Jewish Yemeni heritage center launched in heart of Arab East Jerusalem
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Mayoral candidate Elkin: 'We're creating historical justice'

Jewish Yemeni heritage center launched in heart of Arab East Jerusalem

Former US governor Mike Huckabee joins ministers at cornerstone ceremony for $3 million project in former Silwan synagogue

From left: Environment and Jerusalem Affairs Minister Ze'ev Elkin, Culture Minister Miri Regev, Ateret Cohanim Chairman Matti Dan, Likud MK Nurit Koren and Jeruslam mayoral candidate Moshe Leon sign the visitors' book at the  former Yemenite synagogue acquired by the right-wing Ateret Cohanim organization in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan, August 1, 2018. (Sue Surkes)
From left: Environment and Jerusalem Affairs Minister Ze'ev Elkin, Culture Minister Miri Regev, Ateret Cohanim Chairman Matti Dan, Likud MK Nurit Koren and Jeruslam mayoral candidate Moshe Leon sign the visitors' book at the former Yemenite synagogue acquired by the right-wing Ateret Cohanim organization in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan, August 1, 2018. (Sue Surkes)

Two cabinet ministers, two candidates for Jerusalem mayor, the Sephardi chief rabbi of the city and a right-wing US former governor on Wednesday celebrated at a cornerstone ceremony for a heritage center in a former Yemenite synagogue, in overwhelmingly Palestinian Silwan, near the Temple Mount.

Also on hand was a representative of the Moskowitz family, which supports Jewish settlement in Palestinian neighborhoods of the capital.

The building — once the synagogue of Kfar Hashiloah, a village built for poor Yemenite immigrants in the early 1880s and evacuated during Arab riots in the early 20th century — was acquired in 2015 by the right-wing Ateret Cohanim organization, which settles Jews in East Jerusalem.

That was after a long legal battle that culminated in 2015 with a court ordering the Palestinian Abu Nab family living there to leave.

One member of the family still has an apartment in the complex, but the access to it is in the hands of Ateret Cohanim — an issue that is still being contested in the courts.

The Israeli flag flies atop a building which was once a Yemenite synagogue in the mainly Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan, East Jerusalem. The government is helping to fund the right-wing owners of the building, Ateret Cohanim, to turn into a Yemenite immigration heritage center. (Sue Surkes)

The Culture Ministry is to provide NIS 3 million ($816,000) and the Jerusalem Affairs Ministry NIS 1.5 million ($408,000) toward a $3 million project to establish the heritage center in the former synagogue for the preservation of Yemenite immigrant culture.

A Miami Beach synagogue has pledged to raise half a million dollars, while the US-based Rohr family has helped to fund a religious study center there.

Paying tribute to fellow Likud lawmaker Nurit Koren, who pushed for the project to be funded, and to Ateret Cohanim founder and chairman Matti Dan, whom she called “the greatest of all,” Culture Minister Miri Regev said, “Look around. We are surrounded by Jewish heritage. The archaeologists won’t find a single Palestinian coin here! We have come home.”

Eighty years after the British mandatory police evacuated the Jews to protect them from Arab rioters, the Jewish community returned to the synagogue, bringing with it “a Torah scroll, Torah learning, liturgical songs and the cultural richness of the great, modest, Israel-loving Yemenite people,” she said.

Ze’ev Elkin, the environmental protection minister, who also holds the Jerusalem Affairs portfolio and has announced that he is running for Jerusalem mayor, said, “Just as we are proud to be connected with everything happening in the City of David [another part of Silwan, where Jews associated with the right-wing El Ad organization are creating tourism projects and settling Jews], we are proud to be connecting with the history of the Yemenite immigration here.”

A poster at the former Yemenite synagogue in mainly Palestinian Silwan shows the Yemenite Jewish village which existed in the neighborhood from the late 19th century to the early 20th century. (Sue Surkes)

When people asked whether it was worth the trouble of acquiring buildings in East Jerusalem now occupied by Palestinians,  he said, “I show them the history. This is the real history of Jerusalem. It’s the truth and nobody can erase it.

“We were on this hill 3,000 years ago. We have buried our dead near here [on the Mount of Olives] for thousands of years. It’s exactly 80 years since the Yemenite Jews were driven out of here,” Elkin said. “We are creating historical justice by coming back here, renovating the synagogue and creating a heritage center that thousands of Jews can visit.”

Moshe Lion, a member of the Jerusalem Municipality and a rival candidate for mayor, said he hoped “as many [such] places as possible” could be dedicated in East Jerusalem.

Daniel Moskowitz, whose late father, Irving, was an American Jewish philanthropist who donated millions of dollars to Jewish settlement efforts in the West Bank and East Jerusalem and was a key supporter of Ateret Cohanim, said his mother was keen to partner with the government so that together they could bring projects “to a level beyond what we can imagine.”

Daniel Moskowitz, son of the late Irving Moskowitz, who funded Jewish settlement in East Jerusalem Palestinian neighborhoods, addresses an inauguration ceremony for a new Yemenite Jewry heritage center at a former Yemenite synagogue acquired by the right-wing Ateret Cohanim organization, August 1, 2018. (Sue Surkes)

Daniel Luria, executive director of Ateret Cohanim, said the synagogue project constituted “pure Zionism. We are all part of the unfolding redemption process, the return to this land and to our capital Jerusalem,” he said.

“The government has recognized this place as a heritage site and that’s sovereignty and it’s beautiful and welcome.”

He continued, “We have seen God’s hand every step of the way. Even though we haven’t reached 150 families, we have made great strides.

Ateret Cohanim owns six buildings in the Batan el-Hawa area of Silwan.

“Life in Shiloach Village is flourishing again with 21 families and 80 children,” Luria said.

Former US governor Mike Huckabee (C), a keen supporter of Jewish settlement in Palestinian areas of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, stands outside a former Yemenite synagogue in the mainly Palestinian East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan, August 1, 2018. (Sue Surkes)

Earlier in the day, the former Arkansas governor and US presidential candidate Mike Huckabee — a prominent backer of the Jewish settlement enterprise — laid bricks at a new housing complex in the West Bank settlement of Efrat.

Huckabee’s daughter is White House spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders.

“If President Trump could be here today, he’d be a very happy man,” said Huckabee, standing in front of a large red “Build Israel Great Again,” sign, a play on the US president’s “Make America Great Again” campaign slogan.

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