I cannot imagine how exhausted the Sumarin family must be. After decades of defending their home in the neighborhood of Silwan in occupied East Jerusalem, yesterday, on June 30, the Jerusalem District Court rejected the family’s demand to cancel eviction orders issued against them.
The Sumarins, whose home was built by Musa Sumarin in 1950, are struggling to hang on to their property after a subsidiary of the Jewish National Fund, called Himanuta, filed for their eviction in order to pave the way for Jewish settlers to take over their home. The case was dubiously filed under the 1950 Absentees’ Property Law, a key legal tool used by Israel to transfer Palestinian property to Jewish Israelis within the state and, increasingly in recent years, in East Jerusalem as well.
Although the Sumarin family can still appeal to the Israeli High Court, legal recourse currently appears to be a daunting prospect.
It is tragically fitting that the day after the court’s decision, on July 1, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may begin formalizing the annexation of large parts of the West Bank — a policy that the JNF has long enabled and that has served as a driving forcing behind Israeli expansion.
Since its founding in 1901, the JNF’s Israel entity, known as Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund (KKL-JNF), helped begin the process of displacing Palestinian peasant farmers and replacing them with Jewish settlers under Ottoman and British rule. During and after Israel’s establishment, JNF bulldozers coordinated with Zionist militias, and later the Israeli army, to destroy or confiscate Palestinian homes after their owners were driven out.
Palestinian land was either turned into settlements for Jewish Israelis, or national parks populated with European trees to symbolize the Zionists’ success in “striking roots” in historic Palestine. All this was done to prevent the indigenous Palestinians from returning to land where they and their families had lived for generations, and to conceal the evidence that they had ever been there.
Simply put, Israel would not be on the verge of formally annexing parts of the West Bank, and of controlling virtually all of historic Palestine, were it not for the JNF’s transgressions.
To my regret, I once served on the board of the Washington, DC chapter of the JNF, the organization that is directly complicit in the Sumarin family’s suffering. I grew up sending money to the JNF to “make the desert bloom” by planting trees in Israel. Later, I was drawn to the JNF as a platform to raise money in the U.S. for Israeli causes I believed in, such as projects tackling the climate crisis. Like many people who have played a role in enabling Israeli apartheid, I thought I was doing good in the world.
What I did not comprehend at the time was how closely the JNF was still working with the Israeli government to ethnically cleanse the land of Palestinians. I was told by a JNF representative that any involvement in displacing Palestinians was a thing of the past and, unfortunately, took his assurances at face value.
In 2011, I publicly resigned from the JNF DC board when I learned that the KKL-JNF was coordinating with the Israeli government and settler organizations to evict Palestinians from their homes in East Jerusalem, hiding behind Himanuta as a front organization to evict its residents. The family being targeted at the time was part of the Sumarin clan, who are still fighting for their home nearly a decade later.
As if enabling annexation was not enough, the JNF has exported its war on Palestinian rights to the United States by engaging in legal attacks against U.S. human rights groups. The goal of these attacks is to smear, marginalize, and silence critics of Israel in order to remove any obstruction in the way of the state’s destructive path.
To this end, the KKL-JNF recently filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights, a network of hundreds of church, student, labor, and racial justice groups located in all corners of the country (I now co-chair the board of Jewish Voice for Peace, one of the U.S. Campaign’s member organizations).
Many Americans thankfully cherish our right to free speech, which includes our ability to criticize Israel, our own U.S. government, and others around the world. This is why the Center for Constitutional Rights has filed a motion to dismiss the JNF’s lawsuit on the grounds that it makes outlandish claims, casting collective activism and expressions of solidarity as unlawful. Other human rights groups, such as Defence for Children International-Palestine, the Carter Center, and Oxfam, have also successfully pushed back against such legal attacks.
As the chorus of people who support Palestinian rights continues to grow louder, we will see the Israeli government and its enablers, including the JNF, grow more desperate in their attempts to silence us. While I hope the Sumarin family will be able to keep their home for generations to come, and that Israel will walk back on its annexation plans, the struggle for Palestinian freedom and equality is far from over.
What gives me a great deal of hope is that, once you know the truth, there is no going back. I can personally attest to that, and I hope others will join me on the side of peace and justice by continuing to show solidarity with the Sumarin family and all Palestinians struggling to live with dignity and freedom.