I spent Monday between rage and a sense of loss. I watched the Israeli government and security forces make one decision after another to escalate an already bloody situation. My family’s WhatsApp text thread pinged again and again:
They are talking about red alert alarms and sirens at nine.
I’m just worried about the girls, I don’t want them to have a scary memory of waking up in the middle of the night.
Where do you go if there is an alarm?
My family in Tel Aviv was preparing for the possibility of Hamas firing rockets on the city, part of the latest escalation in the decades-long conflict.
Hamas and other groups firing rockets into Israel from Gaza was the culmination of a weekend in which Israeli security forces brutalized Palestinian protesters and worshipers, including in the al-Aqsa Mosque, one of the most sacred mosques in Islam.
On Monday, before a single rocket was fired and my family started texting, I talked to Jawad Salah, a Palestinian lawyer born and raised in Beirut who now lives in the Philadelphia area, to hear his perspective watching from afar. He predicted that if a group like Hamas became involved, English-language media would start and end the story there, a pattern that he’s seen repeatedly, that overlooks the abuse of the Palestinian people.
“There is a singular focus on the last Palestinian response but never what led to it,” Salah told me. He said that firing rockets is “deplorable” — but “always has a context.”
I remember red alert sirens warning of incoming rockets well — and how much they scared me. Growing up during the Second Intifada in Tel Aviv, suicide bombings were common — but sirens were not. That changed in 2012, when Hamas fired a rocket from Gaza to Tel Aviv for the first time. I was working as a medic at a basketball arena. Everyone froze in panic. Then a blast. Iron Dome, Israel’s American-bought anti-rocket defense system, intercepted the rocket. Rocket attacks became a bit more common during escalations, but hits on Tel Aviv remained extremely rare.
“The struggle in Sheikh Jarrah is one that everyone, especially liberals and progressives, should pay attention to — and stand in solidarity with.”
Still, I am so sad for the fear that my nieces and nephews are enduring as the fighting continues.
But people in Tel Aviv prepping for a red alert siren is not where the story of this week starts or ends. This story starts in Sheikh Jarrah, an East Jerusalem neighborhood nearly 6,000 miles away from Philadelphia that many Americans probably never heard of, or at least hadn’t until recent news.
Despite the distance, the struggle in Sheikh Jarrah is one that everyone, especially liberals and progressives, should pay attention to — and stand in solidarity with.
Tensions boil over
The short version of what’s going on in Sheikh Jarrah is that right-wing Jewish activists, in their continuing effort to control the occupied territory of East Jerusalem, have been invoking a law that allows Jews to reclaim homes that they lost in the 1948 war if they have old land deeds. The law doesn’t offer Palestinian residents of similar right to claim homes currently inhabited by Jews from which they might have fled from during the same war.
In early May, Palestinian residents in Sheikh Jarrah began to protest the so-called evictions. Israeli security forces responded brutally — from violent arrests to the use of tear gas and rubber bullets. The violence escalated over the weekend, and extended into the complex of the al-Aqsa Mosque, where thousands of Palestinians visited for Ramadan prayer.
On Monday, tensions boiled over and Hamas fired rockets from Gaza toward Jerusalem and the south of Israel. The Israel Defense Force responded with an aerial bombardment of Gaza. The violence only escalated in the following days: Warplanes leveled residential buildings in Gaza, killing at least 49 people including 14 children, and showers of rockets from Gaza to Israel killed at least six, including one child.
That’s when my family’s group text started to go nuts. My mind began connecting the dots between the struggle of Sheikh Jarrah and the struggle for justice that has been playing out in America — and Philadelphia — over the last year.
‘We can’t get fully free if other people aren’t free’
The murder of George Floyd, hundreds of miles away from Philadelphia and thousands of miles away from Israel, started a global movement.
The same themes that provoked those reckonings exist in the struggle of Sheikh Jarrah: police crackdown, response to protest with force, racially motivated residential displacement, and the larger question of what is citizenship and who are the government — and police — meant to serve.
But while many progressives are on the front lines of change in the United States, most, particularly white ones, remained silent as Palestinians were attacked. As of Monday morning, not a single representative of the Philadelphia area in Congress condemned Israel’s actions in Sheikh Jarrah. After Hamas fired rockets, some issued statements condemning the response — and ignoring its source.
Reem Kassis, the award-winning author of the recently published cookbook The Arabesque Table and probably Philadelphia’s highest-profile Palestinian, followed the unfolding events in Jerusalem from Philadelphia, like me. “I just feel utter helplessness and a sense of despair because this is not the first time I’ve seen this,” she told me Monday.
Kassis grew up in Jerusalem and remembers residents being displaced then, as they are now. “I remember, as a kid, driving through these neighborhoods [of East Jerusalem], I remember driving past a house once and there was an old lady sitting on a plastic chair. My mother’s friend asked her, ‘Why are you sitting here?’ And she said, ‘They took my house but I don’t want to leave.’ I was a kid at the time, so I didn’t think much of it, but I look at it now and I think it is just so hugely unfair, it’s inhumane, and the world is silent.”
The silence on Palestinians by American liberals and progressives is so pervasive that there is a term for it: “progressive except Palestine.”
In his recently published book Except for Palestine, Temple University professor and activist Marc Lamont Hill and his coauthor, Mitchell Plitnick, write: “The American political left has normalized a world in which it is acceptable, through words and policies, to embrace the ethical and political contradiction of being ‘progressive except Palestine.’”
Hill told me that there are two reasons that led him, a Black educator from North Philadelphia, to advocate for Palestinians. “It’s not just the right thing to do, although it is, it’s also that I don’t think that any of us can get fully free if other people aren’t free — not as a lefty cliché but as an actual analysis of how our politics work together.”
Every year, Israel receives more than $3 billion in military aid from the United States — money that Hill says could fund infrastructure in Black communities or education instead.
But perhaps that most proximate reason for progressives to end their Palestinian exception is that Palestine is not just a land across the ocean — it is also the home of our neighbors here in Philadelphia. Any erasure of Palestine, and the pain of Palestinians, is an erasure of people in our community.
“I was 17 when I left Jerusalem. I’m going to be 34 this year. I still refer to Jerusalem as home,” Kassis says. “I love Philadelphia. I just, as a Palestinian living in America, I don’t feel totally at home. I think in part it is that I feel that there is no understanding of the Palestinian case of our struggle and very few willing to stand up for us.”
My family eventually had to run to shelter and I took some solace in the protection of Iron Dome. My Palestinian neighbors likely had a much different experience. The families of Salah, Kassis, and all Palestinians deserve the same recognition that my family gets: that they deserve to be free and safe unconditionally. And that is worth standing up for — from Philadelphia to Tel Aviv to Sheikh Jarrah.