The Jewish Yemenite Settlement in Silwan
By Yonathan Mizrachi
In the late 19th century, Jewish Yemenites moved to live in the Arab village of Silwan. Nowadays, among many parties, specifically right-wingers and settlers, the old Yemenite settlement is considered a strong claim to the contemporary Jewish settlement in Silwan.
The first Yemenite Jews arrived in Palestine in 1882. The yearning for Jerusalem brought many to settle in the city and around it. The dream of a land flowing with milk and honey was soon replaced with the harsh reality of scarcity in food and work, but also their recognition as Jews. The Jewish residents of city, the people of the Old Yeshuv, didn’t accept the Yemenite Jews as the later had expected. The Yemenites dressed differently from the Sephardic or Ashkenazi Jews, spoke a different language, prayed differently, and were the poorest among the Jews. Many of the Old Yeshuv Jews seriously doubted the Yemenites’ Jewish identity.
Due to their condition and social status, many of the Yemenite Jews were forced to live in caves or sheltered rocks in the mountains around the old city. Some lived in the mountains and caves in the village of Silwan, just outside the city walls, south of the Temple Mount and the Jewish quarter. In those days, Silwan was already a recognized Arab village. The first Arab families moved to Silwan hundreds of years before. For instance, Siam family, one of the largest families in the village, claims that it arrived in the village during the days of Salah Al-Din (the 12th century).
The first to help the Yemenites were missionary Christians who in that period resided in the American Colony neighborhood (today known as Sheikh Jarah). The Christians associated the Yemenite Jews with the lost Gad tribe, and supplied them with food, clothing and even money.
When the dignitaries of the Old Yeshuv heard that Christians were helping the Yemenite Jews, Y.D. Frumkin decided to organize Jewish aid for the Yemenites. Frumkin founded the company “Ezrat Nidahim” (“Sequesters Aid”) in order to raise funds and buy lands for the establishment of a Yemenite neighborhood. The first houses were built in Silwan, next to Bir Ayoub (Job’s Well), in the south-eastern end of the village, away from the old city. From letters sent by the Yemenites to their community in Sana, Yemen, we can learn that the Yemenites didn’t want to live in Silwan:
“…and this land is far…in the mount of olives and its name is Silwan, and this place is not Israelite but the land of gentiles, and I saw the place and it is not pleasant to me…and many complain that they were chosen to live in Silwan, because we had informed that the place is very far from the Israelite neighborhood [the Jewish Quarter and the newly-built Jewish neighborhoods outside the walls]…”
The letter clearly shows that the village was inhabited before the arrival of the Yemenites. Also, it is clear that the Yemenites wanted to live among Jews. At the same period, new Jewish neighborhoods were built west outside the walls, far from the Arab villages. Nevertheless, the Old Yeshuv decided to build the Yemenite neighborhood in Silwan, and called it the Shiloah village. The Yemenites had no choice: they could not afford a house in the new neighborhoods, and were not accepted among the Jews in the Jewish Quarter.
In 1884 the first Yemenites settled in Silwan and for 45 years lived peacefully and in very good terms with their Arab neighbors. It seemed that the people of Silwan, which was known to be a poor village, found common ground with the poor Jewish Yemenites that lived among them.
In the 1929 Arab Riots, not a single Jewish resident of Silwan (Shiloah village) was killed or injured. The Arab residents of the village, led by the Ghozlan family, sheltered their Jewish neighbors and prevented their attack. After a few days of rioting, the British, who mandated Palestine at that time, moved the Yemenite Jews into the old city. A group of Jews returned to live in Silwan after 1929, but following the 1936 Great Arab Revolt, all the Jews left the village.
Despite the attempt to depict the 1929 Arab Riot as a violent incident against the Jews in Silwan, it is clear that it was not the case. From a letter of gratitude that the Yemenite Jews sent to their Arab neighbors, we can learn about the devotion and benevolence that the Arabs have shown towards the Yemenites by undauntedly protecting them, and also about the amity and good neighborly relations that prevailed between the two communities.
“We, the undersigned, the residents of the Shiloah village, openly declare that we obliged our gratitude to the dear and pure-hearted man, the honorable Haj Muhammad Ghozlan, one of our respectable Arab brothers, residents of the Shiloah-Silwan village, and his kind friends, who showed exceptional compassion and benevolence to their neighbors, the Jewish residents of the village of Shiloah, during the days of the 1929 riots, and did not allow the bands of rioters to harm us…"
The letter of gratitude attests not only to the compassion and morality of the Arab residents of Silwan, but also to the true coexistence between Arabs and Jews. It attests to daily lives of good neighborly relations, respect and mutual aid, to coexistence as a way of life. Other sentences in the letter express these sentiments:
"…one of our respectable Arab brothers, residents of the Shiloah-Silwan village, and his kind friends…"
"…and also today this good relationship prevails between us and our neighbors, all is quiet throughout our quarters…"
"We are hopeful that this relationship will last between us and them for many years to come…"
Despite the compassion and aid demonstrated by Muhammad Ghozlan when he protected the Yemenite Jews, the credit wasn’t in his family’s favor when the Ghozlan family evacuated from their house in 2006.
When we examine the Yemenite settlement in Silwan, the attempt to depict the contemporary settlement of Elad as a continuation of that early Yemenite settlement, we view that there is clearly no connection between the 19th century neighborhood and the current settlement.
We can conclude the history of the Jewish Yemenite settlement in Silwan with the words of Abed Shaludi, an Arab resident of Silwan: “We do not conceal that fact that Yemenite Jews lived here; on the contrary, we accepted them while the other Jews rejected them.”