When you meet Aryeh King, a man whose raison d’etre is to settle Jews in Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem, the last backdrop you expect for your meeting is the noisy din of an Aroma café in the bourgeois heart of the German Colony.
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King, who is running for Jerusalem’s City Council, offered to meet me at 8 in the evening at the International Convention Center near the entrance to the city – he would be in the building for a wedding and would slip away for the interview. But lahefech, on the contrary, the theme of the night was a funeral. With the procession for Rabbi Ovadia Yosef’s inundating a huge swath of the holy city Monday night, I told King I couldn’t make it to that part of town. Instead, he suggested the popular coffee chain on Emek Refaim, a place which feels continents away from the part of Jerusalem he calls home: Maale Zeitim, an enclave of 120 families wedged into the otherwise Arab Ras al-Amud neighborhood.
I order a hafuch, the Israeli latte that literally means upside down; King prefers a free cup of water from the machine, then sits down to do five minutes of text messaging before we speak. Aroma turns out to be conveniently full of good props for his polemic. He points out a Palestinian couple, obvious by the fact that the woman is wearing an Islamic headscarf, rising from a table not far from us. “Why is this Arab feeling so comfortable?” King poses at full volume, though no one in the noisy café seems to notice. “Why do they feel so comfortable to go wherever they want, and we don’t feel so comfortable going where we want? Can you imagine in a neighborhood in Beit Hanina,” he adds, mentioning a middle-class neighborhood of East Jerusalem, “an obviously Jewish couple sitting down at night for a coffee?”
King was one of the first to set up shop in Maale Zeitim 17 years ago and is the founder of the Israel Land Fund, which encourages others to follow in his footsteps and attracts wealthy foreign donors to fund the cause. His campaign for city council was endorsed in September by Irving Moskowitz, a controversial American billionaire who finances the purchase of properties in East Jerusalem for the purpose of settling Jews there.
King doesn’t pretend that he’s chosen an easy place to live: He not infrequently gets stoned on his way home through Ras al-Amud, where he lives with his wife and six children. “It also would have been easier for my parents to stay in London,” he shrugs. But rather than question whether Israelis ought to be living there – Palestinians and the larger international community views his and other enclaves around East Jerusalem as illegal settlements – his answer is “to really make this a united city.” By which he means, bring more Jews into Arab neighborhoods that were part of Jordanian-controlled Jerusalem until 1967. He says there are eight East Jerusalem neighborhoods where Jews are “not allowed,” throwing out names like Kufr Aqab, Qalandia, Shuafat. If it were up to King, Jews would be living in all of these areas. “For racist reasons, Jews are not allowed and plans are not discussed.”
Lahefech, some say, including voices on the right side of the Israeli political map; It is King who has crossed the line and is using blatant racism in his campaign. One set of his signs calls for the “Judaization of Jerusalem,” and another promises that King will tamp down the volume on muezzins in the mosques. Likud politician and former Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin asked the elections committee to investigate whether the Judaization slogan constitutes incitement and might therefore be charged as a criminal offense. (“As a Jew, I’m ashamed,” Rivlin wrote on his Facebook page a week ago.)
“To Judaize Jerusalem means that it will forever be a city with a Jewish majority, and it won’t happen if the municipality won’t help us,” King explains. “The city doesn’t have any right to stop anyone from building somewhere in Jerusalem just because most of the people who live there now are Arab. The Arabs are building illegally anyway, about 700 to 800 units every year. Legally they get 40 percent of what is built every year.” He continues: “So in fact, we’re going backwards and every year the Arabs are getting more units in the city.”
I sip my hafuch. Just about everything King has to say is hafuch, the polar opposite from the figures provided by nearly any NGO that regularly watches these issues in Jerusalem, such as Ir Amim, ACRI and Bimkom, all Israeli-run organizations that document inequality in East Jerusalem, from the paucity of building permits issued to Palestinians, to the lack of planning and services on par with those in West Jerusalem, to home demolitions. King insists demolitions have virtually come to a halt under Mayor Nir Barkat, whom King calls a leftist who is setting the stage to re-divide Jerusalem.
But in an election season, the facts hardly matter. More important is how the message sways the masses. A tiny percentage of Jerusalemites live in tiny enclave settlements as King does; Peace Now puts the number at 2,000. But about 190,000 people live in “seam neighborhoods” which, despite what the UN says, most Jerusalemites don’t view as settlements. These include areas such as Gilo, Ramot, Armon Hanatsiv, French Hill and Neve Yaakov.
It is these votes that King has been campaigning for, and his posters in these areas are particularly visible. But they are also well placed, for example, in the prime advertising spaces on the road leading to Jerusalem’s Museum Row, which includes the Israel Museum and the Knesset. King may well pick up support from people who would never step foot in his enclave in Ras al-Amud, but feel he has a point about the city neglecting outlying areas, home to a largely less affluent population. King argues that these areas have inferior transportation, suffer more break-ins and car thefts, and enjoy less security overall due to their location on the “seam” (read: the Arabs.) Here again, King lurches into extremist territory, saying that there must be a solution to security in parks in these areas, by which he means, Arabs going to parks in West Jerusalem to harass Jews. “Once it’s dark out, Jews don’t feel comfortable going to the park, especially girls and women,” he tells me. “They’re being attacked, because there are no strong lights and security cameras.”
King had originally thrown his support behind Moshe Leon, the right-wing candidate backed by Likud-Beiteinu and handpicked by Avigdor Lieberman. Instead he decided to merge with a breakaway faction of Habayit Hayehudi and form a “United Jerusalem” party, in which candidate Shmuel Shakdi holds the number one slot, while King is number two and party chairman.
“I’m not saying Arabs shouldn’t come here,” says King, gesturing back to the Palestinian couple, who have moved out to the patio to have a smoke. The Arab man greets a friend who gladly lights his cigarette. “But when I go to their neighborhoods, I want them to light my cigarette and give me coffee and not look at me like I’ve come from the moon.”