New program topples invisible walls between Arabs and Jews in Jerusalem

12:00 Nov 18 2011 Old Yishuv Court Museum, Jerusalem

Anyone entering The Old Yishuv Court Museum in the Jewish Quarter on Wednesday morning could have seen a group of sixth-graders sitting in a room designed as a synagogue and clapping to the rhythm of an old Jewish song. After the song was over the guide explained that just like many other fields, Jewish music, too, was deeply influenced by Arab neighbors. "Did you hear the darbukas?" she asked. The schoolchildren's teacher translated the explanation into Arabic. The children are from one of the schools in the Muslim Quarter, and are taking part in an almost secret project. This is the second year that Arab children visit the museum in the Jewish Quarter.

Whoever is familiar with the Old City of Jerusalem knows that the invisible walls surrounding each quarter are as high as those that surround the Old City. Many inhabitants of the Jewish Quarter or Muslim Quarter have never set foot in the neighboring quarter.
model synagogue - Olivier Fitoussi - 18112011

Palestinian students visiting a model synagogue in Jerusalem’s Jewish Quarter on Thursday.
Photo by: Olivier Fitoussi

"Some of the teachers felt like it was a trip abroad, even though the museum is a three-minute walk from their school," explains Ofra Regev, who initiated the project. Regev, a travel guide, has good connections in the Muslim Quarter and leads several volunteer projects, among them, one project with the small city's small Gypsy community. She managed to convince the municipality of Jerusalem to spare some funds for the museum project.

The goal of the special visit is to show that the invisible wall didn't always exist, and that the differences between the inhabitants of the quarters aren't as large as they seem. Ora Fickel-Zabari, the museum's curator and coordinator admits that she, too, doesn't cross the line between the neighborhoods, but talks about a different reality when the children arrive. "You have the Ramadan, and we have Yom Kippur and several other fasts. You pray five times a day and we pray three times. You have the haj to Mecca and we have pilgrimages," she explains.

Some of the words - fast, charity, purity - don't have to be translated since they're similar in both languages and religions. Fickel-Zabari tells the children about the time when Jews and Arabs lived in the same neighborhood or even shared the same apartment. "One room was for Jews, the other for Arabs, and they helped each other," she says. "On Saturdays, for example, the Jews couldn't light a fire and are forbidden to ask anyone else to do so. But if a Jew would stand with a long face in the entrance to the building the Arab would understand and light a fire for him. Religious Jews aren't allowed to play music at weddings, so Arab musicians would come and play."

The children are curious and ask about the Torah and the shofar, which they've seen in souvenir shops, but never knew what they were.

In the room depicting the professions of the inhabitants of the Jewish Quarter, Fickel-Zabari recalls the story of "saida (Mrs. ) Mendelbaum", who had a large blanket and linen store. "She would sell her products to Jews and Arabs alike, and sometimes agree to be paid in installments. Her grandson (Moshe Mendelbaum, a former Governor of the Bank of Israel, N.H. ), said that one night, after 1967 he heard loud knocks on the door. It was people from the Old City who came to pay back their debts. That's how it goes when people are well educated."

Rubin Abu Shamisia, the teacher that accompanies the children, says that the project is controversial among the teachers in the school, and flatly refuses to reveal the school's name. He claims that Arabs that visit the Jewish Quarter are subject to racist and often violent reactions. "Two weeks ago we came with a group of students, and we had garbage thrown at us. We headed straight to the police station, but they did nothing," he recalls. Abu Shamisia insists that the children are curious and have many questions following their visit to the museum. "I've been asked about the Jews, the synagogue and the relations between Jews and Arabs. I believe everyone should know about the other, and that before the State of Israel was created there were very good relations between Jews and Arabs."

One of the reasons that the museum lends itself to reconciliation between Jews and Arabs is that most of the exhibitions deal with the Ottoman era, and the pre-Zionist Jewish inhabitants, before the rise of Zionism and the nationalist tensions that dominate the city. Another reason, according to Almog Sharav, the museum's director, is that it mostly deals with the material culture of the Jews, which was very similar to that of their neighbors. Still it's not that easy. "Jews have lived in this building for 500 years now," he says. "That doesn't always fit the Arab concept of Jerusalem. They accept it without arguing - or maybe they're just polite."

Curator Fickel-Zabari also does her best to avoid problematic issues. "Last year we had a exhibition about the Quarter in 1948, and when the Palestinian children came, we just skipped that part," she says. Sharav adds: "Ill show them the Torah books, but I don't have to tell them that we found them thrown in the streets in 1967."

More than 300 Palestinian children have already visited the museum as part of the project. Regev and Fickel-Zabari fondly remember one child who, after being told about the good relations between Jews and Arabs, asked "why can't we also live in peace today?" "If one child asks that question, it means that we've done our job well," says Regev.
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