Who are the Jews of Silwan, and Why are They There?

Facing daily violence and harassment, and the target of international criticism, why are Jews moving to Silwan?

Contact Editor
Ari Soffer,

Jewish child peeks from a window in Beit Yeho
Jewish child peeks from a window in Beit Yeho
Flash 90

Recent days and weeks have seen "Silwan" hit the headlines time and time again, as dozens of Jewish families have moved in to this predominantly Arab neighborhood in eastern Jerusalem despite the violent opposition of many of their Arab neighbors to the presence of Jews there.

Arab extremists regularly target the embattled local Jewish communities; indeed just hours after moving in a small group of new Jewish families were targeted by rioters who hurled bricks and molotov cocktails at their homes.

So why are Israeli families are willing to brave violence, intimidation and even international opprobrium to live there?

First, it's important to understand where and what the neighborhood actually is. "Silwan" is in fact an Arabic name for a vast swathe of territory in eastern Jerusalem, just outside the Old City, which encompasses the ancient City of David and the old Jewish neighborhood of Kfar HaShiloach - where a thriving Jewish community was ethnically-cleansed by Arab forces in the early twentieth century.

Aerial view of "Silwan", including Kfar HaShiloach, the Old City and Mount of Olives Ateret Cohanim

It is believed to have been the site of the ancient Israelite capital, and as such returning to the area is a priority for Zionist idealists in their struggle to reclaim their national Jewish heritage. That's reflected in demographic nature of those who live there, who identify as religious-Zionists. 

But the Jewish communities there are not contiguous. The community in the City of David (Ir David in Hebrew) is relatively large - more than 50 families already live there and over two dozen more are set to join them shortly.

By contrast, the Kfar HaShiloach neighborhood is far smaller. Only nine families currently live there, along with 11 kollel (full time Torah-learning) students. That's what made the recent purchase of two apartment blocks, with a total of ten apartments in all, so significant: it effectively doubles the size of the tiny community.

"This is the center of the Jewish world," explains Daniel Luria, whose Ateret Cohanim organization is active in Kfar HaShiloach - also known as the Yemenite Village, after its former Jewish residents who moved there from Yemen - and facilitated the latest property acquisition.

"Whether we like it or not, and no disrespect to Har Nof and Rehavia, but you can't compare them to the area where the kings, the prophets once walked. Our history and our heritage has always centered around the Temple Mount, the Old City, Mount of Olives, etc... It's what our grandparents dreamed about."

Jewish residents recite first prayers in newly-purchased Beit Ovadia Ateret Cohanim

It was in fact for that very reason that the Yemenite Jews who arrived in Israel during the "First Aliyah" of 1882 - having walked thousands of miles by foot to reach the land of their ancestors - chose to live precisely there. Convinced the Messiah was imminent, they opted to settle in the heart of ancient Jerusalem, to watch the redemption unfold.

At its height, the community was home to 144 Yemenite Jewish families, who received staunch support from famed Jewish author and journalist Yisrael Dov Frumkin. One of the two new buildings bought by the Jewish community - Beit Frumkin (Frumkin's House) - is named in his honor. Along with the also newly-purchased Beit Ovadia, the community is today concentrated in two other buildings: Beit HaDvash (Honey House) and Beit Yonatan, named after imprisoned Israeli agent Jonathan (Yonatan) Pollard.

As tensions between Jews and Arabs in Israel began to mount in the early twentieth century, Kfar HaShiloach would bear the brunt of violent anti-Semitism whipped up by anti-Zionist firebrands like the Nazi-collaborating Mufti of Jerusalem.

Jewish resident of former community surveys damage to local synagoogue in Shiloach after Arab attack Ateret Cohanim

"Unfortunately, the community was decimated - just like most Jewish life in the heart of Jerusalem - by Arab pogroms, in 1929 and 1937; as well as in 1948," when the the British-led Jordanian Arab Legion systematically expelled all remaining Jews from the eastern half of Jerusalem - including the Old City, Western Wall and Temple Mount - and also seized control of Judea and Samaria.

For Luria and those who move there, restoring the Jewish presence to those areas is not only an act of defiance but the ultimate fulfillment of the Zionist mission to return the Land of Israel to its people.

"We're basically just fulfilling the Zionist dream," he says. "Zionism didn't die in 1948 or 1967."

But despite that Luria insists the aim of Ateret Cohanim and other similar organizations is not to provoke conflict with local Arabs - in fact, in most of the other areas where Ateret Cohanim is active he says Jews and Arabs live together largely without any problems. The issue in the wider Silwan area is the presence of extreme Islamist groups determined to stoke up tension and doggedly opposed to any Jewish presence there.

And the violence, though it doesn't always hit headlines, is no small matter.

"Last night it was 'just' stones," he says of the violence against the two newly-purchased buildings. "The night before we had molotov cocktails against both buildings."

He also criticized the lack of police action to end the violence.

"It's not normal that someone comes into a house that they bought legally and their next door neighbors within 24, 48 hours are smashing and looting and throwing molotov cocktails and hardly anything is being done.

"There are police declarations that there are going to be more cameras... and in the meantime the Arabs think they can get away with anything and they keep on doing what they're doing.

"Which other place in Jerusalem requires a bullet-proof jeep with steel mesh just to take families in and out of their homes? That's just not normal!"

In response to recent criticism over ongoing Arab violence in parts of Jerusalem, the police force recently announced the establishment of a new task force to deal with the unrest. It remains to be seen if that move will have any effect, but in the meanwhile Shiloach residents are determined to stay.

And responding to criticism of his own group's actions, Luria accuses those who oppose Jews living in Arab-majority neighborhoods of hypocrisy.

"Our ultimate aim is to have more Jews living in the area, but at the same time and just as important Jews and Arabs have to be able to live together.

"If Arabs are allowed to buy in (the Jewish neighborhoods of) Ramat Eshkol, French Hill, Neve Yaakov and Armon Hanetziv, and they live quietly and peacefully with their next door neighbors who are Jewish, then the Arabs in Shiloach should understand that we have plenty of rights to be able to buy (there), and that we should be able to live in coexistence with our Arab neighbors," he said, echoing statements recently made by Prime Minister Netanyahu.

"Jews have a right to live anywhere and everywhere" in city, his insists "especially in a house in the middle of a Jewish neighborhood."

Celebration in Beit HaDvash over new purchases

All photos credit: Ateret Cohanim