19 August '15..
I'm standing on a balcony in Nof Zion, a Jewish neighborhood in the southeast of Jerusalem. The neighborhood is on Jewish-owned land surrounded by the houses of the Arab village of Jabel Mukaber. The view is breathtaking; I can see the Dome of the Rock, the walls of the Old City and the hills around our capital.
It's a small, two-street neighborhood, with 85 families and plenty of communal grounds. The people who live here know each other, their children play together, and they share in celebrations and sorrows in each other's houses and synagogues.
Eleven Jewish families purchased the first piece of land in this neighborhood in the 1930s. Later, after the War of Independence, the Jewish contractor Rahamim Levy bought land from the Arab villages overlooking the Temple Mount, but the growing area remained empty until the 1990s when the Rabin government finally gave building permits and a community could begin to take shape.
I arrived in Nof Zion by way of the Temple Mount. There was only one other woman up there with me that Thursday morning, and we struck up a conversation that ended with an invitation to come to her family's house for coffee and cake. Her name was Michal, and she had lived in Nof Zion with her husband Maor and their three children since 2007. When I ask her why they ended up here, she tells me her husband is of Yemenite descent, and that the right of return is a concept that for her family has more than one layer.
In 1882, as part of the First Aliyah, the Jews of Yemen arrived in Jerusalem. Their arrival was marked with difficulty -- there was little or no work, other Jews questioned their Jewish status, and they had a hard time finding housing. Desiring proximity to the remnants of the Temple, a portion of the Yemenite community decided to settle in open caves on the side of the Mount of Olives, creating a makeshift homestead on the hills.
Seeing the plight of the Yemenites, Rabbi Israel Dov Fromkin, owner of the newspaper Havatzelet, set up the Ezrat Nidachim organization to aid and assist the Yemenites in the village of Shiloach, and with their help land was donated on the western part of the Mount Olives, where "the Yemenite village" was established.
At its peak of growth, the village had over 200 families, but the thriving community came to a halt in the 1920s as violence erupted. In 1929, Arabs injured and robbed the Jewish inhabitants of the Yemenite village and the lion's share of the residents left under pressure from the British mandatory government. Members of the village, under the leadership of Rabbi Yosef Madmoni (son of the founder of the village), returned to the village for a number of years, but following the disturbances of the Great Arab Revolt and the British government's failure to protect the Jews from the Arab attackers, the Jews were permanently chased away by the British in 1938. Despite written guarantees by the high commissioner allowing the Yemenite Jews to return to the village when the calm returned, the mandatory government did not agree and the village remained empty of Jews.
Following the disturbances and the expulsion of the Jews, Arabs looted their property and their homes were almost completely destroyed. Shlomo Yaakov Madmoni, a resident of the village, was killed on his way to the village to save the remaining Torah scroll. Despite this, the British government unceremoniously denied numerous requests by the Zionist leadership, the Chief Rabbinate and others to allow the Jews to return to the village.
In recent year, Jewish families have returned to the area of the Yemenite village, and with the help of old deeds, the land has been reclaimed and repurchased. Needless to say, this has not been without controversy or contention. Stones and other projectiles are regularly hurled at the Jewish-owned buildings and their occupants.
Michal's family could have returned, as well. As members of one of the families that lived there and were forced to flee because of the disturbances, they have the right to sue for loss of property. But when they turned to their father to spearhead the lawsuit, they were surprised by his adamant refusal. The father went on to tell them that when his family had been attacked by an Arab mob and forced to flee, one of the Arab families saved them from certain death by standing between them and their attackers.
"Do what you please after I die, but as long as I have breath, I will not sue for restitution," he said. "They saved my life. I owe them this much."
Standing on that balcony, I'm moved by not only that story but the idea of return as a whole. It's been so many lifetimes, so many lost lives, but we keep returning, building, and guarding our land for the next generation to come.
I ask Michal if it's difficult living here, and she shrugs and points to the guard station up the hill.
"They patrol here all the time, and we know where not to wander. It was better before Operation Cast Lead; then, we had a mutual playground, we respected each other, and the children played in peace as the adults watched and chatted. That changed. There were Molotov cocktails thrown, cars torched, shots fired at night. We don't have that playground anymore, but we are hoping to build another."
I thank Michal and Maor for the coffee and I start to head out, stopping at the top of the hill to catch a last glimpse of that stunning scenery. I may be at the heart of conflict, but all I can feel at that moment is that I am standing at the center of hope. The families who live here are almost all immigrants, returning to Zion; but they have chosen to take a step beyond that, reaching further for the dream. They're described as settlers, radicals, and right-wing troublemakers, but being here, I don't recognize what I've been told by the pundits and the papers.
Instead, I am left with the parting words of my host: "This is not about creating conflict; it's not about any war. We just want to return home. That's it. All we ever wanted to do was come home."
Annika Hernroth-Rothstein is a political adviser, activist and writer on the Middle East, religious affairs and global anti-Semitism. Follow her on Twitter @truthandfiction.