Monday, August 03, 2009

Jerusalem Neighborhood of Shimon HaTzadik

This excerpt from The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, 27/7/09, by Nadav Shragai, pre-dates the current controversy surrounding evictions in the Sheik Jarrah neighbourhood, but is very relevant to them:

...The mixed Jewish-Arab neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah-Shimon HaTzadik has for decades been a vital corridor to Mt. Scopus, home for 80 years of Hebrew University and Hadassah Hospital. For hundreds of years the Jewish presence in the area centered around the tomb of Shimon HaTzadik (Simon the Righteous), one of the last members of the Great Assembly (HaKnesset HaGedolah), the governing body of the Jewish people during the Second Jewish Commonwealth, after the Babylonian Exile. His full name was Shimon ben Yohanan, the High Priest, who lived during the fourth century BCE, during the time of the Second Temple.

According to the Babylonian Talmud, he met with Alexander the Great when the Macedonian Army moved through the Land of Israel during its war with the Persian Empire.8 In that account, Shimon HaTzadik successfully persuades Alexander to not destroy the Second Temple and leave it standing. According to tradition, Shimon HaTzadik and his pupils are buried in a cave near the road that goes from Sheikh Jarrah to Mt. Scopus. He appears as the author of one of the famous verses in Pirkei Avot (Sayings of the Fathers) which has been incorporated into the Jewish morning prayers: "Shimon the Righteous was among the last surviving members of the Great Assembly. He would say: ‘The world stands on three things: Torah, the service of G-d, and deeds of kindness.'"

For years Jews have made pilgrimages to his grave to light candles and pray, as documented in many reports by pilgrims and travelers. While the property was owned by Arabs for many years, in 1876 the cave and the nearby field were purchased by Jews, involving a plot of 18 dunams (about 4.5 acres) that included 80 ancient olive trees.10 The property was purchased for 15,000 francs and was transferred to the owner through the Majlis al-Idara, the seat of the Turkish Pasha and the chief justice. According to the contract, the buyers (the committee of the Sephardic community and the Ashkenazi Assembly of Israel) divided the area between them equally, including the cave on the edge of the plot.

Dozens of Jewish families built homes on the property. On the eve of the Arab Revolt in 1936 there were hundreds of Jews living there. When the disturbances began they fled, but returned a few months later and lived there until 1948. When the Jordanians captured the area, the Jews were evacuated and for nineteen years were barred from visiting either their former homes or the cave of Shimon HaTzadik....
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