Neil Hertz studied at Amherst and Harvard before going to teach at Cornell in 1961. He taught courses on autobiographical writing, on writing about cities, on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British literature, focusing on the notion of the sublime, and on psychoanalysis. In 1983 he moved to Johns Hopkins, where he taught similar courses, tilting the emphasis more towards urban literature. He retired in 2005, moved back to Ithaca in 2010, and has taught, since then, for a couple of semesters in the program Bard College has set up in Palestine in collaboration with Al Quds University, just outside Jerusalem in the Occupied Territories. His book Pastoral in Palestine was published 2013.
Sign the “Open Letter” calling on the MLA membership to endorse a resolution in support of the boycott of Israeli academic institutions. Only the signatures of (former or current) MLA members will be included.
11 April 2016
I’m writing in support of a boycott of Israeli educational and cultural institutions. I shall not rehearse the often careful and informed claims of my pro-BDS colleagues, or try to dispute some equally careful and informed counter-arguments. I don’t think one can know with any certainty how an academic boycott or, more broadly, BDS, will play out, whether it will prompt greater reflection on their nation’s policies among Israeli academics or simply intensify the sense of victimage that seems to be growing among the Israeli public. The fierceness of recent denunciations of BDS coming from Israeli politicians has been read as a sign that the campaign is succeeding: but why should defensive hysteria be taken as probative? What one can be certain of is that time is passing and that Time is not a neutral party in this conflict: the longer things go on as they are going on, the nastier, the more intractable, they get. In what follows, I propose to focus attention on one small corner of the contested territories where the future of Israel/Palestine is being played out in an accelerating fashion.
The neighborhood called Silwan occupies about 500 acres of East Jerusalem. As areas under Israeli rule go, it is far from the bloodiest. Silwan is not Gaza, or the Jordan Valley, or the South Hebron hills, places where to be a Palestinian is to know that from day to day your life is by no means secure. When Silwan makes the news, it is more likely in reports such as this one, which appeared last week in Haaretz:
The Jerusalem Regional Planning Committee approved the construction of a controversial visitors’ center for the City of David just outside the Old City walls. Residents of Silwan, where the center will be located, claimed the large structure, which is intended for serving tourism and educational services for the City of David National Park, does not take the needs of the local residents into consideration.
The language reporting this recent administrative decision about a building to be erected for “tourism and educational services” puts a bland face on what one knowledgeable source has referred to as “a sweeping and systematic process, whose aim is to gain control of the Palestinian territories that surround the Old City.” I must try rapidly to fill in the background of this claim, made by the Israeli NGO Ir Amin, which follows developments in Jerusalem, in a report entitled Shady Dealings in Silwan (2009).
Silwan (Biblical Shiloah or Siloam, where Jesus is said to have restored a man’s sight) is a Palestinian village on both slopes of a valley leading off to the south from the heights of the Old City. Now formally part of East Jerusalem, it had been the site of sporadic archaeological interest for decades, but it wasn’t until Israel recaptured the Old City and the West Bank in 1967 that Israeli archaeologists could renew and energize their search for what it might hold of clues to the early Israelite kingdoms. In 1974, 6 acres of Silwan were included, along with several areas north-east of the village, in the newly created Jerusalem Walls National Park.
In 1986, a retired IDF officer named David Be’eri founded an organization he named Elad (an acronym for its Hebrew title, “To the city of David) with the stated goal of “redeeming land and returning Jewish awareness to the City of David.” The first religious-nationalist settlers moved into formerly Palestinian homes in 1991, with the blessing of Ariel Sharon, then the Minister of Construction and Housing. But settling settlers was only one prong of Be’eri’s ambitious plan for Silwan. He had sensed the power of heritage anthropology over the imaginations of Israeli and Diaspora Jews, and realized that this particular dig, so close to the heart of Biblical Judaism, could, with a little clever publicity (and a lot of Diaspora dollars), be developed and branded as a patriotic theme park. So in 1997, during Netanyahu’s first term as Prime Minister, Be’eri quietly (and extra-legally) arranged for Elad to take over the management of “The City of David National Park.” It remains, I believe, the only National Park to have been thus outsourced. Under Be’eri’s guidance, by 2010 it had grown into a major tourist “destination” attracting, it has been claimed, 500,000 visitors annually.
My own connection to Silwan began unpropitiously. I had been hired by Bard College to teach in the program they had begun in cooperation with Al-Quds University, in Abu Dis, just beyond The Wall but within sight of the Old City. I had arrived in the fall of 2010 to look for housing for the following spring semester. I would eventually settle for an apartment in Ramallah, but was, that first day, being given a tour of East Jerusalem by the man who would be my teaching partner, a Palestinian urbanist who had grown up in Silwan in a house his grandfather had built there decades earlier. We were driving up the steep main drag of his neighborhood, Wadi Hilweh Street, towards the gates to the City of David, when we swung around a hairpin turn and suddenly found ourselves surrounded by tweens with rocks and pop bottles ready to be launched at us. My friend rolled down his window and loudly identified us as “Arabs!” and the kids let us drive by. A little ways up the street we saw a settler’s child with her school backpack walking home towards a house surmounted by a blue and white flag and watched over by a security guard with an Uzi. This was daily life in Silwan, my new colleague explained. As Elad’s settlers insinuated themselves, one occupied house at a time, into the village’s fabric, routines of resistance had developed. What we had just witnessed was minor-league—Little League, actually. On Fridays, after midday prayers, the older youth would be out in the valley below us, facing off with the Israeli police, throwing larger rocks, burning tires, overturning dumpsters.
I will come back to one of these skirmishes below. They are vivid, sometimes deadly, but epiphenomenal: the more consequential clashes have been in the Israeli courts, where a number of Silwan householders and neighborhood organizations, assisted by Palestinian and Israeli NGOs, have tried, with occasional (and usually temporary) success, to hold off Elad’s incursions by invoking the national and municipal laws that govern property acquisition and the maintenance and improving of housing, and by challenging the various short-cuts, irregularities and positive illegalities by which Elad has fastened its grasp on the neighborhood. Elad’s (overwhelming) advantage in these encounters stems from Be’eri’s ties to right-wing politicians and from his NGO’s cleverly equivocal relation to the State—his is a private corporation lacking transparency, not fully responsible to the government, but frequently relying on the complicity of government agencies to implement its plans.
And what are these plans? First, to enlarge the bounds of this heritage site, as the Haaretz clipping I cited earlier suggests, so as to create a visitors’ center adjacent to the Old City, and through tunneling to link the theme park to the Western Wall. Further afield, Elad aims to replace the bulk of the village of Silwan with gardens and an upscale housing development on the land downhill from the archaeologists’ digs and, beyond that, uphill on the opposite slopes of the valley. Thus extending itself east and north-east, the site would link up with a ring of parkland and newly constructed settler neighborhoods that would encompass the city, in the process realizing the current government of Israel’s wish to cut off Palestinians living in the West Bank from the Old City and thereby block the establishment of a Palestinian capital in Jerusalem. Now we are no longer talking archaeology or heritage but, on the one hand, a territorial coup that would make any elaboration of a two-state solution impossible (as well as infuriating Muslims around the world), and, on the other, a real estate developer’s dream deal: for (as Donald Trump might put it) there’s a lot of money to be made on those hills facing the Holy City: think of the view! A lucid and detailed account of this history may be found in the fourth chapter of a volume put out in 2013 by Cambridge University’s “Conflict in Cities” research group (Wendy Pullan et al., The Struggle for Jerusalem’s Holy Places); I recommend it to anyone interested in a fascinating tale of religious devotion, entrepreneurial imagination and public/private hanky-panky.
Back to archaeology. In May of 2011 I paid three visits to the City of David, once to follow the self-guided tour to various digs and down through the famous tunnels, once in a group led by an Elad guide, and finally with a counter-tour, offered by the NGO Emek Shaveh, a band of young Israeli archaeologists who would contest Elad’s historical presentation as well as its aggressive dealings with the Palestinian residents of Silwan. This last tour was cut short when we became aware of a battle going on in the streets downhill from the digs. It was Friday after midday prayers. Two Israeli police brushed by us on the path, heading to outflank the rock-throwers below, and tear-gas, mixed with the smell of burnt rubber, drifted up from the valley. Retreating to a breezier part of the hill, we stopped on a ridge and found ourselves looking down at a group of settler children who were themselves, like us, curious about the melee in the streets below:
Look closely: The older boy and two of his sisters are signaling V-for-Victory to the police who are busy guaranteeing the security of their perch in Silwan. Their younger brother is practicing his riflery, aiming his plastic water-gun, perhaps in anticipation of his obligatory military service, fifteen-or-so years down the line.
I’d like to pair that shot with one that was published in Haaretz in December of that year, when its photographer was awarded a prize at a ceremony in Tel Aviv.
This was taken at the same spot where my teaching partner and I had been met by (perhaps) the same little boys back in 2010. Such encounters must go on all the time at this steep corner of the main street shared by Silwan kids and the settlers and tourists that The City of David has brought into their neighborhood. What gave this photo its momentary celebrity and, as it were, its allegorical status, was the fact that the driver of the car was David Be’eri, founder and chairman of Elad. His teenaged son can be dimly made out in the passenger seat. According to Haaretz, Be’eri claimed he’d been set up, “ambushed,” that the photo was staged, but Ilia Yefimovitch, the photographer, was scornful of this. “Who staged the photo?” he is quoted as asking. “It can also be interpreted in defense of the driver! Who staged it? The children who felt like being run over that day?” The children survived and, as they were under 12, were not arrested; Be’eri’s explanation—that he and his son were in danger, and that he had no intention of harming the kids—was accepted by the police. What Yefimovitch, along with several other photojournalists, was doing at that corner that afternoon was never made clear. Was it in fact a set-up? Conflicting accusations were tossed back and forth in the Jerusalem press for a while. The prize came later.
My interest in these two photographs is in the eleven children depicted: five settler kids under twelve (plus young Be’eri, who was thirteen at the time) and five under-twelve-year-olds from this contested neighborhood. They are all five years older now, years during which nothing has happened to do anything but consolidate the fear and hatred each group must feel for its counterpart. And Elad continues to take part in a program of urban development that is disastrous for all concerned: for Silwan, obviously, but also for Jerusalem and, because for Jerusalem, for Israel/Palestine, for the chances of any sane solution emerging. It is out of my sadness and angry impatience at this noxious situation that I am led to think that perhaps BDS may be worth a try. Time is passing.