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In the spirit of coexistence, Jewish residents of Abu Tor, Jerusalem, hand out cake, sweets and good wishes to their Arab neighbors during the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr at the end of Ramadan, May 15, 2021 (Good Neighbors).
the Good Neighbors project. In the spirit of coexistence, Jewish residents of Abu Tor, Jerusalem, hand out cake, sweets and good wishes to their Arab neighbors for the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr at the end of Ramadan, May 15, 2021

As tensions rock the capital, a fight brews in Abu Tor over how to get along

Even before the latest flare-up of hostilities, community activists in the Jewish-Arab Jerusalem neighborhood were at odds regarding ways to bridge the Israeli-Palestinian divide

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter.

Main image by the Good Neighbors project. In the spirit of coexistence, Jewish residents of Abu Tor, Jerusalem, hand out cake, sweets and good wishes to their Arab neighbors for the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr at the end of Ramadan, May 15, 2021

Situated on the seam between East and West Jerusalem south of the Old City, on a hillside sloping toward the Kidron Valley, the quiet leafy neighborhood of Abu Tor is something of an anomaly in Jerusalem.

While most of the city’s neighborhoods are ethnically homogeneous, Abu Tor features a rare organic mix of Jewish and Arab residents. The neighborhood’s low-slung apartment buildings and aging Ottoman-style houses are mostly not themselves integrated, but many residents have sought to foster a form of coexistence with neighbors rarely found in the capital’s complicated tapestry of peoples and creeds.

As ethnic tensions have raged across the city and the country in recent weeks, deep-seated divisions in Abu Tor have bubbled up through the cracks of that fragile stasis. Yet even before the city’s seamline neighborhoods descended into the maw of rage-fueled vandalism and mob violence, a brewing battle over how to achieve coexistence in Abu Tor underlined the complexity of two peoples attempting to share a neighborhood in a city where thing are rarely simple.

Between 1948 and 1967, Abu Tor was divided: A few streets that were part of Israel were inhabited by Jews, and in a larger eastern section toward the bottom of the slope Palestinians lived under Jordanian rule.

The echoes of those decades-old divisions still reverberate in the neighborhood’s settlement patterns today, with the top of the hill remaining majority-Jewish and the bottom majority-Arab.

A section of no-man’s land that was filled with menacing barbed wire fencing from 1949 to 1967 is today Asael Street.

Asael Street in Abu Tor, Jerusalem, November 5, 2020. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

In “A Street Divided: Stories From Jerusalem’s Alley of God,” Wall Street Journal correspondent Dion Nissenbaum described the dead-end road as “the physical, political, cultural and psychological dividing line between Arabs and Jews” living in the city.

This depiction is particularly apt for Abu Tor as a whole, where political views and forces, agendas and cultural norms are as varied as the architectural styles, and where mistakes or misinterpreted gestures can offend and spark unpleasantness that takes everyone in this fragile neighborhood by surprise. (Full disclosure: This reporter has close personal links to the neighborhood.)

In many ways, Abu Tor is a mirror for what happens elsewhere in Israel and the Palestinian territories.

During the current round of hostilities — in which Israel and Hamas are at war in the Gaza Strip, Arabs and Jews are fighting one another in mixed Jewish-Arab cities and the West Bank is erupting in violence — Abu Tor has seen its share of fiery strife.

Cars have been vandalized and burned, a group of Arabs (one person reportedly wielding a taser) chased a medic with cries of “Allahu akbar” (God is great), and there was a threat of a mob attack on a Jew. There was an attempt to break into a synagogue. Two pipe bombs were hurled at residential buildings, both of which exploded upon impact. One caused serious damage to a building. Thankfully, nobody was hurt.

“In my building, the yard was set on fire on Friday and yesterday an explosive device landed,” a resident told The Times of Israel. “And that’s not to mention the disturbances of the peace and all the fireworks and stones thrown at the building, and the warnings shouted at me to stay away from home or else I’d be lynched.”

Torched cars in Abu Tor, May 16, 2021. (Courtesy, Jerusalem Fire and Rescue Service)

Fanning the flames have been extremist Jews, some, if not all, of whom came from outside of the neighborhood.

On May 10, Jerusalem Day, which brings busloads of flag-waving national religious Jews to the capital, yeshiva students from the Golan Heights entered Abu Tor and headed for the part of the neighborhood where most Arabs live, singing “Zion will be redeemed.”

Later that night, Jews described by residents as resembling “hilltop youth” — extremist settlers — clashed with Arabs. At least one of the Jews was reportedly armed.

“One shababnik threatened to shoot at an Arab guy and the police did nothing, other than kick out the Jewish guys. They suggested that the Arab submit a complaint,” a Jewish eyewitness wrote on a neighborhood WhatsApp group, using a slang term for young ultra-Orthodox delinquents.

On Wednesday, Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Lion announced the municipality would be increasing police patrols, improving lighting and installing more security cameras in several neighborhoods near the East-West seam line, after visiting Abu Tor and other areas.

While the neighborhood is widely known by a single name, Abu Tor (though the municipality officially recognizes Jewish Arab Tor as Givat Hanania), it is split along ethnic lines when it comes to the municipality’s network of local community councils. The Jewish side of the neighborhood is part of the Baka community council, which includes other nearby neighborhoods, while the Arab side is part of the Al-Thuri community council.

Illustrative: Abu Tor, a mixed Jewish and Arab neighborhood in central Jerusalem, south of the Old City, December 16 2009. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

Representatives of the two councils have maintained daily contact during the flare-up of hostilities in an effort to calm tensions and increase security, according to a local community organizer.

Also attempting to temper the ill-will, Jewish and Arab residents have maintained positive contacts as part of the Good Neighbors coexistence project, comforting each other and distributing cakes and candies on the street to celebrate the Muslim Holiday of Eid al-Fitr at the end of Ramadan.

Those parallel efforts are the outgrowth of a dispute between two strong-willed North American immigrants over the best way to achieve positive Jewish-Arab relations.

Good fences or good neighbors?

Seven years ago, David and Alisa Maeir-Epstein, who were included in Nissenbaum’s book, launched the Good Neighbors project under the auspices of the Baka community council.

Over the years, Good Neighbors has brought together hundreds of Jewish Israelis and Arab Palestinians, mainly but not exclusively from Abu Tor, through a raft of programs ranging from language instruction (local Israelis teach Hebrew and Palestinians teach Arabic), youth football teams, a community garden and cultural events. It has also created Abu Job, an economic development initiative, and Abu Tours, which promotes educational tourism.

Earlier this month, dozens of Jewish Israelis and Palestinian Arabs from the neighborhood project gathered to eat a traditional Iftar meal together, marking the end of that day’s Ramadan fast.

David Maeir-Epstein, a professional fundraiser originally from the US who found donors to finance Good Neighbors, represented Abu Tor on the Baka community council for nine years, retiring in the run-up to January’s council elections.

Until this year’s elections, Good Neighbors was warmly backed (although not funded) by the Baka council. The council allowed the project to use its administrative and accounting services and provided professional supervision for the project coordinator.

David Maeir-Epstein. (Courtesy)

But over the past year, restrictions related to the coronavirus health crisis have hampered Good Neighbors activities, and since January’s election, new members of the Baka council have questioned whether to continue supporting the group.

After a hearing with members of Good Neighbors, the council decided it would only continue support if granted stringent control over the project and its activities.

“The council is not in the business of sponsoring external programs,” said Jordan Herzberg, who replaced Maier-Epstein as Abu Tor’s representative on the Baka council. “Many programs start under the auspices of the council for one or two years and then either create their own not-for-profit or seek more permanent sponsorship elsewhere.”

Herzberg recently wrote to community members that he had heard opinions from both Jews and Arabs who think the project has not had much practical impact.

His main criticism, though, stems from the fact that its public approach to building community ties has wound up alienating Palestinians who might be ostracized by forces within their community who oppose any normalization with Israel, in his opinion.

That idea was driven home by an incident this week in which a well-intentioned interfaith effort ended up spawning more distrust.

On Saturday, David Maeir-Epstein and some 25 other neighborhood residents stood on a main road distributing cakes and sweets to Palestinians driving to their homes in the neighborhood.

The gesture was meant as a show of support for coexistence at a time when tensions in the city between Jewish Israelis and Palestinian Arabs had reached a boiling point over the pending eviction of several Palestinian families from their homes in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood and over police riot-control measures on the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif.

“We wanted to express that we are neighbors, not enemies, and that what is happening in other cities must not happen here,” Maier-Epstein explained.

“The reactions were extremely warm, emotional and respecting. One couple said sweets were nice but tell your government to stop bombing children and to allow us to pray peacefully at the Al-Aqsa Mosque (on the Temple Mount). But there were no threats of physical danger. The opposite was true,” he said.

As a courtesy, Maeir-Epstein sent photographs and a brief description to Abu Tor’s community police coordinator.

Somehow, the photographs reached the Israel Police spokesperson’s office and made their way, on May 15, to the police Facebook page, where they appeared as part of a post claiming, wrongly, that both the cake distribution and the entire Good Neighbors project were police initiatives.

The post, since removed, featured the faces of Palestinians involved with Good Neighbors, who have since been branded as collaborators on Palestinian social media, according to critics of the project.

“The last thing we need is to be accused of doing [Good Neighbors] not because we want peace but because the police have put us up to it,” Maier-Epstein said.

Herzberg, born in Montreal and raised in Miami, prefers a quieter approach, which he has fostered with Hani Gait, the professional director of the Al-Thuri council.

Jordan Herzberg, Abu Tor’s representative on the Community Council of Greater Baka. (Courtesy)

While Maeir-Epstein has recruited over 100 people for a neighborhood watch-type patrol, Herzberg says that he and Gait have been trying to get more police onto Naomi Street, Abu Tor’s main thoroughfare.

“Hani and I have lots of things planned to do together, away from the spotlight, quietly. We’ve committed to meet biweekly. At this time, we’re in touch every day.  He wants an equal relationship and he wants to improve his village. I have promised that I will never embarrass him with publicity,” said Herzberg, who told The Times of Israel he served as a unofficial intermediary for several Israeli prime ministers, taking part in hundreds of hours of back channel negotiations with neighboring Arab heads of state.

Gait is a former member of the Tanzim, an offshoot of the Palestinian Fatah movement, who spent two years in an Israeli jail before deciding that his talents would be better put to use serving his community in Abu Tor, where he grew up.

As director of the Al-Thuri council for the last two years, he has faced the daunting task of convincing residents that the municipality-backed body could actually serve their interests, pushing against skepticism relating to any collaboration with Israeli entities.

Mayor Moshe Lion, second from left, and Israeli soldiers of the Home Front Command Unit participate in a photo op showing them giving out food packages from a local NGO to needy Arab residents in Abu Tor on April 30, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Locals, said Gait, view coexistence activities as a red line they don’t want to cross, but that attitude could change if they see movement on bread-and-butter issues that matter to both sides, such as parking enforcement and infrastructure. If results on the ground are seen, then a willingness among residents to meet with one another might follow naturally, he said.

Good Neighbors “moved too fast with their coexistence activities,” he said, though he acknowledged that their intentions were good. “They didn’t always consult us about things. And they published everything on their Facebook page, even though I asked them many times not to. From there, things go around East Jerusalem very quickly. It’s a mistake to publicize things like this.”

Maeir-Epstein, who maintained that there had been very little publicity of the group’s activities outside of Good Neighbors’s own Facebook page, surmised that Gait had been pressured by the anti-normalization community, but said Good Neighbors still enjoyed wide support and would continue its organic coexistence efforts.

“It’s great that Jordan claims he has a good relationship with Hani Gait and I would hope he will use it to find ways to work together to defuse the situation and build relations,” he said. “In the meantime, we are working at the grassroots level, and throughout all the periods of violence all of our projects continued because it was clear to everyone in this area that we are neighbors and not enemies.”

Among those who have called on the Baka council to continue supporting Good Neighbors is Al-Thuri council chairman Jaleb Abu Nijmeh, who in 2018 won a city volunteerism award alongside Alisa Maeir-Epstein. Earlier this year, he was named a Distinguished Jerusalemite (Yakir Yerushalayim) for his years of community leadership in Arab Abu Tor, his services as a conciliator in disputes, and his work toward coexistence, including via Good Neighbors.

According to Maeir-Epstein, nearly 500 community members signed a petition calling on the Baka council to continue backing the group, including over 70 Palestinian residents of the area. While Good Neighbors can seek the umbrella of another not-for-profit organization, Epstein said that the Baka council provided the project with excellent services.

“There is no department of shared society at the Jerusalem Municipality, and of 34 ministers in the government of Israel, not one is responsible for promoting shared society,” he said. “So the not-for-profit sector and the grassroots have to say, ‘OK, let’s think globally, act locally,’  and that’s what we’re doing.”

Jewish residents of Abu Tor and nearby neighborhoods gather at the Yes Planet cinema in Abu Tor, Jerusalem to stand against violence and express solidarity, May 20, 2021. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

On Wednesday evening, around 100 Jewish residents from Abu Tor and nearby neighborhoods turned up to show mutual solidarity and stand against violence. The event was arranged spontaneously by a Jewish Abu Tor resident, Mishy Harman, who was disturbed by violence and vandalism that had taken place near his home. He had distributed flyers in Hebrew, Arabic and English.

David Maier-Epstein was there. Herzberg didn’t show.

There was an impressive turnout by the Jews, secular and religious, among them many immigrants from Europe and North America.

But Abu Tor’s Arabs stayed home.

After most people had left and the organizer was clearing up, a middle-aged Palestinian came panting up the hill, apologizing that he had been held up at work.

“I live over there,” he said, gesturing. “You are all welcome to come to my house.

“I grew up in Abu Tor. Arabs and Jews live together here and will continue to live together. May there be peace. Inshallah.”

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