Undividing Jerusalem

Is Jerusalem really the undivided eternal capital? Take a rare look at the ongoing struggle largely being waged out of sight of the public.

Larry Gordon,

Shiloach (Silwan)
Shiloach (Silwan)
Flash 90

The clarion call and red-line position is that Jerusalem is the eternal, undivided capital city of Israel and the Jewish people everywhere. But is that really so? There is a struggle taking place here for every inch of sacred Jerusalem ground, and few may be acquainted with the details.

No, the lobby and the eateries at the Waldorf, the King David, or the Plaza are not at any risk of being lost or divided in any peace deal (which is unlikely in any event). It is shocking, however, that only a short distance from these hotels—less than a mile—the struggle to maintain all of Jerusalem’s Jewish character is ongoing.

So when Daniel Luria of Ateret Cohanim contacted us last week about visiting Jerusalem’s Yemenite Village deep inside the City of David, otherwise known as Silwan (Shiloach), we were a bit hesitant and skeptical. We wanted to see what was going on and what life was like deep inside an Arab neighborhood in East Jerusalem. Daniel promised that there was a lot to see. Seventeen Jewish families now reside in what is referred to as the Yemenite Village.

It came to be called that because the area within eyeshot of the Har HaBayis (the Temple Mount) was settled by Jews from Yemen in the 1880s. It’s difficult to fathom from within a contemporary context what it was like to be possessed with the idea of traversing hundreds of miles over difficult and hostile terrain, leaving the home you always knew, to start over again in another difficult and challenging environment in pre-state Israel.

By the early 1930s, over 140 families from Yemen had moved to the area. Life was a struggle and poverty was rampant among them, but they had made it to Jerusalem. Today, the world views this spot as belonging to Arabs, with the Jews being the intruders and trespassers. The reality is the precise opposite. This is David’s City, the location that was populated by Jews—many who served or worked in the Holy Temples that once stood nearby.

History has been not just revised, but virtually erased. The Jews from Yemen who lived spiritually fulfilling lives there were victims of a violent pogrom resulting in many residents being murdered or maimed. In 1938, the British, then administrators of the land, relocated the remaining 40 families to other areas with the assurance that once things had settled, they would be able to return to their homes. Needless to say, that never happened.

Many of us who have either driven or walked down the steep hill leading down to the Kotel have visually absorbed the area that we know as the City of David with the sloping valley crowded with Arab homes built illegally in defiance of Israel’s stated policies. We basically know two things about this area. One is that it has a sacred Jewish history. The other is that it is solidly Arab today.

That was the case until 2004, when Ateret Cohanim, the saviors of the Old City, made it their top agenda item to slowly but surely return Jewish sovereignty to Jerusalem.

But first let me share with you the experience of navigating our way in the area and then being in one of the Jewish residences in a spot on the globe where hostility to Jews is at its apex.

Arab residents are everywhere. They are in the doorways and on the porches; the kids are playing in the street. For some reason, Daniel explains, it is easier and safer to walk here than to leave the community. I thought he said that we would be entering and exiting the area in a specially outfitted bulletproof vehicle, but there we were, walking up a steep hill toward one of the newly purchased Jewish buildings.

We pass Arab men and women seemingly going about their daily chores. Daniel greets them all with a smile, asking them how they are doing and commenting upon what a beautiful day it is. At the entrance to the neighborhood, we were met by two armed guards wearing bulletproof vests. I found it slightly curious that they were wearing the vests and we were not.

In an unusual twist of fate, some of the buildings here - in particular, the shul with arched ceilings and indentations in the walls large enough to serve as an aron kodesh - did not have to be purchased surreptitiously, as has been the case in the past. Instead, two unusual things happened down here in the City of David, the bastion of Silwan, which a good part of the world believes will someday be the center of a Palestinian capital.

After considering a carefully prepared petition to Israel’s High Court, the justices ruled that the building that was the Yemenite shul was being illegally occupied by Arab residents, and they were given ample time to move. When the families that reconstructed the shul and divided it into three apartments refused to move, a further unusual action took place: Israeli army special forces descended on the community and forcibly evacuated the illegal residents.

This is not ancient history or something going on for decades. The eviction of the squatters on Jewish property here took place about two months ago. Under tight security, financed by the Israel government, construction is under way, as you can see in some of the photos here. Demolition is ongoing, mostly by sledgehammer, as the streets are so narrow and crowded here that it is impossible to bring demolition vehicles into these narrow spaces.

Still unexplained is why we were able to walk up here but had leave in an armored vehicle driven down a narrow two-way road that winds around like a snake, first in this direction, then that. Daniel explains that it has to do in part with the time of the day we are exiting the area. It is about3 p.m., and the teenagers are out of school. One of their favorite afterschool activities is hurling stones and sometimes Molotov cocktails at Jews or vehicles that Jew are riding in.

Earlier, on the top floor of one of the Jewish-owned buildings, Daniel points out an area once referred to as David’s Garden on which 89 unauthorized Arab homes were illegally constructed. The Jerusalem municipality took the decision to empty out the area and raze the homes so as to once again build a park there.

This, you may recall, was back when Hillary Clinton was still secretary of state, and she had a contentious conversation with Prime Minister Netanyahu on the matter. Israel was intent on bulldozing the 89 mostly ramshackle structures here until Hillary inserted herself into the situation and stated that Israel should not be destroying Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem.

But this is a country of law, and the disturbing little secret is that the current U.S. administration and the Europeans want the law applied to Jews and preferably not to the Arab population. In the end, the courts here ruled that 22 of the 89 structures can be demolished. The municipality of Jerusalem is supposed to build a smaller park on the site of the 22 homes that were vacated. So far, nothing has been done.

The tour of the Yemenite Village was something akin to a motor-vehicle rodeo. We bounced up and back in the armored van speeding down the steep, winding hill. There weren’t any rocks or anything else thrown in our direction. We made it out of there safely. In the meantime, Ateret Cohanim needs more money to buy more homes from Arabs, who are now more willing to sell than ever before.

Daniel says that $75,000 is needed ASAP to build a kindergarten so that the young children can begin their education near their homes. And there are more buildings for sale here. For more information, call Shani Hikind at the New York office of Ateret Cohanim (212-216-9270jeruchai@gmail.com) or Daniel Luria at the Israel office (972-2-624-3337, dljerusalem@gmail.com).

The Arabs are more motivated sellers today because they have seen how the usually liberal High Court ruled against them and removed them from their homes without compensation them. And why should they be paid for being lawbreakers?

The trip in and out of the Yemenite Village is not just a bumpy one, it is also meaningful and historical—an integral part of the Jewish attachment to Jerusalem.




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