What is life like for a Jew living in Sheikh Jarrah?

JERUSALEM AFFAIRS: For Tal Yoshubiev, the torching of his cars and house are not going to change anything.

 MK ITAMAR Ben Gvir and Tal Yoshubiev (left) at a press conference outside the Yoshubiev home in Jerusalem's Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood on Sunday. (photo credit: ARIE LEIB ABRAMS/FLASH 90)
MK ITAMAR Ben Gvir and Tal Yoshubiev (left) at a press conference outside the Yoshubiev home in Jerusalem's Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood on Sunday.
(photo credit: ARIE LEIB ABRAMS/FLASH 90)

Walking to Sheikh Jarrah from Jerusalem’s city center, a traveler will pass through a modern, secular urban environment, to tight alleys with haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Jews and then suburban Arab neighborhoods, all within the span of 20 minutes.

While the name Sheikh Jarrah rouses passions and activist dogma the world over, travelers will find there is no Rubicon to cross, no barrier to impress a momentous change in location. They cross a road, and all they will find are more Arabic signs and fewer synagogues.

For all the talk of disputed property and war, a visitor might be puzzled to see just another Jerusalem neighborhood – uniquely charactered, as they all are. For many of its residents, it’s just another place to live.

Tal Yoshubiev, 25, lives in Sheikh Jarrah with his wife, Reut, their two young children, and a dog named Simba. His family emigrated from Uzbekistan, hers from Tunis. He was born in Jerusalem’s Old City and grew up in Har Homa. Tal met Reut when she was studying in a midrasha in northern Israel.

“We looked for a nice quiet place that was in a Jewish area,” Yoshubiev said, explaining how they had sought a home to start their family. “There was a wonderful calm spot in the city center, near a train stop.”

 LIKUD MK Yoav Gallant in front of the Yoshubievs' torched car this week. (credit: ARIE LEIB ABRAMS/FLASH 90) LIKUD MK Yoav Gallant in front of the Yoshubievs' torched car this week. (credit: ARIE LEIB ABRAMS/FLASH 90)

That spot was in the area that the Jewish residents call Nahalat Shimon, and Arab residents Um Aroun. It is across the road from Shimon Hatzadik, the area where most of the Jews in Sheikh Jarrah live. Both sites bear the name of the Second Temple priest Simeon the Just, whose tomb is nearby – just as the tomb of Saladin’s physician Sheikh Jarrah gave its name to the broader neighborhood. 

Jews had lived there prior to 1948, but the upheaval of the War of Independence saw Jewish refugees leaving their property in Shimon Hatzadik and Nahalat Shimon behind. Arab refugees were resettled in these homes by the ruling Jordanian authorities.

WHILE JERUSALEM was reunified with Israel’s victory in the 1967 Six Day War, Jews and Arabs long after continued the fighting with title deeds and bills of sale to assert control over properties in Sheikh Jarrah. The status of some of these homes and the Arab families that live in them is still in dispute, with the courts hesitant to make final rulings. Jewish landlords have gained control of dozens of lots in Shimon Hatzadik, where Yoshubiev says 18 Jewish families live, and Nahalat Shimon, where his family resides.

While the real estate dispute has been going on for decades, Yoshubiev was content to have found a place to raise his family and has done so for two-and-a-half years. According to the stocky, soft-spoken young man, it had initially been the quiet place he had hoped. 

Tal and Reut had a son and a daughter only a few months ago. He worked in deliveries and, as a religious man, spent those early, calm days in prayer and study at a religious study hall. Reut took care of their newborn son and worked with seniors in Ma’aleh Adumim.

The Yoshubievs say that this quiet lasted only for a year and a half until Operation Guardian of the Walls. Court deliberations had come to a head in May 2021, and the court was expected to deliver a ruling on evictions. Demonstrations and riots erupted in Sheikh Jarrah, and Jewish and Arab activists clashed. The property dispute is often cited as one of the many elements that raised the temperature in the region, which eventually ignited into warfare that year.

“It was a very bad period,” said Yoshubiev. “We were alone here. Hundreds of people came with stones, banging on the door.”

The Yoshubievs said the mobs came every night for weeks; they had to leave their son with Reut’s mother.

“We started to sleep at night only when we knew the police were here.”

Israel Police and Border Police officers set up in the area, keeping a detachment near the Yoshubiev residence. However, as the war and tensions ebbed, the protection by authorities decreased.

THE FAMILY’S relationships with their neighbors have continued to be strained. They often greet him with curses. There are two Arab neighbors that he is on friendly terms with, but their conversations and pleasantries are limited to when no one else is looking. They’re afraid to be seen with him.

There is a park with slides and a jungle gym only a few meters from their house. Reut says that they can’t use it – "It's only for the Arabs.”

Yoshubiev said that he still has respect for his neighbors.

“I have no problem with Arabs or people who follow the law, just with people who try to kill me and destroy Israel.”

Last Friday, the Sheikh Jarrah conflict sparked anew when the Yoshubievs’ home and car were firebombed. The roof of their house collapsed, in their son’s room, falling onto his bed. The charred debris still rests in the cradle; dark ashes are scattered among the brightly colored toys and picture books.

“Thank God that we weren’t here when they tried to kill us,” said Yoshubiev, who explained that it was a miracle they survived. They had been away that night, staying elsewhere for Shabbat. A friend woke them up the next morning and told them what had happened. The police and Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) arrested two suspects in the attack on Monday.

“This is the first time we’ve really felt scared for our lives,” he said.

IT'S NOT the first time they’ve been the targets of firebombing. Four Molotov cocktails have been thrown at their home; the last attack was only a month ago. They’ve had fireworks shot into their courtyard. Tal has had boiling liquid thrown at him. The Yoshubievs have had their cars destroyed in arson nine times. The most recent vehicle to be destroyed wasn’t even theirs; it had been loaned to him two-and-a-half weeks prior by a friend.

But this time, The Yoshubievs became causes célèbres when MK Itamar Ben-Gvir picked up their plight and moved his office to their yard, fomenting unrest and riots throughout the week as well as threats from Hamas to renew rocket attacks on Israel.

Yoshubiev admitted that all the attention was a bit overwhelming, from TV appearances to receiving nonstop texts and calls. But the basic issue remains the same, whether he’s in the eye of the storm or not.

“Once your car is burned, you can’t go to work, you can’t learn,” Yoshubiev remarked about how their lives were disrupted every time their car was destroyed.

“You need to buy a new car seat for the children,” said Reut.

They don’t leave personal effects in the car anymore – only what is necessary.

YOSHUBIEV HAS been critical of police responses. He’s said that he has had to rely on his friends for protection, due to slow reaction times by the police; once they took 40 minutes to respond. 

The Police often blamed him for provocation. On Wednesday, they demanded that he stay inside his home and not leave. The same day, Channel 12 reported that a border policewoman had impeded Yoshubiev’s friends from visiting, saying that Jews weren’t allowed to access the area.

Yoshubiev is often asked why he doesn’t leave.

“At the end of the day, this is our home. Jews used to live here until they were expelled.”

After Israelis fought for decades to live in Jerusalem, “we’ve returned to the place of our forefathers, the land described in the Torah, and we’re happy to be here,” he said.

Yoshubiev emphasized that it isn’t that people want to remove Jews just from Sheikh Jarrah. He said they want to remove Jews from all of Jerusalem, and after that Tel Aviv, and then all of Israel. For this reason, he said, it is important that people respect that his community should be called by its Hebrew name, Nahalat Shimon. Otherwise, “why not just call the entire city of Jerusalem ‘Al-Quds’?’”

The embattled family still hopes for a quiet life. Yoshubiev dreams of having more children, and that one day his son will play with his siblings in the courtyard, and will listen to stories from his father about times of conflict long past, considering them tales of ancient history.

It’s a dream of such a time in the future when the invisible boundaries that mark his neighborhood as a place of conflict will be forgotten, and it truly will be just another Jerusalem neighborhood to walk through – just another place where people live.