Jews Reclaim Synagogue in Arab Neighborhood in Jerusalem

“And there is hope for thy future, saith the LORD; and thy children shall return to their own border.” (Jeremiah 31:16)

Nearly 80 years after Yemenite Jews were evacuated from the Arab neighborhood of Silwan, a group of activists has moved into the community’s former synagogue.

According to a news report by The Times of Israel, members of the Ateret Kohanim group, whose goal is to help settle Jews in all parts of Jerusalem’s Old City, moved into the synagogue building Wednesday morning at 1 am.

The new residents were greeted by rock-throwing from local Arabs. Border police responded to the scene.

Modern-day Silwan is located on the outskirts of the Old City of Jerusalem, and has long been an Arab farming village. In the early 1880s, a group of Yemenite Jews were settled on the southern edge of the village, where they remained until the Arab riots of 1936-1939. For their own safety, the Jewish residents were removed from their homes by the British.

Silwan was captured by Jordan in 1948, along with East Jerusalem, and recaptured by Israel in 1967. The first Jewish families began to return to the area in the 1990s.

The synagogue entered Wednesday is owned by the Kfar Hashiloah (the Hebrew name for Silwan) hekdesh, or community trust. It was occupied until recently by the Abu Naab family, but after a lengthy battle in Jerusalem District Court, the family was ordered to vacate the premises.

The synagogue is one of a number of buildings in the village in which pro-Israel activists have gained a foothold. Another like-minded group, the Elad foundation, acquired 25 apartments in the neighborhood in September. Today, according to Haaretz, roughly 500 Jews live in Silwan.

“Jews have the right to live wherever they wish in the world, and certainly in Jerusalem,” a municipality spokesman said in a statement. “To the best of our knowledge, this is a case in which Jewish residents are exercising their right to enter a building that is under their ownership and that was vacant. The Jerusalem municipality and the Israel Police are not involved in the process, nor was any order enacted against the Arab residents. This is purely a civil matter that has nothing to do with the authorities.”

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Not everyone agrees. Left-wing NGO Ir Amim argued in its own statement, “The state, in the form of the public trustee, is the one who decided to transfer the property (the Abu Naab house) to Ateret Kohanim even though a Palestinian family lives there. Now the Jerusalem municipality, the police and the other authorities of the state are taking the position of ‘observers on the sidelines,’ as if this matter were not in their purview. In reality, the state supports Ateret Kohanim and the other settler NGOs, to which it privatizes the takeover of outposts in Palestinian neighborhoods in the city.”

Meanwhile, in another nearby neighborhood, approval was given for the construction of 900 new homes, much to the chagrin of left-wind NGO Peace Now. Ramat Shlomo is predominantly ultra-Orthodox, and is located in East Jerusalem.

The new construction was part of a plan originally announced in March 2010 for 1,600 new homes, a move opposed by the US. Construction was delayed due to a need for road expansion, something Peace Now spokeswoman Hagit Ofran says still hasn’t happened. However, the first 900 units are now allowed to be built.

The US quickly condemned the announcement of the construction of the new homes as “damaging and inconsistent” with Israel’s commitment to a two-state solution.

“This is a disappointing development, and we’re concerned about it just as a new Israeli Government has been announced,” US State Department spokesman Jeff Rathke said on Thursday at a press briefing. “Israel’s leaders have asserted that they remain committed to a two-state solution, and we need to see that commitment in the actions of…the Israeli Government.”

The decision to build was pushed through as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was in the final stages of confirming his new coalition. Netanyahu campaigned in the March elections on a promise of expanding construction in East Jerusalem, land Israel claims as its own but which Palestinians want as the capital of their future state.

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