I know we’ve come a long way,
We’re changing day to day,
But tell me, where do the children play?
A feature of the growth of Jewish “settlements” in the Old City of Jerusalem – houses occupied by Jewish families, bought or rented from Muslim and Christian owners through a mix of arms-length transactions, subterfuge, proxy purchasers, and intimidation – is the appearance of “kindie convoys ” in the crowded, colourful, bustling streets of the Muslim Quarter.
You will be walking down Suq al Khan az Zait towards the Danascus Gate, or al Wad, the Main Street, towards where it crosses the Via Dolorosa at the IV and V Stations of the Cross, amidst busy weekend shoppers and folk heading to the Haram for Friday prayer. Then, of a sudden, like a school of little fish, a gaggle of small children in kippas and backpacks flows onto the crowded street, enroute to kindie or home.
But these kids are like none other around them – those running, jumping, excitable, hyperactive Arab children who regard these ancient streets as their playground. For the Jewish littlies are being herded, and guarded, by slim, casually dressed young men with tee shirts over what appear at first glance to be bulging waistlines, but are in fact utility belts that would make Batman proud, and concealed handguns.
Two to the fore, two aft, and two more on each side of the infant convoy, keeping them in line and coaxing in the strays who meander out of the designated two-by-two line. And all the time, these young men turn and scan the streets, pedestrians, the roof tops, constantly alert, constantly scanning – and not being discrete about it either. They make no pretense at subtlety. For their very attitude is a warning, a demonstration of firepower, to any who would disturb or threaten their little convoy in any way: “you don’t want to mess with us!”
It reminded us of the scene in Series Three of “Deadwood” when, after Alma Garrett is fired upon by Hearst’s hired guns, antihero Al Swearengen orders his men to watch over her as she walks to her bank.
We follow them for quite a distance – immediately behind them, in fact -, and the rearguard look us up and down too. This is not the time for grabbing a Kodak moment.
Then, just as suddenly as they first appeared, the young men herd their charges into the passageway of a hidden house, or up a deserted alleyway, the wary rearguard facing the street until their cargo is safely delivered.
And then they are all gone.
The events described above took place in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City.
The population of the Old City is overwhelmingly Muslim – are an estimated thirty thousand Muslims here, and the population is growing due to high birth rates.
In the past, Christians, predominantly Armenian and Greek Orthodox, constituted a significant minority, concentrated in the centuries-old Christian and Armenian Quarters. The Arab Christian population has declined significantly since 1967, and stands at less than 6,000 according to the latest census figures. As with so many things in Jerusalem, appearances are deceptive. In the Christian Quarter, where pilgrims and clergy throng 24/7, almost all of the shops that cater for the tourists and the faithful are owned by Muslim Arabs as Christian owners have sold up and departed.
Christian numbers have declined drastically over recent decades, a development that has been mirrored throughout East Jerusalem and the Occupied Territories. From some 20% during the Mandate, to under 1% today. Bethlehem was once a predominantly Christian city, and this is no longer the case. Ramallah’s population used to be about 20% Christian, but no more.
The Jewish Quarter, which appears so vibrant and fresh since being rebuilt and repopulated 1967, and bustling with people visiting the Kotel and the many synagogues, is home to some three thousand souls only. In addition, there are some two thousand transient yeshiva students. Apart from the Jewish Quarter, Jewish residents are very few, living in dwellings scattered throughout the Muslim Quarter.
A Bigger Picture
This is Jerusalem. In London, Paris, and in other cities throughout Europe, synagogues and Jewish schools are for good reason under armed guard as antisemitism rises.