Many years ago, a former headmaster of our local Sts.Tarkmanchatz Armenian school in Jerusalem, the eccentric yet patriotic Gyuregh Srpazan, led his students to the different landmarks that belonged to the Patriarchate and famously preached:
Դուք էք պաշտպանը այս վայրերուն. Դուք էք ժառանգորդները։ Պիտի պահպանէք մեր սրբատեղիները եւ աւանդութիւնները։ (You are the guardians of the Armenian Quarter. You are its heirs. We will protect our holy and sacred sites and our traditions.)
On Saturday night, the 28th of January 2023, two Armenians, Zareh Nalbandian and Zohrab Demerjian, were driving home from work when Israeli Jewish extremists attacked the hood of their vehicle. Nalbandian and Demerjian quickly exited their vehicle to respectfully confront the aggressors:
“Why do you attack us? This is our neighborhood. We are only coming back home from work. We have always respected the Jewish community. Why do you act this way toward us? What have we ever done to you?”
“You don’t have a neighborhood over here! This is our country! Leave our country!”
“This is also our country! This is our home! We were born here! We have nowhere else to go!”
One of the Jewish extremists then pepper-sprayed Demerjian directly in the eye and fled the scene. Demerjian and Nalbandian headed to the hospital to receive treatment.
Jerusalem is the oldest living diaspora in the world that has been thriving since the fourth century, yet it is tragically amusing that we can’t truly call it home without receiving vitriol, and even more tragic that we cannot call home our very own Armenia. We aspire to inspire, to return, to build, yet the economic realities facing Jerusalemite Armenians leave no room for such idealism, even if it is a beautiful hope. Almost all who live in the Armenian Quarter cannot afford the exorbitant cost-of-living required to rent-out, let alone buy property, in Jerusalem. The Armenian Patriarchate has historically always opened its arms to Armenians in need, barely demanding rent or any other fees, providing food and shelter if need be.
I digress. These hostilities aren’t new. They have been brewing since 1948, and we just have the ill-fortune of being a 10-thousand strong population trapped between the millions of Israelis and Palestinians fighting for their own respective visions for statehood. Though ironically, whenever we venture into Palestinian territories, mostly located behind literal towering walls, we feel more at ease than in the s–thole that is Jerusalem today.
We aren’t called goy, which means gentile, similar to our usage of the word odar, albeit far more pejoratively.
We aren’t subjected to humiliating border control frisking, which nearly denudes you.
We don’t hear the all-too familiar word “Mikey,” which is code for the maximum level of airport security checkup, categorizing you as a high-risk individual, based solely on the neighborhood we live in—the pinnacle of racial profiling.
We don’t see flyers and pamphlets around us stating: “These neighborhoods are to be free of Christians and Jews.”
We don’t see the walls of our Armenian Quarter tagged with violence-inciting slogans such as ‘Death to Ajanebs [foreigner in Arabic],’ ‘Death to Armenians,’ ‘Death to Christians’, and ‘Revenge’. We don’t see urine stains on our walls.
To the conspiracist who wishes to blame these local developments only on the appointment of the newly-elected Minister of National Security Itamar Ben-Gvir of the racist Otzma Yehudit political party, which roughly translates to Jewish Power, and not the Zionist ideology that has been permeating all facets of national policy since the inception of Israel: show me the evidence or shut up.
An hour after Demerjian was discharged from the hospital, another group of extremists scaled the walls of the Armenian Patriarchate in an attempt to remove the flags of Armenia and the Patriarchate — the latter bearing a cross. Dissuaded by the increasing number of Armenians demanding their departure, they left. At this point, every Armenian in the area knew what was happening, and we all went to the entrance of the St. James Armenian Convent to show the aggressors that we are here and that we won’t be intimidated.
After all this fauda, police officers came over from the nearby police garrison to seemingly provide security. As they stood opposite the gated entrance, a middle-aged Jewish woman accompanied by her daughter passed between us and the police, and without hesitation, spat on a Hayr Soorp who was standing barely a foot away from the officers. Again, there was no accountability despite the uproar from the nearby young Armenians.
The same group of Israeli Jewish extremists who attempted to desecrate our flags returned with masks. As they got closer, the police left the Armenian Patriarchate Road and started walking toward the police station. A few Armenians tried to get the attention of the officers, but to no avail. Do what you will with this oddity, I won’t make any conjectures.
A few Armenians, exercising full restraint, started filming in order to have video evidence should they attack again. One of the extremists got agitated and exclaimed, “Why are you filming me?!”
“This is a public road. It is my right!”
The restraint was short-lived as a fight erupted, pepper-sprays blinding a few of our members, as we chased them out of our neighborhood, to apprehend them and hand them over to the police.
“Pigooah! Pigooah! Pigooah! Pigooah!” screeched one of the fleeing assailants, which translates to “Terrorist attack!” The nearby Magavnic (border police) unit, presuming the threats to be real, even though not a single one of us was armed with a weapon, ran toward our group with weapons pointed at us. A few of us raised our hands and screamed: “Anakhnou rak rotsim ledaber, rak rotsim ledaber!” (We only want to talk! We only want to talk!)
One of our boys got flipped over and thrown to the ground. George Kahkejian, commonly known as “Jojo,” was merely attempting to help his friend when a few officers brutally pinned him to the floor and beat him a few times with the hilt of the gun. They cuffed him and took him to the police station.
Not a single Armenian threw a single punch at one of the police officers despite them unjustly beating one of our own.
Hayr Aghan and Hayr Vazken, the newly-elected Chancellor of the Armenian Patriarchate and the Chief Dragoman, respectively, showed exemplary moral character by supporting us throughout this ordeal until 3:30 a.m. The next day, George was released from detainment and placed under house arrest for 20 days pending a trial.
For the first time in over 30 years, we, even if briefly, felt what Palestinians have been feeling for over 70 years, daily.
Greetings from the only democracy in the Middle East.