In East Jerusalem, Palestinian Youth Struggle for Freedom

15 May, 2022
Fouad Agbaria, “Har­vest,” oil on can­vas, 150x200cm, 2015 (cour­tesy of the artist).

 

 

Deter­mined to Stay by Jody Sokolower
Interlink/Olive Branch Press 2021
ISBN 9781623718886

 

Mischa Geracoulis

 

Deter­mined to Stay is avail­able from Interlink/Olive Branch Press.

Part trav­el­ogue, part jour­nal­ism, and part edu­ca­tion­al primer, Deter­mined to Stay is Jody Sokolower’s con­tri­bu­tion to the Pales­tin­ian right to self-deter­mined existence. 

A social stud­ies teacher based in California’s pro­gres­sive, mul­ti­cul­tur­al San Fran­cis­co Bay Area, Sokolow­er had always thought of her­self as aware, even crit­i­cal of, Israel’s treat­ment of Pales­tini­ans. How­ev­er, it wasn’t until after she and her stu­dents saw Promis­es — a film that exam­ines the Pales­tin­ian-Israeli con­flict from the per­spec­tive of chil­dren liv­ing there — and then met par­tic­i­pants from Seeds of Peace (the Amer­i­can peace-build­ing sum­mer camp that brings Pales­tin­ian and Israeli youth togeth­er), that Sokolow­er real­ized there was still much to know. As her stu­dents’ many ques­tions begot more ques­tions, Sokolow­er deter­mined that answers could only be found in Pales­tine. Thus began her sev­en years of trav­el to Pales­tine and Israel, the results of which are encap­su­lat­ed in Deter­mined to Stay

In the fore­word, Nick Estes, Assis­tant Pro­fes­sor of Amer­i­can Stud­ies at the Uni­ver­si­ty of New Mex­i­co, and mem­ber of the Low­er Brule Sioux tribe, writes of col­o­niz­er-oppres­sor par­al­lels between First Nations in the Unit­ed States, and Pales­tini­ans in and around Israel. Hav­ing advo­cat­ed in places like Stand­ing Rock and the Nava­jo Nation, Estes under­stands that where there’s occu­pa­tion, there’s also resis­tance. He sug­gests that occu­pa­tion ren­ders cit­i­zens “for­eign­ers” in their home­lands, and he asserts that dis­course on any one occu­pied land can­not be to the exclu­sion of oth­ers. Estes calls Deter­mined to Stay fun­da­men­tal read­ing for stu­dents of all ages (p. 5). 

As an edu­ca­tor Sokolower’s com­mit­ment to teach on such con­se­quen­tial mat­ters as the Jew­ish Holo­caust and geno­cide of Amer­i­can First Nations, serves as ratio­nale to also teach on Pales­tine. Her book illu­mi­nates the real­i­ties of con­tem­po­rary Pales­tin­ian life through per­son­al accounts and inter­views, and with par­tic­u­lar atten­tion to the youth. This book thus becomes an urgent appeal to oth­er Amer­i­can teach­ers and stu­dents to learn the real­i­ties on the ground in Pales­tine and Israel. 

Focus­ing on her vis­its to the East Jerusalem Pales­tin­ian neigh­bor­hood of Sil­wan, Sokolow­er first sit­u­ates the region his­tor­i­cal­ly. Long con­sid­ered the “bread­bas­ket of Jerusalem,” Sil­wan is known to have been inhab­it­ed for approx­i­mate­ly 7,000 years. As the Unit­ed Nations explains in its Ques­tion of Pales­tine, “East Jerusalem is rec­og­nized as an inte­gral part of the Pales­tin­ian Ter­ri­to­ry occu­pied by Israel since 1967.” Though Pales­tin­ian accord­ing to inter­na­tion­al law, Israel claims this ter­ri­to­ry for itself and incen­tivizes Jews to move in, not unlike strate­gies pre­vi­ous­ly used in the Unit­ed States to con­fis­cate Native Amer­i­can lands (p. 23). 

Many of Sokolower’s dis­cus­sions with Pales­tini­ans per­tain to their children’s abil­i­ty to attend school amid vio­lence and the crim­i­nal­iza­tion of youth.  Zakaria Odeh, exec­u­tive direc­tor of the Civic Coali­tion of East Jerusalem, makes clear that the prob­lem is due to years of Israeli actions in the occu­pied ter­ri­to­ries, includ­ing con­tin­u­al arrests of chil­dren and stu­dents, revo­ca­tion of Pales­tin­ian res­i­den­cy in East Jerusalem, land and house con­fis­ca­tions, demo­li­tions, Jew­ish set­tle­ments, mil­i­tary check­points, restric­tions, and bar­ri­ers imposed on Pales­tini­ans (p. 137). 

Approx­i­mate­ly 80,000 Pales­tin­ian Jerusalemites live out­side the city walls, and though they hold Israeli-issued iden­ti­fi­ca­tion cards, all must pass through check­points every day.  This includes stu­dents and teach­ers, any of whom can be denied pas­sage at any giv­en moment. Chil­dren under the age of 18 are often tar­get­ed for arrest (p. 139).

Learn­ing of the arrests and re-arrests of chil­dren, the phys­i­cal and psy­cho­log­i­cal abus­es that they suf­fer, and fre­quent inter­rup­tions in their edu­ca­tion, Sokolow­er recalls one of her African Amer­i­can stu­dents in Cal­i­for­nia. Her stu­dent had inti­mat­ed that every one of his male fam­i­ly mem­bers had been impris­oned, and he wor­ries that no mat­ter how care­ful he is, he too might end up in prison. 

Sil­wan viewed from the Jerusalem Trail (pho­to Shmuel Bar-Am).

In her sev­en years of meet­ing many of Silwan’s youth, Sokolow­er reports hav­ing nev­er met a boy old­er than eight who had not been arrest­ed at least once (p. 15). 

Sokolow­er relays con­ver­sa­tions with a uni­ver­si­ty stu­dent, who against all odds, was work­ing on a master’s degree. The labyrinthine jour­ney that pro­longs the student’s sev­er­al-kilo­me­ter trip to cam­pus from min­utes to hours is the main obsta­cle.  Ask­ing if the stu­dent con­sid­ers mov­ing some­place else where it might be eas­i­er to study, she replies, “Despite every­thing, I’m in love with my city! I can’t live out­side of Jerusalem” (p. 170).  Con­ced­ing to a life too unten­able would be exact­ly what the Israelis want, any­way. They want the Pales­tini­ans to leave (p. 171). 

Each per­son Sokolow­er has met through­out her sev­en years of trav­el to Sil­wan has asked her to promise to tell their sto­ry. Many also asked that she advise Amer­i­cans to think more crit­i­cal­ly when con­sum­ing media reports on Pales­tine and Israel, to ask ques­tions, and not blind­ly sup­port the gov­ern­ment of Israel. Although it is a full UN mem­ber and sig­na­to­ry to the 4th Gene­va Con­ven­tion, “Israel has nev­er fol­lowed UN res­o­lu­tions, and the rest of the world has let them deny our rights” (p. 99).  Deter­mined to Stay is a ful­fill­ment of her promise, and as co-coor­di­na­tor of the Teach Pales­tine Project, Sokol­w­er also aims to get more cur­ricu­lum on Pales­tine into Amer­i­can schools. 

Since Sokolower’s last trip in 2019, the COVID-19 pan­dem­ic has mul­ti­plied the hard­ships in Pales­tin­ian lives. Dur­ing a phone call in 2021 with Sahar Abbasi, edu­ca­tor and pro­gram direc­tor at Silwan’s Madaa Cre­ative Cen­ter, Abbasi affirmed her faith in the youth, and com­mit­ment to their edu­ca­tion. “They deserve to have their future. This is what keeps us fight­ing” (p. 222).

Sokolow­er suc­ceeds in chron­i­cling Pales­tin­ian expe­ri­ences with humil­i­ty, always con­scious of her white Jew­ish Amer­i­can priv­i­lege. She man­ages to trans­late com­plex and impor­tant infor­ma­tion into com­pre­hen­si­ble text. Though harsh bru­tal­i­ties nec­es­sar­i­ly fill many of these pages, the Sil­wa­nis’ deter­mi­na­tion to hold their ground comes through loud and clear. 

 

East JerusalemIsraelOccupationPalestinian childrenPalestiniansseparation wallSilwan

TMR contributing editor Mischa Geracoulis is a writer and educator of critical media literacy, English for speakers of other languages, and those with learning differentials. Her writing, teaching and approach to life are informed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Some of her topics of research include the Armenian Genocide and Diaspora, restorative justice, equitable education and child welfare, and the multifaceted human condition. Her work has appeared in Middle East Eye, The Guardian, Truthout, LA Review of Books, Colorlines, Gomidas Institute, National Catholic Reporter, and openDemocracy, among others. Follow her on Twitter @MGeracoulis.