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May 12, 2021 12:55 pm

Property Rights and Political Wrongs in Jerusalem

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avatar by Jerold Auerbach


The entrance to the Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah. Photo: Tamar Hayardeni/Wikimedia.

The violent eruption in Jerusalem, sparked by the pending eviction of four Palestinian families from their Jewish-owned homes in the east Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, reveals the continuing struggle between Israelis and Arabs over the ancient Jewish Holy City.

It began following the Six-Day War with the return of Jews to the Jewish Quarter of the Old City, from which they had been forcibly evicted by Arabs during Israel’s Independence War in 1948. Former Jewish neighborhoods outside Old City walls — Sheikh Jarrah among them — also came under Arab control in 1948, but a Supreme Court ruling subsequently upheld the right of Jewish families to reclaim Jewish-owned property there.

Sheikh Jarrah was not a random neighborhood claimed by conquering Israelis. It was the site of the tomb of Shimon HaTzadik, the renowned Jewish High Priest during the Second Temple era. For centuries it was the destination of Jewish pilgrimages. In 1876 Jews purchased the burial cave and adjoining land, where Yemenite Jewish families built their homes. But the property was confiscated by Arabs following Israel’s Independence War.

In 2008 the Jerusalem District Court ruled that it belonged to the Sephardi Jewish community. One year later the Supreme Court upheld that ruling. The pending question now under litigation is whether law (to say nothing of history) matters. Predictably, the New York Times has joined in the fray, the better to blame Israel. In full-page coverage (May 8) of the most recent eruption of Palestinian violence, Jerusalem Bureau Chief Patrick Kingsley began by blaming Israeli police for spraying “so much skunk water, a noxious liquid used to deter demonstrators” that “its stench lingered over nearby streets.”

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For Kingsley the question is not who are the legitimate owners of the Sheikh Jarrah property, and whether six Palestinian families will be evicted from property they do not own, but whether the Supreme Court will decide in favor of the Times‘ most evil of people: “Jewish settlers.”

Five columns later — surrounding four photographs arranged to blame Israeli security forces for responding to Palestinian violence inside and outside the Old City — Kingsley notes that “the dispute in Sheikh Jarrah” is grounded in the 19th century land purchase by “two Jewish trusts” from its Arab land owners. This suggests that the question, ignored by Kingsley, is whether Jewish property owners will be able to regain the property that is legally theirs.

As Palestinian violence spread to the Temple Mount the Times predictably blamed Israel. Kingsley is oblivious to its place in Jewish history as the site of the First and Second Temples, dating back to the reign of King Solomon in the 10th century BCE. Destroyed by the Babylonian Empire in 586 BCE, the Second Temple, rebuilt half a century later, was demolished by the Romans in 70 CE. Eight centuries later, Muslims determined to erase Jewish history from its holiest site chose it for their own (third) holiest site, to be known as the Dome of the Rock.

Fast forward to the Six-Day War in 1967, when victorious Israeli soldiers reached the Temple Mount. Lt. Gen. Motta Gur, their commander, reported excitedly: “The Temple Mount is in our hands” — for the first time in nearly two thousand years. But in perhaps the most astonishing surrender in Jewish history, Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, meeting with the Muslim Waqf, returned the Mount to their control. Jews would be forbidden to worship at their holiest site. It was a gift that only a secular Jew could have bestowed.

Following the victory, the Knesset passed a law permitting Jewish families that had been forced from their homes by Jordanians to regain them with proof of ownership if their current inhabitants were unable to do so. Accordingly, the Israeli Supreme Court recently ruled that these homes in Sheikh Jarrah must be returned to their legal (Jewish) owners.

Whether Israel, now under Hamas siege, will permit Jews to reclaim their Sheikh Jarrah homes will determine whether Zionism still flourishes in the ancient holy city of the Jewish people.

Jerold S. Auerbach is the author of twelve books, including Print to Fit: The New York Times, Zionism and Israel 1896-2016, selected for Mosaic by Ruth Wisse and Martin Kramer as a Best Book for 2019.

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