Another Perspective

Demolition Derby

European NGO style in East Jerusalem, where purportedly demolished homes apparently had no inhabitants.

By 8.6.09

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JERUSALEM -- "I was sitting at home," tells me a young German lady in her mid-twenties, "and I read what the Jews were doing to the poor Palestinians. I knew that I must stop this. They are Nazis!" It is why, she says to me, she left Germany and came here: Al-Bustan, Silwan, East Jerusalem. The Palestinians, she explains to me, built their homes in Silwan 200 years ago and now the Jews are destroying them. Out of curiosity, I ask her if she also feels sympathy for the Chechen or the Tibetans, and could she share with me her thoughts about Rwanda or Darfur. "I don't know much about foreign affairs," comes her reply.

I meet her at a press conference held by the United Nations' Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, popularly known as OCHA, and by Save The Children UK, a British NGO. The press conference takes place under hole-ridden dirty sheets, which the locals call "The Tent." Why in such an eyesore of a place? I'm not sure, but perhaps the organizers here thought that this would be the best way to convey an image of Palestinians living in utter misery. The fact that this tent stands on the roof of a one-family house seems to bother none of these organizers, mostly blond European NGO folks. What bothers them, it soon becomes evident, is the lack of Suffering Palestinians in the audience.

The press conference is slightly delayed until hot Turkish coffee and tastiest of Rugelach are brought in. Miraculously, before you realize what's happening, a line of women in shiny Hijabs forms next to the Free Rugelach. Authentic look in order, the press conference starts. "300,000 Palestinians are in danger of losing their homes in the West Bank," we're informed by the UK folks. A saddened Philippe Lazzarini, who's Head of OCHA, offers his deep regrets about this "misery and denied dignity" and decries the "3,000 demolition orders in the West Bank." How did the figure drop so fast from 300,000 to 3,000 is anybody's guess, but at least the digit "3" exists in both versions.

Philippe, who hails from Switzerland, passionately promises that the UN will do all it can to help. A Rugelach-eating local has a question. Why is it that the people who've lost their homes don't get help? The NGOs have so much money, says the Rugelach-eater, why not share it with needy families and their little kids? Isn't this, after all, the stated purpose of the NGOs and the UN? The Rugelach-eater is immediately shushed. "The issue here is politics, not individuals," comes a stern reply. "Individuals will get nothing! Questions from the media only, please!"

Clearing my throat, I ask the esteemed Europeans for exact date of most recent demolition in the area. In reply, I get four different dates: "March 10, 2009." "June 10, 2009." "November, 2008." "January 28, 2009." Ms. Elin Asgeirsdottir, a blond from Iceland who fears that I might get a bad impression, quickly slips in a note to me that she's available to supply required info. She has the stats; she's a Humanitarian Affairs Officer at OCHA.

I ask if it's possible to meet a family whose home was recently destroyed. I'd really appreciate if I could interview people who lost their 200-year-old home to Israeli bulldozers. No problem. I'm introduced to Mr. Fakhri, a man who holds the title Head of The Silwan Committee. "He'll take you to the people," I'm told. But Mr. Fakhri, an al-Bustan resident who himself faces a demolition order, is not exactly in the mood. He looks at me, then at the German girl next to me, and decides to go for the girl. "I'll get you a nice German man to show you around," he says. I make it abundantly clear to Mr. Fakhri that he can't separate between the German girl and me. We're together today. Having no choice, Mr. Fakhri takes both of us on a tour of al-Bustan, an amazingly beautiful neighborhood with colorful alleys and picturesque backyards. How old is his house, I ask him? "I built it in 1992," he says. Did he get a permit to build it? "No, no permits. You come to my home, I give you cold drinks."

We finally return to The Tent without meeting any displaced person whatsoever. I take a last look at my surrounding: "End the Demolition," says a sign in English. "No to Judaization," says the sign in Arabic. Both signs paid for by, thank you, the Europeans. I ask Mr. Fakhri if I could take his picture. He offers me a great smile. The German girl admonishes him: "You're not supposed to laugh. You're suffering!"

Truth be said, it's Mr. Fakhri who got it right. He simply can't stop laughing when he hears foreign officials, including members of the Obama Administration, utter lines that were concocted at The Tent. Why is it that the Americans buy everything the European NGOs and the UN are selling them? Maybe Kafka would be able to explain this; I don't. Long live Europe. It's good to be blond. Hillary Clinton is too.

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About the Author

Tuvia Tenenbom is the founder of The Jewish Theater of New York.