The Dom Community or the Gypsies of Jerusalem

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By Miri - 

All across Europe Antiziganism or Roma-phobia1 is on the rise again. According to human rights organisations Roma communities suffer from systematic discrimination in many areas, and frequently fall victim to serious racist assaults of both verbal and physical nature. The rhetoric used against the communities, including by European government officials and parties, has changed very little since the last century that saw manifold attempts by the Nazis and other fascist movements to annihilate the Roma population. 
At the same time, however, in recent decades a growing number of institutions emerged, that seek to support the Roma communities, which also includes an increased effort to conduct systematic research and documentation of Romani history and culture as a way of acknowledging and preserving Roma cultural heritage. 

Dom people, unknown location, 1899
If relatively little is known about the European Roma, including their numbers, with estimations ranging between 12 and 15 million, even less information is available on the approximately 3 million Dom of the Middle East and North Africa. 
The Dom, just like the Roma, are said to have originated in India. The term “Dom” meaning “man” most likely later develop into “Rom” and thus into Roma. While it is generally acknowledged that the Dom probably have left India and moved towards the Middle East in the Middle Ages and hence before the Roma, the exact time and the various reasons for their migration can only be speculated upon. 

Today, the Dom population is scattered throughout the whole Middle East and can be found in Cyprus, Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine and Israel. The lifestyles of the different communities vary considerably; while some maintain a nomadic or semi-nomadic lifestyle, others, particularly those living in Lebanon, Northern Cyprus and Israel have mostly settled down. The sedentary lifestyle of the latter group has gradually improved their opportunities for education and more permanent work, yet illiteracy and the concomitant poverty are still widespread also in these communities. 

Similar to the European experience, the Middle Eastern Dom face a lot of discrimination and therefore tend to hide their ethnic identity and frequently claim to be part of a recognised group in the respective host country. In Israel for instance they are inclined to refer to themselves as Arabs or Palestinians, while in Lebanon many call themselves Bedouins. 


The Dom of Palestine and Israel 

Today's number of Dom living in Gaza, the West Bank and Jerusalem is estimated to be around 10,000, with the vast majority of approximately 7,000 living in Gaza. The lack of a more exact number mainly stems from the already above mentioned reluctance of many community members to identify themselves as Dom. In addition to that, the Israeli Ministry of Interior does not recognise the community as a separate cultural or religious group and the Dom are therefore listed as "Arabs". 
The little information that can be found centres around the Dom community in Jerusalem, which shall therefore also be the focus of this article. 


The Dom people of Jerusalem 

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Domari family in Jerusalem
It is estimated that for more than a century, Dom people have been settling in Jerusalem, mainly working as blacksmiths, merchants, horse dealers, but also as musicians and dancers2

Pre 1948, during the increasing tensions between the Palestinian population, the British administration and the Zionist movement, the Dom community mainly remained passive, not taking any side. Yet, there are also accounts stating that the Dom supported the Arab resistance by hiding fighters and weapons in their shacks, which reportedly led the British to order the community to leave the area around Nablus Road and to settle instead in the Old City next to the Lion's Gate, which is hence often called the “Gypsy Quarter”. 
During what the Israel discourse refers to as the Independence War of 1948, large numbers of the Dom fled along with the Palestinian Muslim and Christian populations. Many of them settled in Amman, Jordan, others went to live in refugee camps in Lebanon, Jordan and Gaza, where relatively big communities still live today. 
Up until 1967 the Jerusalem Dom community was comprised of more than 200 families, 60% of which reportedly fled to Jordan during and after the Six Day War, when Israeli forces occupied East Jerusalem. 

Hoping to improve their lives and to be more accepted within wider society, the Dom of the Middle East largely have been trying to accomodate their lifestyles to that of mainstream society and converted to Islam and adopted the respective language or dialect spoken in their host country. This obviously led to a decline in the use of their own language and according to the Dom Research Center, in 1999 it was estimated that only 20% of the adults in Jerusalem used Domari as the language of daily interaction in their homes. The number of young Dom speaking the language is considerably lower and the great majority only has a very limited inventory of Domari vocabulary. 
The same is also true for many of the distinct traditional practices that are gradually vanishing, a notion that is also aided by the continuation of the Israeli occupation and the restrictions of movement imposed on the Palestinian population, which has been increasingly isolating the different communities from each other and prevented most forms of exchange between them. 

On the other hand, the assimilation into Palestinian society has so far not paid off and discriminatory practices in many areas, particularly in the education system, as well as in the job market are still commonplace. According to a study from 2004, over 80% of the community has not continued their education beyond elementary level and the unemployment rate of the same group was estimated at 66%. 

Amoun Sleem in front of the community centre
"The Jews treat us like Arabs and the Arabs treat us like gypsies, so we get bad treatment from both sides", says Amoun Sleem, a woman from the community, who decided to fight for change and in 1999 founded the Domari Society of Gypsies in Jerusalem. As the first organization of its kind in the Middle East, it is dedicated to advancing the political, social, cultural, and health needs of the community. Later, in 2005, the society opened a community centre in East Jerusalem's Shuafat neighbourhood, which mainly focuses its efforts on the advancement and empowerment of women and children, providing them with after-school tutoring, job skills training, literacy courses, humanitarian aid, as well as programmes that foster cultural pride. Amoun has and continues to face a lot of obstacles to her ambitious work, both from within and beyond the community: “Some people think I’m crazy, and when a woman comes and tries to make a change in our society, many people would rise against her. But I also think many believe in their heart that what I do is right”, she was quoted as saying. 

Similar to other minority groups in Palestine/Israel, such as the Samaritans, whose numbers are too small to have any political influence, the Dom are often caught up between the two sides. In order to survive, they reportedly try as much as possible to stay out of politics. However the hardships of the ongoing Occupation do not differentiate between Dom people and others and many have been suffering at the hands of the Israeli military. 
The Dom do not consider themselves neither Israelis, nor Palestinians, and according to Amoun Sleem generally do not think in territorial terms or care about who the sovereign is, at the same time however, her community does feel a strong connectedness to and rootedness in Jerusalem and is intent to hold on to their space within the city.

The wheel shaped Chakra constitutes the international Roma symbol




1 The term Antiziganism derives from the word “zigan“, used in many languages to refer to Roma people or other gypsies and travellers. Due to the term carrying with it very derogatory implications, which are thus also reproduced in the word Antiziganism, many Roma and activists prefer the term Roma-phobia. 

2 According to a study by Matras, there exists a deeply cultural gap between the Dom of Jerusalem and those of Gaza, with the former group being mainly associated with artisanry and craftsmanship and the latter with occupations from the realm of entertainment, yet obviously there exist also overlaps.


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