Jewish ‘Settlers’ in Jerusalem
In 1628, twenty years after Jamestown became the first British colony in North America, a new settlement far to the north was named Salem. For its pious Puritan settlers Salem represented an Anglicized version of shalom. According to biblical sources, the pool of Siloam was the source of water for the priests who sprinkled it on the altar of the nearby Temple. It was identified in the Talmud as the center of the Land of Israel. In time, Christian monks lived in nearby caves and Muslims built a village in the fertile valley, whose spring was a sacred water source.
Jews from Yemen arrived in Silwan in 1881, inhabiting its caves until land purchased by sympathetic philanthropists permitted the construction of stone houses. Several hundred Yemenite Jews moved into the neighborhood known as Kfar HaShiloach. During the Arab revolt that erupted in 1936 many Jewish residents fled; those who remained were evacuated by the British two years later. Arab families occupied their abandoned homes.
Jews returned to inhabit Silwan in recent decades with the development of its City of David National Park as a major Jerusalem tourist attraction. Thousands of visitors have been guided through the remnants of ancient homes and walk through the tunnel carved during the reign of King Hezekiah. Now a mixed Arab and Jewish neighborhood within steps of the Old City walls, it was inhabited by one hundred Jewish families – until this past week, when dozens of Jews, with police protection, moved into twenty-five empty apartments in seven buildings purchased by the City of David Foundation (Elad) at extravagant prices from willing Arab sellers.
Arab residents of Silwan were not happy with their new neighbors. “I’m disappointed that these Palestinians think of money without even thinking about what this does to their families,” said Jawad Siam, identified by Haaretz (which described the move as “the takeover of buildings”) as “a long-time political activist in Silwan.” A Fatah representative who arrived to console an Arab man whose son had sold family property to the Palestinian broker who, in turn, sold it to Elad, asserted: “We were here, and we will be here until we have all of Palestine without any Jewish people in it.”
Coming as it did on the eve of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s address to the United Nations and subsequent meeting with President Obama, the Silwan transaction – along with the parallel announcement of Israeli approval for the construction of 2,500 housing units in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Givat Hamatos – roiled Washington. In carefully orchestrated harmony, State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki and White House spokesman Josh Earnest expressed “deep concern” over construction plans, which would “call into question Israel’s ultimate commitment to a peaceful negotiated settlement” (which, to be sure, Palestinians have rejected ever since the Peel Commission partition plan of 1937).
Earnest also castigated the move of Jews into Silwan. The United States, he said (quite earnestly), “condemns the recent occupation of residential buildings in the neighborhood of Silwan by people whose agenda provokes tensions.” Transforming a legitimate purchase and sale agreement into “occupation” that is “provocative,” Earnest preposterously asserted that more Jews in Silwan (living where Jews first lived during the reign of King Solomon) “would call into question Israel’s ultimate commitment to a peaceful negotiated settlement with the Palestinians.”
To depict Jews living anywhere in Jerusalem, their ancient capital two millennia before the first Muslims arrived, as illegal intruders falls somewhere between misguided and malicious. Learning of Earnest’s statement while traveling in New York, Netanyahu responded appropriately: “Arabs in Jerusalem are free to purchase apartments in the western city and no one is arguing against it. I have no intention of telling Jews they can’t buy apartments in East Jerusalem. This is private property and an individual right.” No matter how opprobrious the term “settler” might be to some, in and outside the White House, Jews are not settlers in their holy city.
Jews, as Harvard scholar Ruth Wisse has perceptively written, “have more concurrent rights to their land than any other people on this earth can claim: aboriginal rights, divine rights, legal rights, internationally guaranteed rights, pioneering rights, and the rights of that perennial arbiter, war.” That should be required reading in the White House, where a primer on Jewish history in the Land of Israel is desperately needed.
Jerold S. Auerbach is a frequent contributor to The Algemeiner