Sheikh Jarrah – a historical perspective

Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood. In the background, the city centre of Jerusalem. (Wikipedia/ Author	
David Shankbone / Attribution 3.0 Unported (CC BY 3.0) via Jewish News)
Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood. In the background, the city centre of Jerusalem. (Wikipedia/ Author David Shankbone / Attribution 3.0 Unported (CC BY 3.0) via Jewish News)

Shimon Hatzaddik was a pretty important man. The Mishna in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) names him as a person in the chain of continuation of the transmission of Torah. He was the last of the Anshei Knesset Hagdolah (Men of the Great Assembly) and he successfully passed the Torah from that august body to the next in line, Antignos, a man of Socho.

Despite being a Tzaddik, Rabbi Shimon also had courage. It is told in Gemara Yoma (69a) that Rabbi Shimon went outside the confines of the Temple wearing the Priestly Garments to welcome the non-Jewish king Alexander of Macedonia. His bravery was two-fold. He went out to confront Alexander and he went out in Priestly garments, in supposed breach of the prohibition of leaving the Temple with the Priestly Garments. He did this as an emergency to stop Alexander ordering the Temple being destroyed at the request of the Samaritans. His entreaty with Alexander was successful, Alexander had a dream in which he saw Shimon and saved the Temple. Shimon Hatzaddik’s tomb is just outside the Old City of Jerusalem.

Skip forward about 1400 years to the times of the Crusaders, cruel and vicious persecutors and murderers of  Jews. In 1190 Saladin a Muslim leader defeats Richard the Crusader and sweeps into Jerusalem. He is tolerant of Jews and at the same time as the English are massacring Jews in York, he allows the Jews back into Jerusalem. Saladin’s personal physician is a man called Sheikh Jarrah, a healer. He is buried just outside the Old City of Jerusalem, within walking distance of the tomb of Shimon Hatzaddik.

Now we are in 2021 and in the memory of name of these historical (and dare I say good people), religious war is being provoked and fought. Innocent lives are being ruined and lost, and religious tensions (especially antisemitism) are incited worldwide.

Are we really not able to use our historical knowledge and our religious principles -all of us – to do better?

What is different this time? Well in our first historic episode, the country was under the sovereignty of the Greeks. Alexander was magnanimous to the Jews. In the second episode, the country was under the sovereignty of the Muslims and they were magnanimous to the Jews too. This time, we, the Jews, assert sovereignty of this area. Where is our magnanimity?

This area is part of Jerusalem but it is outside the Old City. It is not Temple Mount (remember Shimon was criticised for visiting this area with his Priestly garments). Its religious value is limited. It wasn’t even founded as a Jewish area, although Jews have lived there through history too.

What requires us to be so offended by a few Muslims living in this area, where they have lived for centuries, that we need to construct laws and long running legal cases to evict 60 or so of them, so that they leave and go to live ….where?  It’s not our religion, our middot (values) are better than that and even if they weren’t, we have a principle of mipnei eivah (we can compromise where damage can be caused.)

Another suggestion is that this is nothing more than a question of real estate law. This is a disingenuous argument. In English law, there is a concept of equity. In equity, even if you are right, you don’t always get what you want (known as specific performance). You sometimes have to settle for fiscal damages instead. Israeli law is supposed to be based on Jewish values. (Difficult cases make bad law is another well-known statement in legal circles. In times when we need so badly to defend Israel against outrageous accusations of apartheid, how clever is it to be highlighting this legal situation?)

There is a great legal organization in Israel protecting Jews, called Shurat Hadin (Israel Law Center). But towards others, we, Jews, are required by the Torah to act Lifnim Mishurat Hadin (Beyond the letter of the law) – “Kedoshim Tihyu” – we are required to be holy and properly.

We need to remove the hotheads from this situation in Sheikh Jarrah. We need perspective, historical, religious and legal. We need compassion for those whose lives are being torn up by intolerance and those who suffer the indirect consequences, including those in shelters hiding from rockets. We need wisdom to deal with law enforcement in an equitable manner. We need Torah values in deal with all humanity. We need to reverse out of this one-street of intolerance and hate.

About the Author
Andrew Besser is a modern Orthodox Jew, a commercial lawyer by trade, enjoying the challenges of making sense of Orthodox Jewry and Israel in the modern world.
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