'Even though he's a goy, we still call him a messiah'

At East Jerusalem enclave, some Jews happier with Trump than with Netanyahu

From their walled-off compound within Ras Al-Amoud, Ma’ale Hazeitim residents praise a decision ‘of biblical proportions’

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

The Jewish neighborhood of Ma'ale Hazeitim, at the heart of the Arab neighborhood of Ras al-Amoud, on the Mount of Olives, May 2011 (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)
The Jewish neighborhood of Ma'ale Hazeitim, at the heart of the Arab neighborhood of Ras al-Amoud, on the Mount of Olives, May 2011 (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

In recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, US President Donald Trump calculatedly avoided detailing how broadly he thinks the holy city’s Israeli borders should extend. But residents of a Jewish enclave in the municipality’s eastern half said Thursday they trust that the president kept them in mind while making his decision.

“He was being intentionally vague, and I’m totally fine with that,” said Ma’ale Hazeitim resident Mordechai Taub. “Recognizing the entire borders of the city [as Israeli] will be a process, but I’m sure it will happen at some point.”

Taub is one of roughly 500 residents in the religious neighborhood established adjacent to the Mount of Olives in 1997. Located southeast of the Old City, Ma’ale Hazeitim was constructed alongside the Arab neighborhood of Ras Al-Amoud, and has drawn protests from those opposing Israeli presence in East Jerusalem.

The Palestinians see East Jerusalem as the capital of their future state and fiercely oppose any changes that could be regarded as legitimizing Israel’s control over East Jerusalem, which it captured in the 1967 Six Day War. Israel annexed East Jerusalem and claims sovereignty in all of Jerusalem as its undivided eternal capital.

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While all seven Ma’ale Hezeitim residents who spoke with The Times of Israel on Thursday applauded Trump’s declaration, some tempered their praise. “I congratulate him on being the one who merited the opportunity to make the announcement, but I do not thank him for doing so,” insisted Eyal Yechezkel. “God is the one that decided that Jerusalem is ours. It is not something that starts or ends with him.”

At the same time, however, Yechezkel also compared Trump to Persia’s King Cyrus, who allowed the exiled Jews to return to Israel from Babylon and Persia and rebuild the second Temple. “Even though he was a goy (a gentile), he’s called a messiah. This is how we refer to those who join our fight and aid in of our redemption.”

Regarding Trump’s decision to sign a waiver, deferring the transfer of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem for an additional six months, Yechezkel called the move “unfortunate,” but also recognized that “he has other political considerations.”

“What was important was that he didn’t remain on the sidelines; he made a decision that has nothing less than biblical proportions,” said the Ma’ale Hazeitim resident, placing extra emphasis on the word “biblical.”

A resident of Ma’ale Hazeitim pulls into the parking garage of their apartment complex in East Jerusalem on December 8, 2017. (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel)

And four-year Ma’ale Hazeitim resident Josh Wander said Trump’s failure to immediately move the US embassy “was as much Israel’s fault as anyone else’s.”

Wander argued that Israel has mistakenly been allowing countries to house their embassies in Tel Aviv, while at the same time claiming that its capital city is Jerusalem. “Trump is standing up for Israel more than our own government is,” he said.

Arieh King went further, asserting that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat want to see the holy city divided. “Trump’s declaration shows that the supposed pressure [against a Jewish presence in East Jerusalem] does not exist.”

Arieh King, director and founder of the Israel Land Fund, attends an Interior Affairs committee meeting at the Knesset on November 2, 2014. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

King is a member of the Jerusalem city council and heads the Israel Land Fund, a far-right Jewish organization committed to buying up land in East Jerusalem.

He dismissed the notion that by not saying “undivided capital,” Trump had left open the possibility that parts of the city could become the capital of a future Palestinian state. “There is only one Jerusalem. There is no reason to say ‘undivided,'” King said. “The US clearly will not push for such an outcome, but it is unclear whether our own government will do the same.”

Jewish boys play before a dedication ceremony for the Jewish neighborhood of Ma’ale HaZeitim, inside the Arab-dominated area of Ras el Amoud in East Jerusalem, May 25, 2011. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Ma’aleh Hazeitim is one of the largest Jewish complexes established in an Arab neighborhood, comprising 110 units. It lies along an important geographic corridor providing access to the Old City and Temple Mount from Ras al-Amoud and Bethlehem to the south.

The land on which the Jewish enclave sits was purchased from the Ottoman government by Jewish philanthropists Nissan Bak and Moshe Wittenburg in the mid-19th century. Over the following century, it switched use and ownership but remained in Jewish hands until the 1948 War of Independence, when it was taken over by the Jordanians. Following the 1967 Six Day War, after Israel gained control of the area, it was transferred to the Israel Lands Administration, which in turn passed it on to the Jerusalem Municipality. It was eventually sold in 1984 to Irving Moskowitz, an American billionaire who financed the existing housing development.

“While everyone who moves to Ma’aleh Hazeitim believes in the Jewish right to live in all parts of Jerusalem, not all of us are here because of ideological reasons,” said one mother as she walked three of her kids to the kindergarten across the street from their apartment building — both complexes entirely walled off from the surrounding Ras Al-Amoud neighborhood.

“They really don’t belong here,” said 45-year-old Ras Al-Moud resident Walid Zatari, watching the Jewish neighbors. “Look at how they live. Completely walled off from everyone,” he added as the electronic gate to the kindergarten closed shut behind the Jewish mother and her kids.

US President Donald Trump visits the Western Wall, May 22, 2017, in Jerusalem. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

“We have to protect ourselves from the Arabs.” said the mother as she walked back toward the apartment building shortly afterward. “But eventually, when more of us are here, we won’t have to be as scared. I think Trump’s decision brings us closer to that reality,” she added, before nodding at two security guards who closed the gate shut behind her.

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