Jerusalem is a mosaic of diverse religious and ethnic communities, including
small minorities that live largely separated to themselves. Nestled in
the Old City and a few outlying neighborhoods are members of a unique non-Arab
community that have much in common with the Jewish majority but have had trouble
fitting into Israeli society. These are the hidden Gypsies of
The Gypsy clans in Jerusalem tend to be reclusive, largely due
to the relentless persecution they have faced during their long sojournings over
the centuries. Thus, they normally shy away from any media attention, but
The Christian Edition was recently granted access to this small, unseen
Even most Israelis are totally unaware of their
“I didn’t even know there were Gypsies in Israel!” admitted
Omri Kibiri, a Jewish lawyer who is now involved in advocating their
For over 400 years, Jerusalem has been home to a few hundred
families from the Middle East branch of Gypsies, known as the Domari. In the
1800s, they lived mainly in tents in the Wadi Joz neighborhood, just outside the
ancient city walls. Over the past century, however, many gradually moved inside
the Old City, to the Burj Laq Laq neighborhood (Alley of the Stork Tower), near
the Lion’s Gate. Today, the Old City’s Domari community consists of about 150
families or 2,000 individuals, who live in low-standard
Meanwhile, other local Domari families have resettled in Arab
villages on the outskirts of Jerusalem and in Samaria and Gaza. By now, most
have exchanged their tents for homes, albeit cramped ones. They usually live
together with their extended family, which can include several generations under
Scholars have differing views about their origin. The old
English term “Gypsy” (or “Gipsy”) suggests they originated in Egypt. Gypsies,
however, are a distinct ethnic group whose various languages and dialects share
a common origin – India.
Still, there are competing legends about their
wandering past. One legend has it that in 227 CE the Gypsies moved from India
into Persia, where they were mostly known as musicians and dancers.
Greek and Arab conquests resulted in several more migrations for the Gypsies,
who broke off in two directions – towards Europe and the Middle East. Those in
Western Europe are known today as the Rom or Romani, while those found in
Eastern Europe and Armenia are called the Lom or Lomari. In the Middle East,
they call themselves the Dom or Domari.
Today, the Gypsy world population
is estimated at more than 40 million people.
Gypsies, like the Jewish
people, are a unique example of an ethnic group that has been through long,
difficult migrations around the world without losing their original identity and
According to Anat Hoffman of the Jerusalem City Council, Jews
and Gypsies also “share a common destiny, forged in the Nazi death camps of Europe.” Here
she is referring to the stark fact that Hitler also sent large numbers of
Gypsies from throughout Nazi-occupied Europe to the same extermination camps as
the Jews, murdering an estimated 220,000 in the gas chambers. The Domari word
for the Gypsy holocaust is Porrajmos, meaning the “devouring.”
common history of wanderings and persecution has not served to bond the local
Gypsy community with the wider Israeli society. To most Jews here, they are
considered part of Arab culture, as they mostly live among the Arab people.
Meanwhile, the Arabs despise them even to the point of spitting on them and
calling them nawar, meaning a failure or “dirt.” It is no wonder then that the
Domari have found it hard to gain acceptance here.
In order to survive
among the gadje (non-Gypsies), various Gypsy clans have traditionally tried to
blend in by adopting the language and religion of their host country. In Israel,
most Domari speak Arabic and some Hebrew. A few are also conversant in English.
Domari, the Gypsy language, remains the spoken language by the older
While many Domari call themselves Muslims, most are not
religiously observant. Some local Domari have adopted Christianity.
Domari are generally humble, peace-loving and do not seek political power.
Historically, the Gypsies have no territorial ambitions and no nationalistic
consciousness. They only desire to live quietly in peace and strive for a better
future for their children.
In Israel, Domari are not recognized as a
separate cultural or religious group like the Druze, Beduin, Samaritans or
Armenians. Listed by the Interior Ministry as “Arab,” the Domari often find
themselves at the bottom of the political pecking order. Even though they claim
neutrality regarding the Arab-Israeli conflict, some inadvertently become
involved as a result of living in Arab neighborhoods.
Most Domari couples
have large families with six to 10 children, and they constantly struggle in the
lower economic strata of society. Long-term consanguinity has resulted in
genetic diseases. For this reason many Domari now seek to marry
non-Gypsies. However, because Arabs typically refuse to let their
children marry a Gypsy, many Domari remain single.
Most adults do not
have any formal education. Consequently their unemployment rate is high. Domari
children attending Arab schools are often harassed by fellow students and even
their teachers. The shame of having no school supplies, books and the right
clothes leads to a high dropout rate. As a result, many Domari children roam the
streets, selling items to tourists or begging.
Young Domari girls often
marry before they are 16 years old. Their fate is to have 8-10 children and live
As a child, Amoun Sleem knew how it felt to be cold and
hungry. Her widowed father did not have money to buy clothes or shoes for his
nine children. An Arab teacher once made her stand in front of the class
as he checked Amoun’s hair for lice. Her Arab classmates laughed whenever the
teacher called her “nawari” (dirt).
Refusing to beg, Amoun chose to earn
money by selling postcards. She soon realized that in order to have any future,
she needed to finish school. Thanks to her iron will, she earned a
diploma in business administration.
With no one else to pick them up,
Amoun decided it was time to start helping her own people. She was determined to
lift them out of the cycle of poverty and hopelessness. Confident that the
deprivations and low self-image could be reversed, she encouraged the younger
generation to complete their education and aspire to better jobs.
1999, Amoun established a nonprofit organization called the Domari Society of
Gypsies in Jerusalem. With support from the Dom Research Center, a new community
center was also opened in 2005 in Shuafat, near Jerusalem’s northern French Hill
Traditions die hard in conservative communities, and the
Domari of Jerusalem are no exception. As an unmarried woman, Amoun still faces
many challenges in her role as a prominent community leader. Living in a
male-dominated society, it takes courage, determination and an eternal optimism
for her to pull the Domari forward.
“We have to break the stereotypes of
the Gypsies. They say we are a closed community that doesn’t welcome strangers.
That’s not true! Gypsies will welcome anyone who comes to them and tries to help
them,” said Amoun, whose name means “trust.”
Today, the Domari Society
provides after-school tutoring and purchases school supplies for Domari
children. In the community center, women learn different handicrafts and the
sale of their products helps to improve their financial situation ever so
slightly. The center also aims to advance Gypsy culture and education, maintain
contact with Gypsy communities abroad and extend urgently needed social and
medical services to local Domari families.
Petra van der Zande and her husband
have lived in Jerusalem since 1989. She has published over 10 books.