Jerusalem's Gypsies: The Community With the Lowest Social Standing in Israel

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Amoun Sleem, founder and driving force behind the Domari Center in Jerusalem.
Amoun Sleem, founder and driving force behind the Domari Center in Jerusalem.Credit: Eyal Toueg
Tali Heruti-Sover.
Tali Heruti-Sover
Tali Heruti-Sover.
Tali Heruti-Sover

The Lions Gate in Jerusalem’s Old City is a busy hub throughout the day. Large groups of tourists pass through it en route to the churches on the Via Dolorosa, while locals hurry home or to prayers at the Al-Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount. Israeli police officers and the Border Police stand watchfully on street corners here. Within the walls of the Muslim Quarter, close to the gate, is a tiny neighborhood called Bab al-Huta. Between the storefronts on the main street, narrow entrances lead to dark stairwells. Some of the house doors are brightly colored, others are old, some have decorations painted on the lintels. Groaning clotheslines stretch between the small, densely packed stone houses, and children of varying ages run free, unsupervised.

Bab al-Huta is a mixed neighborhood, and a stranger would struggle to guess its unique characteristic: that most of its residents are Domari (or Dom) Gypsies.

“Few people know that such a community even exists in Jerusalem,” says Dr. Nirit Shalev-Khalifa, curator and visual culture researcher at the Yad Izhak Ben-Zvi Institute, currently working on an exhibition devoted to Dom Gypsy life in Israel. “Almost nothing has been written about them, and almost no research has been done – except for the study by Ben-Zvi Institute Director Yaacov Yaniv. Although they have lived here for 500 years, very little is known about them. They don’t have it easy. They are regarded as the ‘untouchables’ of the Old City. No one wants to have anything to do with them.”

The 1,500 members of this mysterious community are at the bottom of Israel’s social and economic ladder. They are not isolationists. Wherever they settled, they tried to assimilate. They embraced the local religion (Islam in the Middle East; Christianity in Europe) and adopted the local norms, dress and language. The Dom Gypsies of Jerusalem speak Arabic and Hebrew. Today, it is hard to distinguish between Dom and Arab women. The Dom have packed away their colorful traditional clothing, and folded away their tents a century ago when they moved into permanent housing. Nevertheless, because they are a closed community and have been stigmatized as nomads, thieves and abductors, they are considered outcasts wherever they are. Because of their dark skin color, they are derogatorily dubbed “nawar” (“blacks” in Arabic).

In Jerusalem, as with the Roma in Europe, Dom Gypsies are the target of prejudice and xenophobia. Local children will not always play with Dom kids, and the local schools make no special effort to keep them from dropping out at a young age. Like all Palestinians living in East Jerusalem, the Dom Gypsies are residents but not Israeli citizens. They are entitled to social security allowances, but welfare and educational services are underdeveloped on this side of the city, let alone for a hidden community like the Dom.

An archive photograph of the Domari Gypsies. The community has been in Jerusalem since the 16th century.Credit: Courtesy of the Ecole Biblique, the French School of Biblical and Archeological Studies, Jerusalem

This creates a situation where the level of illiteracy among the Dom is very high, while the level of unemployment in the community is close to 70 percent.

None of this deters Amoun Sleem, a Dom Gypsy in her mid-thirties. She was born and grew up in the Old City, one of 10 children. Ten years ago, she established the Domari Center with the goals of strengthening the local Gypsy community and providing a showcase for the outside world.

“We originally came from India, that’s why we’re dark-skinned,” she explains. “We were a nomadic people that split into two groups, one called Roma that settled in Europe, and the other that migrated to the Middle East and are called Dom. This wasn’t a culture that wrote down its history. It was all oral, and here in the Middle East we spoke Domari.”

There are Gypsies scattered throughout the world. Locally, there are some 12,000 Dom Gypsies in the Gaza Strip, about 3,000 in the West Bank and a few thousand in Jordan. “The Jerusalem community has been here since the 16th century,” says Sleem. “It’s a small community that once lived in tents, in abject poverty, and was resettled inside the Old City during the [British] Mandate period. And we have been there to this day.”

The Domari Gypsy community has about 1,500 members, and is the poorest in Israel.Credit: Eyal Toueg

Sleem characterizes Dom Gypsy life as “not easy, because we are always ostracized. Nobody cares.” The community, she says, is weak. “We suffer from unemployment and anybody with a job is usually a cleaner. The children come from weak families and drop out of the local elementary school, which has no interest in helping Gypsies. Since the government and the welfare and education authorities are indifferent, no one follows up on the children who have dropped out of school so early. The municipality ignores us. The National Insurance Institute does pay allowances, and the families are dependent on them – but it doesn’t guarantee a good future. There’s no work in the Old City, and no one has the training that would allow them to find work and break out of the poverty cycle.”

So why have the Dom Gypsies remained in the Old City with unfriendly neighbors, an uncaring education system and dearth of job opportunities? “My family has been here for 100 years,” says Sleem. “I was born and grew up here. Why should I leave? This is my home.”

The female breadwinner

According to Sleem, the solution to this difficult situation is not easy, but it is possible. If the government won’t offer training, Sleem herself will train men and women, so they will be able to find better work and support their families. Women and men – really? Well, not quite. In a community as conservative as theirs, in which people only marry within the community, Sleem thinks it will be the women that actually provide economic relief.

“We need to empower the women because they’re the ones that will provide an income,” she says. “The women can strengthen the family’s economic situation through work that everybody knows but has been forgotten, like sewing and embroidery. And we have to invest in the children – they are our future – so that they can escape the cycle of poverty and ostracism through a different education, get a higher education, and earn a good living that way.”

Domari Gypsies attending a cooking workshop led by an Arab chef at the Domari Center, East Jerusalem.Credit: Eyal Toueg

Sleem has the deeds to match the talk. The Domari Center she founded a decade ago as a nonprofit is a hive of activity. Women visit it to sew and embroider various items, from pillow cases to scarves. The center offers courses in hairdressing and modern cooking. “They know traditional Gypsy cooking,” she says, “but they have to learn to prepare other foods so they’ll be able to work as cooks outside the home. At the same time, we offer a catering service of Gypsy food for events.”

What is Gypsy cooking? What ingredients does it use?

Sleem: “Meat and vegetables, with seasoning that’s unfamiliar to Israelis.”

Indian spices?

“Different. Gypsy.”

The community’s children come to the center after school finishes – to eat, do homework and get extra lessons in math and English. “We encourage them to study and not drop out of school,” says Sleem. “It’s important for them to finish high school and go on to higher education. It’s a pity that no one has thought of giving one or two scholarships for Dom Gypsies – to the Hebrew University, for example. A Gypsy family will find it extremely difficult to pay university tuition fees, and we will see again how talented young people end up unemployed or working as cleaners.”

The center is not located within the walls of the Old City, but rather in Shoafat – a 10-minute ride north of the Old City. “The reason is partly because it makes it more accessible for Dom Gypsies from the West Bank,” notes Sleem, “but mostly it’s to get the Jerusalem Gypsies out of the Old City, to have them experience a different place, uncrowded, and without the filth and the poverty. When the children and adults get to know a different reality, they can aspire to it, dream different dreams.”

Making a difference?

Is Sleem’s activity making a difference? The children are indeed coming to the center, but time will tell if they make it to university. She is keeping the nonprofit afloat financially, mostly through overseas donations and partly from local resources. The day we visited the center, there was a cooking workshop in progress with a well-known Arab chef. We couldn’t photograph the women’s faces, though, because some of their husbands didn’t even know they were here – and if they did know, they would have stopped them coming.

A woman takes notes during the cookery workshop at the Domari Center in Jerusalem. Despite the conservtive culture, women could become the community's breadwinners.Credit: Eyal Toueg

Sleem is the exception that proves the rule. Not only is she a woman in a conservative community that doesn’t take kindly to strong women. She is also educated, speaks English, and travels to Europe and the United States to find private donors to help the Dom Gypsy community. She was also the first woman in the community to learn how to drive.

Because she was a leader with a different way of thinking, and who intended to change the current reality, she has made enemies within the community itself. “There are many people who oppose her because she works in an impossible situation,” says Shalev-Khalifa. “She considers economics, survival. She empowers weak women. She thinks about the next generation. It’s obvious that many strong men won’t like this.”

All of this exacts a heavy personal price on Sleem. She is single, an unusual situation for a woman her age in the Dom Gypsy community. She lives with her extended family in Bab al-Huta. “I keep going,” she says, “because I feel that no other woman in the world does what I do. Right now, I choose to live for others, whatever the cost.”

Where does your worldview come from, and the strength to struggle with the conservative forces in your community?

“My late father was my hero. He always supported me. As a girl, I wanted to study. I started working as a cleaner at a young age, and then as a cook in a guest house in the Old City. But I insisted on finishing high school and then went on to study tourism and hospitality. I refused to remain in the existing cycle: Get married at 16, have children, and not studying or working outside the home.

Domari Gypsy women crowd together during the cookery workshop at the Domari Center.Credit: Eyal Toueg

“I always asked myself, and I still do, ‘What’s wrong with being a Gypsy?’ Why should a child be born into a situation where he or she does not feel equal to other people, or feel small in his surroundings? From a young age I understood that we didn’t get the same rights that others got as a matter of course. I have a goal: [for us] to be recognized, to be seen in a better light. I am proud of my culture and I hate discrimination. After all, God created us all as human beings.”

This is a hard war on several fronts.

“Yes, but we will succeed. We have friends abroad who want to help the Gypsy community. There are communities that have connections with each other and, mainly, most of us want to help ourselves.”

Sleem’s personal dream is unrelated to the center: “One day, I will hand over the center to the community’s young generation and I’ll go to the United States to learn cooking. I love to cook and to host people. I want to be a chef and open a Gypsy restaurant. If someone wants to open a Gypsy restaurant in Tel Aviv, I’m ready right now!”

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