The murky relations between the Hebrew University and its neighboring Palestinian village

A new Hebrew University building offers a revealing look at both the hardscrabble nature of an adjacent East Jerusalem village and the striking contrast between the two sites.

A new building sits on the edge of the Botanical Gardens on the Hebrew University’s Mount Scopus campus: the Mandel School for Advanced Studies in the Humanities, which was completed last year. Large windows installed along the building’s eastern corner and its fifth floor expose viewers inside to the sprawl and beauty of the Palestinian village of Isawiyah, which is located a few hundred meters from the campus fence.

Yet the view can be disturbing for students and lecturers, who until now could hear the muezzin’s call for prayer or even, in the parking lot, feel the tear gas emanating from the village, but were generally shielded from its sights.

Last week, the building hosted its first conference, which addressed the complicated relationship between the campus and the East Jerusalem village.

“You see the inequality,” says doctoral candidate Omri Shafer Raviv. “There are no roads, no parks [in Isawiyah]. The garbage isn’t cleared. While I do research [here], someone collects my garbage from the trash bin and puts in a new bag.”

Raviv says he can hear the booms and see Border Police officers firing tear gas and stun grenades. “It’s scary, but you feel safe in the building,” he says. “At first you say, ‘What’s going on here?’ But I’ve noticed that I’ve started getting used to it, and it becomes part of the scenery.”

Mutual relations between the village and university are mostly negative: the campus constitutes another part of the Israeli space constricting the village; a police blockade has prevented vehicles from leaving the village in the direction of Mount Scopus for the past 12 years; students and teachers have to adjust to firebombs being hurled at the streets surrounding the university; and female students complain of sexual harassment and a lack of security at night.

“The most prominent presence of Isawiyah on campus are the contracted cleaners who come from there,” says political activist Uri Agnon, who also works in the village. “Contract work is a way of exploiting people without being the one exploiting them. It’s also the best metaphor for university-Isawiyah relations. The lecturers didn’t create the blockades preventing vehicles from leaving Isawiyah. The police did, but in the university’s name.”

He says the worst example of their problematic relationship is the sewage system. “In the winter, when rains fall, municipal sewers carry the shit to Isawiyah. I don’t think it’s intentional, but this university is a very big body that acts apathetically,” says Agnon. “When they says neighborly relations, they hint at symmetry – but there is no symmetry between a contract worker and his employer. We are next to each other, but not neighbors.”

Inside the enclave

These murky relations have a long history. Isawiyah is unique among East Jerusalem villages for being the only one that was part of the pre-1967 Mount Scopus Jewish enclave. Soldiers disguised as policemen (since the military was prohibited from operating in the area) patrolled the mount from 1948 to 1967, and had bitter clashes with Isawiyah villagers.

Prof. Yfaat Weiss, a Hebrew University historian researching the enclave, presented her main findings at the conference – including a 1953 complaint from Palestinian villagers about Israel destroying the way leading from Isawiyah to Jordanian Jerusalem:

“We wonder how much pleasure the Jewish soldiers in Hadassah and the Israeli government in Palestine get out of making the life of the Issawiya [sic] people miserable, or of seeing an old man slipping and falling in the mud, or a young school boy or girl going to school and coming half soaked,” the complaint said. “Perhaps they get more pleasure out of a young wife dying during childbirth because she could not get to a hospital.”

Palestinian villager Hani Issawi, a political activist, recalls the Israeli soldiers who conquered the village in 1967. “The bullets they fired from the university are still in the houses’ walls,” he says, noting that the new university building was constructed on lands expropriated from his family.

The village under the campus has grown a lot since 1967 but the authorities have neglected it, like the other Palestinian neighborhoods in Jerusalem. Most village homes were built without permits, since they can’t get a permit in an area for which a building plan was never prepared. City hall thwarted an attempt by villagers to prepare such a plan, which had been drawn up the assistance of Bimkom – Planners for Planning Rights.

Relations deteriorated during the second intifada, which is when the police closed the village exit toward the university. Isawiyah has been one of the stormiest East Jerusalem villages in recent years, with the biggest demonstrations, probably the most stone- and firebomb-throwing, and the source of many attacks. The home of administrative detainee Samer Issawi is just a short distance from the Mandel building. His hunger strike two years ago threatened to ignite the entire West Bank.

However, Isawiyah residents also suffer forceful police policies. Checkpoints have become routine, alongside the massive and sometimes arbitrary use of tear-gas grenades, sponge-tipped bullets and arrests. Aided by a handful of Israeli activists, villagers tried to fight for Isawiyah’s future, but most battles have ended in failure. For years, the French Hill neighborhood, Hadassah hospital, the Jerusalem-Dead Sea road and the West Bank separation barrier have isolated it. And now, a landfill and national park that would prevent any further expansion are planned. Doctoral candidates can see all of this from the beautiful building’s big windows.

“We got so used to looking only westward to see the beautiful Jerusalem, but we look eastward and feel uncomfortable when looking at Mount Scopus’ backyard,” says Mandel director Prof. Israel Yuval, one of the conference’s initiators. Referring to a famous Hebrew song, he asks, “Do we need to understand the words ‘From Mount Scopus greetings to you, Jerusalem’ the opposite way? ‘Goodbye to you, Jerusalem as we knew you.’ Should we feel shame to reside in such a beautiful building that looks over its sparse surroundings?”

Nitzan Tal, a researcher at the university, believes the discomfort the village arouses also serves to spark the intellect. “I ask myself how many village blockades are the direct result of me coming here so many times a week,” she says. Another researcher, Adi Livny, notes that Isawiyah is one of the most popular subjects of conversation in the building’s hallways. “What do we have to sacrifice to draw closer?” she asked the conference, where she proposed making Arabic a mandatory study.

“Seeing Isawiyah from here is very different from living there,” Hani Issawi told the audience. “You can see Isawiyah from here and think people there live normal lives. I walked here from my home. It took me maybe four minutes, but it is a transition from one century to another. People need to know this and understand how difficult it is to live in Isawiyah.”