Six months after Hamas handed Israel an ultimatum regarding the eviction of Jewish residents from the Jerusalem neighborhood of Shimon HaTzadik/Sheikh Jarrah, the Nahala compound in the middle of the neighborhood, and the adjacent streets, are completely quiet. The autumn sunlight creates a chiaroscuro on the stone walls, which have been mostly cleaned of the Hamas graffiti that covered them just a few months ago.

(On the other hand, the wall of the building opposite is still adorned with a map of Israel from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River, entirely in the colors of the Palestinian flag.)

The quiet here is fraught, however. The eight Jewish families living in the Nahala know that at any moment everything could change, and that fires are still burning under the surface.

For years, these families have been at the eye of the storm. They live not far from the Hadassah Mount Scopus university campus and hospital, right next to the “beating heart,” as the grave of the High Priest Shimon HaTzadik (Simeon the Just) is known. They draw spiritual succor from the figure of one of the greatest Temple high priests ever known and from the remains of the Great Assembly.

But in an odd juxtaposition of desire and reality, they live on a street named after Uthman Ibn Afaan, a noble from Mecca who put together the final codification of the Koran and caused it to be written down.

The 1948 precedent 

The 17 Jewish families in Shimon HaTzadik live in three residential compounds—Nahala, Havatika and Menuha—and send their children to nearby daycares, nursery schools and primary schools. Most are once again walking among their Arab neighbors without protection or weapons. In the upper part of the neighborhood there is a kollel. Prior to the founding of the state, the Shimon HaTzadik Synagogue operated in the same building. Rabbi Ovadia Yosef celebrated his bar mitzvah there. His grandson, Yonatan Yosef, who serves on the Jerusalem City Council, is one of the prominent defenders of the neighborhood’s Jewish community.

The families’ homes are located in the center of the famous Meriva plot, which members of the old Yishuv purchased from Arabs 150 years ago. After the purchase, Jews founded the Shimon HaTzadik neighborhood and other similar communities in the area, only to be run out in the riots of 1929, 1935-6 and 1948. Only a few hundred meters from the Jewish homes stands a memorial to the memory of 78 doctors and nurses who were murdered in the Hadassah convoy in April 1948 by the Arabs of Sheikh Jarrah and their helpers.

After the 1948 War of Independence, Jordan moved Arab families into the Jewish homes. But in the past few decades, the Nahalat Shimon organization has been waging a long and slow legal process that has seen Jews return to the neighborhood.

Earlier this month, a group of Arab residents of the Nahala compound rejected a compromise offered by the Supreme Court, under which they would recognize the Jewish ownership of the homes in which they are living in exchange for being allowed to stay there with the status of protected tenants. Some of the families wanted to accept the deal, but heavy pressure from Hamas and the Palestinian Authority prevented them from doing so.

Seven minutes from the Western Wall

This is the reality that Elazar and Moriah Cohen encountered when they moved into the Nahala as a young couple two years ago. It happened after they turned down an offer to settle in the “dangerous and unstable” Kfar HaTeimanim in the heart of the city’s Silwan neighborhood.

“We chose Shimon HaTzadik so we could contribute to the settlement of Jerusalem,” said Elazar. “As far as we were concerned, we came to live in a quiet area, with room to move, a good atmosphere, seven minutes away from the Western Wall, very close to the center of town, because we knew that the spot was the center of a dispute.

Moriah and Elazar Cohen and their infant daughter. Credit: Courtesy.

“There used to be a demonstration in the neighborhood every Friday, but we never for a moment thought that things would deteriorate to the point they did. I’d exchange greetings with my Arab neighbors. I went to console one of them when his mother died. But this past Jerusalem Day, things changed all of a sudden. We’re only now getting back to normal, very slowly.”

Elazar grew up in a family deeply rooted in the Old City of Jerusalem, and says that he is very bound to the city and its landscapes.

“I didn’t come here to prove anything to anyone or wave a flag and say, ‘Look. This is mine.’ I don’t need that. Jerusalem is part of me and lies deep in my heart. I don’t have a problem with the Arabs who live here, as long as they don’t fight us,” he said.

Q: Can you imagine dialogue and discourse with your Arab neighbors? 

A: Before I talk with Arabs, I want to talk with my brothers, but yes, of course. Our Arab neighbors are welcome to talk instead of waging war. They just need to understand that the moment they throw a rock at me, they aren’t partners in conversation.

‘Two simple words’ 

Cohen says he was raised in a home of discourse, clarification and dialogue. His father was active in talks with the Palestinians. At the wedding of his brother, who lived in Beit Choshen on the Mount of Olives, Jewish and Arab guests danced together.

“Jerusalem is a great flame,” he said. “The choice we have is between a fire of love or one of hatred. I, and my friends here, don’t hate. I didn’t come here looking for action. My choice is the flame of love, love for Jerusalem, the creator, for people. I know that if I choose that, hatred will pull back.”

Elazar and Moriah remember the hard times clearly.

Firefighters extinguish a fire set during a protest against an expected eviction by Israel’s Supreme Court of several Palestinian families living in Jewish-owned homes in the eastern Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah on May 6, 2021. Photo by Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90.

“Those were days when you couldn’t stick your head outside. If you did, you’d get hit with a rock or a firebomb. Fireworks fell a [yard] from my kids in the compound, right where we used to hang the laundry. On Fridays, when the Arabs would wave a Palestinian flag and sing nationalist songs here, we would play Shabbat songs from the roof, using an amplifier—’Shalom Aleichem’ and ‘Lekha Dodi,’ to drown out the harsh sounds from the other side, but mainly to calm our kids.”

Recently, Moriah took part in a meeting of local women with a psychologist the Israel Association of Community Centers placed at their disposal.

“All the women gathered to get things off their chest, to vent. We brought up our deepest feelings, difficult things. Fears. About kids who had started wetting the bed again. Kids who wanted to sleep with their parents. Women who hear a ‘boom’ or a door slam and jump. People here are still afraid to walk past an Arab man or woman. We are still working through what we experienced—long weeks of being shut inside our homes, of trouble going in or out. A kind of PTSD,” she said.

Israeli forces clash with protesters in Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood on May 7, 2021. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.

“The worst feeling was of being abandoned,” said Moriah. “People felt that the government was neglecting them, ignoring them. A feeling of helplessness, mostly about the police, which should have been somewhere we could turn. We did not, and are not, breaking any law. The opposite—we’re working within the framework of the law. What strengthened us, and still does, is faith in the Lord and also the huge embrace we’ve received from the general public,” she added.

Moriah talks about an endless flow of offers of help, both then and now. “Cakes, drinks, casseroles, donations, solidarity visits, volunteers who came to bolster us, and offers to host us from central Israel, the south, the western Negev and the north—the total opposite of how the government treated us during the rioting,” she said.

People on the left of the political map claim that the return of the Jews to the place from where they were ousted in the War of Independence opens the door for Palestinians to do the same in places where they lived until 1948—in Jerusalem, Jaffa and Lod.

“There is no symmetry between the attacker and the attacked, between the murderer and the murder victim,” said Elazar. “But even before that we need to say, ‘Jerusalem belongs to the Jewish people. It’s a shame that there are still people who still have difficulty saying two simple words, two words that release us form the trauma of exile and the Holocaust: ‘It’s ours.’ Rashi wrote that explicitly in his interpretation of the first verse of the Torah,” he said.

From the moshav to Shimon HaTzadik

Ayelet and Adiel Hazan, who arrived in Shimon HaTzadik out of a “sense of purpose, to live near the grave of Shimon HaTzadik and near the Temple Mount,” agree that there is asymmetry. “The Land of Israel and certainly Jerusalem belong to the Jewish people. That’s the foundation,” he said.

“I could understand the distress of my Arab neighbors, as people, but given what we experienced here from them in the past few months—violence, hatred and attacks, attempted murders, firebombs struck a baby and people were wounded—if they leave, I’ll be happy. I’ll hang out balloons. As far as I’m concerned, and the court has addressed this, they are occupiers. They did not meet the criteria the law demands for protected tenants,” he said.

Israeli Supreme Court justice Yitzhak Amit (center) attends a petition regarding the evacuation of Palestinian families from their home in Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood, at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem on Aug. 2, 2021. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.

Adiel grew up in Maaleh Hever in the southern Hebron Hills, and Ayelet comes from Revava in Samaria. She is a music teacher and he teaches at a Breslov kollel and runs a falafel stand. Adiel explains the choice to live here by saying, “For us, it’s like finding Mount Meron in the middle of Jerusalem. A place to isolate, to pray. A kind of Garden of Eden. Through Shimon HaTzadik, I get closer to the Creator.”

The families here are diverse, but all are religious: Breslovers, Haredim, modern Orthodox, members of Ateret Hakohanim and Har Hamor. Some wave Israeli flags and rejoice on Independence Day, others don’t. One young couple, Shmuel and Eliana Peretz, just married.

Peretz was raised in the secular moshav Kinneret, and found religion as a teenager. He formed ties to the Jerusalem neighborhood, where he volunteered during the riots to bolster his friends at Ateret Hakohanim. He studied there, too. As a volunteer with Magen David Adom, he was present at a car-ramming attack in the neighborhood that wounded six police officers. He now works as a social coordinator at the Eitan pre-military preparatory program in Mishor Adumim.

Eliana made aliyah with her parents about 10 years ago. Her father served as a community rabbi in Chicago. She is an occupational therapist who studied at Tel Aviv University, and until recently lived in student lodgings in Jaffa, where she encountered the complexities of the Jewish-Arab conflict for the first time. Eliana says she attended lectures that reflected a variety of views and also mentored Jewish and Arab children at a community center in Jaffa as part of her scholarship program.

Arabs and left-wing activists protest against the eviction of Arab families from Jewish-owned homes in the eastern Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah. April 16, 2021. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.

Both Shmuel and Eliana stress their respect for Arabs as human beings. Shmuel also understands why it is difficult for them to be evicted from the homes where they have lived for decades. However, he does not think that the process should be stopped.

“The Land of Israel belongs to the Jewish people. The processes against them are being managed respectfully, according to the law, considerately. Treated this way, they resort to violence, bullying, invasions. Eliana and I are coming to settle the heart of Jerusalem. It’s our country. Simple as that,” he said.

Eliana said, “I was raised to respect people as human beings, but some of the Arabs in Shimon HaTzadik have stopped behaving like human beings.”

Mom in the kids’ room

For Dvir and Moriah Cohen, relations with their Arab neighbors, or the lack thereof, meet deeper issues as a result of the events of this past May.

“My hardest moment here was on Jerusalem Day,” said Moriah. “When I wanted to go home with the kids from the celebrations, and all of a sudden there was a siren. From afar, I saw thousands of Arabs facing our homes, whistling and dancing with joy, and I was cut off from reaching my home, the place that’s supposed to be my safety and my defense. It was a terrible feeling.”

Dvir and Moriah are parents to five young children, for whom the events of May were difficult.

“Eleven firebombs were thrown at our compound, along with endless rocks. They broke car and house windows. They set fire to cars. They threw a big metal chair at the window of the kids’ room,” they recalled.

Palestinians and left-wing activists protest in the eastern Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah on April 16, 2021. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.

They couple projected confidence in the children’s presence.

“We told them that the noises from the Arab attacks were noises from police actions that were defending us, but at one stage, our oldest child, Yinon-David, who’s five, asked, ‘Dad, if the police are protecting us, why aren’t they here?’ That’s an emotionally healthy kid. When a guest asked him one time if he was afraid to live here, he said completely naturally and innocently, ‘Why, are you afraid to live in your house?'”

Despite everything, Dvir and Moriah say that when things are calm, “It’s nice to raise children here. We returned to the Land of Israel and Jerusalem after 2,000 years. The police learned lessons, too, and now they are doing their job here much better than they used to. Only [last] week they broke up a gathering in 15 minutes. Six months ago it took them days. Now we’re safer.”

The couple has been in the neighborhood for six years, and came here after spending a few months living in Jewish homes in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City. Moriah, a teacher at a Talmud torah school, grew up in Petah Tikva. Dvir, a student at Ateret Hakohanim, grew up in Eli. His grandfather, Eli Sasser, was one of the founders of Karnei Shomron. Before Gush Katif was evacuated in the 2005 disengagement, his parents moved to Morag to bolster the residents of the bloc.

The government isn’t enthusiastic 

When the resettlement of Sheikh Jarrah began, the attorney general was Michael Ben-Yair, a native son of Nahalat Shimon, whose families lived next to the grave of Shimon HaTzadik before the state was founded. In January 1948, during the War of Independence, the leadership demanded that the Ben-Yairs and the other families leave their homes. Later, Ben-Yair recommended that the government remove the Jews from Shimon HaTzadik. He thought that if Arabs couldn’t return to what had been their homes prior to 1948, Jews shouldn’t be able to, either.

Dvir said, “You can’t equate someone who comes at you to throw you out of your home, murder you, to someone who lost a war whose purpose was to annihilate you; between the attacked, the murdered and the side that carries out the pogroms and rioting and is forced to leave their homes. Between the people who made the decision and those who rejected it, convinced that the state of Israel was temporary and they’d go back home to finally oust the Jews from the land. There is no mutuality, and even before that – the Land of Israel belongs to the Jewish people.”

Q: And if the government orders you to leave? 

Dvir: I’ll sit and weep, like I wept with my family when they evacuated Morag. We lowered our heads and wept. The people of Israel are with me here. We won’t be anywhere that the people of Israel don’t want us to be. But I don’t believe we’ll find ourselves in that situation. The people’s support of us crosses camp lines. We are sitting in the middle of Jerusalem.

Dvir’s moment of crisis came when Arab rioters burned the Israeli flags that the Jews were flying outside their homes.

“I went nuts when an innocent cop told me, ‘Take down the flags, it’s a provocation.’ I asked him how he wasn’t ashamed of himself. It pained me so much that the Arabs had managed to bring down the Magen David we’d hung at the head of the Nahala compound,” he said.

Israeli border police stand guard by a house of a Jewish family during a protest against Israel’s plan to demolish some houses of Palestinians in the eastern Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, May 6, 2021. Photo by Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90.

The media largely portrays the Jewish settlers in Shimon HaTzadik as violent, provocative and inconsiderate. I’ve been following the community here since 1998, since then-Knesset member Rabbi Benny Elon went into the abandoned, ruined synagogue with a group of activists and rebuilt it. The vast majority of allegations of violence by Jews are baseless. Usually, it is the Palestinians who are violent. But they have managed to demonize the Jews of the neighborhood in the foreign press.

The Jews here don’t have too many supporters in the Israeli media, either, despite having been attacked countless times. The Jewish ownership of the strip of settlement that connects western Jerusalem to Mount Scopus, and Jews’ religious and historical ties to the grave of Shimon HaTzadik, are downplayed.

Mona el-Kurd and other residents of the Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah hold a press conference in Jerusalem, Nov. 2, 2021. Photo by Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90.

Muna al-Kurd and her twin brother, Mohammed, who live across from the Nahala compound, are adept at using the Internet and social media in the battle that has been awarded the catchy name “Save Sheikh Jarrah.” The Jewish side is virtually non-present in the fight. The government, especially the current one, is—to put it mildly—unenthused about the Jewish presence in Shimon HaTzadik. Not to mention what the United States and its State Department think about it. U.S. President Joe Biden said so explicitly when he met with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett in August.

Throughout the years, the Jewish settlers have won a series of victories in court, which has repeatedly recognized the Jewish ownership of the properties in question. The judges have offered a compromise that would allow the Arab residents to stay in their homes under various conditions. The Jews agreed in principle, but the Arabs refused, even in the Supreme Court the week before last. Now everyone is waiting quietly to see what the judges’ response will be. This appears to be the calm before the storm.

This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.

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