Jerusalem Divorced Family's Home as Inspiration for Israeli-Palestinian Peace

When our marriage ended, after 34 years, the expectation was that we would divide the property and go our separate ways. It didn’t quite happen that way.

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A house in the Greek Colony in Jerusalem (illustrative).
A house in the Greek Colony in Jerusalem (illustrative).Credit: Eyal Toueg

This house goes on sale ev’ry Wednesday morning
And taken off the market in the afternoon
You can buy a piece of it, if you want to
It’s been good to me if it’s been good to you
– Noel Paul Stookey

There are as many versions of this story as there are old houses and voices to lament the losses they have witnessed. Somehow, the wood, the glass, the concrete, remember. One talmudic sage was prescient enough, or pained enough, to say that when a couple divorces, “even the altar in the Temple cries.” Many reading this know how a once-priceless bond can acquire a price tag, while tears harden into ballistic weapons. The fight proceeds over the house and every item in it (remember the $8 blue plate in “When Harry Met Sally”?) – until, when everyone is exhausted, the property is split (never equally or to mutual satisfaction), then sold, and all the parties go their their separate ways, nursing their grievance and rage for as long as it takes to move on.

When our own marriage ended, after 34 years, the expectation was, indeed, that we would divide the property. It didn’t quite happen that way. But I tell the tale not as personal confession, not as self-justification, nor (more perversely) as self-mortification: There is no need to expose stories that are the private property of persons who are alive and precious and vulnerable. I am telling it because, 18 years after our home was broken, I can humbly point to a scarred yet reconstituted house that serves its present occupants, a manifest demonstration of what peaceful coexistence really means. Like the haroset consumed at the seder to symbolize the material used by the Hebrew slaves to build the storehouses and pyramids for Egypt, the mortar that has re-cemented our broken home is sweet, with just a hint of acid after-taste.

We certainly didn’t anticipate such results when, after years of negotiating over the property, we divided it into two duplexes. My ex-husband and his new wife settled in the lower floors; my second husband and I moved into the upper floors. We had, in effect, arrived at a Solomonic solution that no one was really happy with, and that seemed absurd to some of our friends and family, and crazy to others. Our children dubbed the house the “Mukataa,” after the beleaguered compound in Ramallah where rival Palestinian leaders found uneasy unity.

It is now more than 10 years later. In the formerly disputed territory that is our little compound, the grandkids – like the angels on Jacob’s ladder – go up and down the stairs, laughing, between “Saba’s” place downstairs and “Poppy’s” upstairs. They don’t know anything else, so for them this is simply the norm. All those who were appalled at the idea of such an upstairs/downstairs arrangement a decade ago stand sheepishly in awe. Even if we didn’t plan it that way, we seem to have pulled off the most pedestrian, reasonable and compassionate miracle that life offers. We launched a peace process that does not end.

Graffiti outside Yaakov Malkin's home. Credit: Courtesy

And just when it appeared that This Old House had settled into its genial routine, something happened to drive home just how endless all such processes are. Last month, an anonymous attack by extremist Jews threatened the life of 89-year-old Yaakov Malkin, our downstairs neighbor. It was Yaakov and his wife Felice with whom we had bought and built our home in the 1980s.

But there are yet other layers to the story of this house that are unique to the neighborhood, the city and the country in which we live. The attackers did not know this, but the provenance of the house before it became ours is itself enmeshed in the politics of appropriation and bureaucratic obfuscation. Suffice it to say that the family from whom we purchased the building were “key money” immigrants from Turkey, who had come to Jerusalem in the late 1940s or early ‘50s, displaced and impoverished.

In the faded records I was able to obtain from the Israel Land Registry Office, there is, in the space designated for “buyer” and “seller,” only “nikhsei nifkadim,” or “absentee property” – a controversial term reserved for the real estate of those, mostly Arabs, who had fled their homes during the war of 1948 and found refuge in countries still at war with the newly formed state. This legal fiction made such properties available for transfer to whomever the state deemed worthy. Those Jewish immigrants, in turn, who had been forced to abandon homes in their own countries of origin – Holocaust survivors, refugees from Arab countries – became the anonymous beneficiaries of complex procedures for provisional and then outright ownership. There is no mention in the official records of the name of the family who were the caretakers and then owners of the property until we bought it some 30 years later.

The intricacies of that transaction, along with the sagas of our family and of the others who live in This Old House also include internecine squabbles and divorces that will remain sequestered in private archives or consigned to the leveling powers of oblivion. I shall not dwell on Savta’s Napoleonic gold coins that helped to finance the original purchase, the smarmy lawyer who stole property under the guise of saving the project, and the endless hours put in by my father who took over from the incompetent contractor. Such is a family’s inheritance.

For nearly 30 years, I have been walking a dog around this neighborhood in Jerusalem. It is not the same dog, needless to say; in fact, there have been three dogs that I have followed around with plastic bags over the years. Many changes have taken place in the Greek Colony, a cluster of residential buildings that surround the imposing Greek Orthodox community center. The larger story of gradual gentrification in the 1980s and ‘90s of what had become a poor immigrant neighborhood is not only our story; it is a matter of public record. And, of course, the private dramas continue from generation to generation, heedless of social or economic standing.

During the three decades of my canine peregrinations, there have been at least three divorces that I know of in this neighborhood; many births, illnesses and a few deaths. Every evening the lights shining from kitchens and living rooms illuminate the laughter, and in summer the open windows amplify angry shouts or stifled sobs.

Who built and who owned the one-story house constructed of Jerusalem stone chiseled in the old style?

But the careful reader has already perceived yet another layer of history that the walls could tell if they had mouths as well as ears. What is the original provenance of our building? Who built and who owned the one-story house constructed of Jerusalem stone chiseled in the old style? We know that most of the Greek Colony was populated largely by Greek Orthodox who had moved here in the early 1900s to avoid the overcrowded conditions in the Old City. We also know that most of them fled when hostilities broke out in 1948.

The official municipal records include three barely legible names of people who are listed as having purchased the plot in 1941, which suggests that they lived here for only seven years before the house rather magically became “absentee property.” One can assume that it was one of them who built the original structure and planted the lemon tree that gave us all the lemons we needed – along with our own misfortunes – to make lemonade. That tree, which stood beside the grave of the first dog to circumnavigate the neighborhood, is no longer. And, like those stubborn roots that were finally subdued, the more detailed records of historical claims remain buried in murky documents – though there is enough evidence to construct a multi-layered saga of construction and planting, of war and displacement, of laughter and tears.

A good fence

This story, duplicated in so many houses in this neighborhood alone, remains open-ended as long as what was once called the “Arab-Israeli conflict” and is now called the “Palestinian-Israeli conflict” is unresolved. Some of the liberal voices in the Israeli public conversation, such as that of Amos Oz, famously call for a “divorce” between Jews and Arabs. On March 7 last year, Oz wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “My premise is simple and straightforward: We are not alone on this land. To my Palestinian friends I say the same: You are not alone here either. This little house of ours must be partitioned to two smaller apartments. And let there be a good fence between them, contributing to good neighborliness.

“Once divorced, let us experience coexistence and leave notions of possible cohabitation to future generations. Ours is not a Hollywood western of good vs. evil. It is a real life tragedy of two just causes. We can continue to clash, inflicting further pain. Or we can be reconciled via separation and compromise.”

But what kind of divorce does Oz advocate? How would a “good fence” work? That depends on how many gates there are in the fence and how much good will on either side. Such fences can easily become impermeable, unscalable. The pledge by Bibi Netanyahu and some of his coalition partners to build fences to keep out the “wild beasts” suggests just such a hermetic separation: That is, in their “best case,” non-violent, scenario, all Arabs, including the Arab citizens of Israel (who make up at least 20 percent of this country) would “simply” move to a theoretical Palestinian state. The boundaries would be “adjusted” so that Palestine would accommodate places like Umm al-Fahm, and Jewish settlement blocs like Gush Etzion and Ariel would be incorporated into the State of Israel.

All too often, that is the kind of “divorce” embattled people envision for themselves or their communities. Our experience is that this rarely works, certainly not for couples who have children – and grandchildren – in common, but also not for communities as imbricated in each other’s cultural and economic lives as are the Israelis and the Palestinians.

Tucked safely within the so-called Green Line, I console myself that the ownership of my particular house, with its private dramas more or less resolved, is not at stake, though my inquiries have shaken my own sense of probity. I am a bit more tentative now in arguing that restitution would require no more than a symbolic acknowledgment that the “population exchanges” that took place in the 1940s – culminating in 1948-50 – created reciprocal hardships signified in rusted keys and rusting memories; that the Greek one-story home that became our four-story house would no more be returned to the descendants of the original owners in a projected resolution than my mother’s family home in Ostrowiec, Poland, would revert to her descendants.

But if the wars and expulsions of 1948 produced armistice lines that were meant to lead to permanent borders, with whatever acts of reconciliation and restitution might have been possible, the aftermath of the 1967 war has erased even the pretense of boundaries. Every time another Arab house is occupied by Jewish fanatics in Silwan or Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem, every time another outpost is created or settlement expanded in the West Bank, another brick is removed from the condominium that might have provided safety, shelter and dignity for us all, and another gate is closed in that imaginary fence.

Yaakov Malkin.Credit: Emil Salman

Habayit Hayehudi – “The Jewish House” as political party and political metaphor – has no windows or stairs in its present configuration. All the blueprints for divided or shared territory have been shelved. But those plans really were beautiful, reconceptualizing our disputed property to include separate spaces for self-actualization and privacy, shared sovereignty in areas where it is necessary and possible – and a viable border that people and goods can easily cross. Although the only viable blueprint is our reconstituted “Mukataa,” not a fortress – a “neighborhood” that is not a garrison, it is hard to imagine how the “future generations” that Oz projects will repair the damage that only increases every day; how our grandchildren, who now delight in taking their first steps up and down the staircase between Saba and Poppy’s homes will live, or for that matter, how the great-grandchildren of the original Greek owners will find peace.

As I emerged from the staircase with Dog No. 3 in the early morning of January 21, I was greeted by the graffiti that had been scrawled under the cover of darkness on the fence of our building and on the building across the road. A Star of David had been drawn on the Malkins' door, and a letter affixed to their doorpost was held in place by a dagger. Yaakov, whose Bundist roots go back to Warsaw, where he was born and spent his early childhood, is professor emeritus of film at Tel Aviv University and the founder and director of Tmura – the International Institute for Humanistic Secular Judaism. His daughter, Rabbi Sivan Malkin Maas, dean of Tmura, lives on the second floor of the building with her family. Their passion for the Bible is matched only by their proud atheism and faith in secular Judaism.

The letter, threatening human and divine punishment if Malkin doesn’t mend his ways, was accompanied on the walls by biblical verses; in addition, letters had been placed in neighbors’ mailboxes warning them that a dangerous force was in their midst.

Cadets from the 'Mekhina Hayerushalmit' (the Jerusalem Pre-Military Leadership Program) hold up a sign that reads 'Your Judaism is My Judaism.'Credit: Courtesy of Sivan Maas

And then, four weeks later, magically, it seemed, another group of Israelis appeared in broad daylight at Yaakov Malkin’s doorstep: On February 23, some 20 cadets from the “Mekhina Hayerushalmit” (the Jerusalem Pre-Military Leadership Program) brought hope in smiling young faces and a sign that read “Your Judaism is My Judaism.”

And so it goes. The verses of the Bible and biblically-inflected pledges are like the stones of the house, recruited to serve the purposes of its users. It is curious, though, that those scripture-spouting zealots who claimed to speak in God’s name last month couldn’t even get their verses right: Citing the merciful God’s act of sending manna to the petulant Children of Israel (Exodus 16: 14-15), rather than what they thought they were citing – the vengeful God’s threat to “blot out Amalek” (Ex. 17:14-15) – they inadvertently painted the two faces of Jerusalem, our embattled home. Because, as Yaakov Malkin would say, we do, after all, create God in our own image.

Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi is professor emerita of comparative literature at the Hebrew University, and a Guggenheim Fellow.

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