The normally placid surroundings of the Tomb of Simon the Just have been shaken in recent months by regular protest in which moral fervor and strident self-righteousness take pride of place. The demonstrators ostensibly protest evictions – of Arab families in this case – although we may doubt their opposition to evictions in principle, since the notable personalities among them were absent from demonstrations five years ago against the eviction of 8,500 Jews from the Gaza Strip.
Be that as it may, whenever we see mass outpourings of emotion – love, anger, sentimentality, grief, hatred – we may wonder just what participants know of the cause for which they demonstrate. Simon’s Tomb and its surroundings merit being seen as a symbol of the struggle between Jews and Arabs, as well as interested foreign parties, that has flowed and ebbed for generations.
The area of Simon’s Tomb witnessed the very beginning of the surge of violence, starting shortly after the UN General Assembly recommended partition on November 29, 1947.
It also witnessed the first flight of refugees who could not return after the War of Independence. It may surprise some that these first refugees who could not go home were Jews. Yet this is well-documented.
Simon the Just was a personality of Second Temple times who accomplished legendary exploits in Jewish tradition. He is identified with two high priests named Simon, one at the time of Seleucid Emperor Antiochus III, circa 200 BCE. Another, tradition holds, appeared in white garments before the conquering Alexander of Macedon (332 BCE), thus inducing him to leave the Jews in peace.
Simon’s Tomb is traditionally located in a cave just meters from the cave tomb complexes that are unquestionably of Second Temple times.
For those who doubt the tomb’s authenticity, we cannot prove that Simon
is buried there, any more than anyone today can prove Jesus is buried in
the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Indeed, some Christians propose other
locations. Yet this location as Simon’s tomb was attested in 1235.
It is depicted on illustrated charts of Jewish holy sites – a kind of
Jewish folk art – as we see in an album published by the Israel Museum
(Rachel Sarfati, ed, Offerings from Jerusalem: Portrayals of Holy Places
by Jewish Artists).
Lag Ba’omer pilgrimages to the site long competed with pilgrimages to
Shimon bar Yohai’s tomb in the Galilee, as it was easier to reach for
Jerusalem’s Jews, already a majority in the city by the mid- 19th
IN 1876 the Ashkenazi and Sephardi communities joined to purchase the
site from the Arab owner, who had until then charged Jews a fee to
approach the tomb. Beside enhancing the tomb, homes for poor Jews were
built on part of the site, while most of the 18-dunam plot was left
Jerusalem Jews called it the Shimon Hatzaddik Quarter, and it appears by
that name in Dan Bahat’s Jerusalem historical atlas. It was adjacent to
Sheikh Jarrah but not part of it – contrary to common usage today by
thepress and protesters.
In 1947, among the first shots of the Arab war against Jewish
independence were those fired at a Jewish bus on the Mount Scopus road
adjacent to Shimon Hatzaddik.
Throughout December 1947, Jewish traffic was attacked on the Mount
Scopus road, as were Shimon Hatzaddik and nearby Jewish quarters,
Nahalat Shimon, Siebenbergen Houses, etc. After hours of intense attack
on December 29, Jewish families fled the neighborhood, though some
remained for several more days.
The Palestine Post reported on January 4, 1948 that Jews were fleeing
Shimon Hatzaddik and other areas. British troops helped induce the
exodus by disarming Jews in the quarter. Hence, Jews were the first war
refugees in the country who could not go home after the war (Jews also
fled in December 1947 from parts of Jaffa and south Tel Aviv, but could
go back after the war).
From 1949 to 1967, while Jews could not visit Jewish holy sites under
Jordanian rule – in violation of the 1949 armistice accord – the
deserted Jewish homes in Shimon Hatzaddik were inhabited by Arab
families, while homes for Arabs were built on undeveloped parts of the
site around 1955.
After the Six Day War, Jews could again visit Simon’s Tomb, while Arabs
remained in the once-Jewish homes on the site. However, in 1998, when an
Arab tried to incorporate the synagogue into his own house, Jews moved
back, first into the synagogue, which bore clear Hebrew inscriptions,
despite claims made to me by an Arab spokesman that Jews never lived
More recently, courts ruled that Arab houses on the site belonged to the
Jewish land owners. Talented authors Amos Oz and David Grossman have
taken part in protests – in the name of peace and justice – against
evictions ensuing from refusal of certain Arab tenants to pay rent, thus
rejecting the exercise of Jewish property rights. Yet the
moralpolitical stances of authors do not impress.
For example, before World War II equally or more talented French authors
Jean Giono and Jean Giraudoux praised Hitler, demanding peace with
Germany. Giono even described Hitler as “a poet in action.”
By their protests, Oz and Grossman now implicitly endorse the expulsions
of Jews in the War of Independence, the first refugees in that war who
could not go home afterward.
Furthermore, is a religious body entitled to maintain the area around
its holy places? Do Christians want non-Christians living too close to
the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and other Christian holy places? Are
non- Muslims allowed into Mecca? Justice is based on truth, not
The writer is a researcher and
translator living in Jerusalem. He has published in Nativ, Midstream,
The Jerusalem Post and other publications.
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