It’s Sunday night in Israel and I just got back form a rather adventurous day into the neighborhood of Me’a She’arim & Geula, where the Ultra-Orthodox live in an insular community. I have heard of the community from friends and not to be mean, as a social worker this Ultra Orthodox community interests me on many levels. So today, as I walked through the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Meah She’arim. This is a rare opportunity for immersion in a fascinating religious and cultural experience that contrasts sharply surrounding modernity.
It was an auspicious day in 1874 when a small group of Jerusalem Jews resolved boldly to build this neighborhood in the nearly empty lands outside the walled city. They sought a promising name to symbolize their dream: The name Meah She’arim, in Hebrew, means one hundred gates and was from the Biblical passage “Isaac sowed in that land and reaped in the same year a hundredfold.” (Genesis 26:12)
Its original buildings are still there: built in pairs, facing each other across narrow, bustling courtyards, accessed by gateways from the street. As visitors* browse the fruit and vegetable market, Judaica and religious bookstores, they will notice the variety of dark suits among the men, indicating their specific Hassidic or non-Hassidic allegiance, the women’s modest dress – and many, many children! An added attraction on a Thursday-night visit is the quarter’s bakery, at its busiest churning out challahs for the Sabbath.
Residents require visitors to dress modestly (skirts for women with knees and elbows covered), and do not like to be photographed. (see photo below)
Contrary to popular accounts and belief, the original families were not Hasidim, but “Mitnagdim” of Lithuania. “I can testify to this fact from personal knowledge, as my Hillman rabbinic family was one of the original 100 families of Meah She’arim” as a local man would tell me, but asked not be photographed or named (anonymous, 2015). He later shared “My maternal Hillman family made aliyah to Eretz Yisrael, then called “Palestine”, from Ponevezh, today Panavezys, Lithuania during 1870. Let’s put this event in proper historical perspective. This emigration was long before Theodore Herzl held a Zionist congress. It came before the various periods of emigration known as the First Aliyah, Second Aliyah, and Third Aliyah. It was some seventy-five years before the remnants of Holocaust victims came to reclaim the Holy Land of Israel promised to them as a gift from G-d.”
Just north of Jaffa Road, Meah She’arim was the second new neighborhood outside the Old City walls and was initially home to 100 families. Joseph Rivlin, one of the leaders of the Jewish community in Jerusalem, was one of its founding fathers. The development was designed by Conrad Schick, a German missionary. A Christian Arab from Bethlehem, who employed both Jewish and non-Jewish workers, was the construction contractor. When it was established, it was the most progressive neighborhood in Jerusalem. The people who first came to live there were innovators and pioneers. The brave citizens decided to move out of the congested Jewish quarter within the walls of the Old City. A majority vote could banish any resident who brought about intrigue, disorder and quarrel, G-d forbid.
“The new neighborhood of Meah She’arim, considered modern and progressive for its time, can teach us some valuable lessons today, he adds. The fact of the matter is that Meah She’arim is one more clear proof that there were always Jews living in the Holy Land. The Jews constituted the majority of the Holy City of Jerusalem’s inhabitants, hence the demographic need for expansion. No one can honestly dispute this fact. Jews have lived continuously in their G-d-given Holy Land and homeland for many generations, dating back thousands of years. Jews living in the Diaspora have always realized their “right of return” to the Holy Land of Israel, also called Zion.
Meah She’arim may even be considered a “settlement” by today’s world standards, yet we all consider this a unique integral neighborhood and part of the Holy City of Jerusalem today. The same applies to the disputed territories of Gaza, Judea and Samaria. Jews live in these areas to escape the congestion of the more densely populated areas, as well as from a religious belief in their return to the ancient Biblical land of their ancestors. Those brave and courageous people who live in the Holy Land, given as a gift by G-d to the Jewish people, face the similar danger of Arab marauders, and even worse today, the danger of world opinion.
Let us also assume that the rule to banish any resident who brought about intrigue, disorder and quarrel, G-d forbid, also applied to Arab neighbors and residents. After all, they certainly desire equal rights. Let us apply the principle on a broader scale – a scale of justice. If they cannot behave like citizens who act respectfully by co-existing peacefully, then they should be banished from the Holy Land. If they want to live in co-existence peacefully, by following the rules, then let those who wish to do so stay. The idea that Arabs and Jews can co-exist is nothing new. They co-existed and worked together in 1875 for the benefit of both when both parties were willing to do so.