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Making Way for the Messiah

The Saddamization of Kuwait has won us a lot of friends,” said Rabbi Yechiel Leiter, the mayor of a small Jewish settlement in the center of downtown Hebron on the Israeli-occupied West Bank. As far as Leiter and other militant settlement leaders I talked to recently are concerned, Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait greatly buttresses their claim that, in a treacherous neighborhood, Jewish settlements reinforce Israel’s security.

We are grinning like Cheshire cats,” said Yisrael Medad, aide to Geula Cohen, a leader of the ultranationalist Tehiya party and a resident of Shilo on the West Bank, who believes that Israelis will be much less willing to trade territory for peace now that the PLO and a great many Palestinians in the territories have embraced Saddam Hussein—a move that has even provoked the anger of an embittered and demoralized Israeli left.

Over the years, Jewish settlements have been condemned by the US as an obstacle to peace. Just before the crisis in the Gulf, Representative David Obey, chairman of the House Subcommittee on Foreign Operations, which establishes funding levels for US aid programs, warned Israel that it risked having its aid cut if it built new settletments or expanded existing ones. And Israel’s request for $400 million in US loan guarantees to house Soviet Jews has been held up by the Bush administration out of concern that the money would flow into settlements in East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza or would be used to free up money in Israel’s treasury for settlements.

No other settlement activity has created so much controversy this year as Jewish efforts to “redeem” East Jerusalem’s Old City from its Christian and Muslim inhabitants. The roots of the controversy date back to the first night of Hanukkah in December 1978, when eight young Orthodox Jews announced they had set up a yeshiva, a school for religious studies, in the Muslim quarter of East Jerusalem’s Old. City. They called it Ateret Cohanim, the Priestly Crown. The yeshiva students said they came to the Old City to prepare for the last battle—the quintessential struggle between good and evil which will precede the End of Days and the Redemption of Mankind. The students said they wanted to study the ancient priestly texts in anticipation of the coming of the Messiah and the rebuilding of the Second Temple, which they believe is imminent. Although Al Aksa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock now tower over the ruins of the Second Temple, which was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD, the students centend that removing the Muslim holy place is the final step on the path to the Messianic Age.

Matiyuhu Hacohen, the powerfully built, bearded yeshiva student and army veteran who founded the Priestly Crown, is a disciple of the late Rav Zvi Yehuda Kook—the leader of the mystical-messianic West Bank settlement movement Gush Emunim (Bloc of Faithful). Kook encouraged Hacohen to devote himself to the question of how the Third Temple should function once it was brought into being. Soon students in rumpled shirts and slacks were studying how to slaughter a red heifer, whose ashes must be mixed with incense and then used to purify the high priests before they enter the Temple. Other students practiced weaving the sacred garments to be worn by the Temple high priests.

Hacohen had more on his mind than mastering ancient rituals, however. He believed Gush. Emunim’s holy crusade to settle and rebuild Judea and Samaria should be carried into East Jerusalem itself. If Judea and Samaria were the heart of the ancient Land of Israel, then Jerusalem and the Temple Mount were its soul. How, he asked, could the Messiah come to Jerusalem if Jerusalem were no longer an exclusively Jewish city, the kind of city described by the prophet Isaiah? “Hacohen became a regular fixture in the halls of the Knesset, lobbying for Jewish settlement in the [Muslim quarter of the] Old City,” said Yisrael Medad. According to Medad, Hacohen became closely associated with Ariel Sharon, who at the time was agriculture minister, in charge of Israel’s settlement program in the occupied territories.

In the early 1980s, Hacohen founded the Jerusalem Reclamation Project, a division of Ateret Cohanim. Its goal was to buy the estimated 1,100 properties in the Old City’s Muslim quarter, thus helping to turn Jerusalem (including its Muslim and Christian holy places) into an entirely Jewish city—the prelude to redemption. Many Jews had lived in the Muslim quarter before 1936, when pogroms and political unrest drove the last Jews out. “We will not employ fanaticism to embrace [our] vision,” an internal Ateret Cohanim memorandum said.

That is why it is a difficult goal to carry out—because we must move carefully and cautiously…every piece of property we buy cements our ties to the heart of Jerusalem. Every new [Jewish] family that moves into a redeemed house means an Arab family of larger numbers has willingly consented to move….

Ateret Cohanim initially hoped it could establish a benign presence in the Muslim quarter and it even set up a dental clinic for its Arab neighbors. But tensions grew as the group enlarged its property holdings. At the same time other yeshivas, less sensitive to Muslim sensibilities, moved into the quarter, while a handful of Jewish extremist groups, backed by right-wing politicians, began to agitate for the right to hold religious and political demonstrations on the Temple Mount, where the Dome of the Rock now stands—a right denied to Jews by the Israeli government.

More ominously, during the last several years, Israeli police have uncovered plots by Jewish fanatics, including radical members of Gush Emunim, to blow up the Dome of the Rock. On August 30, Shimon Barda, the leader of a mystical religious cult that lived in caves outside an abandoned Arab village near Jerusalem, was arrested for conspiring to blow up the Dome of the Rock after Israeli police discovered an arms cache that included US-made LAW shoulder-held missiles. “Of course we want to take the place of the Moslems on the Mount and clear away their mosque,” Ateret Cohanim’s director of public relations in Jerusalem, Menachem Bar Shalom, wrote Monroe Spen, an American Jewish militant from Sarasota, Florida, in March 1986. “But I don’t think that violent means are a solution.”

By 1987 Ateret Cohanim, according to the organization’s officials, owned more than seventy properties in the Muslim quarter, worth an estimated $10 million. Their holdings included a yeshiva, a building that had been a synagogue before 1936, several other buildings, which were converted into student dormitories, a museum, and about fifty apartment units housing some two hundred persons. Some of the property acquired by Ateret Cohanim had belonged to Jews who had at one time lived in the quarter.

Working out of a renovated office in the densely populated Muslim quarter, which is home to more than 50,000 residents, Ateret Cohanim salesmen show prospective Jewish real estate buyers three maps. In one, East Jerusalem is empty of Jews, as it was under Jordanian rule between 1948 and 1967. A second map shows the changes that have transformed Jerusalem under Israeli rule, which began after the June 1967 Six Day War, when the government bulldozed a Muslim neighborhood in front of the Wailing Wall and began to restore the Old City’s Jewish quarter, whose inhabitants had been forcibly expelled by the Jordanian army during Israel’s War of Independence. In a third map, the Dome of the Rock, with its ancient mosaics and golden dome, has been replaced by a sprawling Jewish temple. For the first time since the Herodian period, Ateret Cohanim officials say, a wholly Jewish Jerusalem is possible if Jews outside Israel will financially support it.

Ateret Cohanim’s messianic vision directly contradicts Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek’s policy of keeping the Old City’s four quarters—Muslim, Christian, Armenian, and Jewish—culturally separate. To preserve the homogeneity of the Jewish quarter, Israel’s high court ruled in 1981 that non-Jews could not buy property or live there. But there are no laws prohibiting Jews from buying property or living in Arab East Jerusalem. “We don’t have apartheid in Israel,” says Nachum Barnea, a columnist for the popular Israeli daily Yedioth Aharonoth. “Teddy Kollek wants to keep the city ghettoized with people living in their separate religious and ethnic enclaves, but he doesn’t have the power to hold the mosaic together anymore.” Kollek’s aide, Rafi Davara, told me several years ago that “four or five times when we heard that Ateret Cohanim was negotiating with Arab property owners in the Old City, we went in and put pressure on the Arabs not to sell. We can slow them down, but we can’t stop them.”

That became painfully evident on April 11 of this year, during the Easter Holy Week and Passover, when 150 Jewish settlers affiliated with Ateret Cohanim moved into the seventy-room St. John’s Hospice near the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The hospice is owned by the Greek Orthodox Church, but it had been leased to an elusive Armenian by the name of Martyros Matossian, who rented rooms to Arab families and European pilgrims. Sometime earlier this year, Matossian sublet the building for $3.5 million to a mysterious Panamanian company called SBC Ltd., which apparently represents the settlers. The settlers rechristened the site Ne’ot David, put up a Star of David, and invited Ariel Sharon for a visit.

Sharon had created a furor two years earlier when he occupied an apartment in the Muslim quarter which had been purchased for him by Ateret Cohanim, yet the settlers expressed surprise that their venture into the Christian quarter touched off riots and condemnation in Israel, and throughout the world. All the major Christian churches in Israel and the occupied territories closed on Friday, April 27, and rang funeral peals in protest. It was the first time that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre had been closed in eight hundred years. New York’s Cardinal O’Connor went so far as to denounce the takeover as an “obscene” plot to acquire Christian property in the Holy Land. Sharon attributed these protests to anti-Semitism and the PLO.

Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir initially denied that his government had helped the settlers. But David Levy,1 who was then housing minister, revealed that $1.8 million had been covertly channeled by his ministry to the Himnutta Company, a subsidiary of the Jewish National Fund of Israel. The Himnutta Company then passed the money to subsidize the purchase of the sublease to the mysterious SBC. The Greek Orthodox Church, which has considerable real estate holdings in West Jerusalem, argued that the sublet to SBC was illegal, on the grounds that the original lease agreement with Matossian prohibited subleasing. The church’s claim was subsequently upheld by an Israeli court, which then ordered the settlers to vacate the property, but permitted twenty security and maintenance employees of SBC to remain in the building pending further litigation.

  1. 1

    The Housing Ministry has been quietly helping Ateret Cohanim purchase Arab real estate since at least 1986, according to The Jerusalem Post.

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