click here to jump to start of article
  • Torah Reading: Naso
Join Our Newsletter

Get latest articles and videos with Jewish inspiration and insights​

My Arab Neighbors

My Arab Neighbors

A rude awakening after the death of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin.


I live in the walled Old City of Jerusalem, on the edge of the Jewish Quarter. A two-minute walk from my house is the Arab shuk. When I first came here 19 years ago, the shuk was a bustling bazaar, which drew crowds of foreign tourists and Israelis eager to experience the exotic aromas and tastes of a genuine Middle Eastern marketplace in the heart of modern Israel. I, too, was enticed by the open stalls of fragrant spices heaped up in colorful piles, dried fruits and grains, mouth-watering Levantine sweets, and hand-crafted souvenirs (mostly from India!), all to be had by bargaining down the amiable shopkeepers.

The first surge of Arab violence in the late 1980s changed all that. While Arab youth hurled stones and burned tires, the P.L.O. declared a strike of all Arab workers and businesses. All of the stalls and shops in the shuk were locked with metal shutters. The strike lasted for weeks, then months, then years. I would hurry through the moribund narrow lanes of the shuk -- my most direct path out of the Old City -- and feel sorry for the shopkeepers, who sat on stools outside their shuttered stalls playing backgammon.

We Jews knew that they had not chosen this financial catastrophe. These shopkeepers were not the political radicals of the P.L.O. nor the religious extremists of Hamas. Rather, they were moderates, who just wanted to live in peace, raise their families, and earn their livelihoods. The P.L.O., however, forced them to stay closed. Indeed, two shops near the Damascus Gate which dared to open were promptly torched by Arafat's henchmen.

My sense that our local Arabs were moderates and pragmatists was confirmed in 2000, when Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered Arafat control of three-quarters of the Old City. In strict confidence, I asked a local Arab shopkeeper with whom I did, and do, regular business what he thought of the prospect of living under the rule of Yassar Arafat. He replied that he had grown used to freedom over the last 33 years [since the Six Day War brought Israeli democracy to all of Jerusalem], and he was not looking forward to losing that freedom.

Even when bombs started exploding in Jerusalem buses and cafes, everyone knew that the terrorists were Arabs from outside Jerusalem. The orders were given by Arafat in Ramallah and Sheikh Ahmed Yassin in Gaza, and carried out by terrorists from Hebron, Jenin, Tulkarem, and villages throughout the Palestinian Authority. The terrorism had nothing to do with our Jerusalem Arabs, who, indeed, were occasionally among the victims.

Every population has its fringe element, I told myself. The majority of Jerusalem Arabs are still moderates.

Like most Israelis, I was shocked when, in the aftermath of the Hebrew University bombing, which killed eight students, the police revealed that the perpetrators were Jerusalem Arabs. In fact, the painter who planted the bomb in a paper bag under a table in the University cafeteria lived just down the hill from me, right outside the Old City walls. Every population has its fringe element, I told myself. The majority are still moderates, or at least pragmatic enough to want the higher standard of living which Israel offers its Arab citizens.

Even when poll after poll revealed that 60-65% of Palestinians supported suicide bombings, I knew it did not reflect the attitudes of our local Jerusalem Arabs. The Oslo War had hit them hard, as fear of terrorism had kept the tourists away. The Arab shuk was sparsely patronized; the shopkeepers looked glum, the unwitting victims of Arafat's and Sheikh Yassin's bloodthirsty policies.

Two days after Israel's assassination of arch-terrorist Sheikh Yassin, I had to go into town. As I turned into the shuk, I was disconcerted to see all the stalls and shops shuttered closed. I knew that Arafat had called for three days of mourning for Yassin, but what did that have to do with our Jerusalem Arabs? They're not Hamas followers, nor are they under Arafat's authority. When the security fence is finished, these are the people who will be locked in with us on our side of the fence.

Seeing a fruit vendor whom I recognized sitting outside his shuttered stall, I stopped and asked him, "What's going on? Are you really mourning that murderer?"

Two nearby middle-aged shopkeepers approached me. "What murderer?" they asked.

"Why, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin," I retorted. "That murderer of children. Are you really in mourning for him?"

I expected them to say, I wanted them to say: "No, of course not, Fatah orders us to strike, so we strike."

Yassin was the founder and head of Hamas. And these shopkeepers -- the most moderate of the Arab population -- were mourning him like a hero?

Instead they started yelling at me in Arabic, their fists clenched and raised. One grey-haired shopkeeper shouted, "Get out of here. Who wants you here!"

I hurried past, fuming. Yassin was the founder and head of Hamas. He was personally responsible for over 400 terrorist attacks, killing 377 Israeli children, mothers, and fathers, and wounding and maiming over 2,000 innocent people. And these shopkeepers -- the most moderate of the Arab population -- were mourning him like a hero?

Almost at the Jaffa Gate exit to the Old City, I passed three white-haired shopkeepers standing in front of their large, bolted stores. Surely they were closed only out of obedience to Arafat, not sympathy with Hamas. I stopped and said politely, "May I ask you a question." They nodded, and I continued, "Are you striking because Fatah ordered you to, or do you really feel mourning in your hearts?"

The oldest of the three, wearing a tie and jacket, put his hand on his heart and said earnestly, "We really feel the mourning in our hearts."

"For that terrorist?" I exploded. "For that murderer?"

A second man faced off with me, his nose almost touching my nose. "You call him a murderer?! What about Sharon?" he yelled.

"What about Sharon?" I yelled back.

"And what about the wall? Have you seen the wall?" he thundered.

"What wall?" Now I was perplexed.

"The wall! The wall!" he raged. "The wall they are building."

"Oh," I answered, "you mean the security fence. We wouldn't be building the security fence if terrorists like Sheikh Ahmed Yassin didn't send his people to kill our children."

With that I turned and started to walk away. The third man followed me, ranting, "Who started it? Who started it? You think we want to live under you Israelis?"

I turned and faced him, "Well, do you really want to live under Arafat, with no freedom of speech, no freedom of opinion?"

"Yes! Arafat! Anyone but you Israelis!" He was seething. It suddenly occurred to me that I could get hurt. I turned toward Jaffa Gate, as he shouted after me a stream of curses. I hurried away, wondering, "If these aren't the Arab moderates, who are?"

On my way home, for the first time in 19 years, I was too afraid to walk through the shuk. I took the long way around.

Sara Yoheved Rigler’s all-encompassing online marriage program, “Choose Connection: How to Revive and Rejuvenate Your Marriage” is available to readers at a special price. Click here for more info:

March 27, 2004

Give Tzedakah! Help create inspiring
articles, videos and blogs featuring timeless Jewish wisdom.
The opinions expressed in the comment section are the personal views of the commenters. Comments are moderated, so please keep it civil.

Visitor Comments: 31

(29) HB, April 13, 2004 12:00 AM

Different Value Systems

In response to Vanessa Nocella's posting:
About a year back The Jerusalem Report interviewed Jews who had immigrated from Arabic lands, feeling that they would have the most lucid comments on the differences between the Jewish & Arabic/ Islamic cultures. I recall what one Jewish fellow from Tunesia had to say. It was to the effect that amoung Jews, the highest value is life; amoung Arabs it is honor, & you cannot ever reconcile the two.
That said Ms. Rigler showed poor judgement in out & out calling Yassin a "murderer." She could have asked the same questions in a far more low-key way and seen what the response was.

(28) Liz Bernstein, April 4, 2004 12:00 AM

Grief, Remorse and Authentic Reconciliation is the only way out

I am an American Jew who lived in Israel from 1970-1973. I returned to Israel last year, 2003 for the first time in 30 years.

I spent many hours in the Shuk cultivating relationships with the Jerusalem Arabs, both Muslim and Christian. Some of the vendors appealed to my interests in order to make a buck; others spoke with me with curiousity. One man in particular spoke openly to me about the multiple problems for Muslims living in the Old City.

That day, a group of four youngsters, about 6 years old, had thrown an empty plastic liter sized coke bottle at me. I was prepared for children. I reached into my backpack and grabbed a bunch of pencils I had purchased. As I walked towards the boys they ran away.

I realized that they were frightened, so I placed a pencil on the ground and walked away from it. One of the boys crept up to the pencil and grabbed it. We all looked at one another. I walked towards the boys again offering them another pencil. They ran away again, but as soon as I lowered the pencil a second boy came forth. Then all the kids wanted their pencils.

By the time I was done I must have given out over a dozen pencils to kids who came out of the corners of the neighborhood. The boys were dancing with the pencils - talk about turning swords into ploughshares.

When I related this story to one of the Muslim shopkeepers he nearly wept from this small story of peace. He told me that Muslim families live in cramped quarters, many kids and relatives in one place. There is a lot of domestic violence and this rage then transfer to the perceived oppressors.

Finally, I suggested to my temporary friend that I had a solution to the Middle East conflict: Muslims and Jews should go to a colliseum with only an onion and a knife in their hands. We would start peeling the onions and start to mourn our losses together. When we share our tears perhaps there is a potential to connect in that place where we are interconnected through G-d's grace.

Peace can be as simple as an onion or a pencil.

Al havay

AJ, March 8, 2013 2:30 AM

The onion and pencil

It's not as simple as extending your hand in peace to some narrow minded children. It's about how these children are raised and what they are taught. There is no simple logic here. It's all about how and when to kill all Jews and then other Western people's. Islam cannot coexist. It can only exist in a vacuum, therefore, Islam must prevail. The rest you can figure out. If your simple idea was correct , peace would have happened 60 years ago.

Silky, June 22, 2014 5:50 PM

Seasame St. wins

It sounds so perfect to just sit down and cry together for our losses but how do you give your hand in peace when the kids are taught to hate since they are babies? Even the the Arabic Sesame St. glorifies killing Israelis and Jews.

(27) Wondering Jew, April 3, 2004 12:00 AM

There are NO arab moderates

We Jews in and out of Israel have got to face the truth

See All Comments

Submit Your Comment:

  • Display my name?

  • Your email address is kept private. Our editor needs it in case we have a question about your comment.

  • * required field 2000
Submit Comment