Jerusalem gypsies want Israeli citizenship
Mayor Barkat visits gypsy community in Old City for Eid al Adha holiday.
Mayor greets members of J'lem Gypsy community. Photo: MELANIE LIDMAN
The capital’s 2,000 Muslim Gypsies want to become Israeli citizens, Mukhtar Abed
Salim told Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat on Sunday.
Barkat visited the small
and impoverished Gypsy population on Sunday to wish them happy holiday for the
Id al-Adha festival.
The Gypsies had celebrated the mayor’s 53rd birthday
last week with a cake featuring Barkat’s face.
The community lives in
crowded, dilapidated apartments around the Lion’s Gate in the Old City. Some
Gypsies, priced out of the Old City, live in the Shuafat refugee camp in the
capital’s north. There is another small community in the Gaza Strip.
Gypsies are Muslim but do not identify as Arabs or Palestinians, Salim said.
They have Jerusalem residency, but not citizenship, similar to the majority of
east Jerusalem Arabs.
“We love the state,” Salim said, explaining that
the community wants greater integration into Israel and more municipal
After they receive citizenship, they will decide whether to
serve in the military, he said.
Interior Ministry spokeswoman Sabine
Hadad said members of the community must individually submit applications for
Jerusalem’s Gypsies trace their roots back 1,000 years to
northern Iraq, where a powerful tribe known as the Bnei Murra lived. A bloody war with a neighboring
tribe – according to legend, over the death of a beloved camel belonging to the
daughter of the tribal chief – scattered the tribe across the world.
went to Europe, converted to Christianity, and became the Roma Gypsies. Others
traveled across the Middle East and became Muslim.
Gypsies arrived in
Jerusalem along with the Muslim conqueror Saladin in 1187, and fought against
the Crusaders. The Gypsies stayed in the area, living in tents similar to the
Beduin but as part of a separate tribe.
The Gypsies lived on the slopes
of the Mount of Olives for hundreds of years, in what today is part of the
Following the Six Day War, many Gypsies fled to
Jordan. Others moved out of their tents into cramped apartments in the Old City.
There are Gypsy populations in Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, Syria, Yemen and
Salim explained that just as in Europe, Gypsies have been the
object of discrimination and violence.
The community does not have good
relations with their Arab neighbors.
“Al-Nawar!” which now means “dirt”
or “cheap,” is an insult Arabs frequently yell at Gypsies, and has entered into
colloquial language as a general curse word. Before 2006, only three Gypsy
children out of the 2,000- strong community attended school.
subsequently attended sporadically but left after bullying by their Arab
Before the push in the past few years to keep Gypsy children
in school, most children spent their days begging in the streets.
didn’t depend on ourselves,” Salim said on Sunday. “We always waited for others
to help us.”
The community has remained impoverished. The most common
occupation for men is to work in the city’s sanitation services.
generally do not work, although this is slowly changing as some begin to pursue
Unemployment is rampant, and most families live with eight or
more children in one- or two-room apartments.
In 2006, tour guide and
teacher Ofra Regev reached out to the group to try to include them in tours of
the Muslim Quarter. She was shocked by their poverty, and vowed to help them
receive greater recognition from city hall. Now crowned with the title
“mukhtarit” (female mukhtar), Regev says she has been adopted by the entire
Relations with city hall improved dramatically over the past
few years. Today, a municipal social worker works to ensure that children are
enrolled and staying in school, and participating in afterschool activities
through youth groups. A music program is encouraging children to learn
traditional music and a women’s empowerment group is studying Hebrew.
Salim and the rest of the community are trying to leverage their positive
relationship with the mayor into an opportunity to improve their neighborhood.
Salim wants to build an additional floor over his three-room apartment, where he
lives with his wife and nine children, to serve as a reception hall for cultural
events and for classes.
Gypsy music, singing and dancing is alive in
Jerusalem as well, and Salim said the community needs a space to perform in if
they want to preserve their traditions.
They also want a space to teach
their children Dom, their language.
Dom is similar to many European Gypsy
Tourist groups from Israel and abroad are beginning to visit
Salim’s home to learn more about the Gypsies, and he needs a place to meet with
them, he said. Salim also eventually wants to build a girls’ and boys’ school
for Dom children to strengthen their cultural pride.
On Sunday, Barkat
praised the community’s willingness to cooperate with authorities.
willingness to work with us, especially in education and improving the quality
of life, means we are starting to improve, and it’s a joy to see,” he said. •