Jewish-Arab Relations in Old Jerusalem: Part One



In this letter, we will once again “visit” the religious Jewish community that dwelled in Jerusalem before the rise of the secular Zionist movement. As we previously discussed, the members of this religious Jewish community, together with other religious Jews in the Land of Zion, were known for their love of Hashem, their love of the Torah, and their love of the sacred land that Hashem gave us for the complete fulfillment of the Torah. They therefore opposed the attempt of the secular Zionist movement to have Jewish nationalism replace the Torah as the guiding spirit of our people. Through their loyalty to the Torah, the Divine Teaching, they became known as “chareidim” – a biblical term for those who are fervently devoted to the Divine word (Isaiah 66:5).


The religious Jews in Jerusalem – including Ashkenazic, Sephardic, Yemenite, and Eastern Jews – dwelled among religious Arabs, and in this next segment of our series, I will begin to discuss with you the relationship between these Jews and their Arab neighbors. Our discussion will include both the negative and the positive aspects of this relationship.


As we know, Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld became a major spiritual leader of the religious Jewish community in Jerusalem. Our discussion will therefore include a few fascinating stories about the respectful relationship that Rav Yosef Chaim had with some of the spiritual leaders of the Arabs, including Sheik Nimar, a major Moslem leader in Jerusalem.


Dear Friends,


One of the books that I have cited in this series is “Guardian of Jerusalem – the Life and Times of Rabbi Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld.” This work has historical accounts about the life of the Jews in the Land of Zion during the 19th and early 20th centuries, when the Land under the rule of Turkey, a Moslem country. These accounts reveal that Jews living in the Land experienced economic and political discrimination under Moslem rule. In addition, there were roving bands of Bedouin robbers that preyed on the entire population, especially the Jews.


There were also a few anti-Jewish sheiks that encouraged violence against the Jews during a local Moslem festival known as “Nebi Musa” – the Prophet Moses. This seven-day festival honors the memory of Moses; yet, these sheiks hated the Jews, the people of Moses. The following amazing story about Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld took place on one of the days of this Moslem festival:


It was the sixth day of Passover, 5660 (1900), and the joy of the festival was marred by the tragic and untimely passing of a prominent Torah scholar. As was his custom, Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld accompanied the funeral procession by foot from the city gates all the way to the ancient Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives. The procession took place during the intermediate days of the festival when some forms of work are permitted. According to Jewish tradition, the body of the deceased should be buried as soon as possible; thus, they hoped to complete the burial before evening, when the Seventh Day of Passover would begin and work would be forbidden. En route, the Jews noticed an Arab procession approaching in the distance which was in honor of the local Moslem festival of Nebi Musa. Thirty thousand strong, the Arab celebrants shouted and wailed in tones of religious ecstasy. The members of the chevra kaddisha the holy burial society – quickly calculated that at their present pace, the Arab procession would block off the main road before the funeral procession could cross it on the way to the burial site, and the burial would then have to be delayed until after Passover. It was decided that only the younger participants would continue on, in order to rush the body past the main road before it became blocked off. The members of the chevra kaddisha therefore respectfully asked Rav Yosef Chaim to remain behind and allow the younger participants to go ahead, but he only quickened his pace, reaching the main road just ahead of the Arab procession, which was led by Sheik Nimar. Rav Yosef Chaim then placed himself squarely in the middle of the road and raised both hands as a sign for the procession of thirty thousand Arabs to halt!


To the utter amazement of the Jews, Sheik Nimar turned around and halted the Arab procession! He then turned to Rav Yosef Chaim and explained that due to the great honor and esteem in which he held the Rav, he would allow the funeral procession to pass. Rav Yosef Chaim parted with a blessing to Sheik Nimar, and the funeral procession continued on its way. After the Nebi Musa procession was over, the Jews returned to the city and began the evening prayers for the concluding day of Passover.


The following historical insights can help us to better appreciate the significance of the above story:


There were periods in our history when “religion” was a cause of tension between Arabs and Jews. For example, there were periods when violent Moslem groups among the Arabs tried to forcibly convert the Jews. Although there were some Arab countries that gave the Jews religious freedom, they did not usually give the Jews equal rights, for they tended to view Jews and other non-Moslems as tolerated minorities with a second-class status.


Despite these difficulties, there were periods in Jewish history when “religion” was a cause of respectful and even friendly relations between Arabs and Jews. In order to understand how these better relations developed, we need to be aware that the monotheism of Islam was inspired by the monotheism of Judaism. (This is also why Islam, like Judaism, rejected the Christian deification of Jesus.) Both Jews and Arabs were known for their strong faith in the One and Only God Who created the universe, Who revealed eternal truths, and Who will ultimately redeem the world. Many deeply religious Arabs therefore felt a connection with the deeply religious Jews who lived among them. In addition, the leading Torah sages among the Jews were usually respected by the majority of the Arabs.


Examples of these good relations could be found in Old Jerusalem. The following example is mentioned in the book, “Where heaven touches earth” – a book by Dovid Rossoff which describes Jewish life in Jerusalem from medieval times to the present. This history book cites excerpts from a report by Rav Ben Zion Yadler about the life of Jews living in the Moslem Quarter of the Old City at the beginning of the 20th century. During the 19th century, the Jewish population of the Old City was rapidly increasing, and Jews began moving out of the overcrowded Jewish Quarter of the Old City into the Moslem Quarter. Rav Yadler, who was a famous magid – preacher – grew up in the Moslem quarter, and he writes:


“The hub of Jewish activity in the Moslem Quarter of the Old City is centered around Hebron Street, and northward towards the Damascus Gate…There were twenty-two synagogues in that area, both Ashkenazic and Sephardic, and two Ashkenazic yeshivos, Toras Chaim and Chayei Olam, as well as Sephardic ones…The neighborhood was mixed with Arabs; nevertheless, one was not afraid to walk alone through the alleyways, and there did not exist any animosity between Moslem and Jew. In fact, a spirit of benevolence existed there.”


Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld serves as an example of a leading sage who was respected by the majority of the Arabs in Jerusalem. Rav Yosef Chaim also developed respectful relationships with a number of Arab leaders. As the above story about the Nebi Musa procession indicates, his respectful relationship with Sheik Nimar caused the Arab procession to allow the Jewish funeral procession to peacefully cross the road; thus, a local Arab festival which was often associated with violence against our people became an opportunity for showing respect to our people.


In future letters, I hope to discuss why tensions between Arabs and Jews greatly increased when the secular Zionist movement gained more power and influence in the Land of Zion. I also hope to discuss with you how Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld and other chareidi leaders attempted to relieve these increasing tensions. Their efforts to achieve peace with the Arabs were supported by “Agudath Israel” – an international chareidi organization founded in 1912 by the Chofetz Chaim and other leading Torah sages in Europe. Rav Yosef Chaim became a leader of the branch of Agudath Israel in Jerusalem. This organization stressed that the Torah is the guiding spirit of our people. The founding conference of Agudath Israel therefore proclaimed that its goal was nothing less than “the solution of all problems facing the Jewish people in the spirit of Torah.” (The Struggle and the Splendor)



Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen  (See below)


Related Information:


1. As we mentioned in a previous letter, Rav Yehoshua Leib Diskin was a leading sage who was also the founder of an orphanage in Jerusalem which was first located in the Moslem Quarter. The orphanage later moved to West Jerusalem. Rav Diskin lived for a period in the Moslem Quarter, and the following information about this period of his life appears in the book, “Where heaven touches earth”:


“Rav Yehoshua Leib Diskin purchased a courtyard in the middle of the Moslem Quarter in 1881 as the premises for his new orphanage. He chose the upper floor apartment as his home since its windows faced the Temple Mount. Until he moved outside the city walls a few years later for health reasons, Rav Diskin’s disciples studied with him there…Wherever he went in the Moslem Quarter, the Arabs regarded him with awe, standing for him and taking care that his way was unobstructed.”


2. Dovid Rossoff is the author of the well-researched book, “Where heaven touches earth” – Jewish life in Jerusalem from medieval times to the present. It is published by Guardian Press. For further information, you can write to the author at: Rossoff @ . He can also be reached at his home in Har Nof, Jerusalem, and you can write to me for his phone number.


The story about Rav Yosef Chaim and Sheik Nimar appears in “Guardian of Jerusalem – the Life and Times of Rabbi Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld.” For information on this book, visit:  

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