Religious men at Siloam Pool
Photo: Adi Sastiel
Photo: Dudi Vaaknin
Suspect in shooting incident
Photo: Dudi Vaaknin

Religious use contested east J'lem site as mikveh

It happens every Friday: Religious men turn public Pool of Siloam in Silwan into a ritual bath – enter water naked and ward off anyone who approaches. This is what the source of a 3,000-year-long conflict looks like today

How did a pastoral pool become another source of conflict in embroiled east Jerusalem? The neighborhood of Silwan, which is located in southeast Jerusalem and borders on the Old City, is one of the most politically loaded areas in the capital.


In recent years, am intractable territorial and ideological battle is being waged between the neighborhood's Arab residents and a number of Jewish organizations buying up property there with the objective of Judaizing the area, which is next to the biblical City of David. The area is steeped in biblical history, and is considered critically important real estate for Arabs and Jews alike.


Recently, yet another nationalistic, historical and bureaucratic source of conflict has popped up in the area. The Pool of Siloam, a fresh-water reservoir at the tip of the City of David and in the center of Silwan. The pool, which served as a source of water for Jews, Palestinians, and many other peoples throughout the thousands of years of Jerusalem's history, is located at the exit of Siloam Tunnel.


The tunnel's entrance is controlled by the Jewish organization, Elad (the City of David Foundation), while the Islamic Waqf is responsible for the tunnel's exit. Even though the pool is under Waqf jurisdiction, it is open all days of the week and serves as a tourist site for the general population. However, just before the start of the Jewish Sabbath on Fridays, the story is a bit different.



Nearly ever Friday afternoon, dozens of religious and haredi Jews, equipped with towels and soap, come to bath in the pool, essentially turning the site into a purification mikveh – or, Jewish ritual bath – for men. Because the bathing is done in total nudity, entry to women, tourists, and Arab residents of the neighborhood is thwarted by the bathers even though it is a public site.


When Arab youths approach the site, virulent clashes often break out between the two sides. The every-day tension flares to even higher levels.


Yonatan Mizrahi, an archeologist with the Emek Hashaveh organization that conducts guided tours of the City of David, often comes to the pool area. "On Fridays, there are always clashes between the guys in the mikveh and the (tourist) groups. They shout at us, 'Women, don't come in. There are naked men here.' They don't let Palestinian children in, either," testified Mizrahi. "Every week, there is a fight over the water – is it a mikveh for the Jews or a reservoir for the village."

Silwan. At the foot of the City of David (Photo: Ron Peled)


Of course, each side has its own version to tell. "The site belongs to the people of Israel, the people of the Torah and the Bible," Yehonatan, a young haredi boy with phylacteries on his head and soap and towel in hand, told Ynet.


According to him, the tour guides and the young Palestinians conspire against the bathers and bother them on purpose while they are dipping in the mikveh. "The adult (Palestinians) have already come to terms with it, but the young people sometimes come and enter the water while we are dipping, so we kick them out. If needed, we yell at them and push them," said Yehonatan.


On the other hand, the Palestinian residents complain about harassment. "This is a public place, not a home," said Ibrahim, who owns a shop next to the pool. "Religious people come, take off their clothes, and get in the water. It is a disturbance. Christian tourists come, ladies come… it is criminal. Sometimes they also shout. If they want to dip, they should come at night, not at this hour. It's not nice."


'Violence in pool connected to shooting'

On one Friday some three weeks ago at around 6 pm, a report was called in to Jerusalem Police of a shooting attack near the Givati parking lot in Silwan. Police and rescue forces arrived on the site, where they found two lightly wounded – a 13-year-old boy and Ahmad Karayin, 40, who lives in the neighborhood.


The shooter, a 21-year-old Jewish youth was arrested close to the scene. During his investigation, he said that he felt threatened when he was attacked by Arab residents of the neighborhood, so he pulled out his gun and fired the shots. Security cameras at the parking lot even caught some of the violent incident on tape.


The residents of the Silwan claimed that the reason for the shooting was an argument that broke out earlier at the Pool of Siloam. "I was here on a tour on that same Friday," said Mizrahi.


"At 4 pm, a boy and two other Palestinian children came by and were driven away by shouts. According to what I understood, around 6 pm, there was a violent exchange between the residents and Jews who came to bathe. A little later, the shooting occurred. What started at the pool as minor violence, ended in significant violence – shooting at a person," described Mizrahi.


The motive behind the shooting still remains unclear, but the fact that emotions run high in Silwan is undisputed.


"The pool, like any other water source, is reason for struggle," noted Mizrahi. "This is also what is cited as the original reason that people came to live in the City of David – control over the source of water, which, ultimately, is the source of power over the entire region."


פרסום ראשון: 10.04.09, 13:39
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