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Making Way for the Messiah

Inside the banquet room, a banner with one of Rav Kook’s sayings was draped across the length of the stage. It said: “That which unites us is far greater than that which divides us.”

I asked Julie Frank, who works as liaison to the Jewish community for City Council President Andrew Stein, what divides one Jew from another. “If all Jews believed in God there wouldn’t be so much divisiveness in our own community,” said Frank, who grew up in what she said was a “modern Orthodox home” in Far Rockaway, Queens. “I think that as the messianic period grows closer we have to show our support for Israel by either supporting it financially or moving there. Jews have to be there rather than criticize Israel.”

Frank was seated at my table along with her companion, Dr. Ken Kellner, a psychiatrist and president of the Manhattan region of the Zionist Organization of America—a pro-Likud group. “I came because I have a number of friends who are part of this organization [Ateret Cohanim],” said Kellner gravely. “I believe in what they are doing…I think they have a perfect right to expand the Jewish presence in Israel’s eternal capital.”

Jeane Kirkpatrick was the only national figure to attend the benefit. In her talk she joked that when she was initially contacted by the “Jerusalem Reclamation Project,” the innocuous-sounding arm of Ateret Cohanim, she thought it was part of Teddy Kollek’s Jerusalem Foundation. After she learned the group’s identity, Kirkpatrick said that she decided to attend despite several warnings from friends who said it was politically unwise.

Kirkpatrick went on to chide Ateret Cohanim gently for its move into the Christian quarter: “I thought it was—what do you call it?—insensitive to move in during the middle of Holy Week,” she said. “It struck me that this is not a moment when Israel needed more problems.” But she then criticized Christian groups for treating the move into the hospice as if Jews had desecrated a holy shrine. “Sensitivity to Christians is one thing. Hysteria about a ‘Jewish plot’ is quite another.”

Kirkpatrick’s candor earned her only lukewarm applause, and after she finished speaking she left to return to Washington. The next speaker, Dr. Moskowitz, the dinner’s guest of honor, proceeded to denounce those who would deny Jerusalem to the Jews. “Jerusalem is the center of the Jewish people and it will be the center of attention of the non-Jewish people,” he warned. “We must work for a unified Jerusalem until the Messiah comes!”

For Ateret Cohanim and its fundamentalist supporters, the Messiah will come only after Jews return to Israel, settle the land, and live their daily lives according to the Torah. They believe that the Land of Israel was given to them by God and must be secured and defended at any cost. Therefore for many of them the halachic, or religious, injunction to settle the Land takes on more importance than the principle of pikuach nefesh—preserving life. “I tell you explicitly that the Torah forbids us to surrender even one inch of our liberated land,” Rav Kook said at a public meeting in Israel in 1968.

There are no conquests here and we are not occupying foreign lands. We are returning to our home, to the inheritance of our ancestors. There is no Arab land here, only the inheritance of our God—and the more the world gets used to this thought the better it will be for them and for all of us.

Unfortunately for Ateret Cohanim, most Palestinian Arabs have tenaciously clung to the land. “The Arabs of Israel have to realize they don’t belong [in the Land of Israel],” said Menachem Bar Shalom, who recently resigned as the head of public relations for Ateret Cohanim in Israel. “They have to go where they belong.” Bar Shalom made this remark to a reporter for The Washington Jewish Week at the fund-raising dinner, saying openly to a secular Jewish publication what many Ateret Cohanim officials and followers say all the time among themselves. Some Ateret Cohanim supporters that I have talked to justify the expulsion of Arabs by evoking Maimonides, the revered medieval Jewish religious scholar, who said that after the Messiah comes only Jews will be permitted to live in Jerusalem.

Ateret Cohanim members say they want to prepare the way for a Messiah by “redeeming” the Old City stone by holy stone, until they have quietly transformed Jerusalem into what they hope will become the pride of Jews everywhere—a holy city in the service of the Third Temple. When Dr. Moskowitz says that Jerusalem will become the “center of attention” for non-Jews, he is restating the biblical prophesy that after the Messiah comes and the Temple is rebuilt, Israel will become a light unto the nations—and spiritual master of the universe.

A few days after the dinner, there was a shakeup inside Ateret Cohanim. Baroch Levine, the group’s director in America, was encouraged to step down. Apparently, there had been much unhappiness over the misuse of names in advertising and a drop in donations. At the same time, the millions of dollars that Ateret Cohanim reportedly paid for its sublease of St. John’s Hospice had vanished along with the building’s Armenian lease holder. “He’s running for his life,” Mickey Peled, Ateret Cohanim’s Israeli-born fund raiser in America, told me.

Meanwhile, the publicity over the hospice has made it more difficult—and possibly more expensive—for Ateret Cohanim to continue to do business as usual in the Old City. Because both Jordan and the PLO have made it a capital crime to sell property to Jews, Ateret Cohanim has employed Christian Arab middlemen to purchase property in the Muslim quarter in order to disguise the Jewish identity of the buyers. Since the intifada, however, several Arab middlemen who fronted for Jews in real estate deals have been assassinated by Palestinian nationalists. Nevertheless, an Ateret Cohanim official told me that the movement is secretly negotiating for a number of additional properties in the Old City, and has a large waiting list of yeshiva students and families who are ready to move into the Muslim quarter. “The only thing stopping us now is money,” Louis Bloom, an Ateret Cohanim official who died last September, told me. “But I think that within ten years we will have made…Jerusalem Jewish again forever.”

3.

On Sunday, May 20, just three days before Ateret Cohanim’s dinner in Manhattan, its sister organization, the Hebron Fund, Inc., held its third annual fund-raising dinner in East Rutherford, New Jersey, at the Sheraton Meadowlands Hotel across the street from Giants Stadium. Like Ateret Cohanim, the Hebron Fund, which was incorporated in New York City in November 1982 as a charitable, tax-exempt foundation, is raising money to acquire real estate in the occupied territories. “We can in the next two years turn the center of Hebron into a Jewish city,” according to Rabbi Yechiel Leiter, the thirty-two-year-old Scranton-born rabbi and mayor of the Jewish enclave of Hebron, where some 400 settlers and yeshiva students live in the midst of some 75,000 Palestinian Arabs. “Until now, I admit, I came to you as a dreamer,” Leiter said during his speech at the dinner. “Today dreams become reality…. The ramifications are so self-evident, are so momentous, are so historic. The second largest city in Judea and Samaria can be Jewish!”

According to tax returns filed with the IRS, the Hebron Fund recorded more than $251,000 in donations in 1988—the same year it shared an office on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue with Ateret Cohanim. “We moved our office out of Manhattan because it was ridiculous spending money on Manhattan real estate,” Leiter told me. The two groups continue to have many of the same supporters, but Leiter says Ateret Cohanim has “a much easier sell. Jerusalem is still Jerusalem.”

For many Orthodox Jews, however, Hebron inspires almost as much passion and commitment as Jerusalem. On April 12, 1968, thirty-two Jewish families led by Rabbi Moshe Levinger, a disciple of Rav Kook, moved into the Park Hotel in downtown Hebron in defiance of official Israeli government policy, which barred Jews from moving into West Bank Arab cities. They came, they said, to celebrate Passover. They never left the city.

From the beginning of his move into Hebron, Levinger found support inside the military and ruling circles of the Labor government. The minister of labor, Yigal Allon, wanted to see Jews return to the city of the Patriarchs, where Abraham had bought the Cave of the Machpelah from the Cannanites for four hundred silver shekels, and where King David had established his first royal throne some seven years before conquering Jerusalem. The long Jewish presence in Hebron ended with a vicious attack by Palestinian Arabs in 1929, in which sixty-nine Jews were slaughtered. “Hebron is still awaiting redemption,” David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, wrote to Levinger at the Park Hotel in 1968, “and there is no redemption without extensive Jewish settlement.”

One month after the settlers occupied the Park Hotel, the Israeli cabinet voted to let them stay in Hebron, moving them into a military compound. In 1970 the government established the settlement of Kiryat Arba on the parched hills overlooking Hebron. Early one March morning, at 3 AM, Moshe Levinger’s wife, Miriam, led forty women and children down the slope from Kiryat Arba into Hebron’s Casbah and occupied Beit Haddash, a derelict Jewish hospital.

Nowhere on the West Bank is Islamic fundamentalism as strong or as inhospitable to outsiders as in Hebron, where there are no bars or movie theaters and where women wear long gowns and cover their faces with veils. Despite loud opposition from the Israeli left, the Jewish enclave in Hebron grew. So did Arab hostility. Deadly outbreaks of violence between Hebron’s Jews and Arabs became commonplace. Settlers repeatedly came into conflict with Palestinians over whose turn it was to pray in the Cave of Machpelah, which is sacred to both religions. On several occasions Arabs caught Jews trying to bring ceremonial wine into the cave, a sacrilege to Muslims. In May 1980 six yeshiva students were killed in Hebron, near the Beit Haddash hospital by Palestinian terrorists who ambushed them as they were returning from Friday evening sabbath services.

Hebron’s last two Jewish mayors were imprisoned for their involvement in what came to be called the Gush Emunim terrorist underground, a loose-knit group formed in part to respond to the May murders as well as to terrorize local Palestinians and to blow up the Dome of the Rock. Between 1980 and 1984 the members of the underground attacked many Arab civilians, including the democratically elected Palestinian mayors of Nablus and Ramallah, who were badly wounded in car bombings, and a group of Palestinian students who were machine-gunned while quietly eating lunch in the courtyard of Hebron’s Islamic College. There of them died.

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