the West Bank or Gaza.
I am grateful for the patience of this man, who answered all my ignorant questions on our drive to Jerusalem without any pushback or anger. He explained to me that he was born in Jerusalem, as were all his grandparents and great-grandparents, and that he had an Israeli “blue I.D.,” which gave him permission to live in Jerusalem and travel around the rest of Israel.
“Wait, you need permission to live in the city where you and your grandparents were born?”
“Yes, because Jerusalem is now controlled and occupied by Israel, but Israel does not recognize me as a citizen because I am not Jewish.”
I tried to act intelligent and understanding, but I am sure my look of utter confusion was obvious. “I know, it's all so complicated and difficult to understand,” he said. “But soon you will see the truth.”
Life in Israel Was Not What I Was Led to Believe
My office and home were located in the neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah. In my first days living there, I would constantly get lost. I didn’t understand why the map had so many dotted lines surrounding my neighborhood, nor what they meant. Then I realized they marked the Green Line from the 1949 Armistice Agreement. While trying to figure it out, I learned that I was living in what was supposed to be left of Palestine’s capital. I read more—enough to understand that Jerusalem was half Israeli and half Palestinian, and that I was living and working in East Jerusalem, which is on the Palestinian side. But wasn’t the wall supposed to mark the Palestinian border? Why are there Palestinian neighborhoods on the Israeli side of the wall? I kept reading and asking.
On my first day leaving Sheikh Jarrah, I wandered onto the tram to explore Jerusalem’s Old City. I got to see a vast variety of people: Jewish men with their long beards, curls and black hats; Muslim women in hijabs and abayas; and a lot of hipster-looking youth. Among the youth, many were holding rifles, although they weren’t in uniform. As the tram filled up, I was squished into a door. A young girl came running on and accidentally hit me with her rifle. What a radical feeling, to be hit in the chest with what appeared to be an AK-47 held by an adolescent girl. I locked eyes with her in absolute shock, as I had never had a rifle so close against my body. She looked the other way and didn’t even say sorry. What the fuck was this place?
When I finally got to the Old City, I was disappointed. I had imagined a charming, lively market, but instead came across a checkpoint with a bunch of soldiers and military cars at the entrance of Damascus Gate. There were even Israeli soldiers at the door of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. And the intimidating sights only worsened when I finally crossed the wall into the West Bank. Being raised Catholic, my whole life I had sang Christmas songs about Bethlehem. I was so excited to finally be able to see the city where Jesus was born. I took a bus from the city center of Jerusalem that dropped me off just 30 minutes away. And there it finally was: the wall.
In order to reach the Nativity Church, I had to cross the wall and go through a military checkpoint. I went through four turnstile doors, under what appeared to be a cage, just to enter the town where the Messiah was born. I had always thought of the Israel-Palestine war as a religious one between Jews and Muslims, but I never imagined it was also affecting the religious freedom of Christians.
Later, I made the mistake of telling an airport security worker at Ben Gurion Airport that I had been to Bethlehem to visit Jesus’s birthplace, which then led to an hours-long interrogation.
“Do you have friends in Bethlehem? Why did you go there if you knew it was in the West Bank? Did you take an Arab bus to get there?”
“Yes, I took the Palestinian bus to get there.” That was a mistake. The officers replied angrily that there was no such thing as a Palestinian bus “because Palestine does not exist.” (That was the first of hundreds of times I heard an Israeli say that. There are, indeed, both Palestinian and Israeli buses, with differing routes.) I spoke to Arabs, because all the priests in the church were Arabs, because Bethlehem is in Palestine, and therefore there are Palestinians that are Christian and Catholic. What was wrong with that? Don’t I have the same right as a Catholic to see Jesus’s birthplace? After all, any Jewish person can get a passport to live in Israel. Why was I getting in trouble for going to see where Jesus was born?
Violence in Israel Is Inescapable
I tried to make Israeli friends. I visited Tel Aviv frequently to escape the tension in Jerusalem. But even in the vegan restaurants and gay bars, or while smoking joints at the beach, almost every single time I was honest to an Israeli person about my humanitarian work, they were quick to brush me off as a terrorist or anti-Semite. Many taxi drivers in West Jerusalem would refuse to take me to Sheikh Jarrah because “that’s where the terrorists live.” I started to lie to them and say that I was going to a hotel near my house.
It became more and more evident that Israel wasn’t the amazing democratic paradise the U.S. paints it as. Every week, I saw Israeli soldiers do something terrifying. The most notable was the violence against children: I once saw Girl Scouts getting pushed around by soldiers at gunpoint.
“Why do they do this to children?” I sincerely asked Israeli people.
“Because they throw rocks and they are dangerous.” I literally got hit in the chest by an AK-47 held by a teen, but somehow the real threat is little kids throwing pebbles? The saddest part is, these Israeli teens have to do military service or go to prison. Without proof of completing the military service, they risk not getting jobs or apartments in the future.
How could this be called a democracy?
I expected to see some violence against Palestinians, but I never imagined the levels and frequency of it. I saw soldiers throw cans of tear gas at a crowd in the checkpoint; the image of a mother running from the gas while covering her toddler’s face with her hijab will haunt me forever. I saw elders humiliated and insulted by 19-year-old soldiers in never-ending lines under the scorching heat, begging to enter the cities they were born in.
But the violence wasn’t just against Palestinians: I was once riding in a UN car in the West Bank when we had stones thrown at us by Jewish settlers. These are the people living in illegal, government-funded settlements in the West Bank, on the other side of the wall, in what is technically legally supposed to be Palestinian land. They hate the UN and any organization trying to respect the original border treaties. What was the point of all these treaties and a huge wall if they want—and allow—Israeli people to live on this side? The settlers don’t have to cross the wall and checkpoints because they have their own roads that are protected by soldiers. Apartheid is the only word for it.
Although violence against humanitarian workers was shocking, it wasn’t the most shocking. What finally made me completely stop defending Israel was witnessing violence against the Orthodox Jewish community. We know that Israel was created to provide Jewish people a safe homeland after the Holocaust. We hear the words “Israelis” and “Jewish people” used interchangeably, particularly by Netanyahu himself. (Let it be known that the majority of the world's Jewish population lives outside of Israel.) We hear that Israel has a right to exist because Jewish people deserve to be safe.
I decided to visit the neighborhood of Mea Shearim to get a closer perspective of how the Orthodox community lived. When I got there, I could hear singing and chanting. As I turned the corner, I saw a scene like something from a horror movie. Dozens of Orthodox men, with their payots (curls) and shtreimels (hats), running away from a tank that was headed towards them. The tank was hosing them down with a malodorant—the smell was so disgusting I could smell it from the end of the street. Some of the men were getting hosed so hard they were literally flying through the air, another image that haunts me until this day. I learned that the Orthodox Jews were protesting against an army draft being held in the area. They aren’t forced to do military service like other Israelis are, but there are still efforts to get them to voluntarily enlist. They didn’t have rifles like the other Israeli youth. They were singing and chanting in what was obviously a nonviolent protest, and the army came in and hosed them down with chemical skunk water.
I learned that sadly, this is quite a frequent phenomenon. On YouTube, you can find plenty of videos of Orthodox Jews being hosed down by the IDF. It doesn’t seem to me like Israel is a safe place for all Jewish people. The state uses terrifying violence against some of the most religious Jewish people, yet I got called anti-Semitic for asking why the army harasses Palestinian children.
My Time in Israel Changed My Perspective
It is clear to see that this is not an issue merely between Jews and Muslims. This is not a complicated religious conflict. This is not a “war,” because only one side has state-of-the-art military equipment paid for by U.S. aid. This is clear apartheid, and under international law, it also constitutes war crimes. There are children being killed and arrested on land where the Israeli army has no jurisdiction. Sheikh Jarrah is not a “real estate dispute”—it is being occupied and colonized. The people of Gaza suffer more under the rule of Hamas than any Israeli person does. There are Jewish people being called anti-Semitic for standing against Israel’s right-wing government (see: Bernie Sanders).
Israel, with its powerful lobbies, is so good at pushing its agenda—they are world leaders at spying, censoring information and promoting propaganda. They have done a fantastic job at convincing the world that if you don’t agree with their policies and violent tactics against the Palestinian people, then you are an anti-Semitic terrorist supporter.
I wish all people could see the truth with their own eyes the way I did. This is about human rights abuses; good versus bad. And in case it wasn’t obvious from all of the videos of violence making their way out of Sheikh Jarrah and beyond, the bad guy is Israel.