Living alongside Issawiya has its moments.
Items from the weekend''s news: Israelis accompanying an Australian tourist made a wrong turn into the neighborhood, and narrowly escaped a lynching. In another incident, neighborhood folks stoned an ambulance that entered the area to tend a resident who had been injured in a fall. And in a repeat of what had been a chronic problem, people from the neighborhood went to a cliff overlooking one of the roads from Jerusalem to the Jordan valley, and dropped stones on vehicles as they passed below them.
According to the Statistical Yearbook of the Jerusalem Municipality, there are almost 13,000 people living in Issawiya. The average age is a bit less than 19 years, 6 years younger than the average age of Jews in the city.
Generally the people we pass on our walks through French Hill are polite. Groups of teenage boys out for an evening may express something friendly if we meet on a crowded part of the sidewalk, and we each make an effort not to disturb the other.
On the other hand, we have found fist-sized stones in our apartment, which we surmise have been thrown by Arab youths playing soccer in the school yard alongside our building. One evening we interrupted what may have become an uglier incident when a young man knocked down a woman jogger. We yelled. He got up and ran in the direction of Issawiya. And while young boys from Issawiya often smile and say Shalom, one 10 or 11 year old looked at Varda and said Sharmuta (whore) before he ran away.
The name "Issawiya" has caused its own small stir. A Jewish neighbor, with some knowledge of Arabic, told me that "Issa" is Arabic for Jesus, and must indicate that the neighborhood has a Christian history. He described it as one of the places where the Muslims most likely had pushed out the Christians.
That led me to query one friend who is an Arab and a well-known social scientist, who has written extensively on the Arabs of Israel and Palestine. I also raised the issue with Arabs who I chat with in the university gym. And I looked for Issawiya among the Christian sites mentioned for the area of Jerusalem. What I learned is there does not seem to have been a Christian past or presence in the village. Issa is popular as a name among Arab Muslims, along with Musa. Jesus and Moses are prophets in the pantheon of Islam. One of the large extended families in Issawiya came generations ago as Bedouins, most likely from the Negev. Their family name is "Issawya," and as often happens, the village took on their name. By one report, a large majority of residents are affiliated with the family. They differ from the Bedouin who came recently, live on the edge of the field that separates Issawiya from French Hill, and raise sheep, goats, and horses. They add a romantic, pastoral feeling to the surroundings, and leave little brown balls on our sidewalks when they herd their animals through French Hill in search of juicy grass.
I asked one of my locker room friends if other Arabs would still view the Issawya family as Bedouin, and would allow their daughters to marry one of their sons. He said that he was liberal enough to let his daughter marry anyone she chose, even a Jew or Christian. However, he also said that more traditional people would consider the Issawya family to be Bedouin, even though it has been many generations since they departed from their camels and goats. Those who pride themselves in being Arab rather than Bedouin would forbid intermarriage.
The view from our balcony illustrates the limitations of the security barrier that continues to crawl to completion between Israel and Palestine. It has been abuilding since the middle of the intifada that began in 2000 and dwindled away four or five years ago. At various times the government has slowed construction in order to spread out the cost, or perhaps to wait and see if there was any hope of a peace agreement. What we see from here is the barrier separating Jews and Arabs on the left of the road to the Jordan Valley, where Arab residents are outside of what Israel defines as the Jerusalem municipality. Issawiya, on the right side of the road, is part of the municipality, and there is no barrier between them and us.
The view today shows black smoke rising from the Arab village on the other side of the wall. Most likely burning tires, either a protest or the routine disposal of trash. If it is durected against something we have done, the protesters ought to have taken account of the prevailing winds. The stuff will spoil Arab air rather than Jewish air.
When things heat up, we hear the stun grenades and other things that the police employ to restore order, and there will be check points on the roads out of Issawiya. After the events of recent days, the authorities may impose other unpleasantness on the neighborhood.
Among the possibilities that could come with a peace agreement is the hiving off of Issawiya and other Arab neighborhoods to Palestine. Then we might see a security barrier between us and them. Not immediately perhaps, but after a few incidents like those of recent days.
There are other spots in the immediate surroundings that do not separate so neatly into Arab or Jewish. French Hill was begun soon after 1967 as a Jewish neighborhood, but was built around small clusters of Arab housing. They remain, for the most part without much notice, and include two falafel stands popular with both Jews and Arabs. There are also Arab families living in buildings where most of the residents are Jewish, as well as Arab students from the Hebrew University along with Jewish students living here and there as renters.
The city is complex. There are Arab areas we have no concern about entering, and others - like Issawiya - that Arab friends have urged us to avoid.
The story should be familiar to residents of any large city in North America or Europe. Indeed, the data shows that our problems are less those those elsewhere. Israel''s murder rate is one third that of the United States, and less than one-seventh that of Chicago. The murder rate in Jerusalem is less than that of Israel as a whole.
We would all be better off if President Obama dealt with the problems of Chicago before he turned to those of Jerusalem.