Ruins / by Sophie Schor

Jerusalem in the not so distant distance.

Jerusalem in the not so distant distance.

Walking the paths of Lifta.

Walking the paths of Lifta.

Professor leads our conversation.

Professor leads our conversation.

View of the Valley

View of the Valley

Once a week, my class goes on a tour of Jerusalem and the surrounding areas. To begin, our professor took us to the "Corridor," or the narrow but important sliver that connects the route from Tel Aviv to the heart of West Jerusalem. (Demarcated by the narrow yellow area between the borders and the Occupied territories here.)

We discussed the history of this area from the moment when the UN declared the proposed partition plan November 29, 1947 and the inter-communal war broke out between communities of Jews and Arabs who had been living in British Mandatory Palestine. Our professor led us to the preserved home of an Ashkenazi-Iraqi family named Yelin in the Motza valley and we learned the history of one of the first Jewish land purchases in the valley outside of the Old City of Jerusalem in 1860. Yellin and another Jew from Baghdad named Yehuda purchased the land from the neighboring Arab village Qalunya and set up a new Jewish community in the valley. From the upstairs porch, our professor pointed out the hill opposite from us, the terraced land, the clumps of prickly-pear bushes, and to a tumble of ruined walls. "There," he told us, "was where Qalunya was. A prosperous Arab village and neighbors to this new community. And that," he said pointing to the broken down walls, "was the summer home of the Grand Mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini." Sitting on this land now is a suburb of Jerusalem called Mevaseret. It's also the location of the new bridge which will be the new highway from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The construction for this project is massive, and our tour guide at the house shrugged her shoulders as she mentioned that this location was ideal for its springs, but they have since been blocked by all the dirt from the building of the bridge. As noted by our professor, the track for the train runs directly on the green line in some places, and beyond it in others. 

We discussed the relations between the two communities in the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. Before the tensions broke forth after the Balfour Declaration in 1917, the rising pressure of Jewish immigration and the subsequent Arab revolts in 1929 and 1936-1939 respectively, and the White Paper in 1939, these two communities interacted daily. Either by sharing work and agricultural labor, nurses, nannies, using the same routes to travel, the Jewish and Arab communities overlapped and had close relations. According to the information video in the visitor's center, this all broke in 1929 as the riots reached the valley and several Jews from Motza were killed, including the entire Maklef family in the Jewish Moshav that was brutally murdered by some Arab villagers from Qalunya. Suddenly the neighbors were fearful and distrustful of one another. A new book is coming out by Hillel Cohen, an incredible Historian from Israel, which deals with this historical moment throughout the country: 1929: Year Zero of the Palestinian Israeli Conflict.

As we climbed back in the bus to our next destination we began unpacking the questions about the importance of this location to the relations inside and outside the city. Why does a Jewish village outside of the walls of Jerusalem carry so much importance? Why was this the locus of battles in 1948 between the Hagana and the Palestinians? 

The corridor is the last point before Jerusalem and a valley surrounded by high hills. That means that strategically, there are many points to conquer and use to protect convoys that were using the old Roman road. The Jewish communities pre-1948 were mainly consolidated on a coastal strip in Tel Aviv and the surrounding areas and up to Haifa and the bay, the western plains, the Yizrael Valley, the north and east of the Galilee, within a few spiritual cities such as Tzfat and Tiberias, and within the Old City of Jerusalem. The Arab communities were the majority in the more hilly area of mandatory Palestine-- including all the central ridge of Judea and Samaria and central Galilee, the inner plans, and in the Negev (the Bedouins). For the Jews it was thus imperative that the corridor was kept open to bring supplies to the Jewish communities in the Old City. From the top of a hill nearby, we were able to see the view and began to understand the geo-political importance of this place.

We then went to Liftaa Palestinian village right outside the entrance to Jerusalem. When I say right outside, I mean right outside. A two minute walk down a pathway from where the main highway (Route 1) meets the Central Bus Station, we suddenly found ourselves in a disintegrating paradise. Right there on the hill under the highway is an entire old Palestinian village. This is exceptional as post-1948 most villages were completely destroyed and you can only notice their remains by the lingering cactus plants which dot the countryside or by impressive forests planted by the JNF. But Lifta is practically all still standing. Our Professor explained how this is due to its liminality: it is both inside Jerusalem and outside Jerusalem. Because of its amorphous location, it has been left untouched. Neither here nor there.

We walked down a dirt path and arrived at a spring where an entire group of Haredi men were bathing in a intricately constructed basin which connected to a sophisticated system of water and aquifers. Nah-Nakh from Brasilov graffiti smiled down from the walls, and plastic Coca-Cola bottles and trash littered the area. We made a right turn down an intricate and sturdy cobblestone pathway and our professor led us to the village mosque, acknowledged the neighborhood oven where families would bake bread, and we sat underneath the shade of fig trees as he recounted the personal narrative of a Palestinian named Ya'akub who now lives in East Jerusalem and fled from the village with his family to Ramallah at age 8 in 1948. 

Ya'akub would describe Lifta as a paradise surrounded by fig trees, almond trees, pomegranate trees, carob trees, olive trees and a thriving agricultural industry. These were the seven species found in the Garden of Eden that are named in Jewish tradition. Lifta was not just a village, it practically owned most of contemporary central and north- central Jerusalem, all the way to Nablus gate and the French Hill. At that time Jerusalem was confined to within the Old City Walls, and the surrounding land was owned and rented out by Lifta. In 1946, 7,780 Muslim Arabs lived there, 756 Jews rented land and 20 Christians. There are sources which claim that this area was settled all the way back to the time of Canaanites (and or the Ancient Israelites, it depends on who tells the story), and the spring of the village is mentioned in Pharaonic texts. A 1553 census from the Ottoman Empire documents that 71 families lived in the village. It was a collective based community, and the heart of the village was the spring that we had already walked by. It served as a plaza for communal gatherings, women and children, and the elders. Decisions over how to divide the communal land (masha') were made while sitting under a mulberry tree next to the water.

As the tensions rose in 1947, the Lechi-Stern group threw a grenade into the café of the village and 4 people died. Ya'akub's family fled to Ramallah. Residents from Lifta are now scattered around the world, but the community continues to nurture its bonds with centers in Jerusalem, Ramallah, Chicago, Amman, Zakra and Austin, Texas. If there is a wedding, there is no invitation—it's assumed that you'll be invited. If there's a funeral, everyone goes. No question. 

Crossing the threshold.

Crossing the threshold.

People come to this village today to sit in the abandoned buildings and look out across the incredible view or go swimming in the springs. Haredi Jewish men use the spring as a mikveh on Fridays to perform the ritual cleansing before Shabbat. Our security guard (who we were required by the university to have trailing behind us on the excursion) mentioned that Lifta is known for being a smoking spot for Haredim and Kahene extremists. There is graffiti everywhere, damage everywhere, marks of fires. The general disrepair is in such contrast to the intricate details of the stone arches, the thoughtful placement of paths, the lingering blue paint which shows how luxurious this home once was. In one building, the foundation stone in the doorway had been removed and it is just waiting to collapse. As the history of this valley sunk in, I couldn't help thinking how strange it felt to be walking through ruins of a community who is still living. Their ghosts seemed to haunt the high vaulted rooms. It's not like walking through a Roman amphitheater and feeling the immensity of an ancient empire. There are broken tiles on these floors that a living generation walked on not so long ago. And here I am crossing the threshold without an invitation by the true owner and I'm slapped in the face by the graffiti marking the walls which says "Death to Arabs" and "Lifta is revenging the Arabs."

As we gathered on the bus to return to university, our professor challenged us. Both these locations carry a certain narrative, how do we take a step back to put it into historical context? My thoughts ran, but I couldn't find words to answer. The history is still unfolding around us daily, and the story of Motza and Lifta are not far enough removed to be stared at objectively. The schoolhouse of Lifta is surrounded by the shopping mall near the bus station which I see every time I take a bus back to Jerusalem from elsewhere. The red roof-tiles and old stones glare at the city which has developed around it. Jerusalem is city that is ever-evolving and never-forgetting.

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Lita carved in Arabic on a cactus plant

Lita carved in Arabic on a cactus plant