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Ronit Avni

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Who Will Write Jerusalem's Story?

Posted: 11/18/11 09:20 AM ET

While Jerusalem has always received its fair share of attention at the center of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, too often it is treated as an idealized symbol rather than a real place. In debates surrounding the future of the city, religious proclamations and lines on maps overshadow the needs and interests of the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians and Israelis who live, work and raise their families in the city.

This is the real struggle taking place today in Jerusalem: a battle between those whose vision for the city hinges on guaranteeing full rights and a dignified existence for all residents, and those who place politics and divine decree ahead of the everyday needs of the people. It is a contest for the character of the city and, in recent months, almost unnoticeably amidst the steady barrage of news from the region, it has entered a particularly dangerous phase.

Two weeks ago, the Jerusalem office of Peace Now, an Israeli NGO that has played a leading role in tracking illegal Israeli settlement growth, received a bomb threat that led to its evacuation. Several days later, the home of Hagit Ofran, the head of that organization's settlement monitoring team, was vandalized and covered with graffiti for the second time in weeks. Messages scrawled in Hebrew on her building bore several death threats, including one that ominously declared, "Ofran, [assassinated Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak] Rabin is waiting for you."

Hagit is one of many Israeli and Palestinian activists and grassroots leaders working nonviolently toward a resolution to the conflict and an end to the occupation. Though they are often marginalized in public discourse, these individuals embody some of the best hopes we have for a brighter future in Jerusalem and the region as a whole: they are committed to a nonviolent approach, seek a future that promises security, freedom and dignity for both Israelis and Palestinians, and are willing to make huge personal sacrifices to fight for the integrity of the societies they live in. In an environment rife with political gamesmanship and cynical maneuvering, they stubbornly insist on putting human needs first.

But, instead of having their contributions recognized, these visionaries are consistently subject to demonization and attack, and their personal safety is now at serious risk. Ms. Ofran's case is unfortunately not the only recent display of violent intolerance Jerusalem has witnessed lately: Just over a month ago, a group of Palestinian farmers and Israeli activists protesting peacefully against the seizure of the farmers' land by settlers were attacked and badly beaten by angry mobs from the Jerusalem settlement-suburb of Anatot. The violence took place as Israeli police stood by, and in a particularly sinister turn, at least one of the attackers turned out to be an off-duty police officer.

This violence is taking place at a time when prospects for a shared future in the city are dimming. As the Israeli government continues to announce one new construction project after another in East Jerusalem, scores of Palestinians residents also face the prospect of eviction by Israeli settlers. It is becoming painfully clear that the prevalent attitude of those controlling Jerusalem is not about preserving and equitably developing a fragile city that is precious to all, but about aggressively claiming it as a prize to be won.

All of this means that the efforts of those striving to create a tenable future for both Israelis and Palestinians in the city are more important now than ever. For those of us not directly involved in this work, there are two clear responsibilities: First, we must ensure that attacks against them are denounced across the board, and that the perpetrators are caught and brought to justice. Second, and perhaps more importantly, now is the time to increase our awareness and support for people like Hagit and the work that they do, and to encourage those around us to do the same.

Though the trends in Jerusalem are worrisome, they are by no means irreversible. It is within our power as a global audience to ensure that Jerusalem's story is written not by extremists and obstructionists, but by those who are working pragmatically on the ground toward a sustainable, shared future. Our attention will not only provide these individuals with some small measure of protection, it will also go a long way toward ensuring that their vision of Jerusalem, as a holy city in which the rights and dignity of all are respected, becomes a reality.

This responsibility is what recently drove us at Just Vision to create a new short film series, Home Front: Portraits from Sheikh Jarrah, which tells the story of an ongoing nonviolent campaign in one East Jerusalem neighborhood. The movement was started by Palestinian residents in response to the displacement of several Palestinian families from their homes by Israeli settlers. It quickly drew in scores of Israeli supporters who were horrified to see what was being done in their name. While it has faced challenges, the campaign in Sheikh Jarrah has drawn crucial attention to the cynical game being played in East Jerusalem, and to the unbearable human cost of letting ideology and political interests eviscerate people's lives and livelihoods. But more attention is needed to reverse this trend.

Many of us have had moments where we've looked back at inspiring social movements, such as the Civil Rights or feminist movements, and have wished we could have been there in the early days to lend our hand to unknown activists taking their first bold steps toward a new reality. Despite the seeming hopelessness of the situation, we are now at such a moment in Jerusalem. While it is up to the residents of the city to guide it in a direction they see fit, it falls to us to support and encourage those whose approach we believe in, and to do all we can to raise their voices above the din. It is a remarkable opportunity. May we not squander it.
 

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