Israel Celebrates New Jewish Heritage Center in Heart of East Jerusalem Under Heavy Security

Mike Huckabee attends ceremony led by Culture Minister Regev and Jerusalem Affairs Minister Elkin in old Yemenite synagogue

Culture Minister Miri Regev, center, walking through Silwan for the dedication of a Jewish heritage center in the E. J’lem neigbhorhood, August 1, 2018.
Emil Salman

A ceremony marking the launch of a new Jewish heritage center was held in the Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan in East Jerusalem on Wednesday under heavy security. The heritage center will be housed in a soon-to-be renovated Yemenite synagogue.

The ceremony took place in the presence of Culture Minister Miri Regev and Jerusalem Affairs Minister Ze'ev Elkin. Former Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee was in attendance. 

At least one Palestinian resident of the neighborhood who lives by the synagogue and who is also facing eviction by the settler organization that maintains the synagogue was summoned by the Shin Bet security service for a cautionary chat.

>> This Palestinian is fighting for his East Jerusalem home - and the whole neighborhood is at stake ■ Haaretz Editorial: Silwan, a model for oppression

When Zuheir Rajabi was called to the local police station, he was received by "Captain Erez" of the Shin Bet. "He said he saw on Facebook that we’re planning a demonstration and said he doesn't want to have to arrest me, that it wouldn't be in my interest," Rajabi said. "I told him that we want to tell Miri Regev that there are people here, these are their homes, and I'm not breaking the law."

Culture Minister Miri Regev inaugurates a new Jewish heritage center in Silwan, East Jerusalem, August 1, 2018.
Emil Salman
The old Yemenite synagogue in Silwan, where the new Jewish heritage center will open, August 1, 2018.
Nir Hasson

The new center will be built in the old synagogue building in the heart of Silwan, a neighborhood that has been a site of struggle between Palestinians and settler organizations that have been working to Judaize the area by purchasing homes from Arabs and litigating against them, sometimes with assistance from the Israeli government. 

The new center will cost 4.5 million shekels ($1.23 million). The Ministry for Jerusalem Affairs will invest 3 million shekels and the Ministry of Culture and Sport will invest 1.5 million shekels.

The center will feature a presentation telling the story of the "Tamar Aliyah," the immigration of Yemenite Jews to Israel in 1881, and Yemenite Jewish settlement that existed in Silwan until the early twentieth century.

Regev said that she sees great importance in establishing the heritage center for Jews who immigrated to Israel back in the 19th century, and settled in the city based on a vision and devotion to the goal of building Jerusalem. "They returned to the land that they had left 2,000 years before, and established a strong and vibrant community under dreadful conditions, with the image of the Western Wall and the Temple Mount before their eyes and one prayer in their hearts: Jerusalem forever and ever," Regev stated.

There are two main centers of Jewish settlement in Silwan. The larger one, run by the Elad organization, is next to the City of David national park, near the Old City walls. The second, run by Ateret Cohanim, is in the heart of Silwan, amid a large Palestinian population. The Jewish families there enter and leave their own houses only under armed escort, in convoys of armored cars. Ateret Cohanim is a rightist nonprofit group that encourages Jews to move to predominantly Palestinian neighborhoods of East Jerusalem.

Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee attends Jewish heritage center launch ceremony in East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan, August 1, 2018.
Nir Hasson
Visitors to the Silwan synagogue where a new Jewish heritage center will open, August 1, 2018.
Nir Hasson

The area was first settled by Yemenite Jewish immigrants at the end of the 19th century and abandoned before the establishment of Israel, following violence in the British Mandate period, specifically the events of 1929 and the Arab Revolt of 1936. It is now a crowded Palestinian neighborhood.

Israel transferred several plots of land in Silwan to the pro-settler Ateret Cohanim association in 2002. About 700 Palestinians reside in the transferred plots of land, which also houses the old synagogue that Israel is now set to renovate.

In May 2015, after a protracted legal battle, the right-wing Ateret Cohanim association was allowed to evict the Abu Nab family who had resided in the abandoned Yemenite synagogue. Since the eviction of the Palestinian family, Ateret Cohanim has moved Jewish settlers into the building.

In June, the justices ruled that the state must explain its decision to transfer land in question to Ateret Cohanim. 

Last week the state prosecution asked the High Court of Justice to extend the deadline for it to answer a petition first submitted in December 2017 by more than 100 Silwan residents against the Custodian General of the Ministry of Justice in an attempt to prevent Ateret Cohanim from evicting them from their homes. The court gave the state until August 12 to answer the facts of the case, and it has until the start of September to submit a legal analysis.

By law, Jews who owned property in East Jerusalem before it was conquered by Jordan during the 1948 War of Independence can get it back from the Administrator General’s office, which inherited it from the Jordanian custodian of enemy property. In contrast, Palestinians who owned property in Israel before 1948 cannot reclaim it. This law has enabled Elad and Ateret Cohanim to gain control of many buildings in Silwan and other East Jerusalem neighborhoods.

The judges asked for clarifications about the status of the land under Ottoman law, since Ateret Cohanim is the trustee of the Moshe Benvenisti religious trust that bought the land in question in 1881, as attested by a deed of purchase signed by an Ottoman sharia court in 1899. The main issue in the petition concerns whether the original, Ottoman-era trust covered the administration of the land in question or the buildings erected on it, all but one of which was demolished in the 1940s.

Ateret Cohanim manages several buildings in this area, including Beit Yonatan, a multistory building where about 10 families live. In 2015, the association filed a lawsuit demanding the eviction of seven Palestinian families from the Rajabi extended family from a house in Silwan. 

The Rajabi building contains seven apartments that are home to some 40 people, including 28 children. The Rajabi family has lived there since 1966, and says it bought the building from the previous owner.

“We have a paper [saying] that we bought it, with Jordanian government stamps,” said Zuheir Rajabi, the family patriarch. “Let them return our house in Malha, and then we’ll talk,” he added, referring to a neighborhood in west Jerusalem. “I’ll leave here only when I’m dead.”