Jerusalem's Gypsies Seek Israeli Citizenship

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Some 2,000 Gypsies living in East Jerusalem are seeking Israeli citizenship, Yossi Eli reports. The Gypsy community in Jerusalem has been considered the most impoverished in the area, suffering alienation from both Israeli and Palestinian societies, and are now seeking full citizenship status in Israel.

"Please, we are pleading with you to help us and recognize us as citizens of Israel," thus, in these heartfelt words, Mukhtar Abed el-Hakim Salim, head of the Gypsy community in Jerusalem, appealed to Mayor of Jerusalem Nir Barkat, who was visiting the Gypsy community [Oct. 28] ahead of the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha. For long years, no one was taking any notice of the Gypsy community [in Jerusalem]; however Barkat has now "adopted" the community, taking it under his patronage, and promised to do his best to help them become full-fledged Israeli citizens. "We are closer to the Jews, more so than to the Arabs," Salim told the Israeli daily newspaper Maariv. "We love the state and in the future, members of our community may even consider service in the army."

The Gypsy community in Jerusalem and its environs numbers some 2,000 people. Most of the Gypsy families live in the Bab Huta neighborhood in the Old City of Jerusalem, near the Lion's Gate, while other families live in various neighborhoods around the Old City. According to Salim, the Gypsy community has lost some of its characteristic cultural features under the influence of the Palestinian inhabitants living close by. "There are virtually no members of the community who are still speaking the Gypsy dialect," Salim says. "Almost all of them are speaking Arabic, and it's a pity."

The history of the Gypsies is shrouded in mystery. It is assessed that there are about 5 million to 11 million Gypsies in the world today, dispersed throughout the globe. According to academic sources, their origin is primarily in the region of India, and they are considered the largest group of nomads in the world. However, in the past decades, the majority of them have settled in permanent residential sites, for the most part in Eastern Europe and in other European countries.

As far as known, the Gypsies living in Israel have their roots in Iraq. As of 1967, following the reunification of Jerusalem by Israel [after the Six-Day War], the Gypsy community has become a stateless enclave in the Israeli capital. While the Gypsies hold a Jordanian passport and are regarded as permanent residents in Israel, they do not enjoy any of the privileges on either of the sides, which makes their life unbearable. "Our children go to school together with Arab children, and are exposed there to racist comments. They are snubbed by their [Arab] school mates, who look down on them and shun their society," Salim recounts.

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In fact, for long years, the Gypsy community in Jerusalem was considered the most impoverished in the area and even the Palestinians have been looking down on them as "an inferior race." Due to their unresolved citizenship status, the Gypsies have to earn a living taking on various odd jobs, mostly cleaning jobs, and many of them have no choice but to go panhandling for a living.

On our visit to East Jerusalem we could witness at first hand the alienation experienced by the Gypsies on the part of the Palestinian society, which, the Gypsies charge, treats them disdainfully, manifesting racism. "Once my daughter met a Palestinian guy," Salim tells us. "She wanted to marry him and I agreed, as he seemed to be alright. But then she came to me one day and told me that she changed her mind and decided to break with him because he was derisively calling her 'a gypsy' and otherwise mocking her."

It's against this backdrop that the Jerusalem municipality [social] services entered the scene, having identified the problems plaguing the Gypsies in the city. Assisted by tour guide Ofra Regev, who has taken the community under her wing and is working on behalf of its members through the municipality services, various educational projects have been initiated; a number of the community children have been enrolled in East Jerusalem schools and are currently doing their first steps there towards full integration under the close supervision of Regev. Several community meetings were held and [subsequently,] more of the community children have joined the musically-oriented educational programs sponsored by the municipality. "My daughter is the only community member who earned certification as a lawyer," Salim says proudly. "I do hope that the cooperation with the mayor, whom I hold in high esteem, will be carried on and that ultimately, we will become full-fledged citizens in the State of Israel, as we have no other place to live in."

The Jerusalem municipality has further plans for the integration of the Gypsies into Israeli society. Thus, for instance, as of the next [school] year, the community children are expected to attend Hebrew language classes. "The municipality respects and appreciates the Gypsy community and its leaders and is acting hand in hand with them to the benefit of all members of the community," Mayor Barkat said. "It is a unique ethnic community that contributes to the rich cultural and social life of the city, and I am delighted at the remarkable improvement in the community's quality of life in the past two years, achieved thanks to the intense efforts made by the Jerusalem municipality."

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Found in: rights, jerusalem, israel, gypsies, citizenship
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