Don't you be my neighbor!

The Jewish families in east Jerusalem hope their Arab neighbors will eventually leave and be replaced by Jews.

segal walking 88 298 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
segal walking 88 298
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The Jewish families in east Jerusalem hope their Arab neighbors will eventually leave and be replaced by Jews. The Arabs hope the Jews will realize they are unwelcome and move back out A few hundred meters from the Museum on the Seam, a sociopolitical art museum dedicated to coexistence located on the former border between Israeli and Jordanian Jerusalem, lies the mixed neighborhood of Shimon Hatzadik. According to tradition, the high priest, who was among the last members of the Great Assembly, was buried in a cave built into these sloping Sheikh Jarrah hills, where dozens of hassidim can be found praying and learning throughout the day. Just a few meters away, in a smaller cave, is the traditional burial site of 23 former heads of the Sanhedrin. Here, a lone hassid sways back and forth as he prays in the dark, damp underground tomb. The land surrounding the burial caves had lain barren of inhabitants for almost two millennia. The graves, however, were continuously visited by Jewish pilgrims. In modern times, Jews started this neighborhood in 1895 and lived there until they were evicted by the British army during the Arab riots in 1947, says a source in Lomdei Shalem, an organization responsible for the renewed Jewish presence in the area. In the interim, he explains, the Jordanian government took over the land and permitted Arab families to move into the Jewish homes, where many still remain. In 1998, a small group of men who went to pray at the ancient burial site reported that the synagogue there was being used as a goat shed and garbage dump by a local Arab family, which also was reportedly planning to build on top of the site, threatening to destroy the entire foundation. After acquiring power of attorney from the Sephardi Community Council, the original owner of the property, MK Benny Elon shepherded a group of young yeshiva students to the old synagogue. They cleaned it up and began to study there regularly. In the meantime, says the Lomdei Shalem source, apartments in the area "became available." Slowly, Jews began to move back in. Today, seven Jewish families live in the Shimon Hatzadik neighborhood, interspersed among dozens of Arab families. Though they're living together, the neighborhood is far from a model for coexistence. The old synagogue has been restored and is now a kollel, where men study Torah on a daily basis. On the grassy yard outside, Lomdei Shalem and the organizations responsible for supporting the Jewish neighborhood have built a small playground, which is often the site of nasty arguments with the Arabs, whose children also want to play on the new equipment. "We don't hate them," says Bryna Segal, a resident of Shimon Hatzadik. "But the neighborhood decided not to let them play here so they'll know who's in charge and won't give us trouble." Segal, her husband and two young children moved to Shimon Hatzadik a little over six months ago from the northern Samaria settlement of Ma'aleh Levona because they wanted to live in Jerusalem and in an ideologically meaningful place. She says the adjustment was difficult and that when they first moved in, she was afraid to let her children go out alone. "In the beginning, the Arabs would curse at us when we would walk by them," says Segal, who has had rocks thrown at her car, her antennas stolen and her tires slashed. The Dagan family, which moved in a year ago, recalls an outdoor community meal the Jewish families made one Shabbat that led to a violent encounter with their Arab neighbors. "They threw feces on the tables we had set up," says Iska Dagan, "and after we started arguing with them, they stabbed my husband Emanuel three times in the back with a screwdriver." The perpetrators were arrested, held for two days and released, she says. Although the government pays for two 24-hour security guards, the Jewish families complain that they don't get involved. "One time an Arab threw a cinder block at us as the guard watched, and instead of doing something he told me I should learn to get along with the Arabs," says Dagan. Now, the families "coexist" in an almost quiet denial of the other's presence. Segal's next-door neighbors, the Kurds, ignore her completely, she says, because she lives in the home they had built for their son. One of the Jewish associations took the Kurds to court, claiming they built the home illegally. As protected tenants (residents who cannot be evicted from an apartment that was built under the British Mandate) in a home originally owned by Jews that was later taken over by the Jordanians, the Kurds could not be evicted. But according to the court, they were prohibited from building an addition to the home that they didn't own in the first place, and Jews were permitted to take it over. "It's my house," says Fawziya Kurd angrily. "I built it, but Jews are living there. How am I supposed to feel?" Segal says Fawziya yelled at her when her family put up a mezuza and when they built a succa, but that in recent months her neighbors won't even make eye contact with her. "We don't talk to them and we don't like them," says Fawziya, "but we don't give each other problems. We both want to live in peace." The Jewish families in Shimon Hatzadik hope their Arab neighbors will eventually leave and be replaced by Jews, to accelerate the fulfillment of the Jewish dream of Jerusalem as the undivided capital of Israel. The Arabs hope the Jews will realize they are unwelcome and move back out, enabling Jerusalem to be the capital of a future Palestinian state. BUT SHIMON Hatzadik is not a singular phenomenon. Throughout east Jerusalem, similar Jewish enclaves are being zealously established with the goal of reigniting Jewish life in what is termed "the heart of Jerusalem" rather than "east Jerusalem," says Daniel Luria, spokesman for Ateret Cohanim, the organization championing the movement. "Zionism didn't end in 1948 or 1967," he says. "The Jewish dream of having a safe, thriving Jewish community in the heart of Jerusalem hasn't been achieved yet." Ateret Cohanim, not to be confused with the Old City yeshiva of the same name, was established in 1979, when it helped its first Jewish family move into the Muslim Quarter. Now, says Luria, there are 800 Jews living in the Muslim and Christian quarters of the Old City, along with 50 families in Ma'aleh Hazetim - also known as Ras el-Amud - on the Mount of Olives. There are also plans for a new project on empty plots of Jewish-owned land on the Jerusalem side of Abu Dis, to be called Kidmat Zion. Nine Jewish families are also living in the old Yemenite neighborhood of Shiloah, which the Arabs call Silwan, across from the City of David. Just a few weeks ago, however, they were ordered to evacuate by a Jerusalem court because the building they are residing in was built illegally. The property on which the building sits was owned by Yemenite Jews who were expelled in Arab riots 70 years ago, explains Luria. Arabs built illegally on the property in the last few years, he says, and this specific building was purchased - and then populated - by Jews. Though he admits there was a lack of adequate building permits for the project, Luria says they are fighting the eviction because of the fact that illegal building is rampant throughout east Jerusalem and the municipality does little to enforce the law on the Arabs living in hundreds of illegally built homes. In fact, both Luria and Elon say that illegal building in Arab neighborhoods is one of the biggest problems facing the Jerusalem Municipality today. "It's a very sensitive issue and the government is scared to put its foot down," says Luria. "It's scared CNN or BBC is going to show up and show an old woman crying and a little boy playing in the street outside an Arab home that was destroyed for being illegally built, so it only enforces the law with the Jews." But Ateret Cohanim and Lomdei Shalem aren't acting alone in their fervent efforts to reestablish Jewish life in the disputed section of the city. Other organizations, the most popular of which are Elad, responsible for renewing Jewish life in the City of David, and Beit Orot, which operates a yeshiva of 10 families on the northern side of the Mount of Olives, are actively involved in bolstering the Jewish presence in these Arab-populated areas. Supported by funds raised mostly from private donors here and abroad, these organizations work to acquire property from the Arab residents either by purchasing the title from the Arab owner or the protected tenancy right from the Arab resident. "Contrary to what some may think, nobody is kicked off any land," Luria says. "There are Arabs ready to sell and we take the opportunity to buy. If they are protected tenants and they don't want to leave, we can't make them." In many instances, he says, the land is in fact Jewish owned but has been occupied by Arabs for many years, rendering many of these residents protected tenants. As such, as Luria points out, they cannot be evicted - unless they sold the property without the permission of the original owner or built illegally on the premises, as occurred in the case of the Kurd family in Shimon Hatzadik. In such cases, or if the resident is not actually a protected tenant but an illegal squatter, the Arab family can be taken to court and evicted. "Everything that's done is done legally," says Elon, who has pioneered this movement in order to "wipe out the Green Line in Jerusalem" by having a meaningful Jewish presence in the eastern part of the city. "Everyone says don't worry about Jerusalem, it will be our capital forever and ever, but when [Ehud] Barak was prime minister, Jerusalem was on the table," he says. "We need to unite Jerusalem, not just on maps but on the ground, and the only way to do that is if Jews feel safe and secure there and know this is the only capital of the Jewish state." While the stakes are high, Luria maintains that the process is simple - if an Arab wants to sell, a Jew should be able to buy. Indeed, 100 percent of Ateret Cohanim's activity is buying from the Arabs and does not involve the courts - unless the Arab himself requests a cover story. "There have been many instances in which Arabs were killed for selling land to Jews," Luria says, clearly hinting at the highly-rumored notion that if an Arab wants to sell to Jews but is afraid for his life, he can be taken to court and go through the motions of being "evicted" so his Arab neighbors won't know he willingly sold to Jews. "We go to great lengths to protect the Arabs, even if it means looking bad in the eyes of the community." For all the bad press it receives for its controversial activities, he says his organization shouldn't have to exist at all - it's really the responsibility of the government or the Jewish National Fund to act on behalf of Jewish landowners, research the old properties and synagogues and make sure the current Arab residents aren't destroying or defiling them. "The whole world is talking about Jews as the occupiers of Arab land," he says. "But in Jerusalem, it's totally the opposite." THE ARABS, of course, disagree. Karim Arafat lives in Wadi Hilweh in Silwan, where he owns a tailor shop. When asked if there are Jews living in his neighborhood, he responds in the negative, saying that it's not Jews but "settlers" who have begun moving in. "No one's happy they're here," he says. "We don't want them living in our neighborhood." Arafat says his new neighbors aren't friendly and interfere with his lifestyle, explaining that on Jewish holidays, the streets are closed off and while he is trapped in his home, the "settlers are dancing in the streets." He says he thinks it might be possible for Jews and Arabs to live together one day, but that "Jews and settlers are not the same thing. I can't live with settlers," he says. "And I don't think you could either." Though he acknowledges their claim that the property in question was Jewish-owned, Arafat says that doesn't change the fact that they are kicking Arabs out of homes they've lived in for years. "They say they owned it a hundred years ago," he says, "but if someone steals your house, or even your friend's house, how can you live with them?" Correspondingly, dovish city councilman Pepe Allalo says every effort to bring Jewish families into east Jerusalem homes is a violent provocation against the Arabs and straddles the boundaries of what's legal and what's not. "First of all, according to international law, nothing here is legal because the world considers east Jerusalem occupied land," he says. In Israel, he adds, it's also illegal because many of the homes being purchased by Jews are illegally built, and as an example he refers to the case of the Jewish families in Silwan recently given eviction notices. But it's impossible to say whether all these transactions are legal or not, says attorney Daniel Seidman of Ir Amim, which describes itself as an organization that promotes Israeli-Palestinian coexistence in Jerusalem. Each house in east Jerusalem, he says, has its own, complicated story. Seidman became involved in the issue in 1992, when he petitioned the High Court of Justice on behalf of former Meretz MK Haim Oron, arguing that Jews moving into east Jerusalem reflected a covert government policy to turn over Palestinian properties to extremist settlers. Seidman contends that "the settlers" have an "ambiguous relationship" with the rule of law and tons of political clout that they use to the utmost. The government, he says, has practiced a systematic policy of collusion with the settler organizations, with Ariel Sharon as their "patron saint." There have been plenty of cases in east Jerusalem, he says, in which there are illegal allocations of government funds or in which "settlers" are given the inside track by government agencies. He says he has even witnessed situations in which land is declared "absentee property"(property in a captured territory that is managed by a government appointee), turned over to Jews and the Arabs living in the house find "their stuff being thrown out the window and themselves evicted." Widespread illegality reigns, he alleges, but nevertheless admits that there are circumstances in which properties in east Jerusalem are turned over in a completely legal manner and by the consent of the Arab owner. He points out that Shimon Hatzadik is one distinct example. "The property was owned by Jews prior to 1948 and the Jordanian custodian for enemy property built homes on this land to house refugees - so the title here clearly belongs to the Jews," he says. Confirming the Jewish claims, Seidman elaborates that Jews have been able to legally repopulate the area because Arabs sold to them or violated contract agreements and were evicted by a court. But the bottom line is that both the Arabs and Jews, determined to force the other out of east Jerusalem, claim the other side is wrong, lying, cheating, stealing or forging documents. At the end of the day, says Seidman, "you'll never hear a settler say I've ripped off a Palestinian, and you'll never hear a Palestinian say anything but that he's been ripped off." AT THE HEART of the issue is the controversial piece of land itself, over which Israelis and Palestinians have been competing for some 120 years, says Yisrael Kimche, a geographer at the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies and 70-year Jerusalem resident. "Each side thinks that if it settles in this place, it will own it," he explains. Documents clearly show that most of the land in question was owned by Jews many years ago, he says, similar to land in west Jerusalem that was once owned by Arabs but was turned over to the government after they left during the War of Independence. It's difficult to examine whether all the transactions going on today are legal, he continues, because most of it is done in secret to protect the Arabs who are thought to be betraying their brethren by selling to Jews. "The Jewish organizations try to do everything legally, but no one knows exactly what's happening there because everything is kept very quiet," he says. But the phenomenon, he adds, is nothing new. "Most of the Jewish neighborhoods in west Jerusalem were purchased from Arabs since the middle of the 19th century," he says. "It's just in the last couple of years that it's become a major political issue." The issue itself has been greatly exaggerated, Kimche says, because the actual number of Jews moving into Arab areas of east Jerusalem is small and the number of Jews already living in what is considered east Jerusalem - in neighborhoods such as Pisgat Zeev built north, south and east of the Green Line - is more than 180,000, only slightly fewer than the number of Palestinians residing there. The Arab population in east Jerusalem stands at about 240,000, 33% of the total population of Jerusalem, according to figures provided by Kimche.Of that, more than half are studying in the Israeli education system, and as such are considered by Kimche to be a population that Jews can enter and live with peacefully. "I personally don't think it's a great idea for Jews to purchase land in the middle of Arab neighborhoods. I think it's better to live side by side but not to mingle." he says. "But there are hundreds of Arab families moving to Jewish neighborhoods because of housing shortages, so I don't think it's so problematic for a Jewish family to live in a Muslim area." Kimche remains optimistic, pointing out that "there were times when Jews and Arabs lived together in peace." "I think it's possible for us to live together," he continues. "So perhaps this [situation in east Jerusalem] could encourage peace because you already have Jews and Arabs living together." From the hostility and tension tangible in the air around Shimon Hatzadik, it doesn't seem very likely. "There is no chance for coexistence today," says Allalo. "They're living in a bad situation," he says of the Jews in Shimon Hatzadik. "There's violence, arguing, and two guards right next to them. If there was coexistence, we wouldn't need guards, but we do because each side doesn't want the other." Today, Allalo determines that the only course of action is for Jews and Arabs to separate from each other completely and have two states. Only after friendly relations are established between the states can either side even consider living in the other's communities. "We are at war now," he says. "Maybe one day when there's peace a Jew can buy a house in Silwan and an Arab can buy a house in Neveh Ya'acov. But it's not possible today." Though they live mere meters apart and pass by each other morning and night, the two communities in Shimon Hatzadik continue to exist as if the other doesn't. "We don't expect everyone to get along," says Luria, "just to be cordial and coexist." Segal says she isn't scared anymore and now lets her children play freely in the plaza outside her home and feels comfortable walking around the area alone. But perhaps it's just too soon to tell. In the home across the way from Segal's, an Arab woman smiles at Segal and her children as they walk by. They wave and smile back. Segal says the two women don't speak, but that she's always friendly. "It would be interesting to speak to the Arabs, to find out about them, to learn who they are," says Segal, "but unfortunately, that's not the atmosphere here."