In the heart of Jerusalem’s Old City, the Armenian community, celebrated for resilience and profound centuries-old cultural legacy, is facing a dire battle for survival. As regional tensions escalate, the community grapples with challenges that not only endanger their freedom of expression but also imperil their distinctive dialect— unique to Jerusalem and now on the brink of disappearing—along with their rich culture and very existence.
In July 2021, the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem discreetly signed a real estate contract, ceding 25 percent of their quarter for 99 years to an Australian–Israeli settler investor. This action has thrust the Armenian community into crisis, as they now face the imminent threat of losing a significant portion of their quarter.
While the community temporarily suspended proceedings upon the discovery of this arrangement in May 2023, bulldozers, accompanied by armed Israeli settlers, have already initiated the excavation of the parking lot surrounding the Monastery of the Armenian Apostolic Patriarchate of Jerusalem.
The Armenian ethnolinguistic minority has been present in the Holy Land since the fourth century, with a history that includes aiding survivors of the 1915 Armenian genocide. After the 1948 war, the Armenian population in Jerusalem has dwindled to fewer than 2000 residents today, the majority of whom live within the Armenian Quarter.
The site houses the Patriarchate’s Theological Seminary, the Brotherhood of St. James, ancient churches, a museum, library, health clinic, and the Sts. Tarkmanchatz Armenian School, founded in 1929. Here, Armenian children not only learn their language but also engage in activities within the courtyard—a pivotal space for the community to convene, converse in their native tongue, and safeguard their cultural identity.
Global Voices conducted an interview with an Armenian resident from Jerusalem who chose to remain anonymous for safety amid the ongoing war on Gaza and the threat faced by the Armenian quarter.
The interview delved into the political climate and surveillance in Jerusalem, shedding light on issues such as discrimination, hate speech, and the escalating restrictions on freedom of expression.
Co-authored by the resident and refined for clarity, the interview offers valuable insights into the challenges faced by the Armenian community as they strive to preserve their language and cultural identity in the region.
Mariam A. (MA): How are you coping with the situation in Jerusalem and Gaza?
Armenian Resident (AR): It's been very difficult. The current situation in Jerusalem, the ongoing genocide in Gaza, and the fact that we feel paralyzed and unable to do anything contribute to the overwhelming sense of helplessness.
The most challenging aspect for non-Jewish Jerusalemites is that we have been forbidden from expressing any type of sympathy or concern. We are witnessing complete surveillance, a militarized city, with most [Jewish] civilians armed with rifles, and a heightened presence of police officers and soldiers patrolling the city.
There is a constant fear of being stopped at any moment, with the risk of having your phone snatched and the security forces going through its contents.
I checked the emergency state law, and it states that the IDF has the right to enter private spaces, including homes, or go through personal property based on suspicions. This legal provision legitimizes such actions.
Aware of this, people are trying to monitor not only their speech but also their thoughts, fearing potential endangerment for knowing more than what is deemed acceptable about the current situation.
I would say it's a state of paranoia at this moment.
MA: Have community members experienced incidents where they were stopped, had their phones confiscated, and been checked?
AR: Yes, I've witnessed this happening several times in different parts of the city as I walk around. They stop young men under suspicion of being Arab, conducting thorough searches, which include checking their phones.
I know of particular cases involving young students, both men and women, whose phones were snatched. If phones showed any social media or text messages expressing sympathy or concern for the ongoing situation, they were detained.
MA: Do you think the Armenian community is affected by this surveillance mentality, or do you feel they are exempt from it?
AR: Nobody is exempt. What we've been witnessing, not just during this war but even before, is a trend that emphasizes that this is an exclusive city and an exclusive country. Waves of people, youth especially, audaciously scream out chants proclaiming it as a Jewish-only state, asserting that this is the state of Israel.
The sad part is that this wave of fanaticism doesn’t acknowledge diversity; The danger of this discourse is that it fails to recognize non-Jewish individuals for who they are, focusing instead on who they are not part of. It doesn’t acknowledge Armenians, Christians, Palestinians, what kind of Muslims they are, do they have families? Do they have pets?
The trend categorizes individuals as something that doesn't belong. So their identity isn't even seen as an identity. It is negated.
MA: Within this political landscape, how does the Armenian community's freedom of expression fare? Do you think the community can openly express opinions and identities?
AR: It's funny that you ask that. We've had many discussions within in the Armenian community regarding this particular issue. Since the Armenian genocide of 1915, Armenians have been minorities in various parts of the world.
What's funny is that most Armenians assimilate, consciously avoiding what the state might perceive as “problematic,” by staying away from politics. They adapt quickly, embracing new languages, contributing their skill sets, and harmoniously coexisting with their host societies. Grateful for the countries that provided refuge after the genocide, they preserve their Armenian language, food, and culture. They have always been welcomed.
So it's strange for us to see that even Armenians are viewed as an unwelcome minority by settlers.
In recent years, various settlers have engaged in spitting at religious figures, cursing them, and even pushing them into alleyways. They target people they deem incompatible with their vision of a Jewish-only state.
A video shows Jewish Ultra-Orthodox Community member spitting on Christian nuns at Jerusalem's Lions Gate. pic.twitter.com/tESUbgNgRG
— Local Focus – Security Alerts (@LocalFocus1) April 13, 2023
There is a lot of silence.
People don't express their true thoughts; they are too afraid to express their opinion or criticize the state. The system compels us to keep our mouths shut and avoid trouble as much as possible.
Even having this conversation or contributing to this article makes me wonder if it's worth it. It's disempowering and makes me feel cowardly. However, looking around, I realize that most people are scared. They censor themselves, both offline and online.
This exclusive mindset discriminates against Arab Christians and Armenians. In principle, it shouldn't discriminate against anyone. But the fact that it targets minorities speaks volumes about the mindset in this country at this moment.
MA: In January, settlers inscribed hate slogans on the walls of the Armenian Patriarchy in Jerusalem, advocating revenge and death to Arabs, Armenians, and Christians. Can you provide more insight into these occurrences and elaborate on how they impact the community?
AR: There have been many incidents and they have been on the rise.
The walls of the Armenian Convent in the Armenian Quarter of Jerusalem have been vandalized with hate speech, the Armenian National Committee of Jerusalem informs.
“Death to Armenians, Christians, Arabs, and Gentiles,” along with calls for revenge were written on the walls of pic.twitter.com/nKVsUibDAY
— Sanadroug Hajian (@SanadrougH) July 7, 2023
It's been happening against people who look religious and places that might not be strictly Jewish.
BREAKING: Israeli extremists just attacked the Armenian Patriarchate in the Armenian Quarters of Jerusalem in an attempt to take down the flags of Armenia.
One Armenian was detained while protecting the Patriarchate. pic.twitter.com/yeoTWOcPbk
— 301🇦🇲 (@301arm) January 29, 2023
In the Armenian quarter, settlers have been observed spitting at Armenian establishments. If anyone tries to defend or say, “hey, what's wrong with you?” they are met with pepper spray, if not rifles, often with impunity.
🇮🇱 An Israeli settler was captured on a CCTV camera spitting at the gate of an Armenian church in occupied East Jerusalem
— 🅻🅳🅴🅻🆂🍉🅻 (@LDelsoll) December 4, 2023
Visitors from Armenia are surprised by our “too nice” attitude; they ask us “How do you confront this type of radical, in-your-face harassment? Why aren't you fighting back? Why aren't you doing anything about it?”
They don't realize that people can't do much because the state may seize documents, rescind building permits, remove inhabitants, confiscate properties, or detain individuals. If individuals get attacked and they try to defend themselves, it would be a justification for further attacks.
MA: In light of the current atmosphere and the numerous threats— security concerns, hate speech, and existential threats — how do you preserve your language and cultural identity?
AR: In our community courtyard, we speak our own language, keeping it very much alive. It is used in our meetings and communications. We love it and feel attached to it, as it plays a role in strengthening our sense of identity and community.
The courtyard invokes memories of childhood. Whenever the city is under threat, the Armenian community gathers in the courtyard. It has always been a safe haven.
Amid the ongoing war, Armenians from various parts of the country, like Yafa and Haifa, have either temporarily relocated or begun bringing their kids to the courtyard. It's a beautiful space for children with clubs and the school. When we seek a sense of togetherness, it's usually found there.
When my dad passed away, I experienced the power of community. Almost everyone attended the funeral, arriving in waves. It was then that I truly realized the strength of our community. We're there for each other.
I hope the monastery remains, though we're cynical these days. Amidst our uncertainty, I am certain of one thing, it is a beautiful community.