The first time I heard the story of Sheikh Jarrah was from a child who had been displaced from her home along with her family in 2009. I was a young (and admittedly green) anthropologist spending my first months in “the field,” trying to comprehend what was happening in Jerusalem. The little girl from the al-Ghawi family, who was five years old at the time, told me about the night she had been forcibly removed from her home in Sheikh Jarrah. She described how men dressed in black had broken down the door of her house, throwing her mother and siblings into the street. She spoke in intimate detail about being overcome with a feeling of fear as they were surrounded by hundreds of soldiers and settlers. Her mother’s face was pained as her daughter spoke, in the matter-of-fact way that young children, who have not yet been burdened by the pressure of performative emotions, have a way of speaking, about sleeping and bathing in the street, about missing her swing set in the yard, about wondering why a Jewish family, including two children, could come and take her home while she was forced to sleep and eat and bathe outside. A home space, a swing set, a memory of her mother’s laughter as she pulled a lemon from the lemon tree: a child’s ecology of place, her sense of safety, home and belonging uprooted by another family’s claims.
The human need to belong is a powerful thing. Belonging, in its barest sense, is about emotional attachment, a feeling of being ‘at home’ and ‘safe’. This profound human desire is often understood through worldviews that essentialize, fix, and naturalize collective identities, national borders, and racial and other hierarchies. Throughout human history, belonging has been naturalized and, as Nira Yuval-Davis reminds us, politicized “only when it is threatened in some way,” (2006: 197) exploited to justify and promote positions of power and privilege and, at times, the most egregious forms of violence. Through racist appeals to “belonging,” nations police and enforce boundaries between ‘self’ and ‘other.’ In the colonial context, the colonizer uses all manner of violence—from the dispossession of land and property, to brute military force and terror, to the seemingly benevolent but no less severe legal and court system—to police the boundary between himself and the colonized. The Zionist myth of belonging to only one nation-state, a belonging staged on the need to save a people in the aftermath of the genocidal violence of the Holocaust, has been mobilized for nearly a century now to enlist support for the genocidal removal of another people, the Palestinians. It is these very dynamics that form the basis for the ongoing contest over the city of Jerusalem, as it unfolds in the daily struggle to save Sheikh Jarrah.
I shared with the little girl how my own family home in Turmosayya, a village in the occupied West Bank, had also been claimed by settlers. I told her how settlers had set fire to the foundations of a home my father attempted to build in his ancestral village after returning from exile decades ago. Those of us who grow up Palestinian, whether in the homeland or in exile, who have had our childhood in Palestine denied in some way, understand at a visceral level that this is not a new story.
Over the past few days we have witnessed, once again, the escalation of colonial violence waged against an Indigenous people’s defense of their homes and land. We have watched the families of Sheikh Jarrah be brutally dragged and beaten in their own homes and in the streets for merely staying in place. We have seen their homes be sprayed with skunk water and rubber coated bullets. We have noticed the glaring disparity in the treatment of heavily armed Jewish settlers, who are allowed to roam freely and terrorize Palestinians, and Palestinians, who are brutalized in broad daylight, denied the right to their sacred spaces of worship, and represented in the media as savages who should be shot, killed and displaced. We have watched as, all too predictably, besieged Gaza has become a scapegoat, ten Palestinian children having already paid the price with their lives thus far.
If the world today has become a global Palestine, Jerusalem is the paradigmatic space of the border. But to name Jerusalem as merely a border space would be incomplete. For the border is not just a geographic space where regimes of belonging are made and unmade, sealing off and creating one entity just as much as they exclude another (Balibar). Nor is the border just a frontier space marking the limit of legally sanctioned violence. It is a broad swath of peoples who have been painted as the Other, whose very subjectivity embodies, performs and exceeds the space of the border—those figured as external to the state, those categorically excluded from the sphere of the citizen or granted a partial humanity (at best) used by states to criminalize and violate. The border space—and here, I am speaking of the borders of the Human, or what Sylvia Wynter calls the “coloniality of being”, that Universal cosmology that has made certain human lives dispensable vis-à-vis differential categories of value— is thus inherent to what it means to be Palestinian. It is for this reason that Palestinian erasure in the colony has never been against Israeli law, but on the contrary, sanctioned as law. The forced displacement of a Palestinian family provokes no intervention by global leaders; the lynching of a Palestinian by a mob of Israeli settlers incurs no mass sense of moral outrage; our speech perpetually uncivil; our bodies undisciplined, our suffering unintelligible.
As she drew me a picture of her home, the Palestinian child spoke of a morning when the settler mother came out onto the front steps to offer her an egg for breakfast. She had woken up a few moments earlier, wrapped in a sleeping bag next to her mother, brothers, and father on the street in front of her home. When I asked her whether she took the egg, she shot me a look of such complete disbelief that I felt ashamed for asking the question. No, she said, she had not taken the egg. She had told the woman that she did not want an egg from her table; she wanted her house back.
The situation unfolding in Sheikh Jarrah, the latest focal point of the struggle to protect Jerusalem’s Indigenous Palestinian identity, is not complex, but is easily understood from the perspective of a young child who has had something stolen from her, and comprehends, rather viscerally, a moral sense of right from wrong. You took my home, and I want it back.
Like this gesture of refusal (a small, but powerful act of rebelliousness that defines a Palestinianness that refuses erasure), the ongoing struggle of Palestinians to defend their homes, to refuse being violently uprooted from Jerusalem, is a reminder that decolonization is not an abstract noun. It is a verb that implies action.
Yet what is at stake here is not merely the destruction of the Indigenous Palestinian identity of a city that is a space of great religious and historical significance for many across the globe. It is far greater than that. At stake is whether we will continue to allow the violence and destruction of a more expansive, a more pluralist vision of humanity, or whether we might destroy, once and for all, the very meaning of the space of the border as a form of violence that inherently evicts certain racialized bodies and people from the imperial category of the human. What is at stake in Sheikh Jarrah is whether we will continue to allow a nationalism based on exclusivity, of violent dispossession and forced transfer of Black, Brown and Indigenous peoples; the exponential growth of militarized borders, the expansion of the police state, the exploitation of the idea of safety and protection and belonging of an exclusive people, at the expense of the wholesale destruction of another. The question before us is this: do we continue to allow the state of Israel to perpetuate colonial and white supremacist violence as they lay exclusive claim to Jerusalem, to Palestine? Or do we set the world on fire, joining our Palestinian siblings to struggle, with love and determination, not only for their freedom, but also for our own.