Not only Labor party leaders but pro-Israeli Jewish leaders in the US, concerned with counteracting negative publicity, denounced the takeover of St. John’s Hospice as insensitive. “It cuts the ground from under us,” said Seymour Reich, chairman of the Council of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. Supporters of Ateret Cohanim tried to justify their move into the Christian quarter by falsely claiming that many Jews had lived there during the nineteenth century. While it is true that Jews had once lived in the Muslim quarter in substantial numbers (and that many Muslims had lived in the Jewish quarter) during the nineteenth century “there were no Jews living in the Christian quarter,” according to Yehoshua Ben-Arieh, professor of geography and former dean of the Faculty of Humanities at the Hebrew University, in his book Jerusalem in the Nineteenth Century.
Ateret Cohanim officials also argued that moving into the Old City’s Christian and Muslim quarters should be as natural for Jews as moving into an exclusive American suburb. “If Jews who were trying to move into an apartment building in Scarsdale or Beverly Hills were attacked by a rioting anti-Jewish mob, decent people everywhere would be outraged,” said Dr. Irving Moskowitz, a Miami physician and Ateret Cohanim board member who has donated millions of dollars to its real estate projects, including the hospice. Writing in the Orthodox Jewish weekly tabloid, The Jewish Press, published in Brooklyn, Dr. Moskowitz argued that dividing the Old City into quarters “has no historical validity,” and that Jews have an “obligation to repopulate” those parts of the Land of Israel that have been “made Judenrein by Arab pogromists.”
Further, Moskowitz contended, Jews who moved into the hospice did so legally because they were “pilgrims.” ” ‘Pilgrims’ is a key legal term in the controversy,” he wrote.
The lease permits “pilgrims” to live there. The Israeli judge who initially ordered the Jews to be evicted from the hostel assumed that the lease was referring to Christian pilgrims. But is that a fair assumption? Hasn’t Jewish tradition always mandated pilgrimages to Jerusalem during the Jewish Festivals? Don’t Jews have as much right as Christians to come to the Holy City?
Moskowitz and Hacohen were among those who in 1984 had formed the American Friends of Ateret Cohanim, incorporated in New York State as a charitable, tax-exempt foundation. Before that, Ateret Cohanim had had money passed to it through PEF Israel Endowment Funds Inc., a tax-exempt public charity in New York. According to the foundation’s statement of purpose on file with the New York State attorney general’s office, the American Friends of Ateret Cohanim was formed to publish and distribute material concerning “the priesthood, [and] functions of the Temple” and “to acquire in any manner whatsoever and especially by grant, gift lease or purchase—land, rooms, or houses [in Arab East Jerusalem].” During the last two years, according to its annual IRS reports, the American Friends of Ateret Cohanim has recorded more than $1 million in donations.
Ateret Cohanim officials say that most of the money the group collects in the US goes to its subsidiary, the Jerusalem Reclamation Project, whose primary purpose is to purchase Arab property in East Jerusalem. Originally, Ateret Cohanim’s officials say, they wanted to register the Jerusalem Reclamation Project in the US as a tax-exempt foundation but were advised that the IRS wouldn’t grant tax-exempt status to an organization that primarily deals in commercial real estate.
Among the largest contributors to Ateret Cohanim are Marc Belzberg, the thirty-five-year-old Canadian president of First City Corp., an investment bank in New York, well known on Wall Street for making enormous profits as a corporate raider, and Cyril Stein, chairman of the Ladbroke Group, a large British hotel, gambling, and real estate company with extensive holdings in America. Several years ago, Dr. Moskowitz purchased the fifty-two-room Shepard Hotel in East Jerusalem, formerly owned by the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, for “considerably more than $1 million. I am doing everything I possibly can to help reclaim Jerusalem for the Jewish people,” Moskowitz said. Rabbi Marvin Hier, executive director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, himself a supporter of Ateret Cohanim, told me: “I love the idea of beautifying the Muslim quarter. Not a Jew in the world could object to that. The ‘Who’s Who’ of world Jewry has put money into it.” The members of the Belzberg family, who are worth more than $400 million, according to The Wall Street Journal, are the major financial contributors to the Simon Wiesenthal Center, and Rabbi Hier has personally given religious instruction to Marc Belzberg, who has become a balshomtov, or a Jew who has embraced orthodoxy.
On May 27, 1987, the Friends of Ateret Cohanim held its first annual fund-raising dinner for the Jerusalem Reclamation Project at the Hilton Hotel in Manhattan. More than 500 people attended, paying $180 each. Israel’s UN ambassador, Benjamin Netanyahu, was the keynote speaker, as he was also to be at the 1988 dinner. “I support the idea that Jews can live anywhere in the Land of Israel,” he told me. New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan sent a congratulatory letter, published in the American Friends 1987 dinner program, praising Ateret Cohanim for being an “inspiring” example of “Jews and Arabs living peacefully throughout the Old City of Jerusalem.” When I telephoned the senator’s office, David Luchins, Moynihan’s aide, told me that the senator wrote the letter after his friend Israeli president Chaim Herzog “spoke highly” of Ateret Cohanim. This year, Luchins said, Moynihan rejected Ateret Cohanim’s request to use his name in advertisements for the dinner.
A year ago last spring, the American Friends of Ateret Cohanim held its third annual fund-raising banquet at the Hilton Hotel in Manhattan. According to a report in Ha’aretz, $2.25 million was raised at the dinner, where the guests included Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive director of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, and who served as the master of ceremonies, New York District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, New York City Council President Andrew Stein, Marcus Katz, an Israeli arms dealer based in Mexico City who represented Israel Aircraft Industries in Latin America, and Ed Koch, then mayor of New York. The guest of honor and keynote speaker was Ariel Sharon, who was introduced at the dais by Mayor Koch as “a prince of a man.” Koch told me that he attended the dinner last year simply because he was invited by Sharon, whom he describes as a very close friend. “I don’t support [Ateret Cohanim] because of what we now know about their fanatical ideas,” said Koch. “But they are not terrible people. They are zealots. I generally find zealots—in all fields—to be pleasant people.”
Ateret Cohanim’s fourth annual fund-raising dinner at the Hilton Hotel took place this past May, a month after its occupation of St. John’s Hospice. The mood was defensive and subdued. Three of the four public figures whose presence had been advertised failed to show up—claiming in two cases that they had never agreed to come in the first place. Spokesmen for Democratic Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut and Republican Representative Bill Grant of Florida said they had repeatedly declined Ateret Cohanim’s invitations, yet the organization’s ads announced that they were coming. Michael Lewin, Lieberman’s aide, told me that he had warned Ateret Cohanim’s US director Jack Friedler that he would file a complaint with the New York State attorney general’s office if the organization didn’t stop using the senator’s name and photograph in newspaper ads. Elie Wiesel, who was listed as a member of the dinner committee on the invitations, told Larry Cohler of the Washington Jewish Week that he had never heard from the group. “They even totally misspelled my name,” Wiesel said.
Rabbi Hier of the Los Angeles Simon Wiesenthal Center told me he canceled his scheduled appearance as the benefit’s master of ceremonies after he heard about Ateret Cohanim’s incursion into the Christian quarter. “The move increases Israel’s isolation at a time when we have to go full out against the idea of a Palestinian West Bank Gaza Strip state,” Hier explained. “This undermines us.”
At the Hilton, at around 10 PM, in the middle of Jeane Kirkpatrick’s after-dinner speech, a pipe bomb exploded on the floor below the main ballroom. Next to the first device police found an unexploded pipe bomb whose fuse was defective and it failed to detonate. Police officers told me that the first bomb, which was placed next to a coat room, was supposed to attract spectators in time for the second bomb to go off. “The bombs were meant to maim or kill,” a federal agent said. Although police initially suspected that the bombing was directed at Ateret Cohanim, they now believe it stemmed from a labor union dispute.
This year’s $250-a-plate event drew a prosperous-looking crowd of some seven hundred people, most of them, I was told, Orthodox Jews from as far away as Florida. The men were dressed in dinner jackets and yarmulkes, the women in evening dresses. A five-piece band played Israeli dance music. (Last year, I was told, Ed Koch and General Sharon had danced the hora together. This year people barely stirred from their seats.) Larry Reinhardt, New York City’s taxi and limousine commissioner and the only Republican in the Dinkins administration, was there, as were Dr. Samuel Korman, chief of the cancer division of the Kingsbrook Jewish Medical center and a board member of Americans for a Safe Israel, an extreme right-wing group that advocates annexing the occupied territories, and Rabbi Walter Wurtzberger, the former head of the Rabbinical Council of America. Former US Attorney Rudy Guiliani and his wife, Donna Hanover, who works for WPIX News in New York, were listed on the paid guest list, but they were not there. Guiliani had been supported by most of the right-wing Jewish community during his failed campaign for mayor.
The publisher of The Jewish Press, Rabbi Sholom Klass, appeared at the dinner with an employee who handed out complimentary copies of his paper. The front page featured a salute to Ateret Cohanim as well as an editorial highlighted by a bold, blue headline calling for New York Mayor David Dinkins’s resignation. “He is clearly not up to dealing with the virtual criminal revolution that pervades New York City,” said the editorial, “and is afraid to issue any orders which might be opposed by vocal members of the Black community.” Unless Dinkins steps down, “a mass exodus from our crime-ridden city is a distinct prospect,” the editorial concluded.
With a circulation of more than 160,000, The Jewish Press has considerable political power in New York, and elsewhere. Politicians ask for its endorsement. After the 1980 presidential election, Ronald Reagan, who had been endorsed by the paper, called it one of the “most powerful” Jewish newspapers in America. The Jewish Press also publishes three separate columns per issue by Rabbi Kahane (one is written under the pseudonym David Sinai), who years ago had used the paper to launch the Jewish Defense League and, later, the Kach movement.