Text and pictures by Severi Raja-aho
Musrara is a district in Jerusalem, located on the north from the old city walls. It is bordered by road #1 that divides the city in half to western and eastern sides, Beit Yisrael to the north, a dominantly ultra-orthodox Jewish neighbourhood, and Jerusalem city hall to the west. It is a site that can be considered as a microcosm of the history of Israeli civil society but it has also worked as a bridge between east and west Jerusalem. Because of the sensitive, space and cityscape have played a major role in how its residents have perceived the surrounding conflict.
During the 19th century Jerusalem began to become overcrowded and the residents started to move outside the old city walls. One of the districts that was formed as a result of this settlement movement was Musrara. It was inhabited by newly emerging middle classes that were Muslim, Christian and Jewish alike. The war of 1948 changed dramatically demographics of Jerusalem as the city was divided into Jordanian east and Israeli west. Musrara became a battleground between the Jews and Muslims and the district was split by the green line that divided the city. Former residential area became part of Israeli side of the line, eastern side became part of Jordanian Jerusalem and the centre became a border area between the two. The only crossing point across the line in the city was in northern part of Musrara. Regardless of the peace agreement, conflict continued in the local level as snipers in both side continued to exchange fire across the district. Due to lack of social and public order the district became exposed to crime.
After the founding of the state of Israel thousands of Jews migrated to the holy land and many poorer families found their home in the abandoned homes of Musrara. Most of the migrants were of Mizrahi-origin (Middle-eastern Jews), who worked as hard laborers. Initially people coming from different cultural backgrounds who spoke different languages experienced conflict between them, especially between Mizrahi Jews (Jews originating from the Middle-east), Sephardi Jews (Jews originating from Southern Europe) and Ashkenazi (Yiddish-speaking European Jews) who represented the Israeli elite. Suspicion towards the Mizrahi was especially big as they spoke Arabic, the language of the common enemy. They were looked down as uncivilized and even primitive by the state elite both from the left and right side of the political spectrum. The Mizrahis represented the lower classes of the society and their culture was systematically repressed by the state. Because of poverty the locals (both Jews and Christians) started to share rations from religious groups and the state together. Immigrants who originated from Arab countries still had a sense of nostalgia and memory towards their former countries that was expressed in art and music. Harsh conditions created an environment when the locals started to rely on each other and started to formalize a local identity that was almost unattached to surrounding conflict between the Jews and Arabs.
The local community had tense relations with the Israeli state. In 1959 an incident where police shot a young Mizrahi named Elkarif brought the feelings of alienation among the Mizrahi to protests that led to arresting of 34 people in Haifa. Because of continuing poverty, lack of Mizrahi representation in decision making and cultural repression. The Moroccan Jews even attempted to plead to the King of their country of origin to take them back.
The protests and their aftermath created a wedge between then leftist Israeli government and the Mizrahi and contributed to creation of a new political movement in Musrara, the Black Panthers. The movement was inspired by a political party of the same name in the United States that advocated for improving the social conditions of African-American communities. The founders in Israel saw parallels in the social conditions of African-Americans to Mizrahis in Israel. As in the American branch of the movement, the Panterim (as they were called in Israel) were essentially anti-establishment and emphasized their Mizrahi-identity like the Black Panthers nurtured pride of their African-American culture. In Jerusalem the Pantherim organized demonstration and even stole food from the richer districts of the city and distributed to the poor as a symbolic demonstration of social inequality. The Panthers also organized demonstrations with the Israeli peace movement, and one of the prominent members, Ilan Halevi, was also a member of the Palestinian resistance movement. The members saw themselves as Arabs and linked their anti-racist struggle to that of the Palestinians. Reuven Abergil, one of the founders of the movement, even called for the Mizhari for returning to their “true” home in the Arab world. The highlight for the movement happened on May 18th of 1971 in Jerusalem, as the Panthers gathered a crowd of 7000 people to the Zion square in Jerusalem. The Panthers posed a challenge to Zionist ideology of the established Israeli state, which is why even though the movement was relatively small in scale, it had to confront it in one way or another.
The Black Panther movement eventually assimilated to rest of the society and became part of mainstream political parties and social life. The changes could be seen in the cityscape of Musrara during the 1970’s as houses were renovated as part of a national housing policy plan. This was part of a competition for Mizrahi votes in politics, as they constituted 60% of the overall Israeli population. Social development programs were part of the right-wing campaign to win these votes when the Israeli left-wing was mostly concerned with peace. Many of the Mizrahi voted for the right-wing Likud-party in the 1977 general elections as the party especially addressed their socio-economic concerns. The ideology that was born in this peculiar spot between two opposing blocks did withered away as Israeli states’ social development programs bridged the gap between the Middle-eastern Jews and other groups. Public unrest that formulated into the Black Panthers movement in Musrara had its primary roots in socio-economic grievances of the Mizrahi and Shepardi-population and an experience on inequality to the upper class of Israeli society that represented a different ethnic group.
The locals who originally squatted the abandoned houses became small-scale real estate owners as they were able to have their say in the renovation of the old Ottoman-Arab houses which made the district a trendy and valuable part of the City. The houses were then sold to middle-class Jews and foreign diplomats and journalists who moved to the newly renovated beautiful houses. Since the 1980’s increasing number of Orthodox Jews have established their homes to the holy city and some of them have been able to buy property from Musrara as well. Today it is referred to as a melting pot of Jerusalem as there are Mizrahi, Ultra-Orthodox, Arab Christian and international residents alike and in a way has returned to its middle-class identity. Instead of a mixed neighbourhood unattached from both Israeli or Palestinian societies like it used to be, it has become a solid part of modern Israel.
Conditions of systematic, structural discrimination created a moment of understanding, a bridge between a segment of Israelis and Palestinians. Musrara gives an interesting example of how cityscape can create pockets of understanding. The people in Musrara were in daily contact with the people coming from “the other side” of the city when the green line still divided the city. The cityscape combined with shared cultural heritage and socio-economic alienation from the public life during the 1950’s and 1960’s created a fertile ground for a movement like the Black Panthers to emerge from this area. It is also an example of a localized form of resistance to a conflict.
Mordechai Bar-On In Pursuit of Peace: A History of the Israeli Peace Movement, 1996.
Paola Caridi: Musrara, the Centre of the World, Jerusalem Quarterly Vol. 62, 2015.