As the Sheikh Jarrah case awaits the court's decision, many voices can be heard asserting that Israeli Jews are "colonizing" the Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrakh and that Israel is trying to "Judaize" Jerusalem. My family’s history undermines those claims and suggests that the accusations are but another attempt to eradicate the history of a Jewish community.
My mom, Miriam, was born in 1921 in the Shimon Ha’Tzadik neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrakh., The Jewish presence in Sheikh Jarrah centered on the tomb of Shimon HaTzadik, one of the last members of the Great Assembly, the governing body of the Jewish people after the Babylonian Exile.
According to the Babylonian Talmud, Shimon HaTzadik met with Alexander the Great when the Macedonian army passed through the Land of Israel and convinced him not to destroy the Second Temple. For years Jews made pilgrimages to his tomb in Sheikh Jarrah, a practice documented in travel literature. In 1876, the cave and the adjoining land, planted with 80 ancient olive trees, were purchased by the Jews for 15,000 francs. Dozens of Jewish families built homes on the property.
The Turkish Ottoman census of 1905, counted 97 Jewish families living there. In spite of the so-called “Arab revolt” of the 1930’s when some Jewish families were uprooted, it remained a Jewish neighborhood until 1948 when the Jewish residents were driven out by the Jordanian army which overran the area and their homes were occupied by Arabs.
In the 1880’s, when Jerusalem was a majority Jewish city (going back to the 1848 Ottoman Turk census), terror and threats were a daily part of life for all Jewish inhabitants as they have been since. My mom’s mother, Sarah, was a teenager in 1911, when her father Chaim Eisenbach, saved the life of Rabbi Rachmastrivka at the Western Wall, by shielding his bloodied body from murderous Arab attackers. Chaim Eisenbach walked with a limp thereafter and Sarah never recovered from seeing this fearless and devoted man return home beaten to a pulp.
When Sarah married my grandfather Shimon Gotlieb, they moved in 1919 to the Shimon Ha’Tzadik neighborhood. Shimon’s family traced back to the Shlah HaKadosh who arrived in Palestine in 1621. My mom’s parents were terrified by marauding mobs of Arabs in various Jerusalem neighborhoods including the Western Wall and the Machane Yehuda marketplace. They left Jerusalem in 1927, trying to escape from anti-Jewish violence. The rest of my mom’s family remained and live in Jerusalem to this very day.
Coincidentally, my wife, Batya, was also born in Shimon Hatzadik. Batya remembers how as a little girl her dad, Professor Chaim Gevaryahu, successfully shielded her with old mattresses as the roof of their home was blown off by Jordanian army shells. All the Shimon Hatzadik Jewish families fled to other Jerusalem neighborhoods in the War of Independence, when the fledgling Jewish state was invaded by the armies of five Arab nations. Arabs then occupied all the Jewish homes.
My family connection to Sheikh Jarrakh also includes my daughter-in-law, Yael, who is descended from the original founding Sephardic community of Shimon Hatzadik. Batya was not able to visit her birthplace until Israel liberated Sheikh Jarrakh during the Six-Day War in 1967.
After Jerusalem was reunited, in 1970, the Law on Legal and Administrative Affairs in Israel was enacted, which stipulated that Jews who lost their property in Jerusalem in 1948 can reclaim their property. Never ending legal battles began in the 1970’s over land ownership including claims over parts of Sheikh Jarrah.
In 1972, the Sephardic Committee and the Knesset Committee of Israel claimed that in 1885 they purchased the land and built the houses on the area known as Shimon Hatzadik on the eastern side of the Nablus Road in Jerusalem.
In 1976, the court decided that the land belongs to the Israeli associations and they filed an eviction notice. In 1982, the Israel Supreme Court affirmed the Jewish land ownership. In 1987, another court decision recognized the ownership of the Jewish associations on land on the western side of the Nablus Road and defined the Palestinian Arabs as "protected tenants". In 1991, it was agreed that the ownership of the land belongs to the Jewish associations and the Arab residents of the neighborhood were granted a tenant status provided rent was paid to the associations until September 30, 2009 when those homes would revert back to their Jewish owners.
In 2001, Israeli Jews moved into a section of the Shimon Hatzadik/Sheikh Jarrakh. An Arab filed a lawsuit with the Jerusalem District Court to prove his land ownership, using title deeds issued by the Ottoman Empire, which were brought from Turkey. The court found that the documents were forged and rejected the claim in 2005 and an appeal in the following year was rejected as well.
Despite the ruling, the Jewish owners could not take action since the Palestinian Arabs immediately appealed to the Supreme Court. Four years later the court finally rejected the appeal. In 2009, the Jerusalem District Court ruled that Arabs that refused to pay rent should be evicted from two homes in Sheikh Jarrah and Jewish families moved in. Thereafter, Sheikh Jarrakh Arab activists organized constant protests of the Jewish “takeover” in the neighborhood.
On 15 February 2021, other ongoing Arab appeals were rejected in a ruling in the Jerusalem District Court, and eviction orders were issued to be carried out by 2 May. The Israel Supreme Court affirmed the decision to remove Arabs living in formerly Jewish owned homes.
Taking their anger onto the streets, Arabs and Jewish activists have held daily protests that spilled over to other parts of Jerusalem. Arabs have called on international leaders and advocates to pressure Israel to end what they say is Sheikh Jarrah’s “ongoing Nakba”. On 22 April 2021, at the International Criminal Court (ICC) Israel was accused of war crimes including the forced displacement of Arabs from East Jerusalem.
As a result, the High Court of Justice gave Attorney-General Mandelblit until June 8 to submit his opinion on the matter. The pending eviction was one of the sparks that led to the 11-day Gaza war which ended last week.
My family’s history thorougly undermines Arab claims of ownership priority and suggests that it is simply another attempt to eradicate the history of a Jewish community in Israel.
Many Jews have deep roots to the Shimon Hatzadik/Sheikh Jarrakh neighborhood and claims that Israel is “Judaizing” this neighborhood deeply conflict with our family history.
Implacable foes of Israel will not soon disappear, but fortunately, some of Israel’s neighbors recently entered into the Abraham Accords. In spite of recent violence, we can be cautiously optimistic that we are on the threshold of a new era of regional peace and prosperity.
Dr. Michael Wise is a founder and investor in numerous technology companies. He is a graduate of YU and holds a PhD .in Theoretical Physics from Brandeis U., is the author of Israel demography study (BESA).and has published numerous articles about Israel sovereignty and demographics in Judea and Samaria. [email protected]