Beyond Displacement 

May 18, 2017

William Ruhm, member of JVP-Boston and Massachusetts Against Hewlett Packard

As our delegation traveled around East Jerusalem yesterday, my heart repeatedly sank with grief. My heart sank with grief as we learned about Israel’s persistent efforts to expel the Palestinian population of East Jerusalem from their homes and neighborhoods, in an attempt to create more space for Jewish-only settlements well beyond the internationally recognized Green Line (that is meant to separate Israel from the Occupied Palestinian Territories).

We learned that to drive Palestinian residents out of their homes and communities, the Israeli government employs a meticulous program of outright house demolitions, the denial of building permits to Palestinian residents (94% of Palestinian applications for building permits in East Jerusalem are rejected), and the positioning of the so-called “separation wall” in such a way as to bisect Palestinians communities, making movement so arduous, costly, and time-consuming that Palestinians will self-select to relocate.

We learned that Israel uses intimidation and criminalization of non-violent protest to chill Palestinians who attempt to speak out against these and other abuses into silence (sometimes successfully, sometimes unsuccessfully). We learned that Israeli media outlets misrepresent or simply do not cover Palestinian resistance efforts, ensuring that most of the Israeli population will remain pitted against them.

As we traveled around East Jerusalem yesterday, I felt my heart sinking with grief for the Palestinian residents and former residents of this land, who endure and have endured so much injustice for so long. However, I realized that the grief I felt stemmed also from my recognition that the horrifying reality I saw around me was, in so many ways, not so different from the conditions that exist right now in predominantly Black and Brown communities across America.

Boston Massachusetts, my hometown, is one of the most racially segregated cities in the United States. My father, who lived in Boston himself back in the 1980s, told me that a Bostonian real estate agent once asked him directly and without remorse “do you want me to show your property to Black people.” I do not know to what extent such blatant and unapologetic racism continues to exist today, in conversations conducted between Bostonian home buyers, sellers, leasers, and renters behind closed doors.

I do know that the Boston Planning and Development Agency (BPDA) recently passed a rezoning plan called “Plan JP/ROX” over the expressed wishes of the mostly Black and Brown community members who will be most impacted by the plan. Plan JP/ROX will increase the amount of land available for new residential developments in neighborhoods presently sought out by predominantly white and predominantly middle/upper class newcomers who are hungry for high-end housing in what has become a red hot market. Plan JP/ROX’s weak affordability requirements for new developments ensure that an enormous proportion of current Black and Brown residents, who have lived in these neighborhoods for decades and who have put their hearts and souls into building strong and mutually supportive communities in the face of persistent public neglect, will soon be priced out and forced to start anew somewhere else.

The actions Israel uses to displace Palestinians from their homes and land may be more direct and more extreme than those America uses to displace Black and Brown people from their communities. (It should be emphasized that Israel’s actions are by no means more extreme than those America has used and continues to use to dispossess our own continent’s indigenous nations from their land.) It strikes me, however, that the intention and the impact undergirding these action are largely the same in Israel and in America: One group of people want land, so they do everything they can to drive away those who live on the land now.

And the parallels between the United States and Israel go beyond displacement. From the intense patriotism conveyed by countless Israeli flags staked into nearly every building and landmark imaginable, to the outspoken contempt Israeli passersby expressed for our Palestinian tour guide. From the pervasive and ostentatious militarism on display by the Israeli Defense Force soldiers positioned at every entrance and major intersection of Old City, to the towering wall (positioned East of the internationally recognized Green Line) that separates Palestinians from their families, friends, and places of work.

In all of these respects, what I saw in East Jerusalem yesterday struck me not because I had never seen anything like it before, but because I began to recognize that I had seen it my whole life. The flags, the disdain for difference, the militarism, the walls and fences and borders meant to limit movement. Perhaps I needed to travel across two oceans to truly appreciate the state of my homeland. What I witnessed yesterday in East Jerusalem served as a grotesque hyperbole of my own country, a concaved reflection of what America is today, and a warning of what America could more fully become in the not-so distant future.

And throughout our tour of East Jerusalem, I held in my mind that these similarities are not incidental. We, the American people, fund the Israeli military through our tax dollars. We send our police commissioners to Israel to learn how to carry out upon Americans the violence that the Israeli military has honed and refined through decades of everyday operations on Palestinian land. And I held in my mind that effective resistance is urgently important, even when the personal cost is high, because justice and survival are never guaranteed.

Background on Interfaith Peace Builders: “Interfaith Peace-Builders fosters a network of informed and active individuals who understand the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the United States’ political, military, and economic role in it. To build and nurture such a network, we lead delegations of people from diverse backgrounds to Israel/Palestine. These delegations emphasize listening to and learning from those immersed in the reality of the conflict, and advancing the work of Israelis and Palestinians committed to nonviolent struggle and peace with justice.” Visit http://www.ifpb.org/about/default.html for more information.