French Hill is a small neighbourhood in the north-east of Jerusalem, pretty much on the edge of the city. Actually this is not accurate - the official name of the neighbourhood is Givat Shapira (Shapira Hill), and it is constructed of two tiny sub-neighbourhoods, French Hill and Tzameret HaBira. Each of these sub-neighbourhoods includes about six and-a-half streets, with one street shared between the two (hence the half).
What's in a Name?
French Hill is named after a British General called French, but over time the reason for this has been forgotten, and due to the same way of thinking that brought the world 'freedom toast' and 'freedom fries,' the name in Hebrew became HaGiva HaTzorfatit, which means 'The French Hill.' The name of the other sub-neighbourhood, Tzameret HaBira, can be translated as something like 'Top of the Capital' - one of many fantastic names given to neighbourhoods for no particular reason.
Most of the streets in the neighbourhood are named after the Zionist underground organisations that worked against the British Mandate in the beginning of the 20th century. Some of the more interesting ones are two streets named after two of the more violent right-wing organizations: Etzel, or the Military-National Organization, which was responsible for the bomb planted in July 1946 in the King David Hotel - then a centre for the British forces - killing 91 people and wounding 45, and the second Lehi, also known as the Fighters for the Freedom of Israel1, who assassinated Lord Moyne, the British Resident Minister in the Middle East, in November 1944.
Another interesting name is Bar Kokhba (That's the street divided between the two sub-neighbourhoods), named after Shimon Bar Kokhba, leader of an unsuccessful revolt against the Roman Empire in the 2nd Century AD, who despite the failure of his revolt is nonetheless considered one of the greatest heroes in Hebrew history.
History, Population, and a Little Architecture
The two sub-neighbourhoods were built separately: French Hill was built right after the Six-day War (in the late '60s), in order to connect the main city of Jerusalem with Mount Scopus, which until the war was an Israeli enclave inside Jordanian territory. It was built pretty fast, and in the functional fashion of that time contains mainly large uninteresting apartment buildings.
The second sub-neighbourhood was built by an independent group of people - mainly of Anglo-Saxon origins, mainly Americans - seeking some quality of life, and therefore has slightly better apartments. It is built on the slope of the hill, and the buildings are called 'stair buildings' – they are shaped like stairs for better use of the ground. This is a pretty nice way of building, as it enables even people who live on the top storeys to have a piece of garden.
There are also some private houses in the neighbourhood, mainly around Etzel and Lehi streets. Some of these houses belong to Arab families; you can tell which, because the alleys where the Arabs' houses are have no pavements – yet another characteristic of the country's discrimination against its Arab citizens.
Actually, there is a rather ugly story about discrimination in the neighbourhood: a few years ago, the 'neighbourhood council' (which includes some of the more conservative and right-wing residents) decided that they are not pleased with one of the playgrounds in Tzameret HaBira as being frequented by Arabs from the nearby Arab villages. They claimed that the Arab youth were taking over the place, intimidating the local kids, and making too much noise. In order to mend this situation the council first thought to close the playground so that everyone who was not a resident will have to pay to get in. This solution was rejected, as it was clear that in practice all it would accomplish would be to keep Arabs out, which is too obviously racist. The solution that was eventually implemented was around the lines of 'we have nothing, they have nothing' – the playground was simply ruined. The football goals and basketball nets were taken down, the drinking fountain was broken, and all that was left was a few facilities for little children. Problem solved.
However, besides some stories like this one, the population is usually pretty tolerant. The general feel is - or at least used to be - that of a small and pretty warm community. A bit suburb-like, only more connected to the city.
The neighbourhood stayed pretty much unchanged until recently when several large towerblocks were built on the top of the hill. Many of the residents opposed to this enterprise, because they suspected change in the character of the neighbourhood (and because to be honest, these towers are going to be plain ugly), but to no avail.
As for the population of the neighbourhood, it is rather diverse. Besides the Americans and the Arabs mentioned before and the native Israelis2, there are quite a lot of immigrants from Russia and South America; and the proximity to the Mount Scopus campus of the Hebrew University attracts many students. Also, over the last years, the ultra-orthodox population in the neighbourhood is slowly increasing, a process sometimes viewed as invasion by the local residents.
Things to See, Things to Do
French Hill doesn't have much tourist value, being after all a rather remote residential neighbourhood. There is a small commercial centre, which includes a supermarket, a bank, a chemist, two hairdressers, and a few other small businesses (among them a rather good second-hand shop). To the dismay of the students living in the neighbourhood, there are no 'hang-out' places, besides a burger restaurant that was recently opened. For unknown reasons, the local post office is located in Tzameret HaBira. There are three synagogues – one conservative 3, one Orthodox, and one Moderate-Orthodox. There are a couple of schools. Basically, French Hill is a nice place if you're living there, but not really a place to visit as a tourist.
However, if you do happen to lodge in the vicinity – say, in a friend's house, or maybe in the nearby Hyatt Hotel – you should know that French Hill has one of the prettiest views in the city. Since it is located right on the eastern edge of Jerusalem, there is a lovely view to the east from many places in the neighbourhood; on clear days you can see as far as the Dead Sea and the mountains of Jordan. Even when it isn't clear you can usually see the Judea desert not far away.
From other points in the neighbourhood there is a spectacular view of the city, complete with the golden Dome of the Rock (Mosque of Omar). One of these scenic points is the British War Cemetery – this may sound morbid, but it is actually quite a pretty spot, with grass, flowers, old trees, and a generally serene atmosphere.
Another spot with a good view, though not actually in the neighbourhood, is the Mormon University in Mount Scopus, which also features a beautiful building and cheap concerts every Sunday.