Building a revolution in Jerusalem?

Tom Anderson and Eliza Egret talk to Sahar Vardi from Imbala collective, who have set up a grassroots organising space in the heart of West Jerusalem.

September 11, 2018 · 11 min read
People relax outside Imbala cooperative café and social centre

After the ethnic cleansing of Palestinian communities by Zionist militias in 1947-9, and the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, Jerusalem was divided into two parts. West Jerusalem was under the control of the new Zionist state, while East Jerusalem was under Jordanian control. However, in 1967, the Israeli military invaded and occupied East Jerusalem. Now, Palestinians in East Jerusalem live under apartheid conditions, subject to forced evictions and house demolitions to make way for Zionist settlers. A heavily armed police presence patrols the streets of the Old City, and Palestinians are restricted when praying at Al Aqsa mosque, or arrested for raising the Palestinian flag.

Meanwhile, in the west of the city, signs of nationalism are rife. Israeli flags hang across the streets and from store fronts. The space for alternative views, and criticism of Zionism, seems increasingly narrow.

Close to the 1967 ‘Green Line’ between East and West Jerusalem, a cooperative café and social centre is trying to claw back some of that space. The name of the project is Imbala, which means both “if she wishes” in Hebrew and “actually, yes” in Arabic. When Imbala was opened in February 2018, the collective decided on the name because they wanted a phrase that would work in both languages. It could serve as the double-answer to the vital question: “Will there be a revolution in Jerusalem?”

Imbala collective writes:

With the founding of Imbala, we have created a communal space for co-resistance in Jerusalem — a place for Jerusalemites who feel unwelcome in other parts of the city. As such, Imbala is a microcosm of what we know this city can be, and it is now our meeting place to connect struggles, strategise, and create actions that challenge the status quo in Jerusalem.”

We spoke to Sahar Vardi, a member of this anti-occupation, feminist collective in the heart of West Jerusalem.

What is it like to be an activist in Jerusalem?

“Post [the Israeli attack on Gaza in] 2014, it’s almost dangerous to be a lefty in Jerusalem. We have to plan ‘exit strategies’ at protests because of the risk of angry mobs. We plan how to get people out of there and disperse.

In December there was a letter that came out with 100 signatures of people refusing to serve in the IDF. We held a vigil of just 20 or 30 people in Jerusalem city centre. People yelled, spat and kicked us and all our signs [placards] were torn away from us. That’s the atmosphere of Jerusalem today. It’s difficult to have a left-wing protest against the occupation here these days. We didn’t have a space where we could just be. We felt like we needed one.”

So there weren’t activist spaces in Jerusalem?

“There was a similar centre that closed in 2009. It was run by the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD). We opened a vegan cafe at the time and there were political talks there, but it was far from being a collective or anarchist space.

During the Sheikh Jarrah protest movement from 2009 to 2011 [against evictions of Palestinian families in East Jerusalem], there was a pub that became a place that everyone went to and created a community, which then created activism. That stopped when the movement declined.

Post 2011 – after the J14 social justice movement here – there were a lot of collectives that started, but most have closed. There’s convenience store collective that stayed open. There is an attempt to start a co-operatively run bank and there’s a lot of energy around alternative economy but a lot of it is apolitical. In the last couple of years there’s a feeling that there’s not much of an activist community at all.”

How did you go about setting up Imbala?

“We signed a lease for this place, but we made shitloads of mistakes and it took us three months to open after signing the lease. We did crowdfunding to cover the first year of expenses and pay the rent. The majority of people who funded us were Jerusalemites.

We wanted to be in a location close to the east of the city so that we would be accessible to Palestinians from there. We couldn’t open Imbala in the east as that would be a settlement! So we opened it here. In the first meetings we were just five to ten people. Now we have 70 or more members. To be a member there’s a monthly fee that’s very low, but you need to work a shift per month.”

Are you a legal space?

“It was really important to get the legal permits for the co-op because there are people who want to close us down, so we’re very ‘by the book’. Israel has a legal registration system for co-ops because of the Kibbutzim [cooperative farms, many of them set up on stolen Palestinian land, which were an integral part of the Zionist movement].”

What goes on at Imbala?

“We sell vegan food and drink, as well as alcohol. We’re open to the public four days a week. We hold many different lectures and film screenings. There are days when it will be pretty quiet but there’s never a shift empty. The other three days a week it’s closed to the public, and only for members’ use. People use it for meetings, discussing strategy, holding workshops and teaching Arabic classes.

The more activist communities we have here the better. So people use this as their hub, and there’s a lot of opportunity for intersectionality. We had an event here in solidarity with the Sumarin family – a Palestinian family who are facing eviction in Silwan – where we planned what we would do to stop the eviction.

There’s also a lot of activism around solidarity with asylum seekers and LGBTQ issues. We took part in the annual ‘slut walk’, a big annual feminist march. In the last year or two there’s been activism around the murders of women by their partners or family.”

Would you say that you’re an anarchist space?

“We do have a clear public political stance in the events we host. We’re very clear on being political. We want the cafe to look political but not-in-your-face political. The word anarchist doesn’t mean much to the activist community here: you’ll hear people talking about non-hierarchy but not about anarchism. There’s no theoretical conversation here about what anarchism means. The radical activist community is focused on activism, rather than ideology.”


How does the Imbala collective organise and make decisions?

“Every month and a half we have assemblies and anyone who’s a member can come. Ideological issues are spoken about there. There are working groups for specific things like, for example, running the library.

If something can’t wait, there’s an emergency decision group, with representatives from each working group. Each person is a representative of a working group for five months and then it rotates. At the moment there are five permanent working groups: Food, events, bureaucracy and budget, social media/press and membership. We also have a library working group and a party collective. We organise by a WhatsApp group and on email lists too. We usually work using soft consensus. In cases where there’s a deadlock, and a compromise can’t be found, we would theoretically go for a vote but this hasn’t happened yet.

We have a value statement which is on our website. We try to have everything in three languages: Arabic, Hebrew and English. The vast majority of our members are Jewish Israeli. There’s a lot of debate around this, and the fact that we’re in West Jerusalem. That’s why it’s important to us that everything’s in three languages.”

How do you go about solving conflicts in the collective?

“We’ve had some internal conflicts already. One of the first mechanisms we established was around sexual and gender harassment. We have a team that works on this. New members get basic training on who to call if there’s an issue.

We have had a lot of conversations about building a ‘culture of consensus’. When we do have conflict, we try to work on our culture and the way we talk to each other. The main challenge over the next few months is that we have quite a few new members, and we’ve only had one assembly. So the challenge will be for those who established Imbala to give the space for things to change.

The vast majority of activists here are white, and we know that we are part of the problem. That’s our default political analysis and that allows space to be self-critical. People are used to seeing themselves as white Jewish people with privilege who need to be self-critical.

The collective who opened Imbala was 75% Jewish. Around 40% of the Jewish population here in Imbala is non-white, but we’re still talking about becoming less white. We’ve had some conversations with the Eritrean asylum-seeking population about joining.

We are in the beginning and it’s a learning process. We’d be happy to hear about what worked and didn’t work for other collectives.”

Imbala is a pretty unique place, in amongst the glitzy consumerism and flag waving nationalism of central West Jerusalem, the collective has carved out a welcoming space where radicals can meet, inspire each other and share ideas. It is helping to build the kind of community of resistance, based on solidarity, that is what is needed if we are ever to see a revolution that will create more equality, justice and freedom in Jerusalem.

Find out more on Imbala’s website or Facebook page. Tom Anderson and Eliza Egret are members of Shoal Collective.

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