There are Gypsies in Jerusalem

Date of Event– January 11, 2005

Virtually unknown outside of their local community, a clan of 5,000 Gypsies has lived in East Jerusalem for the past 800 years. The Gypsies refer to themselves as the Dom, and they are mostly Muslim and considered Arabs by the Israeli government. On January 11th , two days after the Palestinian Authority election, I met with the leader of this clan, a woman named Amoun Sleem, at her home near one of the entrances to the Al-Aksa mosque. The Dom were all entitled to vote in Sunday’s election. Amoun did not vote and wasn’t aware of any Dom who did.

I was introduced to the Gypsies by my friend Anat Hoffman, who is a Jerusalem native and former 14-year member of the Jerusalem City Council. She is one of the leading advocates of social justice for the Arab minorities of Israel . Her day job is to run the Israel Religious Action Center, and she is the founder of the Women of the Wall. Thanks to Anat and others I have experienced Jerusalem in a way that few Western tourists and even fewer Jews will ever see.

Anat’s style is to surprise me with our agenda, and this day was no exception. As we set out on foot from the Lions Gate at twilight, the early evening Muslim call to prayer reverberated from minarets all over East Jerusalem. It felt like I was walking in Surround Sound as the booming sing song calls reverberated over huge stone blocks and ancient temple walls. The air of East Jerusalem on this cool January night was thick with history and the weight of religious conflict.

I have posted pictures of the modest house, which has been the family hearth to the Sleems for close to 100 years. Ethnically of Indian extraction, the Dom, are at the absolute bottom of the social and economic ladder in Jerusalem. Historically entertainers and dancers to the Arab Kings of Iran and Jordan, they have been systematically discriminated against by Jews and Arabs alike for centuries—the Palestinians literally spit on them when they encounter Dom in the streets and try to exclude them from the Israeli-government funded public schools for Arabs in Jerusalem. The Dom are not allowed to learn because of their race and many of them are effectively forced into being beggars.

I listened to their story first-hand, meeting close to a dozen members of the Sleem clan– from three-year old little girls to men in their twenties. The most impressive people I met are two sisters, Zarifa and Amoun, both in their thirties, who, despite this discrimination, have persevered, gained an education, and made tremendous strides in their own lives. Zarifa attended university and is now a nurse in a hospital in Jerusalem (two other Dom women have accomplished this). Amoun, who has a business degree, through her charisma and personal drive, has stepped up to become the leader and spokesperson for the entire Dom clan in Jerusalem (no small feat for a woman in this culture). When I met her she had just finished giving an interview to the BBC, who will be filming a special on the plight of the Dom.

Sadly, the Dom are accorded the status of untouchables—Amoun, Zarifa and others have no apparent prospects of marriage because they are rejected by Palestinian men, who view them as too outspoken, racially inferior, and un-Arab, even though they are Muslim. There has been a lot of inter-marriage between Dom families, and this has led to a high incidence of diabetes, mental retardation, and other deformities among the Dom children.

The Sleems served Anat and me a sweet hot tea while we chatted. I knew nothing of the Dom prior to today and was stunned to learn that a group of people exists in Jerusalem that is classified as Arabs by the Jews and as sub-human by the Palestinians– effectively completely disenfranchised and ignored by all. To me, these people were warm, humble, and stoic in their recognition of their situation. Amoun is a charismatic leader and, in my view, an inspiration for the Dom. Led by Amoun, they have self-published a history of their clan and a Dom cookbook. They are now reaching out to other Gypsy communities in the Middle East and building a network of Dom communities in Jordan and Israel. As testimony to the enabling power of technology, there was a working PC in Amoun’s home, though there was no heat.


The Sleem family home, with structure at right recently demolished by local authorities for violating building codes.


Zarifa Sleem and her niece.


Amoun Sleem, Anat Hoffman, and Pascal in East Jerusalem

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