Showdown at Sheik Jarrah

In this land of a million arguments, it's easy to get so exhausted by the back-and-forth that you just want to tune out and say, "Well, there are two sides to every argument, so you're probably both right -- or you're both wrong."

I was tempted to feel that way recently when I visited a notorious flashpoint of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheik Jarrah. This is the place where leftist demonstrators from around the world gather regularly in front of an eager press corps to protest the eviction of a Palestinian family, who are now camped out in an ongoing vigil across the street from their former home.

Accompanied by Chaim Silberstein, who runs Keep Jerusalem, an organization that promotes keeping Jerusalem united under Israeli sovereignty, I went to check out the scene. I had no idea I'd end up witnessing a verbal slugfest.

It started harmlessly enough, when we approached a small group of demonstrators milling around a tent where a few Palestinians were sitting on an old sofa. I greeted one of the Palestinians, an elderly man, in Arabic, to show him we didn't have any hostile intentions.

A young man then approached us, as a few cameras started rolling. He said he was a freelance reporter from San Francisco.

"So, what have you learned so far?" Silberstein asked him.

"Well, it seems there has been somewhat of a contention over the land since '54 or '56. The UN-RWA set up all these houses with the Jordanian authorities, but then the people have been having a legal battle over it. They [the Israelis] kicked out the family and literally moved in another [Jewish] family."

"Do you know the history, what happened 100 years ago?" Silberstein asked the journalist.

"Well, I know in 1948, the people from here, from Sheik Jarrah, were refugees that came from Haifa, Jaffa and other places and built homes on the land that was empty land with the Jordanian authorities," he said.

"It was empty land; it didn't belong to anybody?" Silberstein asked.

"No," the reporter replied.

"OK, so I know a little about the background, and that's not correct," Silberstein told him. "This whole area was purchased by Jews in 1875. They still have the documents -- it was ratified by the Supreme Court."

"But Nasser [the Palestinian whose family got evicted] also has a document from the Ottoman Empire that was before that," the reporter said.

"Actually, I've seen that document," Silberstein said. "It is dated back to 1897, and the Israeli court did a forensic test, and it came back [that it was] completely forged."

For the next 15 minutes or so, including several interruptions, Silberstein gave what amounted to a mini-history lesson: How Jordan took control of East Jerusalem during the War of Independence in 1948, how they evicted the Jews and brought in Arab families, and how Jordan's "illegal annexation" of East Jerusalem was recognized by no country except Pakistan.

At one point, a Palestinian man got up, moved toward Silberstein and said, "Can I answer? My name is Mohammed."

Mohammed explained that he has a document showing that Jews didn't own, but rented, the Sheik Jarrah property for 140 years. When Silberstein said the document was forged, Mohammed answered that it only appeared to be forged, because some words were not clear and had to be filled in by hand. Silberstein shot back that a forensic lab had done a chemical test on the paper and that "it was shown to be 5 or 7 years old, not 140 years old. The Israeli Supreme Court even ratified the results. That's why Israel won the case."

It got ugly after that.

Other people jumped in. Voices were raised. The subject shifted to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. A Palestinian kid yelled, "Go f-----g back to Brooklyn." An olive-skinned man approached Silberstein and said, "You are a fascist." The reporter from San Francisco made a few sarcastic remarks.

By now, Silberstein had also lost his cool: "The Palestinian nation is an invention!" he told the hostile crowd. "Tell me one place before 1964 where there is one mention of a Palestinian Arab nation, and I'll give you a thousand dollars!"

The insults were flying. I absorbed the scene, thinking about something Silberstein had said in the car on the way to Sheik Jarrah: There are about 220,000 Jews living in "Arab" East Jerusalem, he told me. How on earth do they think they can ever divide this city?

I walked across the street to visit two of those Jews. A young man with a beard greeted me, and, when he saw my kippah, opened the security gate. His pregnant wife, who didn't look a day over 18, was preparing for Shabbat. I saw a flute on a coffee table and asked who played it. His wife did, the man said.

As the voices of the verbal slugfest echoed outside, I wondered what it'd be like to live with demonstrators camped out in front of my house virtually around the clock.

In this crazy and holy part of the world, when you "win" a battle you just never know what the victory will look like.