Building Jerusalem

By Hadassah Levy
Friday, September 16, 2011

On the edge of Route 1 as that thoroughfare runs through eastern Jerusalem lies an Arab neighborhood by the name of Sheikh Jarrah. In one section of the neighborhood, an Israeli flag waves and Jews walk back and forth to the tomb of Simon the Just (Shimon Hatzadik), who served as high priest in the Second Temple. The synagogue surrounding the tomb is filled with men studying Torah and women reciting Psalms. Approximately ten young families live in a building adjacent to the tomb.

Every Friday, protesters gather at the edge of the neighborhood to demonstrate against evictions of Arabs from their homes. The evictions are legal, as the Arabs in question are squatters, having been living rent-free for years in houses that don't belong to them. But the real complaint of the protesters, who comprise both Arabs and Jews, concerns the prospect of Jewish families taking over the houses and thus contributing to the changing character of the neighborhood.

Sheikh Jarrah is not the only Arab neighborhood in eastern Jerusalem undergoing demographic change. On the Mount of Olives, the Beit Orot yeshiva, situated between the Augusta Victoria church and the Mormon outpost of Brigham Young University, is in the process of constructing housing that could ultimately bring a total of 300 Jewish families to the area. This could help to create a continuous Jewish presence from the Mount of Olives cemetery down toward the Temple Mount.

Historically speaking, eastern Jerusalem was where most Jews always lived. In biblical times, the city as a whole was limited geographically to the area surrounding the Temple Mount (known today as the City of David). Even in the modern period, as settlement expanded in the 19th century, it was to the eastern parts of the city that Jews moved. Not until 1929, under the pressure of Arab riots, did officials of the British Mandate undertake to separate the populations and force most Jerusalem Jews to resettle in the west. Those who remained, in the Jewish Quarter and a few other neighborhoods of the Old City, were expelled in 1948 when these areas fell into the hands of the Jordanians.

In 1967, with the return of Jerusalem's eastern sectors to Israel, Jews quickly settled wherever property was available while Arabs remained in all-Arab enclaves like Sheikh Jarrah. Today, the Jewish population in all of eastern Jerusalem numbers about 200,000, of whom about 2,000 reside in Arab neighborhoods.

What now? Israeli politicians and activists who favor agreements with the Palestinians based on the concept of "land for peace" share the view of the British Mandate: peace can be achieved only by separating the Jewish and Arab populations. This was the logic behind the 2005 evacuation of the Jewish settlements in Gaza, and today it is the goal of those who wish to cede land in the West Bank to the Palestinian Authority. An expanded version of the same idea is the guiding principle of the international community. According to it, all land captured by Israel in 1967 should be ceded to the Arabs, thus returning the Jewish state to the armistice lines as they existed at the end of the 1948–49 war of independence.

In contrast to this, Jewish settlers seek an integration of the two populations.  Those politicians and activists who regard land-for-peace as a bankrupt policy similarly see integration as a solution.  Their strategy is to settle as many Jews as possible in an as many areas as possible in both the West Bank and eastern Jerusalem, thus making the segregation of the two populations a logistical nightmare, if not an impossibility. Many settlers now wish they had pursued this strategy—also known as creating "facts on the ground"—more energetically in the 1980's, when the settlement movement was focused more on homogeneity than on size, with the result that the Jewish population in the West Bank, now at about 330,000, is much lower than it might have been. Such thinking is in part behind the current rush to establish new settlements as well as to expand existing ones, which according to this logic will make it that much harder for any government to undertake a wholesale, Gaza-style evacuation in a future peace agreement.

"Facts on the ground" will undoubtedly influence public policy in Israel. Places with very small Jewish populations or that have been abandoned by Jews are almost always considered negotiable or by definition as belonging to the Arabs. Prime examples are the Temple Mount area in Jerusalem and most of the West Bank itself. By contrast, Jewish cities like Ariel and Maaleh Adumim, thanks to the size of their populations, are usually conceded to the Israelis in most peace proposals.

Past experience suggests that a genuine peace agreement with the Palestinians is unlikely to emerge for many more years, and during that time the demographics of eastern Jerusalem could change significantly. Moreover, Israel's last previous experiment with evacuating its citizens is almost universally considered a failure. Not only did the departure of the IDF from Gaza lead to serious security problems, including the still-unceasing rocket fire from the Hamas-ruled territory, but the evacuees themselves have yet to be settled properly in homes and communities. The action also caused large segments of the Israeli citizenry, especially those within the religious-Zionist camp, to lose faith in the willingness of the government to protect their interests.

Will a future Israeli government insist on drawing the country's borders so as to recognize new realities and avoid incurring a much larger trauma than the fiasco of 2005? On Jerusalem, at least, the Netanyahu government has so far declined to be clear, issuing unequivocal declarations against any future division of the city while at the same time permitting very little construction to take place in virtually any part of Jerusalem, east or west. Whether it allows continued settlement of Jews in Sheikh Jarrah and other areas of eastern Jerusalem will perhaps provide one barometer of its longer-term intentions.

Hadassah Levy is a website manager and marketer for Jewish Ideas Daily. 

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