The Desire for Defined Status in Multicultural Jerusalem

Jerusalem is a richly evocative city. The discourses deployed reflect the different images through the ages. In the Judeo-Christian-Muslim theological discourse, Jerusalem is the holy city par excellence. It is one; it is eternal; it is whole and continuous, both in time and in space; it is immovable and immutable; it is limited, but limited only by itself; it is evenly extended in every direction; it is celestial and, as believed in Islam, it is a piece of heaven on earth.

The Old City of Jerusalem

The Old City of Jerusalem, July 2017. (Jamie Berk)

Jerusalem is also a politically contested city. The official Palestinian discourse addresses the political condition of Jerusalem and the abuses Arab Jerusalemites suffer under Israeli occupation. However, de facto, Jerusalem has undergone a radical demographic transformation that parallels both the expansion of the municipal boundaries of east Jerusalem and an unprecedented rise in the economic standard of living of its Palestinian residents.

After the Six Day War, the municipal boundaries of Jerusalem expanded southward and northward. De facto, greater Jerusalem has been extended to include 28 villages from Isawiyeh in the north to the villages of Silwan, Abu Tor, Jabal al-Mukaber, and Sur Baher in the south, to name a few. Correspondingly, the demography of Jerusalem changed drastically. In the Israeli economic context, extensive employment opportunities have leveled the socioeconomic and cultural barriers between the traditional Palestinian aristocracy and, some say, haughty bourgeois population on the one hand, and the impoverished Arab peasants and Bedouins in the adjacent villages, on the other. Notably, both white and blue collar workers are beneficiaries of the Israeli labor market.

In the Israeli economic context, extensive work opportunities have leveled the socioeconomic and cultural barriers between the traditional Palestinian aristocracy, and the impoverished Arab peasants and Bedouins.

The combination of a heterogeneous, multicultural ethnic identity, a socioeconomically mobile middle class composed of migrants from Mount Hebron, and the Bedouin and peasant communities from the 23 Palestinian villages composing greater Jerusalem, has emerged and dissolved the once closed, homogeneous Jerusalem Arab bourgeois society.

Fifty years after al-Nakseh, or the 1967 Six Day War, Jerusalem has become a multicultural city.

A 2011 map illustrating the distribution of Jerusalem’s Jewish and Arab populations

A 2011 map illustrating the distribution of Jerusalem’s Jewish and Arab populations. (Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs)

Jerusalem – Population Distribution

Before the de facto annexation of east Jerusalem to Israel and for centuries before the 1967 War, the social structure of Jerusalem was hierarchical. Throughout the Mamluk and Ottoman periods, the local Palestinian community was alienated from the power structure.

The religious leadership was at the top of the pyramid followed by the class of wealthy merchants. Invariably, merchants accrued status and prestige by having a member of the family educated at Al-Azhar University in Cairo, thereby becoming affiliated with the juridical, theological structure of Sharia law.

One of the most distinguishing social characteristics of Jerusalem’s Arab sector, differentiating it from West Bank Palestinian cities, is its local aristocracy, the “sheriffs.” Historically, Jerusalem’s Arab aristocracy is composed of three classes: those descending from the family of the Prophet Muhammad and from the comrades of the Prophet, the sahabeh, such as the Nusseibeh and Ansari families; those descending from the ulama (theologians), such as the Alami and al-Khalili families; and the leading Sufis such as the Jarallah, Qutob, Dajani and Qleibo families. It should be kept in mind that most Palestinian families have fragmented into smaller branches, and that many of these branches acquired nicknames that were adopted as family names in the nineteenth century.

Until the end of the Ottoman period, both Christians and Jews were considered ethnic minorities. Over the centuries, the Greek Orthodox Christian Arab population maintained its own class structure and social position. The Christian population lived within the Christian Quarter in and around the various monasteries, and most were provided with food and lodging by the church to which they belonged, whether Assyrian, Armenian, Coptic, Greek Orthodox, Russian, or Catholic.

A bazaar in the Old City’s Christian Quarter

A bazaar in the Old City’s Christian Quarter. Historically, Jerusalem’s Christian population was provided with food and lodging by the church to which they belonged. (Wikimedia Commons)

The prosperity that accompanied the booming British Mandate economy provided great opportunities for building contractors, high rents for British officials, and high salaries for government employees. All this helped finance the emerging cosmopolitan consumer lifestyle, which nineteenth century Western educations in missionary schools helped foster for certain Christian and Muslim classes to enjoy. Within the overall context of the Crimean War and the Ottoman concessions to the western European allies, the Christian community – in coordination with the respective churches its members belonged to – further developed its own prestige and social hierarchy as either “les bonnes Catholiques,” the “good Catholics” close to the Latin Patriarchate and the French and/or Italian consulates, the Anglicans attached to British consulate, or the traditional Greek Orthodox local elite attached to the Greek Patriarchate and the Greek consulate.

Aristocratic Arab Muslim Jerusalemites tend to be exclusive and elitist when it comes to the pedigree of fellow Jerusalemites. A discriminatory distinction is made between “authentic” (high-bred and of noble lineage) and “inauthentic” (euphemism for plebeian) Jerusalemites. An “inauthentic” Jerusalemite is considered an outsider (socially invisible) even if his or her forebears have lived for generations within the walls of the city. One major category of differentiation between genuine Jerusalemites (the socially visible) and “outsiders” is that an authentic Jerusalemite is a beneficiary of traditionally inherited property, or waqf.

In this respect it should be noted that the majority of the houses, cafיs, hammams (hot steam baths), and shops of the Old City are ancient family endowments that are inherited and privately administered, or entrusted to awqaf (religious endowments) for their administration, maintenance, rent, and the distribution of the revenues among the heirs.

Since endowed properties cannot be sold, exchanged, or altered, they become concrete, objective archives of Jerusalem’s social history, providing the city’s social registry.

Jerusalem’s Orient House

Jerusalem’s Orient House, an example of waqf, or traditionally inherited property. This east Jerusalem property served as the Jerusalem headquarters for the PLO in the 1980s and 1990s. It has been owned by the Husseini family since it was built in 1897. (Wikipedia)

El-niswan shabakeh (“Women form the network of social relationships”) is a common saying in Jerusalem. Most Jerusalemites inherit shares, even if the inheritance barely comes to 10 square meters, in each other’s family endowments and consequently are beneficiaries of the revenue, even if a negligible sum. This is because most Jerusalemites are related to each other through centuries of intermarriage. The degree of kinship and its details are firmly established in the archival haser irth (certificate of inheritance). These documents specify the family interconnections, establishing the history of the Jerusalem families in conjunction with the more rarefied, male-centered patriarchal family trees.

Jerusalem has always welcomed immigrants of various ethnic origins.

International pilgrims and refugees from Armenia, Syria, Ethiopia, North Africa, Greece, Nigeria, Central Asia, India, and Jews from everywhere have settled among us throughout the ages. Christian communities of various sects, Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews, and Arab and non- Arab Muslims have enriched the mosaic of the Holy City. Local migrants from Mount Hebron have settled in Jerusalem in several waves beginning as early as the late nineteenth century.

The success stories of the Muslim Arab Hebronites in Jerusalem illustrate the multiethnic, cosmopolitan character of the city and the Muslim work ethic.

The success stories of the Muslim Arab Hebronites in Jerusalem illustrate the multiethnic, cosmopolitan character of the city and the Muslim work ethic. Because of the great religious esteem in which they held Jerusalem, the first Hebronites settled in the city out of piety.

Only after the 1930s, impelled by Hajj Amin al-Husseini’s political rhetoric of “Al-Aqsa is in danger,” and in the context of the economic possibilities in Jerusalem as it prospered during the Mandate period and after the Six Day War, did the steady flow of migrant workers increase. Nowadays Hebronites are patently visible and run most of the business enterprises and shops on Salah al-Din Street and in the Old City. Intensely religious, they animate Al- Aqsa Mosque from sunrise to sunset.

East Jerusalem’s Salah al-Din Street

East Jerusalem’s Salah al-Din Street. Most businesses in this busy commercial district are run by Palestinian migrants from Hebron. (Wikipedia)

Fifty years after the annexation of Jerusalem, the innumerable employment opportunities provided by the Israeli system have fostered a de facto upgraded standard of living. Despite appeals by some Jordanians and Palestinians to resist and boycott the Israelis (the concept of sumud), the integration of greater Jerusalem Arab residents into the Israeli sector has continued unabated.

Integration has also triggered other dramatic processes. The aforementioned corollary socioeconomic and demographic developments have ruptured the traditional social and historical character of Jerusalem. The traditional elite families’ – descendants of early patrician founders of Arab Jerusalem – monopoly of wealth, power, and education has declined. As ulama (theologians,) sheikhs, muftis, imams, and khatibs (prayer leaders) affiliated with the Dome of the Rock, they once formed Jerusalem’s and Palestine’s traditional aristocracy and have now lost hold of their hereditary positions. The Jerusalemite Palestinian Christian community – with regard to the various Christian sects and their respective relations to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre – has, though for different reasons, suffered the same demise. Their privileged statuses have sustained the biggest blow. Although they retain their class-linked status, both communities have been undermined economically by the onslaught of new money. A new socioeconomic and demographic reality has emerged.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem’s Old City. (Wikipedia)

In the Israeli economic context, extensive work opportunities have leveled the socioeconomic and cultural barriers between the once-urban Palestinian middle class population and the adjacent Arab villages. Former cave-dwelling Bedouin shepherds and peasants living in penury have now moved from the kerosene-lamp-lit caves with outhouses to comfortable villas and spacious apartments with full amenities including air-conditioning and at least two cars per household. As white and blue collar workers they are beneficiaries of the flourishing Israeli labor market. Palestinian Arabs from greater Jerusalem are ubiquitous in Israel, working in government offices, hospitals, medical centers, commercial centers, hotels, restaurants, and garages. They are heads of surgery units in Hadassah hospitals, store managers, salesmen, janitors, and laborers.

Today, fifty years after Israel’s de facto annexation, Jerusalem has become a melting pot of the various Palestinian Arab ethnic groups. The term “melting pot,” describes a process of economic homogeneity. However, more recently the progress in Jerusalem has been reversed as the previously more homogeneous Muslim and Christian socio-economic structure has eroded and been replaced by a more heterogeneous society composed of diverse ethnic groups from different backgrounds.

Since the relations and mode of production within the Israeli capital are extraneous to the Palestinian economy and are not an organic historical development, neither the Palestinian social structure nor the consciousness of self and other has changed. Both remain alienated from the modernist underpinnings of Israeli society. In this perspective, the Israeli labor market is simply perceived as a propitious, lucrative resource to maintain the respective ethnic identities and communities of Bedouin, peasant, and urban employees.

Arab and Jewish residents of the Holy City

Daily commuting on the Jerusalem light rail by Arab and Jewish residents of the Holy City. (David Abitbol)

Greater Jerusalem emerges as a multicultural city having numerous cultural traditions within its boundaries under de facto Israeli jurisdiction. The application of Israeli law to the city includes the employment of the Palestinian Arab workforce in Israeli labor markets in accordance with legally guaranteed labor rights.

Far from languishing under Israeli occupation, even with the politically problematic status of permanent alien residents, the excellent working conditions, social and medical benefits, and average per capita income cannot be paralleled in any country in the southern Mediterranean Basin.

The minimum wage in Jerusalem is six times higher than in the West Bank city of Ramallah and much higher than in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, or Egypt. More important is that the sense of individual dignity is upheld by a humanist-based democratic system that provides rights and services beyond what is provided in neighboring countries.

Arabs and Jews enjoy a natural spring in the Jerusalem area

Arabs and Jews enjoy a natural spring in the Jerusalem area. (Jamie Berk)

However, despite advantageous economic conditions, Jerusalem’s Arab residents are still in an untenable political situation. Since the signing of the 1995 Oslo Interim Agreement, Arab Jerusalemites have been stateless. They cannot claim sovereign status in either Jordan or the Palestinian Authority.

Blockaded by checkpoints, greater Jerusalem has been separated from the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority.

Jerusalemites are ineligible for Palestinian passports and barred from participating in Palestinian elections. Applying for Israeli nationality and an Israeli passport, a complicated procedure in itself, is considered an act of Palestinian treason.

Jerusalemites are ineligible for Palestinian passports and barred from participating in Palestinian elections. Applying for Israeli nationality and an Israeli passport, a complicated procedure in itself, is considered an act of Palestinian treason.

Although Jordan’s Hashemite Kingdom provides courtesy passports, Arab Jerusalemites are prevented from attaining rights of residence in Jordan.

Today Jerusalem’s Arab residents are caught between the “hammer and the anvil.” Their political statelessness reflects the unresolved relations between the Palestinian Authority, Jordan, and Israel. Fifty years after the 1967 War, Arab Jerusalemites continue to live with the deep-seated fear that their status and rights to live and work in their historical city could be revoked at any time.

Prof. Ali Qleibo

Professor Ali Qleibo is a professor emeritus at Al-Quds University and a fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. He has been a visiting professor at Tokyo University for Foreign Studies. Professor Qleibo has developed the Palestinian Social and Muslim Tourism Itinerary as a specialist in Palestinian social history, and through his work at the Jerusalem Research Center.