By Rabbi Dow Marmur.
The Arab village of Beit Safafa is more than 400 years old. Over time it has grown from a few hundred residents as late as a century ago to 12 000 today, according to the locals. Nevertheless, it has tried to retain something of its old character and still elects a mukhtar, a village elder, as its leader and spokesman before the authorities.
Between 1949 and 1967 the armistice Green Line went through the village. Two-thirds of it was under Jordanian rule and the rest in Israeli hands. Since the Six Day War all of Beit Safafa has been part of the municipality of Jerusalem and is today one of the city’s largely middle class southern neighborhoods.
Last Friday a group of us met with a number of residents, including the mukhtar, in a makeshift tent in front of bulldozers engaged in building a new highway through the neighborhood and de facto dividing it into four. This will make movement within Beit Safafa very difficult, not least for children getting to any of its three schools.
The residents are protesting against the construction. They aren’t necessarily against the highway as such, but they believe that it could have been built to avoid slicing up the neighborhood, for example by putting the road underground, as has been done elsewhere, and thus keeping the village intact. For a variety of administrative and financial reasons – or excuses – the City of Jerusalem and the Ministry of Transport have refused to accede to the pleas from the locals. Hence the tent, the protests and our visit.
The Jerusalem Biblical Zoo is nearby. The mukhtar told us that there had been a plan to build a highway through it but, as he put it, out of consideration for the animals, the route was changed so that the zoo could remain intact. He felt that his residents deserve at least the same consideration as the animals. The subtext is, of course, that had they not been Arabs, they would have got better treatment.
There may be a case for another road in the area in order to link highways around it and thus ease access in and out of sprawling Jerusalem. But greater regard for the needs of the locals at some extra cost could have avoided most of the hardships.
Therefore, it’s difficult not to ask awkward questions about how and why the road is being built. For example: (1) As this is an Arab neighborhood, is the administration insufficiently concerned about the welfare of its residents? (2) Is the road through Beit Safafa part of a greater plan to bring the Jewish suburb of Gilo, built beyond the Green Line, and the settlements in the Etzion Bloc in the West Bank even closer to, and part of, Israel’s “eternal and undivided capital” (as the cliché has it)? (3) Is there some sinister purpose of harassment behind the chopping up an old Arab neighborhood?
The mukhtar and his entourage – which included a very articulate 25 year-old female graduate biology student at the Hebrew University – told us that in former times nobody in the village would have objected. But a new generation is growing up. It’s not afraid to demand its rights as Israeli citizens by engaging lawyers, alerting foreign diplomats as well as local and foreign media, and demonstrating loudly and often.
I came away with the hope that they’ll succeed, if not to get the project cancelled then at least to get it modified. My sense of hope, however, is laced with the fear that Jews in Israel may try to treat Arab citizens in the way Jews were often treated in the Diaspora. I want to be wrong. If I’m not, this would be a horrible inversion.