The City of David in Jerusalem is a success story. Every year more than 400,000 schoolchildren, soldiers, students, tourists and whole families flock, coupons in hand, to the place “where it all began.” It’s no accident that David Be’eri, who conceived of this tourism site where Jerusalem was born, has won an Israel Prize for life achievement.
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The website of the Ir David Foundation (also known as Elad) is an invitation to an exciting experience: gravity-defying leaps between historical eras and interactive tours, not to mention offers of attractive prices. One video on the site features actor Mati Seri wearing an Indiana Jones-style hat. He tells the story of the Meyuhas family in the village called Shiloah in Hebrew; that is, the City of David.
Seri stands beside an Arab house that flies the Israeli flag, testifying to the Jews’ return to the village. Seri exults in Rabbi Rahamim Natan Meyuhas, who bought a home in the area, moved there with his family and thus became “the first to return to the City of David in modern times.”
The presenter skips among times and spaces. By leaps and bounds he goes from the largely Arab Silwan neighborhood, where the City of David sits, back to the end of the 19th century, when Jews moved outside the Old City walls. Then it’s further back in time – to the days of King David. His narrative creates a continuum of Jewish time and space, from the biblical Jewish kingdom to the Israeli republic.
This is a thrilling story of rediscovery, returning home, pioneering and making the desert bloom. It’s also a journey in search of the lost past. The narrative is tightly constructed and polished in the style of an advertisement.
But despite the considerable effort to wipe them off the map and bury their past, it’s hard to ignore the people who live near the archaeological site and the homes of the Jewish newcomers with their guard towers.
Arabs have been living for hundreds of years in Silwan. The story of the City of David is the story of the eradication of Silwan. The popular tourism site conceals a violent project of taking over public and private space and robbing the inhabitants of their homes. Through no fault of their own, the Meyuhas family find themselves in this story.
Theological and mythical baggage
The Meyuhases moved just beyond the Old City walls in 1873. The move by a native-born Jew from the Old City to Silwan was perfectly natural at the time. Rabbi Meyuhas merely wanted to earn a living; he didn’t aim to change the space but rather to become a part of it, as is told in the biography of the family’s eldest son, Yosef Meyuhas. The narrative that the Elad nonprofit group is constructing piles theological and mythical baggage onto the family’s story that it packs into a smooth narrative.
Elad was created about 30 years ago by a small group of Jewish settlers, and over the years it has become a policy project of the first degree. Along with receiving generous support from the state, the Ir David Foundation also collaborates closely with the Jerusalem municipality, the Education Ministry, the Defense Ministry and the Israel Antiquities Authority. As a result, every year thousands of young people, educators, soldiers, high-tech employees, young Jews from abroad in the Taglit-Birthright program and tourists are channeled to “discovering the secrets of biblical Jerusalem.”
Many see this flourishing project as further evidence of the settler right’s takeover of Israel’s power centers and education system. Countless condemnations have been voiced in the political left and center since this month’s announcement that Be’eri, who founded and runs Elad, had won the Israel Prize for lifetime achievement. Opposition leader Isaac Herzog was among the few outside the right-wing coalition government who found the selection of Be’eri appropriate and congratulated him.
Still, the City of David’s tremendous success isn’t a story of the marginal right taking over the Zionist narrative. The City of David has never been a marginal story. It’s a faithful reflection of basic building blocks of the Zionist mainstream and the principle of basing the return of the Jews on revisiting the biblical story. This idea drew an imaginary line between Zionist nationalism and Jewish sovereignty in the Bible. The leap in time makes it possible to base the demand for Jewish ownership of the territory while wiping out the history of the land and its Arab inhabitants.
One of the first to point out the problems with this way of thinking was Yosef Meyhuhas, Rabbi Rahamim Natan’s son. He spent his childhood in Silwan, where he got to know the Arab-Palestinian tradition, which became an integral part of his own culture. For many years he helped translate the Palestinian Arabic tradition into Hebrew, in an attempt to forge a connection between the Jewish newcomers and the indigenous Arabs.
A Hebrew-Arabic space
In the introduction of his 1919 book on Palestinian peasant farmers he wrote: “One pervasive limitation inherent in us, the Jews from all walks of life, with respect to the land is that when we come to settle here we are trying to live our own life insofar as possible, without in the least considering the life of the people in it.”
As he put it, “Along with all the excellent qualities we developed during our time in the Diaspora, we also developed many qualities and customs on which the seal of the Diaspora is embossed and which are very, very far from our own independent Eastern Jewish virtues. It is these that we can restore and adopt for ourselves precisely by going deeply into the lives of the populace, the people who have always lived in the land and by precise study and inquiry into them and their essence.”
For many years Yosef Meyuhas, whom Elad has co-opted as a symbol, chided the Jews’ arrogance and alienation regarding the indigenous Arabs. Meyuhas was one of the most important translators and documenters of Palestinian Arab culture into Hebrew. He published scores of articles and books about the Palestinians and their way of life, customs and culture.
In his 1919 book he wrote: “The ways of these good neighbors, their qualities, way of life, conversations and stories have endeared me. They became a kind of girsa deyankuta [knowledge acquired as a child], and to this day I love them, as they always stir in me memories of the good days of my childhood.”
His most important work is the trilogy “Children of Arabia” (1927-1929), a compendium of translations of Bible stories from the local Arab oral tradition. Meyuhas proposed an unusual analysis of the relationship between the biblical text, the Arab inhabitants and the physical space of the land, and presented a political alternative to the doctrine that is still accepted in the Zionist narrative.
Instead of seeing the biblical text as a basis for the historical Jewish ownership of the land, he pointed out the shared Muslim-Jewish tradition of the biblical text. Relying on the traditions shaped over generations, Meyuhas questioned the exclusive Jewish ownership of the biblical text and, by extension, of the land.
About 75 years after his death, the only opportunity students have to learn about Meyuhas is an organized tour in the City of David. But they won’t hear about the shared Hebrew-Arabic space into which he was born and which he nurtured. When school groups stop in front of the Meyuhas home, with an Israeli flag flying from a window, they’ll be told about the place where the project of the return to the City of David and the dispossession of the Palestinians began.
Instead of protesting the prize to Be’eri, one should embark on a journey to reshape the Jews’ connection to the soil in a way that respects the history of the place and its inhabitants, thereby continuing the path of Yosef Meyuhas.
Yuval Evri is a sociologist and culture researcher at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies.