“For some 2,000 years the Temple Mount was forbidden to the Jews. Until you came—you, the paratroopers—and returned it to the bosom of the nation. The Western Wall, for which every heart beats, is ours once again. Many Jews have taken their lives into their hands throughout our long history, in order to reach Jerusalem and live here. Endless words of longing have expressed the deep yearning for Jerusalem that beats within the Jewish heart. You have been given the great privilege of completing the circle, of returning to the nation its capital and its holy center… Jerusalem is yours forever.”—Commander Motta Gur to his brigade upon their liberation of Jerusalem’s Old City and holy sites
As a yeshiva student in the Jerusalem suburb of Mevaseret Tzion, I had the opportunity to venture into the capital’s Old City many times. I received warnings from some family and friends to avoid the Arab shuk and certainly the Muslim Quarter, which has witnessed many stabbing attacks at its Damascus Gate over the past four years. What started off as occasionally visiting my brother who lives in the Jewish Quarter soon turned into wandering upon the Old City’s ancient stone as I intentionally lost my sense of direction within the quarter in order to learn the streets better. Before long I had already seen every street in the tiny “quarter” (it is only 13 percent of the Old City) and allowed my curiosity to lead me into the Arab shuk. As I approached this menacing market, my heart began to beat faster and faster, but when I got there I saw a different picture from what had been described to me; Jews and Arabs walking the streets peacefully, Jews buying from Arab shops, and even a couple of Jewish kiosks. With this discovery I continued, over the next several months, to go deeper into the Muslim Quarter, always erring on the side of caution, with each Old City visit. Since then I have found various Jewish sites that many Jews have not heard of before due to the fear of entering the Muslim Quarter and the little press coverage these sites receive; I also found myself feeling part of the Jewish culture that exudes itself vibrantly at various times throughout the year.
My favorite time in the Old City is Friday night. Instead of davening at the Kotel, as most do, I avail myself of a weekly Bnei Akiva minyan whose attendants are mostly children of the Old City. It is held at the Kotel HaKatan, a small revealed section of the Western Wall, located within the Muslim Quarter, which is accepted as being closer to the area of the Kodesh HaKodashim than the Kotel proper. After davening, our minyan would clear out to the main street of the Muslim Quarter, Rechov Hagai, which connects the Kotel plaza to Sha’ar Shechem. Jewish kids would socialize on the corners and charedim would flock to exit through Sha’ar Shechem toward their homes in Mea Shearim. With the tremendous Jewish presence before my eyes, I often had to remind myself that I was standing in the Muslim Quarter. A similar phenomena occurs on Jewish holidays, when the section of the Arab shuk leading from Sha’ar Yafo to the Kotel assumes the appearance of Machane Yehuda rather than a Muslim pilgrimage, as it does on Friday afternoons when Muslims traverse the shuk to its tail end where Sha’ar HaShalshelet, an entrance to Har HaBayit, is located.
I was once speaking to one of my rebbeim about my adventures in the “other Jewish Quarter,” as I like to call it. He informed me that not only are there Jews living within the Muslim Quarter, but there are also multiple Jewish enclaves located within other predominantly Arab neighborhoods in the greater east Jerusalem area. My fascination with the area and my realization that the notion of only Arabs living within east Jerusalem was wrong compelled me to learn more about the neighborhoods by visiting them myself. Here’s what I’ve learned.
A Brief History
Following the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, Israel, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria signed a cease-fire known as the 1949 Armistice Agreement in order to end the hostilities that had followed the 1948 War of Independence. This agreement bifurcated Jerusalem into west and east, with Israel receiving the west and Jordanians occupying the east. The Jordanians proceeded to expel all Jews that had lived within the Old City’s walls. Following the liberation of the Old City in 1967, through Israel’s victorious efforts in the Six Day War, Jews from all over the world were given the opportunity to reunite with a Jewishly maintained Jerusalem for the first time in nearly 2,000 years.
Behind all the celebration, though, is a constant tug of war between Israel and its opponents over who has true jurisdiction of the city. This dispute has been described by many as one of the most intractable issues in the Israeli-Arab conflict, as both the Israelis and Palestinian Arabs claim Jerusalem to be their capital city. Much like the State of Israel in general, the various parties involved support vastly different outlooks on the sovereignty over Jerusalem.
In November 1947, the United Nations proposed that Jerusalem should have an international status, as outlined in the UN Partition Plan for Palestine (Resolution 181). Jewish representatives accepted the plan, while representatives of the Palestinian Arabs and the Arab states rejected it, declaring it illegal. The UN later went on to contradict 181 by designating east Jerusalem as occupied Palestinian territory. In 1980, as part of a revolution to return Jewish presence to the areas from which Jordan had expelled them, Israel passed the Jerusalem Law, which declared that “Jerusalem, complete and united, is the capital of Israel.” However, only the Jewish Quarter has seen significant Jewish growth, while other previously Jewish neighborhoods, such as today’s Muslim Quarter and Sheikh Jarrah (near Kever Shimon HaTzadik), have maintained a whopping Arab majority. Less than one month later, the UN Security Council declared the Jerusalem Law null and void in Resolution 478, which also called upon member states to withdraw their diplomatic missions from the city, causing 13 countries to move their embassies from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv. Only recently have a few countries started moving their embassies to Jerusalem. Guatemala and Paraguay moved theirs following the famous move by the U.S., fulfilling a long-time presidential promise, while causing a tremendous uproar from the Arab population in and around the State of Israel.
Aside from the governmental side of the issue, some Arab and Jewish residents have sought to take matters into their own hands. Arabs have taken action through terror attacks on Jews that tend to cause Israelis and Jewish tourists to avoid east Jerusalem and the Yehuda and Shomron areas, popularly referred to as the West Bank, where the majority of these attacks take place. These attacks often appear disorganized, occurring primarily as lone-wolf situations and involve various household weapons including knives, molotov cocktails and vehicles. In September 2015, a wave of violence began what anti-Israel activists declared as the “Knife Intifada.” Since then, reported attacks have significantly declined but they still happen occasionally, with the latest Old City attack occurring on March 18 of this year when Kochav HaShachar resident and father of four, Adiel Kolman, was stabbed to death by an Arab assailant on his walk home from work.
Jewish Community Enclaves
Jewish residents, on the other hand, have formed organizations seeking to return a once-prominent Jewish presence throughout east Jerusalem neighborhoods. Through legal acquisitions of Arab properties, including old Jewish properties, Jews from Israel and abroad, who feel passionate about building an undivided Jewish Jerusalem, are helping to fulfill this dream. Non-profit organizations such as Ateret Cohanim, the Elad-Ir David Foundation and Beit Orot are leaders in spearheading this process. Each of these groups operate in its own respective area within east Jerusalem’s richly historical Holy Basin by facilitating purchases, building and renovating apartments or giving opportunities for investors (some of whom are from the U.S.) to buy properties from Arab homeowners, which are then inhabited with Jewish families who share similar values.
Mati Dan, product of Yeshivat Hesder Ramat HaGolan, established Ateret Cohanim (also known today as Jerusalem Chai) in 1982, with an aim to “fulfill a generations-old dream of rebuilding and securing a united Jerusalem, strengthening our Jewish roots centred around educational institutes, and reestablishing the once-thriving Jewish communities that were destroyed by Arab pogroms and the coordinated efforts of Arab countries before 1967,” according to its website. Ateret Cohanim has been living out that goal ever since by housing over 1,000 Jewish residents, including yeshiva students, in the Christian and Muslim quarters of the Old City, building a flourishing community at the base of Har HaZeitim, known as Ma’alei HaZeitim, which gives home to approximately 100 families, and other similar projects. Executive Director Daniel Luria emphasized the importance of maintaining peace throughout such neighborhoods: “We believe very strongly in living side by side in peaceful coexistence with Christians and Muslims, so long as they accept the fact that they are living in a Jewish democratic state, and as long as they accept the right of any Jew to purchase and live in peace—in any and every single neighborhood of Jerusalem.”
Elad stands for אל עיר דוד—To the City of David. The Ir David Foundation was established in 1986 for the intent of unearthing and rediscovering ancient Jerusalem that lies beneath thousands of years of rubble and neglect. The Ir David Foundation is committed to “continuing King David’s legacy as well as revealing and connecting people to ancient Jerusalem’s glorious past,” as noted in its publicity materials. Through archaeological exploration and reconstruction, the Ir David Foundation has not only overseen the excavation of the ancient palaces and thoroughfares of King David’s Jerusalem, but also has restored a living modern community in the same space while making its ancient treasures come alive.
Perched atop The Mount of Olives Ridge parallel to the Temple Mount is Beit Orot. This is the area where the ancient and solemn Har Hazeitim meets the modern and heroic Har Hatzofim. Beit Orot is a new neighborhood that forms part of the Jewish territorial contiguity that encircles the Old City and enhances Jewish demographics in a historic area of Jerusalem. According to Shlomo Zwickler, executive director of American Friends of Beit Orot, “some 30 families reside today at Beit Orot in an area expected to be home to hundreds of families and a modern educational campus to serve as the nucleus of a renewed Jewish community.”
Once, when I visited the Muslim Quarter of the Old City, I walked the streets looking for Arab residents to discuss their feelings on having Jewish neighbors who have moved in through the help of such organizations. Abed, 23, told me, “We are not happy that Jews are living here. We don’t like Jews and Jews don’t like us.” A younger man, a teenager, also expressed, “We don’t like Jews. We don’t want them living here. We’d be fine with other people living here, but not Jews.” When I asked him why he doesn’t like Jews, he replied bluntly, “That’s just how it is.”
It should be noted that not all Arabs are opposed to Jews living in east Jerusalem. Another man, who looked to be in his upper 20s, told me, “I have no issue with the Jews living here. We like Jews; there is no hate between us. They are people and we are people. If someone fell in front of me I wouldn’t check first to see if he was a Jew or a Muslim; he’s a human being so I would help him up.”
Ariel Shemen is a Jewish resident of Kfar Teimanim, a growing project of Ateret Cohanim that now hosts 21 families and a kollel in its five buildings. He explained why some residents feel drawn to move into an east Jerusalem enclave. “Our community is one made up of teachers, lawyers and social workers. We are all normal people, leading normal jobs… We live here because we find it important to establish a Jewish presence in [all areas of ancient] Jerusalem.”
While the nobility of these sentiments is sound, many have wondered why people would be willing to move into neighborhoods such as these, which are generally seen as dangerous for Jews. During the last three months of my time as a yeshiva student in Israel I had the privilege of living inside the walls of the Holy Old City. During this time I explored and experienced the Jewish life present in all four of its quarters, as well as several of the communities headed by the mentioned organizations. My fascination of the ancient city and realization of the inaccuracy of this generalization compelled me to seek to debunk these myths as well as bring more exposure to the Jews of east Jerusalem who fulfill Zechariah’s prophecy of “There shall yet be old men and women in the streets of Jerusalem… And the streets of the city shall be full with boys and girls playing in its streets” every moment that they live in their land.
In the future I hope to discuss each organization at length along with a personal account of my visit and discussions with the residents of each community.