Interview with Ateret Cohanim


Over the past week and a half, I have been jumping back and forth across the political spectrum, taking tours and doing interviews with groups with widely divergent opinions on what should be the future of Jerusalem.

Most notably on Friday, I toured the city with Ir Amim and on the previous Wednesday, I had an interview with one of their representatives. Their organization advocates a political division of the city and is against Jewish development in primarily Arab neighborhoods. By contrast, two weeks ago Thursday, I toured the city with Ateret Cohanim, an organization dedicated to precisely that cause. Having absorbed the diametrically opposed policy views of these groups, I was fortunate to have the opportunity today to interview the executive director of Ateret Cohanim, Daniel Luria, in his office.

There I posed to him many of the criticisms I have now heard of his organization. These charges can be simplified down to four in particular: 1) that the work of their organization will cause Israel to lose the demographic battle with the Palestinians; 2) it will cause the world to question the legitimacy of Israel’s post 1948 borders as well as those established post-1967; 3) it will make the city dramatically more difficult or impossible to divide in any peace deal; 4) and it will make even more difficult the founding of a Palestinian state in the West Bank. He answered my inquires regarding each in turn.

In terms of the demographic argument, he believes that this has been used by the left wing in Israel as a hovering ghost over the future of Jerusalem and Israel which holds very little water. He noted that the disastrous predictions of 30-40 years ago about the explosion of the Palestinian population have never really come to be, and that the Israeli birthrate has steadily grown while the Palestinian birthrate has declined. A very brief op-ed on this here. My host argued, however, that even if the worst of the demographic predictions were true, it should not dictate Israeli policy.

Ateret Cohanim is of the position that Israel and Jerusalem belong to the Jews and this, and not demographics, should be the starting point of policy. That said, the organization does not take an official position on politics, while recognizing that their work has political ramifications for the future of Jerusalem. Here we turned to the claim that his organization and those like it are bringing Israel back to 1948 when the world openly questioned the legitimacy of the existence of the state and not just its control of the West Bank, Gaza, Golan, and East Jerusalem.

These claims, as I understand from my interviews, are founded on the presumption that efforts to reacquire, repurchase, or reclaim Jewish property lost in 1948 will necessarily open the door for similar Palestinian claims inside Israel. Luria rejects such comparisons when it comes to property purchases in Jerusalem. He argues that Ateret Cohanim is not seeking to acquire property in Yehudah and Shomron (West Bank). They are facilitating the purchase of titles only in those areas which governments from the left to the right since 1967 have openly declared are sovereign Israeli territory.  Jews should have the right to live in the same places as Arabs in Jerusalem, not simply because of moral equivalency but because of the precedent of the consistent political status of a united Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty.

If anything, he argues, it is the left which is returning Israel to questioning the pre-1948 legitimacy of the state. Unless one has the agenda that Jerusalem should be divided, the Temple Mount and the Old City, he argues, are integral to the identity of Israel and Israelis. By arguably denying the overriding Jewish character of the state and conceivably demonstrating a willingness to concede the city’s historic heart, they forfeit Israel’s particular cause for and right to existence.

To the charge that they have made the city harder to divide, he answered that this is precisely the point. While parties like Peace Now and Ir Amim are loud, he insisted, they are politically irrelevant representing a tiny minority of Israelis compared to those who want to keep the city united. Should the state be acting to fulfill the demands of such a minority when the firm majority is opposed? Ateret Cohanim is doing what Jews have wanted to do for generations, he argued, reclaiming Jerusalem for the Jewish people.

Their starting point, that Israel belongs to Jews in the first place, means that they do not conceive of the reasonable possibility of an “Arab state on Israel’s doorstep” with a divided capital. He believes that this comes down to a fundamental question of Jewish identity: what does it mean to be Jewish and what does it mean to have a Jewish state in this area? He believes that those who prefer a divided city and state and wish to see a “multicultural” state in its place are confused regarding their own identity. Not only must a Jewish state include an undivided Jerusalem, but it must too include other places central to Jewish identity: Beit El, Shiloh, and Hebron to name a few. The Jewish state should still take care of minorities here, but that doesn’t mean that it should create a foreign state on the soil of the Jewish homeland.

Put in such terms, the question remains what the organization conceives should be the boundaries of the State of Israel. Recalling that Ateret Cohanim’s mission is exclusively limited to supporting property purchases and reclamation in the Jerusalem municipality, there is also no official organizational position on these matters. That said, there is a strong believe that Israel should be trying to “reverse the nightmare of Oslo” which solidified the precedent that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should be resolved through the formula of land to peace.

The only way to do this, my host believes, is to speak the truth about the futility of these measures even if the world disagrees. The “land for peace trap” needs to be undone, and only then will Palestinians stop believing that they will get a state. Presumably, such an understanding would disincentivize future terrorism and violence and pave the way for a more sustainable solution, whether this means annexing the West Bank, confederation with Jordan, or the declaration of Jordan as the Palestinian state. He sees no possibility for peace by creating a fundamentalist state on Israel’s doorstep.

Rather, he believes Israel should assert openly that Israel is the Jewish homeland and there are no shortage of other Arab lands. If the Palestinians choose, they may remain in Israel and be a protected minority living in the Jewish state. Otherwise, they are free to leave as some 17,000 did in the last year to seek better lives elsewhere. The bottom line, he is not prepared to see a “solution” to the conflict at Israel’s expense. Netanyahu, he understands, is caught in a difficult position trying to navigate the international waters between principle and compromise. But a fresh approach is needed that does not require giving away more land in exchange for an ephemeral peace.

It is plain for anyone to see that there is an enormous ideological gulf which exists between those who believe that division of the land is preferable to ongoing conflict and those who believe that division of the land will accomplish nothing such that Israeli should maximize its control in its stead. Between the two organizations: Ateret Cohanim and Ir Amim, there remain some tentative points of contact, however.

Both recognize the special status of Jerusalem and its major historical and religious sites in the national narrative, and neither wish to relinquish or renounce Israeli control or connection to these sites. Similarly, both reject the notion that Israel should be in control of the political or national destiny of Palestinian Arabs. Even if their substantive policy agendas bring them to rather different prescriptions for how these problems should be addressed, they do indicate points of potential national consensus from which they might be bridged.

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