During the week of Passover, Ateret Cohanim is offering free guided tours of the Old City’s Muslim Quarter, giving Jewish and Christian visitors a rare opportunity to see first hand an unknown part of the saga of the Jews’ ongoing return to Jerusalem.
The free tour of the Old City runs Sunday through Thursday of Passover with groups meeting at the rear of the Western Wall Plaza. The tours run throughout the day and the family-friendly route leaves every 20-30 minutes and takes about an hour to complete.
Last year, approximately 5,000 visitors took participated in Ateret Cohanim’s tour of the Jewish areas of the “Muslim Quarter.” The tour takes people to see rooftop vistas, stopping off at all the main buildings that have played major roles in the Jewish return to their ancestral capital city.
“Many people, even Israelis, don’t know that Jews live in these areas,” Daniel Luria, Ateret Cohanim’s executive director, told Breaking Israel News. “Even fewer people know the Jewish history of the Muslim and Christian Quarters, what I refer to as the Old Jewish Quarter.”
“In the mid-1800’s, there was a Jewish majority in Jerusalem and the Muslim Quarter of today was the main hub of Jewish activity,” Luria said. “According to a Turkish census, there were over 19,000 Jews living in the Old City out of a population of 28,000.”
The Jews were driven out by Arab violence, pogroms that decimated the Jewish population, and the British Mandate that wanted to move the Jews out. Luria explained that before the Arab occupation of the Old Jewish Quarter, now referred to as the Muslim Quarter, the area hosted 21 synagogues and six yeshivot (institutions of Torah learning).
“When the Arabs drove the Jews out in 1948, they could have theoretically used these buildings for their own purpose but they chose to destroy them in an attempt to erase the evidence of Jewish history,” Luria said. “There are now four yeshivot, a synagogue, and about one thousand Jewish residents actively reviving Jewish life in the Old Jewish Quarter.”
Luria described a part of Jerusalem’s history that he describes as a “mini-miracle.” From 1948 until ten months before the Six-Day War in 1967, Arab squatters had taken over the entire Jewish Quarter.
“That was when the Jordanians announced their master plan to demolish the Jewish Quarter in order to redevelop it,” Luria related. “Towards this end, they removed most of the Arab squatters with the promise that they would return to a new city. So when Israel captured the area in 1967, we developed what is now the Jewish Quarter. But the Jordanians had already done the heavy lifting by emptying the quarter out.”
Luria and the other Ateret Cohanim guides also relate their insiders’ perspective on the sometimes-tragic side of the Jewish return. The tour of the Old City stops at the spot where Rabbi Nehemiah Lavi and Aharon Banita were killed in 2015. Luria sees the tours as playing an essential role in combating terror.
“When an Arab child grows up being told that his older brother is a martyr-hero for playing a role in driving the Jews out of Jerusalem, then he will follow suit,” Luria said. “But if he sees Jews walking in the Old City proclaiming that we are here to stay, he will have no choice but to learn to live with us.”
The tour of the Yemenite village at the Shiloah Spring begins at Sha’ar Haashpot (Dung Gate) and takes slightly longer. The tour of Shiloah requires more walking and the slope can be daunting to some. Last year, about 800 people visited the Yemenite village. The tours include a security escort and extra police are patrolling the area.
“This is a new experience for most people,” Luria said. “It is a shock to go down into what most people think is an entirely Arab neighborhood and to be greeted by a huge Israeli flag covering the side of a multi-story building.”
The Shiloah Pool is mentioned in the Bible and was a prominent element of Biblical Jerusalem. A Yemenite Jewish neighborhood was established in the area in 1882 but Arab riots decimated it in the early 1900’s. In 1938, the British took out the last 35 families with the false promise they would be permitted to return shortly to their homes.
Thanks to the efforts of Ateret Cohanim, Jewish life was reestablished in the old Yemenite Village. Today there are 21 Jewish families living in the fledgling community.
The tour culminates in a video presentation in the Yemenite Synagogue which was returned to the Jewish community two years ago when, after a protracted legal battle, the Israeli Supreme Court evicted the illegal Arab squatters. The synagogue is in the process of being restored after 80 years of Arab occupation.
His everyday work is practical, not unlike a real-estate developer, but Daniel Luria is clear about the spiritual implications.
“The first half of the two-stage process of Messiah, what we call Messiah from the House of Joseph, is practical and mundane,” Luria said. “It involves settling the land. We try to involve people in this, whether it be by helping us reclaim Jewish sections of Jerusalem or just walking the land.”
Luria explained that despite the IDF victory in the Six-Day War, the Jewish presence in the holiest sections of their eternal capital is still being questioned in the political forum.
“We cannot abandon Jerusalem,” Luria said. “Simply by walking the ancient stones in these areas, we are completing what the IDF set in motion over 50 years ago. Ateret Cohanim are the modern-day paratroopers fighting the seventh-day of the Six Day War.”
The tour is free but the public is encouraged to learn more about Ateret Cohanim’s important work outlined in a free eBook “The Battle for Jerusalem: The Story of Ateret Cohanim.”
“We do the tours because it is essential that people get excited about Jerusalem; excited, learned, and involved,” Luria said. “If we do that, then the war has been won.”