In the past four months, I have been teaching Hebrew twice a week to a group of social workers from East Jerusalem. They come to learn Hebrew (with an exceptional enthusiasm and determination, it should be noted), and I come to teach them Hebrew. At first, that was the atmosphere – I’m the teacher, they are the students; until at some point we decided that during each class one of the student would present a dilemma she faces at work.
The dilemmas brought by the students opened up a difficult, complex and hidden world. Even people who live in East Jerusalem are not aware of this reality. I was shocked.
The stories they shared with the group kept me awake for weeks, so I decided to interview one of them –
Tahrir, works in a welfare office, which provides services to five neighborhoods in East Jerusalem: Two of them are neighborhoods located beyond the separation wall. In other words, they are officially part of Jerusalem, it’s residents have Israeli residency (not nationality) and are considered residents of the city of Jerusalem, but are physically separated by the wall from the rest of East Jerusalem. Because of the severe housing shortage in the eastern part of the city, more and more residents of Jerusalem are pushed into these neighborhoods, where there is no supervision of construction. Today, a third of the Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem live on the other side of the wall.
We sat after one of our classes in an empty classroom.
Tell me about where you work.
“Our office is one of the largest in East Jerusalem, it’s too big and the density is increasing. For the past three years we have been trying to split it into two offices, but the process is not progressing”.
What is your role?
“I am in charge of the cases the violence against women. I am taking care of 60 cases of women who have been victims of violence. Every month 10-12 new complaints arrive on my desk. My job is to accompany them and their families, to give them support and professional help.”
What is the extent of violence against women in East Jerusalem?
“I cannot know exactly, but I know that it is a huge issue. About 90% of the families that are treated by us, have problems of domestic violence. One of the problems in East Jerusalem is that many women victim of violence don’t even talk about it… And even those who come to complain; the vast majority of them return to the same house.
How do you explain the great extent of violence?
“There is no way to justify violence against women, but I think that there are factors that encourage this phenomenon: First, the difficult economic situation, which leads the population to severe distress and desperation. Another reason is that we live in a violent environment; a man who grew up in a violent environment, whose father also beat his mother, has a very high chance of becoming a violent man himself. That is all he knows. He does not see that his mother complained, or that his father received any punishment, so he does not learn that it is not the right way. He does not learn that there are other ways.
“But the biggest problem in my opinion is the inability of women to go into independent life. This is the biggest obstacle for them to leave the house. They are afraid, so they prefer to stay home”.
Why is it so hard for a woman to live an independent life?
“One of the main problems is the employment situation in East Jerusalem. There are not enough jobs in general, it is even harder for a woman to find work, and even more difficult for a woman with children to find work. Hotels and factories for example; are basically the only options for most women: Work begins at 6 am…How can an independent mother leave home at 5:30 AM? Who will prepare the children and take them to their school?”.
Is there a difference between the possibilities of women within the wall and women living on the other side of the wall?
“The worst situation is that of women living in neighborhoods on the other side of the wall. The Israeli police do not enter these neighborhoods, even though they are under their responsibility. If a woman complains to the police, she declares her husband as “wanted.” If he happens to pass through the checkpoint they will arrest him, but it can take years before it happens, and until then their wives are in even greater danger.
“Women who are at even higher risk are women from the Palestinian territories who marry men from East Jerusalem. It is almost impossible for them to receive Jerusalem residency, even if their husband is a Jerusalemite; so they become completely dependent on their husbands.
“As long as they don’t have residency, they have no right in Israel. They are not entitled to a place in a women’s shelter. They cannot live an independent life because they don’t have a work permit, and are not entitled to social welfare or social security. If they have children they are not entitled to child support either. So what can they do if their husbands beat them? They stay in the same place and don’t complain.
Do you have any hope it can change?
“Yes. My dream is that women will have all the tools to live an independent life, and that they will earn back their ability to stand on their feet and fight back. Only then our society will be freed of violence against women.”
The picture that I begin to see is that of a messy system of connections that make life in East Jerusalem unbearable and the work of social workers in East Jerusalem impossible. I understand that everything affects everything; the overcrowding, the lack of employment, the lack of services, the violence against women etc. In my view, the hope for East Jerusalem lies in people like my students. They see this mess and don’t step aside, they fight for their people and believe in their ability to change their lives for the better.