Following years of dedicated work, the Israel Land Fund succeeded in evicting a three-generation Palestinian family from its East Jerusalem home of more than 50 years. Other evictions are in the works.
A few months ago, I attended the prize-giving ceremony for the Jerusalem Prize, an award given every other year to a writer who expresses in her or his writing the freedom of the individual in society. Audience members had been asked to arrive early, presumably so they’d be on time. But, not unusually in a city where only the Israel Philharmonic is guaranteed to be punctual, it started late. We were waiting for the mayor.
Finally, Nir Barkat strode into the hall in a smart suit and a flurry of security and publicity, and took the stage. A well-known occupational hazard of public office is the one-size-fits-all speech. Mayor Barkat’s take-home message for guests of the Jerusalem International Book Fair was that Jerusalem is a city of entrepreneurs. That’s a counter-intuitive claim to make about the holy city, which may explain why pretty much everything conspired to undermine it.
To begin with, a city of entrepreneurs would host hallmark events in a building like the inside of a MacBook pro, as I heard Princeton’s stunning new performing arts complex described last week at one of its inaugural events.
Jerusalem’s proudly old-fashioned, orientalist YMCA (known locally as eem-ka), a shorter cousin of the Empire State building (same architect), emphatically doesn’t fit that bill.
Though its tower does afford unparalleled 360 0 views of twenty-first century Jerusalem.
A city of entrepreneurs would wheel out a glittering star or two to set the tone. The performers who opened the Jerusalem International Book Fair were not famous celebrities, but a small ensemble of very young musicians – I’m guessing that the charismatic saxophonist was pre-Bar Mitzvah – from one of the city’s academies. These kids didn’t set the tone for the show, they stole it. And there’s nothing entrepreneurial about the hundreds of hours of scales, exercises and rehearsals that were the foundation of their brilliant performances.
The mayor of a city of entrepreneurs would have a staff who made sure he didn’t keep international guests waiting for 45 minutes, and his speech-writer would be clued in. The winner of this year’s literary prize was Karl Ove Knausgård. Yes, he’s a publishing phenomenon with 6 worldwide bestsellers, but even if a novelist can theoretically qualify as an entrepreneur, as Mayor Barkat claimed, Knausgård doesn’t. An entrepreneurial novelist wouldn’t write a 6-volume novel in Norwegian describing the minutiae of a Norwegian novelist’s daily struggle with life, love and writer’s block. The mayor of a city of entrepreneurs would have a speech writer who’d skimmed the reviews, if not the books.
Cameras flashed as Barkat handed Knausgård his prize.
But the image that flashed into my mind was a small piece of waste land at the top of Emek Refaim, not far from the born-again Ottoman train station and the brand-new Orient hotel, and a short walk from the YMCA. According to a sign on the wrought-iron fence, this was where poet Yehuda Amichai (1924-2000) once lived.
Beneath that sign there’s another one, bearing a poem from Amichai’s Songs of Jerusalem cycle.
To be Mayor of Jerusalem.
It is terrible.
How can any man be the mayor of a city like that?
What can he do with her?
He will build, and build, and build.
And at night
The stones of the hills round about will crawl down Towards the stone houses,
Like wolves coming
To howl at the dogs
Who have become men’s slaves.
Translated from the Hebrew by Assia Guttman From Selected Poems, Cape Collard, 1968
Whenever I pass this sign, I wonder about the mind that formed the idea to display that poem in that place, transforming what could have been an empathic ode (‘It’s sad to be Mayor of Jerusalem’) into a what sounds like a defiant taunt (You want to build, build, build, Mr. Mayor, but this was and remains my neighborhood, and I won’t let you…)?
But Mayor Barkat shouldn’t take it personally that Jerusalem refuses to co-operate with his grand vision. God had the same problem, as is evident in the Bible’s many descriptions of the city as a wayward woman – unreliable, irresponsible, and serially unfaithful.
Writing at the time of the destruction of Jerusalem and the Babylonian exile in the 6th century BCE, the prophet Ezekiel tells an allegory of two sisters, Oholah and Oholibah. Oholibah is Jerusalem.
Ezekiel 22:11 Her sister Oholibah [Jerusalem, cf. v. 4] saw this, yet she was more corrupt than she in her lusting and in her whorings, which were worse than those of her sister. 12 She lusted after the Assyrians, governors and commanders, warriors clothed in full armor, mounted horsemen, all of them handsome young men. 13 And I saw that she was defiled; they both took the same way. 14 But she carried her whorings further; she saw male figures carved on the wall, images of the Chaldeans portrayed in vermilion, 15 with belts around their waists, with flowing turbans on their heads, all of them looking like officers—a picture of Babylonians whose native land was Chaldea. 16 When she saw them she lusted after them, and sent messengers to them in Chaldea. 17 And the Babylonians came to her into the bed of love, and they defiled her with their lust; and after she defiled herself with them, she turned from them in disgust.
This is rare occasion on which the Bible provides a detailed description of a carved relief, down to color and sartorial content – Assyrian and Babylonian officers, dressed for battle. If they looked anything like these guys, who can blame Oholibah?
Ezekiel’s Jerusalem sends invitations to her own invaders, like a woman inviting upstairs the man who turns out to be her rapist. But the prophet doesn’t stop there. In his vivid imagination, Jerusalem becomes an object of revulsion to her former lovers, the surrounding nations. He pictures her lying in her own (menstrual) blood, uncleanness that flowed from the corruption, abuse, bribery and extortion in her midst.
Ezekiel 22:23 The word of the Lord came to me: 24 Mortal, say to it: You are a land that is not cleansed, not rained upon in the day of indignation. 25 Its princes within it are like a roaring lion tearing the prey; they have devoured human lives; they have taken treasure and precious things; they have made many widows within it. 26 Its priests have done violence to my teaching and have profaned my holy things; they have made no distinction between the holy and the common, neither have they taught the difference between the unclean and the clean, and they have disregarded my sabbaths, so that I am profaned among them. 27 Its officials within it are like wolves tearing the prey, shedding blood, destroying lives to get dishonest gain. 28 Its prophets have smeared whitewash on their behalf, seeing false visions and divining lies for them, saying, “Thus says the Lord God,” when the Lord has not spoken. 29 The people of the land have practiced extortion and committed robbery; they have oppressed the poor and needy, and have extorted from the alien without redress. 30 And I sought for anyone among them who would repair the wall and stand in the breach before me on behalf of the land, so that I would not destroy it; but I found no one. 31 Therefore I have poured out my indignation upon them; I have consumed them with the fire of my wrath; I have returned their conduct upon their heads, says the Lord God.
Sad to say, Ezekiel would probably feel at home in Jerusalem today. Former Mayor and Prime-Minister Ehud Olmert served 16 of a 19-month sentence for bribery; we have him to thank for the blight on Jerusalem’s skyline known as the Holy Land complex. Former President Moshe Katzav served 5 of a 7-year sentence for rape and sexual harassment. Former Interior Minister Aryeh Deri served 22 months of a 3-year sentence for bribery, and has since been re-elected to the Knesset. And let’s not even start on the ongoing investigations of Prime-Minister Netanyahu and his household…
Corruption is rife in the highest echelons of the country’s religious leadership, and on a local level, rabbis are unable or unwilling to confront the escalating incidence of domestic and other forms of abuse in their own communities. To avert your gaze is to be complicit.
Lest anyone should think this is a Jewish problem, the Greek Orthodox Church, Israel’s second biggest landowner – it famously owns the land on which the Knesset stands – is again mired in controversy over shady property deals. After the Greek Patriarchy’s recent selling spree of high profile real-estate at rock bottom prices, long-term residents of the West Jerusalem Rechavia neighborhood face eviction by their new landlords, who include a consortium of investors led by Aryeh Deri’s brother Shlomo. If you were never quite sure what ‘byzantine’ means, read this.
Conflicts of interest and the abuse of power by elected officials for personal gain are global phenomena; Israel isn’t close to the big league. But we deserve a special mention for abuse of power that is not financially but ideologically motivated. Here’s an example.
Mayor Barkat’s current roster of municipal councilors includes Arieh King. This is how King describes himself on a Jewish learning website:
Arieh King, director and founder of the Israel Land Fund (ILF), realized the desire of Diaspora Jews to take a more active role in redeeming the land of Israel, especially in Jerusalem. Born on Kibbutz Alumim, Arieh, 38, is one of the ten original residents of Ma’ale Zeitim (Ras-Al-Amud), on the Mount of Olives, where he currently resides with his wife and six children. Bringing more than ten years of experience in redeeming the land of Israel, Arieh started the Israel Land Fund while trying to recover land for the community on the Mount of Olives in 2007. Since then, he has been active both in recovery and preservation of Jewish land in East Jerusalem as well as throughout the Land of Israel. He has become the foremost expert on the Mount of Olives and is behind many of the efforts to preserve and block illegal building on the site. His sphere of influence extends throughout Jerusalem and nationally, where he is a well-known personality throughout all levels of municipal and national government. He is the only entity working, through Israel’s own legal system, to identify and restore Jewish-owned ‘abandoned’ (usually either in 1948 or 1967) properties to their rightful owners and is thus credited with having redeemed entire neighborhoods of Jerusalem, such as Beit Chanina, as well as helping to ‘turn the tide’ in mixed Arab-Jewish cities such as Akko (Acre), and in agricultural areas of the Galil. He has been featured in numerous highly-publicized news articles and has been featured internationally on various radio, television, and media broadcasts. Arieh started the Israel Land Fund to offer unique opportunities for any Jew to personally acquire a piece of the land, part of a building or a number of buildings in Israel. His work encompasses empowering the donor or investor to become an active and eternal part of the land and the aims of the organization; to combat what has been dubbed the ‘Silent Front’ of land encroachment in Israel. Arieh endeavors to acquire land of strategic national importance as well as areas of historical and religious value to the Jewish people [Torah in Motion].
If King is suceeds in ‘redeeming’ – in plain English, that’s replacing Arabs with Jews in – East Jerusalem, someone stands to make serious money. The Arab neighborhoods of the city are far less developed than Jewish West Jerusalem; the investment potential is enormous. I don’t think Arieh King is interested in making money; he’s driven by religious-nationalist zeal. But that doesn’t make his role as a Jerusalem city councilor any less problematic. He’s not there to make the city a better place for all its residents, but to promote his own ideological vision according to which an entire sector of the population is, at best, an obstacle to be removed.
One example of the inevitable conflicts of interest between King the municipal councilor and the ‘redeeming’ King occurred in 2014. After being on the losing side of a municipal council vote about building permits for 2,200 Arab homes, he filed a court petition against the city. Immediately, Mayor Barkat relieved King of all his responsibilities – not because of his political views, but because he resorted to legal action against the body of which he himself was a member.
But King was soon back in the saddle. Back then, he’d tried to undermine the municipality through official legal channels, but now he’s working under the table (perhaps he always was).
I could hardly believe my ears when I heard him explain to a Jewish Press interviewer how the organization he founded and directs, the Israel Land Fund, deceives the Jerusalem municipality about property purchase and development in East Jerusalem. If the municipality was aware that Jews were buying or developing a property, he said, they would refuse to grant permission. Therefore, the Israel Land Fund leaves the Arab names of the previous owners or residents on the Jerusalem Land Registry, so that the municipality won’t find out what’s going on until it’s too late.
King neglected to mention that he’s on both sides of this broken fence: at one and the same time, he’s deceiving the Jerusalem municipality and he’s a member of the Jerusalem municipality: deceiver and deceived. This blatant conflict of interest must, I assume, be legal, but it’s rotten to the core.
Arieh King is a religious man with a religious vision, but I can’t help contemplating where it’s found in the Bible. When I see images of the innocent Palestinian family King evicted from their home of 50 years, and the violent thugs he brought into replace them, when I read King’s grandiose words about the buildings he plans to erect and the populations he plans to shift, I think of Ezekiel.
Arieh King and his followers have lost their way in Jerusalem, taking us all along for a terrible ride that could end in disaster:
Ezekiel 21:29 The people of the land have practiced extortion and committed robbery; they have oppressed the poor and needy, and have extorted from the resident alien without redress. 30 And I sought for anyone among them who would repair the wall and stand in the breach before me on behalf of the land, so that I would not destroy it; but I found no one.
Who will arise this time to protect us, the residents and lovers of this holy city, from the injustice we’re committing, abetting or, at best, overlooking? Don’t tell me that this time even you are averting your gaze, Ezekiel.