It is said that Jerusalem is the world’s most contested territory, holy to and jealously coveted by the three Abrahamic faiths. Jerusalem is also a city where Jews and Arabs live adjacent to, and sometimes amid, one another. Both communities are largely and consciously oblivious of one another despite having frequent economic encounters. Each places its messianic hopes upon Jerusalem — as Ir ha-Kodesh and Al-Quds — though, ironically, both are joined by the overarching goal of living without the other in the Holy City. At times, the unharmonious coexistence breaks down, exposing deep reservoirs of hatred and injustice.
This tale of two cities, at once segregated, was never clearer to me than during a recent visit. I was in Jerusalem to attend the quadrennial World Congress of Jewish Studies, a gathering of thousands of scholars held at the Hebrew University campus on Mount Scopus. The inauguration of the university 84 years ago was heralded as an act of millennial significance that would allow for the rise of a new world center of Jewish scholarship.
Every four years at the World Congress, I am reminded of this while traversing the university hallways to find colleagues from almost every continent. It is a joyous, stimulating and often comic Tower of Babel that reinforces Jerusalem as the global center of Jewish studies.
And yet, the thrilling sense I had on Mount Scopus’ heights was quickly dissipated after traveling a few miles down the hill to the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah. There, I encountered Maher Hanoun, whose extended family was evicted by Israeli police from his home in a raid on Aug. 2. The Hanoun family — along with the Gawi family — has for years been subjected to unrelenting pressure from various Jewish groups to leave their homes. Immediately after the eviction of 17 members of the Hanouns and 38 members of the Gawis, religious nationalist settlers occupied the houses — yet another step in their plan to “Judaize” Jerusalem and rid it of its Arab residents.
Maher Hanoun has lived in his home in Sheikh Jarrah for more than 50 years. He has spent decades and precious financial resources warding off claims to his property from the Sephardic Council of Jerusalem, which asserted that its deed to his property from Ottoman times superseded his property rights established during Jordanian control of East Jerusalem from 1948 to 1967. In May, an Israeli court ruled that the Council and the Nachlat Shimon nonprofit corporation could gain control over the property and evict the Hanouns and Gawis. Regrettably, this decision casts a dark pall over the Israeli legal system — often deemed the shining light of Israel’s democracy — which has repeatedly, with a few notable exceptions, privileged Jewish citizens over Arab citizens in their respective claims to the precious terrain of the Holy Land.
The grounds for this discrimination date back to the early years of the State of Israel when the Knesset passed laws that enabled the state to claim — which is to say expropriate — millions of dunams belonging to Arab residents displaced by the 1948 war, even if they were still living within its borders. These acts provided a legal and political rationale for favoring Jewish over Arab claims. Consequently, it seems perfectly normal nowadays for courts to rule in favor of Jewish litigants. By contrast, it is unimaginable that an Israeli court would be sympathetic to an Arab claim. What would happen if a 1948 Palestinian refugee presented a deed to an Israeli court to reclaim his home in Jerusalem’s upscale neighborhood of Talbieh? In the best of cases, he would be laughed out of the room.
What makes the Sheikh Jarrah case so poignant is that Maher Hanoun is a man of peace and reconciliation. With nowhere to move, he refuses to leave his neighborhood, choosing to sleep outside with his family across the street from his home. Even under such tiring circumstances, he is filled with neither vitriol nor vengeance. He believes that Jews and Arabs can live side by side, each in their own sovereign state. He is heartened by the support of some Israeli Jews who visited him to express solidarity. His decency of spirit makes the case all the more inexplicable and unjust.
The Jewish thinker Simon Rawidowicz once expressed fear that when Jews assumed sovereignty in 1948, they would forget their experience of living as a national minority for millennia and become — in the words of the Proverbs — “a servant who comes to reign.” The insensitivity of the Israeli courts, political system and the public — complicit in, but not restricted to, the Sheikh Jarrah case — makes Rawidowicz’s words seem prophetic.
Maher Hanoun and his family — who now dwell on the sidewalks of Jerusalem — remind us how that sacred and contested space is less a City of Peace than two separate and unequal worlds. Sadly, they evoke the haunting admonition of Herbert Samuel, British high commissioner to Palestine, to Chaim Weizmann in 1921: “Unless there is very careful steering, it is upon the Arab rock that the Zionist ship may be wrecked.”
David N. Myers is professor of Jewish history at UCLA and the author of “Between Jew and Arab: The Lost Voice of Simon Rawidowicz” (Brandeis, 2008).