The massive crowds thronging Jerusalem’s Old City for the Pessah holiday proved to be a boon for the Ateret Cohanim organization on Thursday, as hundreds of participants took part in its free, guided tours to the disputed Beit Yehonatan building in the east Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan.
Providing fodder for a number of unusual scenes, groups of religious men – many of them clad in black coats and fedoras – could be scene walking through the narrow alleyways and past Arabic graffiti toward the seven-story, Jewish-owned structure, which sits atop a hill in a section of the neighborhood that was once home to a thriving, pre-state community of Yemenite Jews.
Called the Yemenite Village, that historical backdrop is the cornerstone of Ateret Cohanim’s tours to the area, which are being provided throughout the intermediate days of Pessah.
But beyond the neighborhood’s residents from days gone by – the Yemenite Village was mostly destroyed during Arab riots that shook British Mandate Palestine in 1929 – the tour also touched on some of Silwan’s current residents, namely the Jewish families living in Beit Yehonatan and the nearby Beit Hadvash.
While Beit Hadvash – a smaller structure that is currently home to one Jewish family – has thus far escaped the scrutiny of the Jerusalem Municipality, Beit Yehonatan is the subject of an outstanding court order to evacuate and seal the structure, as it was built without the proper permits.
The building, which is named for imprisoned Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard, is home to eight Jewish families, and has been at the center of a struggle between Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat and State Attorney Moshe Lador. In late January, Lador demanded that the mayor implement the order to evacuate and seal the building. Barkat refused.
After increased pressure, the mayor announced in February that he would evacuate and seal the building, and then begin implementing outstanding demolition orders for more than 200 illegally built Arab homes in the neighborhood. In the meantime, implementation of the court order for Beit Yehonatan has continued to be delayed.
Meanwhile, the building has also drawn the ire of some of its Arab neighbors. During Succot in October 2009, two firebomb attacks were perpetrated against Beit Yehonatan, causing no injuries, but leaving an impression nonetheless.
Last month, gunshots were fired at a security vehicle used to escort families to and from the building. While six bullets tore through the truck, the driver of the vehicle was only lightly wounded by shrapnel, but the message was conveyed that not all is well with regards to the towering structure in the heart of Silwan.
On Thursday, that sentiment could be felt as well, albeit in a muffled tone. Arab residents of the neighborhood peered out from windows and doorways at the passing tour groups, and although no violence occurred, the tension was apparent.
Young boys who sat on the stoops of nearby homes swung mock punches at young members of the tour groups, spit toward them and cursed at them in Arabic. At one point, an Arab man upset that a member of one tour group had begun taking pictures near his home yelled out curses.
Nonetheless, Ateret Cohanim members said they felt the day had been a “huge success,” and were looking forward to additional tours over the coming days.
“There were groups leaving for Beit Yehonatan every 15-20 minutes today,” Ateret Cohanim spokesman Daniel Luria told The Jerusalem Post
“We had initially anticipated that the tours would be leaving every half hour, but the demand was far greater than we imagined it would be.”
Luria also said that while one incident of rock-throwing had taken place during a tour on Wednesday, all had been quiet on Thursday, and the police escorts that had provided protection for the groups, had done a “great job.
“We’re hoping to raise public awareness,” Luria said, describing his organization’s goal for the tours.
“Most people don’t know that there was Yemenite community living in the area before it became Silwan,” he continued. “At the same time we want people to know where [Beit Yehonatan] is and to understand how close it is to the Old City.”
Luria also said he hoped participants had taken note of the large amounts of illegal building by Arabs in Silwan “and the discrimination against the Jews [in Beit Yehonatan] compared to what else is going on there.”
In that vein, Luria said that Ateret Cohanim was well aware of the need
for such tours but also stressed the importance of the group’s guided
walks through the Old City.
“There are some 950 Jews living in what is called the ‘Old Jewish
Quarter of the Old City,’” Luria said. “That is to say, parts of the
Old City that today are in the Muslim and Christian quarters.
“Overall, these tours are meant to raise public awareness about what
we’re doing,” he continued. “When someone says east Jerusalem or the
Muslim Quarter of the Old City, suddenly there’s a context... And the
more Jews that live in these places, ultimately it will become more
accepted,” he added.