The Good Neighbors

The mixed enclave calling itself the 'Mount Scopus Neighborhood' is that rare phenomenon in Jerusalem - a home to Arabs and Jews living together in amity.

Yehuda Litani
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Yehuda Litani

In one Jerusalem neighborhood at the foot of Mount Scopus, Jews and Arabs live together, enjoying good neighborly relations. It's rather rare for Jerusalem: Forty years after the Six-Day War, a deep rift still divides the two peoples living there. When this neighborhood of detached homes was created in the 1970s, its founders called it "Small City"; its residents, however, refer to it as the Mount Scopus Neighborhood. The owners of six of its 21 houses are Israeli Arabs who moved to Jerusalem from the Triangle [a cluster of Israeli Arab towns and villages near the Green Line] and the Galilee; three of them sit on the neighborhood committee , despite the neighborhood's Jewish majority. One of the houses once belonged to Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch and her husband, attorney Yehezkel Beinisch, who sold it years ago to an ultra-Orthodox yeshiva.

Israeli Arabs reside in other Jerusalem neighborhoods, such as Kiryat Hayovel and French Hill, but their presence sometimes leads to problems. A former member of the Israel Police, Commander (ret.) Roni Oliver, who lives in the Mount Scopus neighborhood, describes the open hostility toward the idea of Arabs moving into adjacent French Hill: She relates how Jews interested in selling their apartments to Arabs are threatened and how one long-time resident, an American immigrant, even published an ad in the neighborhood paper requesting readers to inform him which of their neighbors was planning to sell their apartment to Arabs - so he could persuade the would-be sellers to change their mind. In one French Hill synagogue, English-speaking residents organized themselves into a group aimed at preventing "Arabs from moving into our neighborhood." Residents of the neighborhood's Mevo Dakar Street created an action committee to stop the Hebrew University of Jerusalem from selling apartments it owned to Israeli Arabs; they succeeded, and the apartments were sold only to Jews.

Nestled between the Regency Jerusalem (formerly Hyatt) Hotel and the quarter inhabited by evacuees of the village of Lifta and created by the Jordanians after 1948, the Mount Scopus neighborhood is unusual for Jerusalem. Part of it was established on lands belonging to former Lifta residents that were expropriated in roundabout ways after 1967 (the Jordanian government, which granted the lands to these ex-villagers, did not always legally register the land in their name, which thus created the loophole that allowed the Mount Scopus neighborhood's creation). Jerusalem attorney Elias Khoury, a real-estate legislation expert, says that the Israeli government expropriated lands of two Lifta families in the 1970s for the purpose of establishing the Mount Scopus neighborhood. However, Shlomo Sirkis, a former senior Bank of Israel employee who lives in the quarter, says that one of his neighbors, the late Asher Wiener, a former director general of the Housing and Construction Ministry, once told him that part of the neighborhood was set up on a large plot of land previously owned by the Hebrew University. The Abu Leil family confirms that property it owned was expropriated and used for the neighborhood; however, the family refuses to elaborate on the issue, saying it doesn't want to create friction.

In any event, this is a special neighborhood because its Jewish residents are surrounded on all sides by Arab neighbors, former residents of the abandoned village of Lifta on the northwestern edge of Jerusalem, and because that village's evacuees are surrounded on all sides by Jews: the Mount Scopus neighborhood to the south and French Hill and Hebrew University student dormitories to the north and east. According to Sirkis, this situation means that "you must walk on tiptoes."

Raising rabbits

Sirkis tells a story about one former Lifta resident who raised rabbits in his yard for their meat. His Mount Scopus neighbors, Jewish and Arab alike, found the odor from the yard very offensive. The Jews thought their Israeli Arab neighbors would have an easier job of persuading the rabbit-owner to remove the blight; however, the Israeli Arabs were unwilling to speak to him because they feared a quarrel with the Lifta evacuees. Understanding their predicament, Sirkis volunteered to speak to the neighbor, who agreed to close down the mini-farm.

Had the rabbit-raiser been a Jew, explains Sirkis, the problem would have been much easier to handle: "I would have turned to the municipal inspection agency or the police. Here, we had to proceed with utmost caution and immense diplomacy because what would have been an ordinary quarrel between residents in a Jewish neighborhood could have become, in our neighborhood, material for a national conflagration, with Jews pitted against Arabs." On another occasion, the Jewish neighbors cooperated with the Lifta evacuees and managed to close down a nightclub operated by the adjacent hotel after its patrons caused several severe late-night disturbances. The club finally was shut down after one teen-aged patron smashed a bottle on the head of one ex-Lifta resident.

Perhaps the good-neighbor atmosphere is connected to the presence of two falafel stands - both of them owned by the Abu Leil family, formerly of Lifta - on the community's main street. Both stands, which stay open well after midnight, are patronized nightly by dozens of hungry Jews and Arabs, and have earned the family's falafel quite a reputation throughout Jerusalem. In addition to local residents, the stands regularly serve Border Police personnel, soldiers, taxi drivers and students from the nearby dormitories.

The recently elected head of the Mount Scopus neighborhood committee, Ismail Washahi, is from the village of Arara in the Triangle, southeast of Haifa . Born in 1956, he is a successful contractor, and it is his construction company that built the student dormitory buildings on French Hill. Today he is constructing the new Faculty of Medicine building on the campus of the Hadassah University Hospital in Ein Karem and a skyscraper in downtown Jerusalem. While running his company, Washahi managed to complete his undergraduate and master's degrees in business administration at the Hebrew University; he is currently completing requirements for his master's in law at Bar-Ilan University.

Washahi grew up in a small Bedouin community, A-Sharaya, near Umm al-Fahm. In the well-tended garden of his detached home in Jerusalem, he chain-smokes while reminiscencing about his childhood in the tiny village, whose livelihood depended primarily on herding sheep flocks. His family lived there until the mid-1960s. When the Jewish community of Mei Ami was created around that time, the Jewish National Fund purchased several thousand square meters of land from his father, and, with the money from the deal, he transferred his large family (Ismail is one of 17 children from his father's two wives) to the nearby village of Arara.

As a little boy, Washahi would walk five kilometers to and from his school daily; today, his four children, who attend prestigious private schools in Jerusalem, are driven to school by their mother, Randa, a distant relative of Washahi's, whose family lives in Jordan. Randa studied pharmacy in Jordan, working there in the field for five years. When she arrived here, after marrying Washahi and after their eldest son was born, she studied English literature at the Hebrew University, completing her M.A. in that field.

Randa and Ismail were married in 1992, in an Afula banquet hall, where she was amazed to see her husband hugging and kissing his Jewish friends. "Today, I'm used to that. We have quite a number of Jewish friends, including our neighbors," she recalls. "But back then, at the wedding, when I saw how warm the relationship was between Ismail and his Jewish friends, I was shocked, because in Jordan I never saw such encounters. There were no Jews there."

Washahi is well aware of the problems facing Israeli Arabs and he himself had some difficult experiences during the first and second intifadas. Arab laborers from the territories daily complain to him about the ill treatment they receive from Israeli security personnel at checkpoints and along West Bank highways. Although he tries his best to help them and even identifies with their plight, he defines himself as an incorrigible optimist who always looks at the brighter side. Judging by his immense success in both his studies, and subsequently in business, he has managed to ford the difficulties usually encountered by Israeli Arabs in Jerusalem.

Monthly meetings

Ismail and Randa participate in a group consisting of eight Israeli Arab couples from the Galilee and Triangle who reside in Jerusalem, meeting monthly at each other's homes, with the host or hostess preparing a lecture on a topic close to his or her heart. The lecture is followed by a meal and a social event.

One of the couples is Umeima and Mursheid Farahat, who have been living for the past three years in the Mount Scopus neighborhood and who were responsible for bringing Randa and Ismail there. Umeima and Mursheid are both physicians and graduates of the Hebrew University's medical school. They heard about the apartment where they currently live from another resident of the neighborhood, Nira Sirkis, an obstetric nurse who became acquainted with Mursheid through their work in the obstetrics department of the Hadassah University Hospital on Mount Scopus. He works there as a gynecologist, specializing in in-vitro fertilization (IVF). Umeima, a psychiatrist who works in several East Jerusalem medical centers, was born in Taibeh in the Triangle; Mursheid is a native of the Lower Galilee village of Majd el-Krum. They met during their medical studies and got married after completing their internships.

The person who pushed Mursheid to continue with his studies was his father, a retired principal of Majd el-Krum's high school, whose hobby is gardening. When he visits his son, daughter-in-law and grandchildren, he voluntarily tends their garden and those of their Jewish neighborhoods. Umeima and Mursheid moved to the Mount Scopus neighborhood after a bitter experience: Mursheid purchased an apartment in the northern Jerusalem neighborhood of Pisgat Ze'ev, where the Jewish neighbors threatened him with physical violence if he dared to move into his apartment. He and his wife have vivid memories of that difficult period.

Shlomo Sirkis says that, in his opinion, the Mount Scopus neighborhood is "Israel's most educated neighborhood," primarily thanks to its Arab residents. In addition to the Washahis and Farahats, there is Najib Iraki, an accountant from Tira, and his family, and attorney Hussein Ana'im, from Sakhnin. Another two Israeli Arabs bought homes in the neighborhood, but decided not to inhabit them; instead, they are renting them out to other families.

Sirkis notes that the great fear of local residents, such as those in French Hill, is that prices of apartments will drop because Arabs have moved into the neighborhood. He points out that this will not happen in the Mount Scopus neighborhood. Sirkis, 65, defines himself as a "secular right-winger. A right-winger without messianic dreams, who deeply respects Arabs and the Arab heritage." The good relations between Jews and Arabs in this neighborhood are irrelevant, in his view, because they have never been put to the test. He believes a political settlement with the Arabs is impossible but that does not mean that Jews and Arabs must hate one another.

During the Second Lebanon War, when he heard a missile had landed at Majd el-Krum, Sirkis immediately went over to the Farahats to inquire whether their relatives in the village were alright. They found that gesture very touching. Like many veteran Jerusalemites, he is leaving the capital and moving to Binyamina, south of Haifa. He is trying to sell his apartment but finds it difficult to bid farewell to it: He loves stone and has introduced rare and unusual types of stone that have become an integral part of his life. In contrast, Dr. Farahat, although personally having experienced Jewish racism, is more optimistic. He thinks there is an excellent chance of solving the Arab-Israeli dispute if additional leaders of the caliber of David Ben-Gurion and Yitzhak Rabin can be found.

Prior to June 1967, the buildings of the Hebrew University and Hadassah Hospital were referred to as the "Mount Scopus enclave," Israel territory that was fenced off and mined, and surrounded by Jordanian territory. Today, that enclave is a neighborhood where Jews and Arabs, thanks to a unique and fragile set of circumstances, live as good neighbors, surrounded by hostile racism.

Yehuda Litani, a recipient of the Emil Grunzweig Human Rights Award, is a translator of Irish poetry and myths.