Last week, anti-Israel forces went into overdrive regarding the Jerusalem District Court’s decision authorizing the eviction of certain Arab families from homes in the “Sheikh Jarrah” neighborhood of Jerusalem. These critics have aggressively railed against Israel on social media and even started a trending hashtag, “#SaveSheikhJarrah,” all while claiming that what is happening in this Jerusalem neighborhood exemplifies the entire Arab-Israeli conflict.
And they are right. The dispute over “Sheikh Jarrah” does illustrate many of the principal features of the entire Arab-Israeli conflict.
But first, some history about this neighborhood is needed. “Sheik Jarrah” is an Arab neighborhood that was established in 1865. And before 1949, there was a separate Jewish neighborhood within it. For about 2,000 years before that, this area was known by the name “Shimon HaTzadik” (“Simon the Righteous”), named after the famous rabbinical sage whose tomb is located there.
For centuries, the Jewish presence in the area revolved around the tomb of Shimon HaTzadik, who was famously one of the last members of the Great Assembly (HaKnesset HaGedolah), the governing body of the Jewish people during the Second Jewish Commonwealth (after the Babylonian Exile). Shimon HaTzadik, whose full name is Shimon ben Yohanan, was so impactful that practically every Jewish kid going back 2,000 years learned his most famous verse in Pirkei Avot (“Ethics of the Fathers”), which was incorporated millennia ago into the Jewish morning prayers: “The world stands on three things: Torah, the service of God, and deeds of kindness.”
Because of the tomb and its significance to the Jewish people, the Sephardic Community Committee and the Ashkenazi Assembly of Israel purchased the tomb and its surrounding land (about 4.5 acres) in 1875. Shortly thereafter, it, along with the neighborhood of Kfar Hashiloah in the Silwan area of Jerusalem, became home to many, mostly Yemenite, Jews who had migrated to Jerusalem (Zion) back in 1881. Notably, by 1844, Jews were the largest ethnic population in Jerusalem.
Between 1936 and 1938, and then again in 1948, the British Empire assisted Arabs, incited by raw Jew-hatred, in ripping Jews from their homes in Shimon HaTzadik (and in Kfar Hashiloah). The Yemeni Jewish community was also expelled from Silwan, for “their own safety,” by the British Office of Social Welfare. Essentially, the British preferred to force Jews out of their own homes rather than expend the resources to protect Jewish families and their property rights in Jerusalem.
Then, in 1949, after Transjordan (now Jordan) invaded Israel as part of an express attempt by the entire Arab League to destroy Israel and “push the Jews into the sea,” Transjordan’s British-created and British-led Arab Legion captured Judea and Samaria, all of the Old City of Jerusalem and many of its surrounding neighborhoods, including the Shimon HaTzadik neighborhood. Then the Arab Legion either killed or ethnically cleansed every last Jew. Not one was allowed to remain. Not one. Even those whose families had lived in the region for centuries before the Arab invasion in the seventh century.
After Israel gained control of all of Jerusalem from the Jordan during the 1967 Six-Day War, Israel passed a law that allows Jews whose families had been forced out of their homes by the Jordanians or the British to regain control of their family homes if they could provide proof of ownership and the current residents could not provide proof of a valid purchase or transfer of title. All of the homes that are the subject of these 2021 eviction proceedings, in addition to being on land purchased in 1875 by the Jewish community, were owned by Jewish families that had purchased those homes, and had deeds registered first with the Ottoman Empire (which governed the region from 1517 to 1917) and then with the British authorities (who controlled the area from 1917 to 1948).
These four houses, subject to the pending eviction notice, have already been the subject of extensive litigation in Israel, with appeals going all the way up to Israel’s very liberal Supreme Court and with all parties receiving representation and due process. The court determined last week that these homes must be returned to their legal owners and that another four homes shall be returned to their legal owners by the end of the summer. The court further determined that the people currently living in these homes had been illegally squatting in these homes for decades without paying rent or holding proof of ownership.
This is how the current controversy and conflict surrounding the Shimon HaTzadik neighborhood is emblematic of the entire Arab-Israeli conflict:
Shimon HaTzadik is an area that holds deep historical and religious significance to the Jewish people. It is a place where the Jewish people developed—as Ben-Gurion said in Israel’s Declaration of Independence—their “spiritual, religious and political identity.” It is a place where the Jewish people “first achieved independence and created a culture of national and universal significance.” It is land that was part of the only independent state that has ever existed west of the Jordan River over the last 2,000 years (that wasn’t part of some foreign colonizing empire). All of this, of course, also applies to every inch of the land of Israel.
Shimon HaTzadik is also where Jewish organizations purchased land and built homes during the Ottoman Empire and British Empire’s control of the region. The Yemenite Jews who moved to the Shimon HaTzadik neighborhood in the 1880s came with the dream of living in Zion and re-establishing the Jewish homeland. This applies to every Jewish community established in the land of Israel between 1870 and 1947.
Shimon HaTzadik is a neighborhood where Jews and Arabs could have lived side by side peacefully had Arabs—incited with antisemitic fervor by Nazi ally and collaborator Haj Amin al-Husseini and then by five of the most powerful armies of the entire Arab League—not tried to ethnically cleanse all of the Jews living there. This also applies to every Jewish community established in the land of Israel before 1947.
In Shimon HaTzadik, Jews are trying to move back into homes that were purchased peacefully and legally by their ancestors on land that is part of the Jewish people’s indigenous, historical and religious homeland. They are trying to move back into homes on land that was conquered by a foreign Arab army and renamed to erase the historic Jewish connection and character of the area. This, too, applies to every inch of the land of Israel before 1948.
Shimon HaTzadik and Sheikh Jarrah: the Arab-Israeli conflict in a nutshell.
Micha Danzig served in the Israeli army and is a former police officer with the New York Police Department (NYPD). An attorney, he is active with a number of Jewish and pro-Israel organizations, including StandWithUs, T.E.A.M. and Friends of the Israel Defense Forces (FIDF).
This article was first published by the Jewish Journal.