Tour of Jerusalem with Ateret Cohanim


As I alluded to in my post yesterday, my big plan for the day was to take a tour of Jerusalem organized by Ateret Cohanim, an organization which arranges for the purchase of property in Jerusalem from Arabs for Jews.

During this tour, we were bussed to homes in neighborhoods all around the city where Ateret Cohanim has been active, saw the homes, apartments, synagogues, and yeshivot that had been purchased, and were told the stories behind their acquisition. We were also given a broad explanation of the mission and history of the organization and their place in practical Israeli politics.

There are few organizations in Israel which have gotten as much bad press in the United States over the last few years as Ateret Cohanim. Its detractors have labeled it an organization of religious extremists, ultranationalists, far-right gun totting settlers, and even racist thieves of Arab property. The organization sees itself as the “Jerusalem Reclamation Project” asserting that Jews have the legal right and national responsibility to live in all parts of the capital city.

One thing is for certain: Ateret Cohanim has played a critical role in many of the land purchases and development projects made in Jerusalem in the last few years which have come under intense international scrutiny. To understand the politics of Jewish land claims on the ground in this city, one must have an understanding of the mission and work of Ateret Cohanim. The leader of our tour pointed out that the Jewish National Fund, despite being charged with a mission since its inception of purchasing and managing land for Jewish development in Israel, since 1967, has chosen to absent itself from acquiring properties in Jerusalem. It was into this void which Ateret Cohanim stepped. They assert that there were many more Arabs then (and even now) willing to sell property to Jews than there were Jews taking an active interest in buying them.

Although the organization’s purchased first began in the Old City primarily in the Muslim Quarter, reclaiming former Jewish properties such as apartments, synagogues, and yeshivot abandoned or sold following anti-Jewish riots from the 1920s to the 1930s and after the expulsion of all Jewish residents from the Old City during the Jordanian Occupation beginning in 1948-9. In the last 10 years, however, our guide told us that most of Ateret Cohanim’s work has been outside of the Old City in what it calls the “Jerusalem Shield” (in the post-1967 municipal borders). They have assisted in the acquisition of properties in Ir David, Abu Tor, Silwan, and Har Zeitim to name just a few, most of which were properties owned by Jews prior to 1948.

All of these activities have taken place in what is popularly known as East Jerusalem. Our guide was quick to point out however, that there really is no such thing as a distinctly Arab East Jerusalem. With 200-235 thousand Jews living beyond the pre 1967 Armistice lines both in mixed neighborhoods with Arabs and in newly constructed neighborhoods, a simple physical division of the city into two ethnically distinct parts has become impossible. On one hand, it is easy to assert that this reality has come about as a direct result of Jewish resettlement in lands conquered in 1967. On the other hand, argue many, this neat division only existed because Jews were forced to leave these areas as a result of the 1948 war. Our guide further asserted that even those on the far left in Israel cannot conceive of removing Jews from these neighborhoods in any eventual peace settlement.

It is important to note that Ateret Cohanim does not itself purchase the properties where it is active. Rather, it serves a middle man of sorts, identifying investors who believe in the mission of the organization and families who wish to move into these properties (often one in the same) and finding Arabs interested and willing to sell their properties as well as Arab middlemen to whom they can actually sell the property. In terms of investors, given the highly contentious nature of their work, Ateret Cohanim does not disclose the identity of their investors. That said, at least one investor, Irving Moskovitz, has come up in the headlines time and again.

Perhaps more important than guarding the privacy of these investors, however, is protecting the identity of those Arabs who work with Ateret Cohanim. Indeed, in Palestinian Authority law it is a capital crime to sell land, property, or real estate of any kind to Jews. One of the first Palestinians who worked with the organization was responsible for a huge portion of the properties they acquired barely survived an assassination attempt when his identity was discovered. There have been numerous other examples of Palestinians who have sold property to Jews who have been executed both by PA authorities and by vigilantes. Our guide told us that no Arab that has worked with Ateret Cohanim has ever died, but this is in no small part because of the incredible care they take to guard the identity of the sellers, use Arab middlemen, and often help Arab sellers relocate their lives and property to elsewhere in Israel or outside the Middle East entirely.

This intense caution and secrecy has often has some perverse side-effects for the organization both reputationally and legally. Because there is such a violent stigma against selling to Jewish buyers, it has often been the case that the very people with whom a property deal is made are those which lead the riots (which are not infrequent) against Jews when they move into the neighborhood. These conditions also necessitate that families move into newly acquired properties at unusual hours, often between 2 and 4 in the morning… which certainly does not appear to be something that legal owners would have to do. Such precautions are taken, however, to effectively establish “facts on the ground” before protesters can prevent the entry of Jewish residents or squatters take up residence and claim protected tenancy status.

This is an artifact of Ottoman tenancy law which (very generally) asserts that residents of a building or plot of land, even if they do not own the property, are entitled to live there from generation to generation so long as they are paying some form of compensation to the owners, which often still does not occur, and as long as their residence is continuous. It is the same law which effectively legalized the seizure of Arab property abandoned in 1948 by the state which has also protected Arab residents of even Jewish owned properties in Jerusalem and the West Bank. While both sides claim injustice in the law’s application, it has also served each side’s interests, which may explain why it remains on the books.

The other problem Ateret Cohanim has encountered with using middlemen has been that on several occasions, the Arab middleman who has bought the property on the investor’s behalf, has attempted to turn around and sell the property to other people. As the apparent legal owner of the property in question, they have a questionable right to do so, but as they have purchased the property on behalf of another, the legal claim remains dubious. For this reason, many of the purchases which Ateret Cohanim has facilitated remain locked in court, which has served as a convenient means for the organization’s detractors to claim that they are involved in blatantly illegal seizure of land.

This is not to say that the organization’s activities are not seen by many as provocative. Indeed, one of the most famous of the Ateret Cohanim properties is Beit Wittenberg, a building in the heart of the Arab Quarter of the Old City where Ariel Sharon took up legal residence in the 1980s. This to demonstrate that Jews had a right to live anywhere in the city of Jerusalem. A huge Israeli flag is draped from the windows of the apartment over a huge arch along one of the main thoroughfares (see image above), a constant reminder of the political contentiousness of this city. Walking from the Kotel Plaza toward Sha’ar Shechem (Damascus Gate) by way of the Via Delorosa, you cannot miss it. The property was purchased by the Wittenberg family in the 1880s in a deal brokered by famous Hebrew linguist Eliezar ben Yehuda. It was also recently discovered that the building was once the famous Mediterranean Hotel where Mark Twain stayed in Jerusalem when he visited in 1867.

More provocative has been Ateret Cohanim’s activities in the Arab neighborhood of Silwan. This is an area understood by Israel to be divided into four: Ir David (The City of David) on the hillside sloping down from the Temple Mount; the Yemenite Village to the North, an area originally settled by Yemenite Jews in 1882; Gan haMelekh, the King’s Garden, a designated green space in the valley between the two in which, since 1967, Arabs have built 88 illegal structures some of which have been contentiously slated for removal by the Municipality, and old Arab Silwan to the south. Ir David is now a mixed neighborhood, approximately 50% Jewish and 50% Arab with a large archaeological park within that I have written about previously.

Today, Ateret Cohanim has been particularly active in purchasing property in the Yemenite Village and has filed injunctions to reclaim the only synagogue which remains in the neighborhood. Most Jews were evacuated from this area during the Arab riots in the 1930s on the promise of British Authorities that they would safeguard their properties and allow them to return. They did not. Of all the areas in Jerusalem where Ateret Cohanim is active, this neighborhood is likely the most contentious. Although the area has a prior history of Jewish residence and the titles and documents to support such claims, it is also one of the most densely populated and impoverished Arab neighborhoods (particularly on the lower slopes) in Jerusalem and one of the closest to the Old City. Needless to say, property development here has been a major flashpoint in Arab-Jewish conflict in Jerusalem.

A consistently reappearing theme throughout the tour was one of Jewish entitlement to the land of Jerusalem; that there should be no place in the city where Jews should not have the right to live. In reference to the security barrier which quite visually divides Jerusalem from the West Bank to the east, our guide claimed that it was a deterrent for only the most lazy of terrorists. If a suicide bomber wanted to attack Jerusalem, they would find a way. Rather, he believes that it defines the future border of Israel vis-a-vis the Palestinians.

While he disagrees with such a partition, he believes it serves the purpose of consolidating and defining the city of Jerusalem itself. By demarcating a specific space in which the city is contained, a claim to an undivided city can be more clearly articulated. Most importantly for my work, he asserted that expansion of Jewish neighborhoods and reclamation of Jewish land is the most important means to establish a viable territorial claim. It is notable here that settlement is taken as an instrument to block partition of the city, not that partition of the city is blocked by settlement. As I have asserted in my own work on homeland territorial claims, popular perceptions of where the homeland is located drive such contentious political claims rather than classical self-determination demanded people living in these spaces.

From here I could still go into great detail regarding the specifics neighborhoods we visited, the condition of the homes that have been purchased, and the stories that surrounded their individual acquisition, but they are less relevant for me than the narrative and ideology which drives this organization’s work. If you would like to know more about Ateret Cohanim beyond what I have provided here, please feel free to email me questions directly. Better yet, contact the organization itself. My thanks to our guide for a fascinating and informative tour. It was undeniably valuable for my understanding of politics in Israel and my research in general.

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