With the Obama administration turning the corkscrews upon Israeli sovereignty in its capital, the spotlight focuses once again on the growing Jewish presence in neighborhoods such as Shimon HaTzaddik. Arab squatters face eviction this week.
The U.S. State Department has made an unprecedented demand upon its ally Israel to stop lawful construction in its capital – specifically, at a property owned by activist Dr. Irving Moskowitz in the eastern Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah. The municipal housing plan calls for the site of the Shepherd Hotel to become a 20-unit apartment complex. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and other government ministers have categorically rebuffed the American ultimatum, as did Ambassador Michael Oren when he was called to the State Department to hear the U.S. demand.
Arabs in Shimon HaTzaddik Face Eviction
Just below the hotel, seven Jewish families and an all-day Torah-study program, known as a Kollel, are trying to renew the old Jewish neighborhood of Shimon HaTzaddik. Several Arab families that have squatted on the property since Jordan took control of eastern Jerusalem in 1948 continue to refuse to leave – and face possible eviction this week.
The area, where Simon the Just and elders of the Sanhedrin were buried over 2,000 years ago, was a thriving Jewish community from 1895 until 1948, when it was evacuated by the British army during the Arab riots preceding the War of Independence. When Israel returned to all of Jerusalem in 1967, Arabs were living there – and appeared to be heading for Jewish obsolescence. However, one day in 1998, a young man named Yair Lieberman happened on the site, looking for the grave of Simon the Just – and found one of four synagogues that had been in operation there several decades earlier.
The inscription above the door clearly identifies the synagogue, and the hollow where the Holy Ark had been was also clear to the eye. Amazingly, the Arab living next door had just completed digging foundations, planning to annex the synagogue structure to his own home.
Just in time, Lieberman informed then-MK Benny Elon of his find. Elon contacted the official owners of the property, the Jerusalem Community Council, and they authorized to take over the property in its name. Elon arrived with several dozen activists, and not without Arab opposition and even violence, they ultimately succeeded in renewing the synagogue’s Jewish past.
Today, a Kollel operates on the site, and seven Jewish families live there. Some 20 Arab families live there as well, and have been faced with several eviction orders – most of which have been resisted in one way or another. This week, the date set by a court two months ago for an eviction, Israeli justice will be tested once again: Will the homes be emptied to make room for the Jewish owners to move in or not?