Jerusalem and the Mizrahis, four centuries on

For most of their 17 generations in Jerusalem, Shmuel Shamir’s family lived in the same Old City house.

old city home311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
old city home311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
To say that Shmuel Shamir and his family have been around a long time in Jerusalem would be the understatement of the century – several centuries, in fact. “I am a 17th-generation Jerusalemite,” he says with pride. “According to one version, the first member of the family to live here, Baruch Mizrahi, came to Jerusalem from Turkey in 1620, and we are descended from the Re’em [Rabbi Eliahu Mizrahi, who lived in Turkey in the 15th century].”
Another version is that the family has always lived in Jerusalem, while a third opinion is that they are descended from Jews who were expelled from Spain and came to Jerusalem via Venice.
The latter view has some tangible evidence hanging on the wall of the Shamir living room. “This parochet [synagogue ritual curtain that covers the Holy Ark] was dated by a curator from the Israel Museum to be somewhere between 1600 and 1640, and he said it comes from Venice,” says Shamir. “The parochet has been handed down through the generations of my family.”
The 87-year-old lawyer, who still walks home every day from his downtown practice, lives in Talbiyeh with his wife, Martha. He grew up in Ohel Moshe, one of the first areas to be built outside the Old City walls and now part of Nahlaot. His grandfather was the first generation to move out of the family home, built by Baruch Mizrahi in the Jewish Quarter. “It was getting very crowded in the Old City,” explains Shamir, “and the sanitary conditions were not very good, although the house was only rented out, not sold.”
There was a long-standing and binding reason for that, as evidenced by a yellowed page from an old tome in the Shamir home. “This is a copy of Baruch Mizrahi’s will from 1643,” says Shamir, pointing to the Rashi style script in the book. The will stipulates that the house he built in the Old City is to be handed down through the generations of the family – but only to male members – so that when the Messiah comes, Baruch will have a home to return to.
Shamir, who Hebraicized his family name when the state came into being, says that life in the Old City was harmonious and peaceful at that time. “The family shared the same yard with Jews and Muslims and Christians, and everyone lived together and got on. That may seem a bit hard to believe today, but that’s the way it was back then.”
The house survived Jordanian rule between 1948 and 1967 intact and, in fact, was eventually demolished by the Jerusalem Development Authority, which rebuilt the Jewish Quarter. Although all the Jewish home owners were offered compensation, Shamir’s family could not accept any money. “That was prohibited by Baruch Mizrahi’s will,” he explains. “That would have been tantamount to selling the house.”
In the end, Shamir’s father settled for a plaque being placed on a wall near the original site of the house that summarizes the history of the family residence.
Shamir’s childhood memories are of carefree days in Jerusalem, spent cycling with his pals down to Ramallah, where he would hang out at Café Nahum  or rest in the shade of one of the gardens there. In those days, says Shamir, as in the Old City, Jerusalemites in the newer western part of the city lived, worked and shopped together. “There was no fear then, even though there was trouble in the late 1920s and later, after the King David Hotel was blown up.”
Later Shamir joined the Hagana and fought in the War of Independence.
Shamir’s formal schooling ended prematurely before he eventually made it to law school. Even his university studies were temporarily truncated by the War of Independence. “The family was hard up, so when I was a teenager I started working as a messenger in the office of a lawyer called David Goitein,” he recounts.
Goitein was a British-born lawyer who had previously served as editor of The Palestine Bulletin, the forerunner of The Palestine Post, which eventually became The Jerusalem Post. One the law trainees in Goitein’s firm was Chaim Herzog, who long before becoming president of Israel was the IDF governor of the West Bank. Shamir’s track record with Herzog during his employ with Goitein later helped Shamir obtain permission to enter the West Bank after the Six Day War to visit Arab residents whom he represented in Israeli military courts.
As war brewed in 1967, Shamir had a good idea how things were going to work out and how he should prepare for the aftermath. “I knew we would win the war, and I thought we would have a lot of dealings with the Arabs afterwards,” he recalls.
Part of his professional redeployment meant honing his Arabic skills. “I grew up speaking some Arabic, but I wasn’t really fluent. So I got my Arabic language textbooks out of the cupboard and refreshed my memory.”
His prescience turned out to be on the nail and, in the years to come, he spent much of his working hours defending Arabs in land trials and Arabs accused of security violations. He didn’t always win the case, but he says he always did his best. On one occasion a failed attempt to clear a young man of a security violation charge almost gave him a berth in the PLO leadership.
“I defended a young man from the West Bank who was on trial in Lod,” says Shamir. “Unfortunately, he got seven years in prison and I was despondent after the case. But his father came up to me afterwards and thanked me for my work and said I’d done a good job and that I was good enough to join the Fatah leadership.”  
Over the years, Shamir and his wife were guests of honor athaflot – celebratory Arab gatherings – all over theWest Bank.
With such a rich family heritage in Jerusalem and multifarious legalexperience on both sides of the Green Line, Shamir is in as good aposition as any to offer an opinion about the chances of lasting peacein the region.
The man, it seems, is an eternal optimist.
“When it rains, you take shelter until the rain stops,” he says metaphorically. “There will be peace in the end.”