Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Simon’s Tomb and Jewish refugees

12/15/2010 (initial report)

The area witnessed the first flight of people who could not return after the War of Independence. These people were Jews.

The normally placid surroundings of the Tomb of Simon the Just have been shaken in recent months by regular protest in which moral fervor and strident self-righteousness take pride of place. The demonstrators ostensibly protest evictions – of Arab families in this case – although we may doubt their opposition to evictions in principle, since the notable personalities among them were absent from demonstrations five years ago against the eviction of 8,500 Jews from the Gaza Strip.

Be that as it may, whenever we see mass outpourings of emotion – love, anger, sentimentality, grief, hatred – we may wonder just what participants know of the cause for which they demonstrate. Simon’s Tomb and its surroundings merit being seen as a symbol of the struggle between Jews and Arabs, as well as interested foreign parties, that has flowed and ebbed for generations. The area of Simon’s Tomb witnessed the very beginning of the surge of violence, starting shortly after the UN General Assembly recommended partition on November 29, 1947.

It also witnessed the first flight of refugees who could not return after the War of Independence. It may surprise some that these first refugees who could not go home were Jews. Yet this is well-documented.

Simon the Just was a personality of Second Temple times who accomplished legendary exploits in Jewish tradition. He is identified with two high priests named Simon, one at the time of Seleucid Emperor Antiochus III, circa 200 BCE. Another, tradition holds, appeared in white garments before the conquering Alexander of Macedon (332 BCE), thus inducing him to leave the Jews in peace.

Simon’s Tomb is traditionally located in a cave just meters from the cave tomb complexes that are unquestionably of Second Temple times.

For those who doubt the tomb’s authenticity, we cannot prove that Simon is buried there, any more than anyone today can prove Jesus is buried in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Indeed, some Christians propose other locations. Yet this location as Simon’s tomb was attested in 1235.

It is depicted on illustrated charts of Jewish holy sites – a kind of Jewish folk art – as we see in an album published by the Israel Museum (Rachel Sarfati, ed, Offerings from Jerusalem: Portrayals of Holy Places by Jewish Artists).

Lag Ba’omer pilgrimages to the site long competed with pilgrimages to Shimon bar Yohai’s tomb in the Galilee, as it was easier to reach for Jerusalem’s Jews, already a majority in the city by the mid- 19th century.

IN 1876 the Ashkenazi and Sephardi communities joined to purchase the site from the Arab owner, who had until then charged Jews a fee to approach the tomb. Beside enhancing the tomb, homes for poor Jews were built on part of the site, while most of the 18-dunam plot was left undeveloped.

Jerusalem Jews called it the Shimon Hatzaddik Quarter, and it appears by that name in Dan Bahat’s Jerusalem historical atlas. It was adjacent to Sheikh Jarrah but not part of it – contrary to common usage today by thepress and protesters.

In 1947, among the first shots of the Arab war against Jewish independence were those fired at a Jewish bus on the Mount Scopus road adjacent to Shimon Hatzaddik.

Throughout December 1947, Jewish traffic was attacked on the Mount Scopus road, as were Shimon Hatzaddik and nearby Jewish quarters, Nahalat Shimon, Siebenbergen Houses, etc. After hours of intense attack on December 29, Jewish families fled the neighborhood, though some remained for several more days.

The Palestine Post reported on January 4, 1948 that Jews were fleeing Shimon Hatzaddik and other areas. British troops helped induce the exodus by disarming Jews in the quarter. Hence, Jews were the first war refugees in the country who could not go home after the war (Jews also fled in December 1947 from parts of Jaffa and south Tel Aviv, but could go back after the war).

From 1949 to 1967, while Jews could not visit Jewish holy sites under Jordanian rule – in violation of the 1949 armistice accord – the deserted Jewish homes in Shimon Hatzaddik were inhabited by Arab families, while homes for Arabs were built on undeveloped parts of the site around 1955.

After the Six Day War, Jews could again visit Simon’s Tomb, while Arabs remained in the once-Jewish homes on the site. However, in 1998, when an Arab tried to incorporate the synagogue into his own house, Jews moved back, first into the synagogue, which bore clear Hebrew inscriptions, despite claims made to me by an Arab spokesman that Jews never lived there.

More recently, courts ruled that Arab houses on the site belonged to the Jewish land owners. Talented authors Amos Oz and David Grossman have taken part in protests – in the name of peace and justice – against evictions ensuing from refusal of certain Arab tenants to pay rent, thus rejecting the exercise of Jewish property rights. Yet the moralpolitical stances of authors do not impress.

For example, before World War II equally or more talented French authors Jean Giono and Jean Giraudoux praised Hitler, demanding peace with Germany. Giono even described Hitler as “a poet in action.”

By their protests, Oz and Grossman now implicitly endorse the expulsions of Jews in the War of Independence, the first refugees in that war who could not go home afterward.

Furthermore, is a religious body entitled to maintain the area around its holy places? Do Christians want non-Christians living too close to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and other Christian holy places? Are non- Muslims allowed into Mecca? Justice is based on truth, not inconsistent principles.

The writer is a researcher and translator living in Jerusalem. He has published in Nativ, Midstream, The Jerusalem Post and other publications.

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