Ateret Cohanim (Crown of Priests) is a non-profit organization with one of the holiest missions: they are actively strengthening Jewish roots centered around educational institutes in and around the Old City and working toward creating greater Jewish life in neighborhoods that today are devoid of such life.
Some of these properties were formerly owned by Jews driven out by Arab pogroms before Israel became a state. One of these areas surrounds the pool of Shiloah (Siloam Pool), a location essential for the Jewish Temple.
South of the Kotel (Western Wall) and down the hill is an Arab neighborhood. At the base of the mountains and in the heart of the village is a spring known as Silwan, from which the Arab village takes its name. Visitors to the village might be surprised to see one building in the heart of the Arab village with a large Israeli flag. Despite the virulent animosity of the surrounding residents, the flag and the Jewish residents of that building are there thanks to the efforts of one organization: Ateret Cohanim.
Daniel Luria, Ateret Cohanim’s executive director, explained the enigma of the Israeli flag.
“Before it was an Arab village, it was a community of Yemenite Jews,” Luria told Breaking Israel News. “The name ‘Silwan’ is used by the media so that has become the narrative. Now people who don’t know the truth think the Jews have no right to live there. But the name and that perception are totally inaccurate.”
Anyone who has read the Bible would know the spring by the name Shiloah, the Biblical pool fed by the Gihon Spring.
The other events of Chizkiyahu‘s reign, and all his exploits, and how he made the pool and the conduit and brought the water into the city, are recorded in the Annals of the Kings of Yehuda. II Kings 20:20
Luria explained that the Arab village is relatively recent.
“This Yemenite Jewish neighborhood was established in 1882, but Arab riots decimated it in the early 1900s,” Luria explained. “In 1938, the British took out the last 35 families with the false promise they would be permitted to return shortly to their homes.”
Already in 2004, and due to the efforts of Ateret Cohanim, Jewish life was reestablished in the Shiloach- the old Yemenite Village. Today there are 21 Jewish families living in the fledgling community. A major step in correcting this historic wrong was made two years ago when the Israeli Supreme Court evicted the illegal Arab squatters, ruling that the old Yemenite Synagogue located almost directly below the Temple Mount must be returned to Jewish owners. Eighty years after the Jews were murdered and driven out of their homes, prayer services were once again held in Heichal Yonatan, named in honor of Jonathan Pollard.
Luria explained that most of what is mistakenly referred to in the media as ‘East Jerusalem’ is, by all opinions, “United Jerusalem” in Israel proper.
“There are currently 215,000 Jews living in the eastern sections of the city,” Luria explained. “No one thinks they should be removed.”
All of Jerusalem, including the areas in which homes are acquired by the facilitation of Ateret Cohanim, was annexed by Israel in 1967. Luria explained that in the political debate concerning Jerusalem, the battle is for an area referred to as the ‘Holy Basin.’ “This is only about 5-8 percent of what is referred to as East Jerusalem, and the only thing stopping the Arabs from just taking it over, is Ateret Cohanim (Shield of Jerusalem) and the 200 or so families living there,” Luria said. “These families living in Shiloah, the Old City of Jerusalem, and the Mount of Olives and in Kidmat Zion are in the forefront of holding onto Jewish Jerusalem today.”
The underlying battle fought by Ateret Cohanim is to reclaim the true narrative of the history of the Jewish presence in Jerusalem.
“In the mid-1800s, there was a Jewish majority in Jerusalem,” Luria said. “According to a Turkish census, there were over 19,000 Jews living in the Old City out of a population of 28,000. The Muslim Quarter of today was the main hub of Jewish activity and life with over 21 synagogues and six Yeshivot in that area alone. The Jews were driven out by Arab violence, pogroms that decimated the Jewish population, and the British Mandate that wanted to move the Jews out. We are simply going back home and reviving the true historical reality.”
The first battle for Ateret Cohanim was approximately 40 years ago when a group of young men and boys reclaimed a building (Beit HaMaaravim) in the Old City, dedicating it to the study of Torah. Soon after, the organization purchased a building in the Old City which was also converted into a study hall. In order to acquire subsequent properties, Ateret Cohanim must battle a blatantly racist Palestinian Authority law that punishes Arabs who sell land to Jews with death.
Though recreating Jewish neighborhoods in the hearts of Arab neighborhoods sounds like a daunting task, Luria sees it as a “no-brainer.”
“Thank God, there is no shortage of Jewish families who want to live in neighborhoods overlooking the Temple Mount, something our grandparents could only dream about,” Luria maintained. “We are also finding more and more families who are willing to invest in redeeming these properties.”
“This aspect of Ateret Cohanim (Acquisitions-Investments) is not a charity,” Luria pointed out. “The property is in their name, similar to how the Jewish National Fund redeemed the land of Israel. This type of tangible ideological investment in which their name goes onto an actual property in Jerusalem is very appealing to many people who love Israel.”
“Ateret Cohanim still require donations for the huge range of children, families, educational, security and renovations projects.” Luria was quick to add.
Acquiring the properties is a difficult process since Palestinian Authority law prohibits selling property to Jews is a capital offense punishable by either hard labor or death.
“There is no shortage of Arabs who want to sell their properties,” Luria said. “But because of the disgraceful and unethical edicts, we have to be very careful and act secretly through an Arab intermediary for the safety of the sellers. They cannot openly offer it for sale and we cannot openly offer to buy.”
“It is a sad reality resulting from an immoral edict. There are powers in this world that say that we cannot live in certain neighborhoods just because we are Jewish. They are also saying that an Arab may not sell his property to us because we are Jews.”
“The people who object to our project are saying that Jews and Arabs should not coexist,” Luria said. “Can you imagine if I said that Arabs shouldn’t live in predominantly Jewish neighborhoods? I would be labeled a racist, and rightfully so.” ” We believe strongly in Jews and Arabs living together in any Jerusalem neighborhood, in basic peace and coexistence, under Jewish sovereignty”, Luria points out.
Occasionally, the purchases are challenged in court by the Arab sellers. Luria emphasized that all of their purchases were recognized as legally binding if challenged in court.
“The families may do this as an attempt to save face, to convince the Palestinian authorities that they were not willing participants in the transaction.”
The battle being fought by Ateret Cohanim is not just one of words, ownership, and legality. Over a recent two-year period (June 2016-June2018), there were 1,700 attacks against the Jewish families in Shiloah. Luria emphasized that intolerance, animosity, and violence came from only a small but dangerous segment of the Arab population.
“Thank God, the Israeli government doesn’t differentiate between a Jew living in Shiloah or a Jew in any other section of Jerusalem, whether it be Rechavia or Ramat Eshkol,” The government invests NIS 110 million annually for additional private security for the Jewish neighborhoods. This is the price of the violence that comes from some sectors of the Arab community.”
“The whole work of Ateret Cohanim is basically the continuation of the redemption process and of the reigniting of Jewish life around the Temple Mount area. This is what the Arabs really object to. This is what the anti-Israel factions object to. They go crazy when a Jew buys a house. Can you imagine? What is so earth-shaking? In a way, it really is earth shaking. Jews are returning to Jerusalem, and we all know what that means.”