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Multiple battlegrounds in fights over eastern Jerusalem

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Israelis and Palestinians protest the eviction of Palestinian families from a pair of Jewish-owned buildings in the eastern Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheik Jarrah on March 26. David Vaaknin/Flash 90/JTA

JERUSALEM – The day that Zacharia Zigelman, 26, moved into a home in the Arab neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, in eastern Jerusalem, he got beaten up, he says.

“You get used to it,” Zigelman said of the incident, which occurred about six months ago.

Zigelman, his wife, and 5-month-old son are one of seven Jewish families living in two buildings from which members of an extended Palestinian family were evicted last summer after Israel’s Supreme Court determined that the property was owned by a Jewish group called Nachalat Shimon. Several members of the al-Kurd family continue to live in a wing of one of the homes, which has only added to the tension.

The home is one of several in the neighborhood that Jews and Arabs are fighting over.

So far, three Palestinian families have been evicted from their homes there, and Israel’s Supreme Court has ruled that four other Arab families must vacate their homes. Six other cases are under deliberation, and two additional claims were filed last week by Nachalat Shimon, which purchased title to the 4.5-acre property from its original Jewish owners several years ago.

Protesters have staged frequent demonstrations in front of the homes now occupied by the Jews. At times, violent riots have erupted, leading to the arrests of Palestinian and left-wing demonstrators. The new Jewish residents and counter-demonstrators have also been accused of incitement; in one case, Jewish teenagers tore down a courtyard fence erected by the al-Kurds.

The dispute in Sheik Jarrah is one of many pitting Arab against Jew in the battle over eastern Jerusalem. Increasingly, this battle is the subject of international scrutiny and — when it comes to Jews moving into eastern Jerusalem — widespread condemnation.

In Israel, it is the projects to settle Jews in predominantly Arab neighborhoods like Sheik Jarrah that have proven most contentious. Overseas, any effort to house Jews across the Green Line — the line that divided Israel from Jordan between 1948 and 1967 — has proven controversial lately.

Tensions between the Obama administration and Israel reached an all-time high last month following an announcement during a visit to Israel by Vice President Joe Biden that Israel planned to build 1,600 new housing units in the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Ramat Shlomo.

Home to approximately 18,000 residents, Ramat Shlomo is one of many Jerusalem neighborhoods that today are fully Jewish but were built on vacant land Israel captured in the 1967 war and annexed in 1980. Most Israelis believe in Israel’s right to build on this land without restriction, considering it distinct from Jewish settlements in the west bank, which Israel never annexed. But U.S. officials and others around the world do not recognize that distinction, calling Jewish neighborhoods built in the 27 square miles of eastern Jerusalem — including Gilo, East Talpiyot, Pisgat Ze’ev, and Ramot, where Ramat Shlomo is — settlements. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not include the neighborhoods of eastern Jerusalem in the 10-month settlement construction freeze he began last November.

Perhaps the most controversial method by which Jews have moved into eastern Jerusalem has been through the use of the 1950 Absentee Property Law, which allowed Israel to seize the property of Arabs who fled Palestine to enemy countries during Israel’s War of Independence and did not return by Sept. 1, 1948. After Israel captured eastern Jerusalem from Jordan in 1967, this law was also applied to Palestinian property there — meaning that properties in the area owned by Arab families living elsewhere could be subject to seizure without compensation.

Meanwhile, the Absentee Property Law bars Palestinians from making claims on their former dwellings inside Israel. Arab rights groups say the law is discriminatory.

Application of the law in eastern Jerusalem “opens a Pandora’s box of the Palestinian and Israeli property issue,” says Tali Nir, an attorney for the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI). “This is a huge violation of their basic rights for shelter and dignity, and of their property rights.”

Since annexing eastern Jerusalem, the Israeli government has expropriated more than 6,000 acres of property privately owned by Arabs — more than a third of eastern Jerusalem, according to ACRI.

According to Ir Amim, an Israeli group that advocates for Palestinian rights in Jerusalem, the Absentee Law also has been used to expropriate sizable parts of the Arab neighborhood of Silwan, which were then given over for construction of the City of David, a Jewish archeological site and visitors’ center. Located downhill from the Old City, some 2,600 Palestinian families and about 70 Jewish families live in the 30-acre area.

The dispute over the homes in Sheik Jarrah, where Palestinian families are being evicted for non-payment of rent to the properties’ Jewish owners, has proven no less contentious.

The homes under dispute sit on a 4.5-acre parcel owned by Jews during the Ottoman era that came under Jordanian rule when eastern Jerusalem fell to Transjordan during the 1948 war. Between 1948 and 1967, 28 Palestinian refugee families that fled Israel during the 1948 war were settled on the property in exchange for paying a symbolic rental fee and ceding their refugee status.

In the early 1980s, years after the area was captured by Israel in the 1967 war, two Jewish organizations came forward with Ottoman-era documents showing the property belonged to them. Israeli courts upheld the authenticity of the documents, which Arab groups maintain are forgeries. In 1982, an attorney for the Palestinian families living on the property inked a deal with the Jewish owners under which the Palestinian families would remain protected tenants as long as they continued to pay rent.

But most of the families refused to pay the rent, in part because it would recognize the Jewish groups as the rightful owners of the property and because the families believed the United Nations had promised the land would be registered in their names after a certain number of years, according to Orly Noy, spokeswoman for Ir Amim.

Then, more recently, a group of investors formed Nachalat Shimon to develop the property for Jewish housing. The group purchased the property from the two original Jewish groups that owned it and, eventually, began eviction proceedings against the Palestinian tenants who failed to pay their rent. No action has been taken against those who continue to pay their rent.

Chaim Silberstein, who helped bring together the Nachalat Shimon investors, said the case is one of Palestinian families “living illegally on property that does not belong to them.” Before eviction proceedings began, he said, Nachalat Shimon offered all of the Palestinian families currently facing eviction compensation to leave voluntarily.

Nachalat Shimon reportedly plans to raze the existing buildings and create a 200-apartment enclave for Jewish families in the Arab neighborhood.

It’s not the only property in Sheik Jarrah owned by Jews. American Jewish businessman Irving Moskowitz purchased the Shepherd’s Hotel area with the intention of turning it into about 20 apartments for Jewish families. That plan has been approved by Jerusalem municipality housing and planning committees.

Stephan Miller, spokesman for Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, told JTA that City Hall does not get involved in issues of ownership. These disputes, he said, “are addressed in the courts of law, not by politicians.”

JTA

 
 

Puffin Preserving culture, one artist at a time

Tackling Jewish issues through art

While the Puffin Cultural Forum — under the direction of Marc Lambert — prides itself on creating programming for every segment of the local community, Jewish-themed subjects form a substantial part of its offerings.

From annual exhibits highlighting efforts to bring about peace between Jews and Arabs to shows and concerts by and in memory of Holocaust survivors, the Jewish experience is well represented.

Jewish concerns appear in a variety of contexts. For example, reflecting the Rosensteins’ particular interest in progressive causes in New York City, the center last year featured a show based on the story of Dr. Adele Sicular, a Russian immigrant branded by the FBI as a suspected subversive for her membership in the Citizens’ Committee for the Upper West Side and progressive stances on racial integration and socialized health care.

The multimedia presentation, “J. Edgar Klezmer: Songs from My Grandmother’s FBI Files,” was written by Sicular’s granddaughter, Eve. Drummer/bandleader for the musical groups Metropolitan Klezmer and Isle of Klezbos, Eve Sicular is a former curator of the film and photography archives at the YIVO Institute.

The Puffin’s passion for international music also has Jewish ramifications, since, as Miller-Rosenstein pointed out, Jews can be found among the musicians of many countries — Russia, for example, and, of course, Israel. In September, the center featured Israeli musicians exploring the musical tradition of Eastern European Jews. Among other genres, they highlighted Yiddish folk songs and music from the ghetto.

Puffin Holocaust programming has been both plentiful and varied, focusing not only on the past and present experience of survivors but on the struggle of their children and grandchildren to come to terms with their family history.

Spurred in part by Rosenstein’s personal friendship with fellow Teaneck resident Carl Hausman, this past year the Puffin launched a major program on the subject of hidden children.

Interviewed by The Jewish Standard, Hausman, author of “Rescued: The Story of A Child Survivor of the Holocaust in France,” noted that long before the printed version of his book became a reality, he approached Rosenstein for help.

“I said, ‘Do you think there is something here that you can help me put together?’” Hausman recalled. Subsequently, Rosenstein put Hausman in touch with writer/translator Ross Benjamin, and the two worked together to produce the book.

In addition to sponsoring a panel discussion featuring Hausman and other local survivors, the Puffin Foundation presented the world premiere of “Hidden Children: Memoirs of Child Survivors of the Holocaust,” based on the personal stories of these individuals.

Miller-Rosenstein said the foundation is also committed to keeping alive the memory of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.

“This is a time and situation that shouldn’t be forgotten,” she said, discussing a 2007 exhibit called “The Righteous: Resistance during the Holocaust.” “We want to keep that flame of resistance alive.”

She pointed out that the Puffin Cultural Forum began to look more closely at this subject about a decade ago, working with the group One By One, which hosts a dialogue between children of survivors and children of perpetrators.

Puffin has also used grants to help further Holocaust education. For example, the center gave money to Ars Choralis, which last year performed “Music in Desperate Times: Remembering the Women’s Orchestra of Birkenau.”

In an interesting twist, Jewish religious life has benefitted — indirectly — from the Puffin’s commitment to restore the Teaneck Creek area.

Several years ago, Dr. Beth Ravit — a member of Cong. Adas Emuno in Leonia and executive director of the Rutgers University Environmental Research Clinic — devised a plan to benefit local Jewish institutions while simultaneously enhancing the 46-acre patch of urban wetlands.

Combining her expertise in wetlands restoration with her belief that “part of Jewish tradition is stewardship of the earth, and we have a responsibility to make the earth a better place,” Ravit, who is also a member of the Teaneck Creek Conservancy’s ecological art committee, invited regional Jewish institutions to harvest invasive reeds on Conservancy property, with the purpose of using the reeds to decorate their sukkahs.

The response was “amazing,” she said, and groups have continued to come each year.

According to the Rosensteins, some synagogues send volunteers to the nature sanctuary on a regular basis, and high school students have also come to help out. Volunteers have also come as part of Mitzvah Day, coordinated by the UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey.

Fostering peaceful relations through the medium of art is a Puffin priority.

Each year, photographer Rachel Banai — whose work has appeared in this newspaper and who has taught a weekend photography class at Puffin for about seven years — helps curate a cross-cultural photo exhibit displaying the work of Arab and Israeli students participating in the “Through the Others’ Eyes” project.

As part of this venture, students are assigned to visit and photograph each other’s homes and communities.

“It’s getting to peace through kids, not guns,” said Banai, pointing out that some of the participants have formed lasting friendships.

The students take part in a summer program at Camp Shomria, in upstate New York, supported in part by the Puffin Foundation. Banai has been the camp’s art director for more than 10 years.

For more information about the Puffin Foundation, visit www.puffinfoundation.org.

 
 
 
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