The new pioneers

An exclusive interview with Yuval and Tamar Marcus, residents of Shimon Hatzadik in Sheikh Jarrah.

tamar marcus sheikh jarah Sarah levin 311 (photo credit: Sarah Levin)
tamar marcus sheikh jarah Sarah levin 311
(photo credit: Sarah Levin)
For the past few weeks, the small Sheikh Jarrah playground (built through a grant by the Jerusalem Foundation) on Nablus Road, facing the entrance to the Shimon Hatzadik Cave, has become the stage for a weekly demonstration held by a wide range of left-wing activists and human rights organizations. On Friday afternoons, largely radical groups gather on the right side of the street. On the opposite side stands an ever-growing group of policemen. In between, whether driving or walking to the nearby mosque, Arab residents stare at the two groups with a glint of cynicism but mostly with indifference. The demonstration is a protest against the ongoing establishment of Jewish families in the neighborhood, which is considered a major obstacle to the division of Jerusalem in eventual negotiations.
Two weeks ago, the police arrested more than 20 of the Jewish demonstrators, among them Hagai El-Ad, executive director of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) and former head of the Open House. For many, that was considered crossing a red line by the police. As a result, the following week a much larger group – more than 300 people – turned up to show their support for the demonstrators, as well as their anger at what they consider a harsh attitude toward them by the police. Slogans, catcalls, placards and, as of this week, a group of drummers are turning the Friday demonstrations at Sheikh Jarrah into a new tradition.
During all this time the Jewish residents of the neighborhood, those who raised the ire of the protesters in the first place, have not been seen or registered any reaction, even though some of the slogans and placards are directed at them, such as “Settlers = Thieves.” In fact, not one of the 17 families installed in the tiny neighborhood situated between the commemorative stone for the victims of the Hadassah convoy during the War of Independence on the upper side of the street and the mosque near the American Colony hotel – three compounds of houses in all – ever show up, even speak to the media or express their position in any way.
For the past 10 years, since Jewish residents first began to move into the neighborhood, few have agreed to speak to the press. But this week, Yuval Marcus and his wife, Tamar, opened their home to In Jerusalem and agreed to talk about how it feels to live in an Arab neighborhood (“We feel rather secure here”), how they feel about the ever-growing demonstrations on Fridays (“We are not so aware of them”) and to say a few things about their connection to the Land and how they understand the term “pioneers” today.
How long have you been living here?
Yuval: We’ve been here for four and a half years. We arrived here as a young couple, and our two children were born here. We are both from here, Jerusalem.
What brought you to live here?
Yuval: It’s a simple ideological decision. We both strongly believe that settling in Jerusalem is something essential for Am Yisrael [the Jewish people]. We came here because it is crucial for our sovereignty over Jerusalem. After 1967, this area was totally devoid of Jews, and it is crucial to create a continuity of Jewish presence here. It is important on a national Jewish level, much more than personal consideration. And thus, though I am not happy about Arab families evacuated and living in the streets [though they built here without permits], this seems to me much more important.
There are many people who share your views, but they don’t settle here among Arab residents.
Yuval: Even before we talk about the living conditions, on the simple theoretical level I believe that for everyone, everywhere, if you have an ideal in your heart, one that fills you, it can lift you to such heights that the living conditions are not a problem: Things that should bother you don’t bother you anymore.
So the fact that you’re here for ideological reasons makes you disregard the tough conditions, is that what you mean?
Yuval: Look, this is not a normal apartment – I’m not sure you can call it an apartment at all. And compared to the other facilities we have here, this is a rather large apartment in the compound, but for us it’s fine. We’re very happy with what we have here because we see ourselves as emissaries to fulfill the dreams of generations of Jews who yearned to be here, and that’s something that fills us with energy.
How would you define yourself?
Yuval: We are pioneers, absolutely.
Are you expecting more people to join you here?
Yuval: I don’t know. I guess it doesn’t work for everybody. Also there are many other tasks and ideals to fulfill for Am Yisrael: problems of poverty, Galilee needs to be taken care of – it’s full of Arabs – and many, many other tasks. I don’t think everyone should focus on what we’re doing here. Those for whom it works, those who feel the importance of this place, that’s fine. Unfortunately, we don’t have enough available houses here to fill the demand.
Before you came here, did you have any second thoughts? Did you and your wife discuss it?
Tamar: Yes, naturally, we hesitated a lot. We asked ourselves if we were ready to live in these conditions. The first facility we obtained upon arriving was a tiny little studio, a one-room apartment. We definitely had doubts.
Yuval: And before we came here, we lived in a really large apartment – you know, in a normal neighborhood; a normal, large, fancy three-room apartment.
But still you decided to give that up in order to be here?
Yuval: Just to be here. Tamar had more experience than I did because she grew up in the Jewish Quarter in the Old City; but I was concerned because I grew up in a normal neighborhood in Jerusalem. I really had some concerns, but she didn’t have any. And she brought me here, in fact. I was concerned regarding the children. There is tension around; it could harm them, create difficult situations. I had a lot of doubts.
Are there tensions here around you? I mean in practical daily life – I’m not talking about the political aspect.
Tamar: Before Yuval answers that question, I want to say something. We have a really good community life here. We are a group of young couples who share the same ideals and ways. The children play together – it’s a real community here.
Yuval: Yes, we have our own vibe. People here are the best. You know, high level, committed.
Tamar: Yeah, we feel very good here.
Yuval: You know, it’s pioneering but not in the way it was a century ago when people came to this land and there was nothing.
Do you pay rent here?
Yuval: Yes, of course, but it’s not very high. Of course we pay. Don’t forget there’s a lot of demand here. Many couples are waiting to get a place here.
But not everyone is accepted here. How does it work? Do you have a selection committee?
Yuval: There is a selection [process]. No, it’s not open to everyone.
Like what? It’s not enough to be right wing. Does one have to be religious to be accepted here?
Yuval:  Well, for someone who is not religious at all, I don’t think it would work. Not because we have anything against the non-religious, but they wouldn’t feel comfortable here. We are religious; this is a religious community. This is not a regular neighborhood where anyone can just buy a house and settle down and mind only his own business. In a normal neighborhood, a man wakes up in the morning, goes to work, comes home – it’s not like that here. We share everything; we help and get help from each other.
On the logistical level, how does it work?
Yuval: There is a need for logistics here, but let’s keep things in perspective. I have friends who live in the Yemenite village, down there in Silwan. There everything is coordinated with the guards.  They need a lot of logistics and coordination for everything. Here it’s simpler.
Do you feel it’s dangerous here?
Yuval: A Jew, and especially a Jew who is engaged in this concept of Eretz Yisrael, is in danger. Our neighborhood is considered to be a calm and safe one. We really feel secure here, though we do experience provocations, harassment, spitting. There’s a lot of cursing, rude remarks sometimes. We live very close to each other [Jews and Arabs]. In fact, this is the most mixed neighborhood in Jerusalem. Here we don’t have closed compounds or anything of the sort. We live door to door, courtyard to courtyard. We have a security network; guards are here on duty. But in the new compound down the road there are still no [government-provided] guards, just our own guards. And, of course, we are in constant contact with the police, but most of the time the situation here is calm. We feel very safe here.
What do your family and friends say? Do they come to visit you or are they reluctant to?
Yuval: My parents were a little afraid at the beginning, but after a while they got used to it.
Tamar: Yes, you know, people ask, ‘How does it work here?’
Yuval: But they see for themselves that it’s very calm here. There is a very good social atmosphere; and even regarding the Arab neighbors here, there’s not too much provocation.
Tamar: I always pray that nothing will happen just when guests arrive, like some balagan [incident], because once in a while it does happen, but I pray it won’t occur precisely when people come to visit us.
Yuval: I want to emphasize something. Our attitude here – and I am aware that it’s different in other places where Jewish settlers live, they may have different attitudes – is that we didn’t come here to fight against the Arab residents or to harass them; we just don’t do that. There are some provocations from time to time regarding the playground facilities.
For example, the Arabs have destroyed the seesaw. And look at the grass – it doesn’t exist anymore. These are facilities that we installed here through donations; we brought donors here, and now it’s ruined. They ruined the pipes of the irrigation to the little gardens here. So we do have flare-ups from time to time. But in general – and this is my personal position – our attitude toward the Arabs is that I don’t have any antagonism toward any Muhammad or Mustafa here; I don’t have personal problems with them. It’s a national issue here. We want to be in those specific places. It has to be clear that Eretz Yisrael in general and Jerusalem in particular belong to the Jewish people, and they have to understand that.
So in your view Arabs can live here as long as they admit this? Or should they, in your view, leave?
Yuval: I have no problem with them. Look, I have a neighbor here who, compared to some of the others around, behaves very nicely. For example, after washing her floors, his wife throws the dirty water from her pail into the alley where we hang our laundry. One day our clothesline broke, and the children’s clothes were on the ground. She saw that and knocked on our door to bring the clothes inside before she threw out the dirty water. That happened the week we moved into this apartment. In the former apartment, the Arab neighbors really bothered us, but this one is a nice person. I don’t think he loves Jews; it’s just that he is not looking for problems with us. He is just a nice guy. I never had any serious political discussions with him. I think he just really isn’t concerned about this whole issue. He lives here, that’s all. So I certainly don’t have any problem with that.
The important point is that they have to admit who the landlord is here. I don’t mean regarding financial issues, like to whom you pay rent or that, but whom does this place belong to? Who are the ones who dreamed of this place for centuries? Who is the one for whom only this specific place allows him to be who he really is?
Can you explain that more?
Yuval: It’s even in the Hebrew language – you have a “house” and you have a “home.” A house is a place where you go to sleep after work. A home is a place where you grow up; it is the place that enables you to be completely yourself, and that is, in our eyes, Eretz Yisrael in general and Jerusalem in particular. The Jewish people, across all generations, in their prayers, in their liturgy, always dreamed of Jerusalem, and we want to actualize this, to fulfill it, to expose it.  
But there are Israelis who see it otherwise. How do you feel about that? How do you feel when every Friday you see them demonstrating against you and what you stand for?
Yuval: First of all, I am very sorry about the hatred they express. I, for instance – and I know it is the same with quite a few of my friends here – do not feel any hatred toward them. I know that many use harsh terms like “traitors”; I don’t do that. In my view, the root of this confusion is the result of education. I received an appropriate Jewish education; they have not received that Jewish education. Eretz Yisrael is not some pagan war over a piece of land. This is a war over what you are, what is your real link to your history, to your legacy, to your roots. If someone doesn’t mind giving up a place that all the generations before him dreamed of, it means he is not connected to himself, to his nation. For me, they are confused people who are very influenced by Western culture.
The European Union, for example, is so deeply involved here – we see it with our own eyes. Its presence, the money it invests here, why does the EU care so much about what’s going on here? Because it understands that the Jewish people are coming back here after 2,000 years to live a fully national life, and that’s a threat to Europe. I am aware of those who say that that we should give up land in order to obtain peace – I don’t even want to go into that. But let me say this: If you have something you believe in, something your parents, your grandparents and all your ancestors dreamed of and believed in, that they were ready to die for and were slaughtered for, well even if now there’s some danger and you’re even threatened because of that, if you believe in this and you’re really and truly connected to this, you will not give it up – you will fight for it.
The war is not personal; we’re not here to hurt the Arabs, it’s not our aim, we are not into that at all. The Torah says that we shouldn’t harm the ger toshav, who is someone who lives here and should have rights and live in peace here in Eretz Yisrael. But first he has to recognize and admit a few things.
Like what?
Yuval: First he has to live a moral life. He shouldn’t steal or murder.
Aren’t these well-known Muslim tenets as well?
Yuval: If so, no problem. I don’t have any problem on the theoretical level, though on the issue of robbing or plundering, we all know they have a high record.
Robbing is not so uncommon among Israelis Jews.
Yuval: Yes, but still less in comparison. But what I say is that they have to admit that we are the owners here. And not because I am someone who wants to be recognized as a landlord. I’m not seeking control, to rule over other people. I don’t have anything personal against any Ahmed or any Muhammad, really. We don’t harass them, we don’t have any business with them. There is no fanaticism here or any kind of militancy among us here.
Tamar: We hear the protesters every Friday. They scream, ‘Thieves, thieves, get out of the houses,’ and I want to tell them that we are not thieves, we are here by the rule of law. The High Court of Justice ruled that we have the right to be here. We haven’t stolen anything.
Yuval: I am here because of my Jewish identity. And if I am asked to renounce this, I say I can’t; I have to live a full nationalistic Jewish life. I believe that part of the dangers linked to this is the result of our weakness. If we all made the effort to understand profoundly what it means to be a Jew and to live in Eretz Yisrael and in the State of Israel, things would be much easier and less dangerous. I have made this inquiry, and for me things are clear. What I don’t see is any clear proof that if we renounce our rights here, things will improve. They tell us it’s not worthy; look what price we pay for this belief. Well, let me say this: If this is something really important for you, then it is not such a high price. For me, a Jew who is ready to give up a part of Eretz Yisrael, and especially of Jerusalem, has forgotten all of his Jewish identity. We have to understand that great and wonderful things do not come easily. Most of us still haven’t understood that our mission is to be a light unto the nations, to show a high level of morality.
What kind of morality is that to throw families, including old people, out of their homes? Even if is legal?
Tamar: Did we throw them out? The police, the court, the state threw them out, legally.
Yuval: On a personal level, it hurts me to see them like that, out on the street. Some of them are ordinary people who just got stuck in this situation; I’m really sorry for them. But being here in Jerusalem for us is the right thing. The only way for us to become a light unto the nations is to be here and to rule here in Eretz Yisrael and in Jerusalem. It won’t be achieved through taking into account the nations’ will and positions.