My mother was part of one of 97 Jewish families in Sheikh Jarrah in the early 1990s, but the Jewish roots there go back much further.
As the Sheikh Jarrah case awaits the court’s decision in Israel, many voices can be heard asserting that Israeli Jews are “colonizing” the Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, and that Israel is trying to “Judaize” Jerusalem. My family’s history undermines those claims and suggests 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 Jarrah. The Jewish presence in Sheikh Jarrah centered on the tomb of Shimon Ha’Tzadik, who met with Alexander the Great and convinced him not to destroy the Second Temple.
In 1876, the cave and 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 1930s, when some Jewish families were uprooted, it remained a Jewish neighborhood until 1948 when the Jewish residents were driven out by the Jordanian army, and their homes were occupied by Arabs.
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Since the 1880s, when Jerusalem was a majority Jewish city — going back to the 1848 Ottoman Turk census — terror and threats were part of Jewish life. 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 Arab attackers.
He walked with a limp thereafter, and Sarah never recovered from seeing this fearless and devoted man beaten to a pulp.
Sarah married my grandfather, Simon Gotlieb, and moved in 1919 to Shimon Ha’Tzadik. Simon’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. They were driven out of Jerusalem in 1927 to escape from anti-Jewish violence. The rest of my mom’s family remained in Jerusalem.
Coincidentally, my wife Batya also was born in Shimon Ha’Tzadik. Batya remembers how, as a little girl, her father — Professor Chaim Gevaryahu — shielded her with old mattresses as the roof of their home was blown off by Jordanian shells.
The Shimon Ha’Tzadik Jewish families fled to other Jerusalem neighborhoods, and Arabs occupied the Jewish homes. My daughter-in-law’s great-grandparents, Jamus-Shauli and Benattar — helped found Shimon Ha’Tzadik.
In 1970, the law on legal and administrative affairs in Israel was enacted, stipulating Jews could reclaim their lost property. Legal battles began over Sheikh Jarrah land ownership.
In 1972, the Sephardic and Knesset committees of Israel claimed that in 1885 they purchased the land and built houses in Shimon Ha’Tzadik. In 1976, the court agreed and filed eviction notices. In 1982, the Israel supreme court affirmed the Jewish land ownership.
In 1987, a court recognized Jewish ownership on the western side of Nablus Road, and defined the Arabs as protected tenants. In 1991, Jewish ownership was agreed to, and the Arab residents were granted a tenant status, provided rent was paid until Sept. 30, 2009, when homes would revert back to their Jewish owners.
In 2001, Israeli Jews moved into a section of Shimon Ha’Tzadik. An Arab using title deeds issued by the Ottoman Empire filed a lawsuit to prove his ownership. In 2005, the court ruled the documents were forged, and an appeal in the following year was rejected.
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Despite the ruling, the Jewish owners could not take action since the Arabs immediately appealed to the supreme court. Four years later, the court rejected the appeal.
In 2009, the Jerusalem district court ruled Arabs should be evicted for rent non-payment in Sheikh Jarrah, and Jewish families moved into two homes. Thereafter, Sheikh Jarrah activists organized protests of the Jewish “takeover.”
On Feb. 15, Arab appeals were rejected and eviction orders were issued to be carried out last month. The Israel supreme court affirmed the decision.
Arab and Jewish activists have held daily protests that spilled over to other parts of Jerusalem.
Activists called on international leaders to pressure Israel to end the “ongoing Nakba” in Sheikh Jarrah. On April 22, at the International Criminal Court, 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 Avichai Mandelblit until June 8 to submit his opinion on the matter. The pending evictions were one of the sparks that led to the 11-day Gaza war.
My family’s history — and that of many Jews with deep ownership roots in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood — undermines Arab claims that Israel is “Judaizing” Jerusalem, and exposes yet another attempt to eradicate the history of a Jewish community.
Dr. Michael Wise, a graduate of YU with a PhD in theoretical physics from Brandeis University, is the author of the BESA Israel demography study. This article appeared in the Riverdale Press.