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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.

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.

2.

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.

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.

All but one of the underground, whose twenty-seven members include some of the most prominent leaders of the West Bank settlement movement, were arrested after two of its members were caught attaching time bombs to five Arab buses in East Jerusalem. Underground member Ira Rappaport was in New York at the time of the arrests, working for the Eretz Yisrael Movement, an arm of Gush Emunim that recruits potential settlers from the diaspora. He returned to Israel in 1986 and received a short prison term for his role in the car bombing of Nablus’s mayor.

Israeli police subsequently arrested Levinger and questioned him for ten days about his alleged connections with the underground. Levinger had been implicated by Menachem Livni, the underground’s leader, and, before his arrest, the head of the Association for the Renewal of the Jewish Quarter in Old Hebron. Livni, an engineer and an assistant battalion commander in the IDF’s combat engineering corps, states in his twenty-seven-page signed confession that Levinger had authorized mass terrorist attacks against Palestinian civilians to discourage them from attacking Jews. Levinger denied Livni’s claim and was never formally charged.

Several months ago, however, Levinger pleaded guilty to criminal negligence in the 1988 shooting death of an Arab shopkeeper in Hebron. According to court testimony, Levinger walked into the street firing his pistol indiscriminately after a group of young Palestinians had stoned his car. As he was closing his shoe store the victim was shot in the stomach, and later died. According to The Jerusalem Post, the Israeli army company commander who witnessed the shooting testified at Levinger’s trial that after the rabbi fired his weapon, he walked “down the road screaming: ‘You’re dogs,’ at [Arab] vendors, and overturned and kicked vegetable crates and flower containers…. [The officer] said he grabbed Levinger’s hand, which was trembling, and told him not to move, but that Levinger shouted back to him: ‘Leftist, Arab lover!’ ” For killing the Arab shopkeeper, Levinger was sentenced to five months in prison, but was released after three months for good behavior. On the day that Levinger was to begin serving his sentence, he was carried through the alleyways of Hebron’s cramped Casbah on the shoulders of hundreds of his supporters, many brandishing assault rifles and singing the anthem of the West Bank settlement movement, “Am Israel Chai” (“The Jewish People Live”).

Rabbi Levinger and his wife, Miriam, were to be the guests of honor at the Hebron Fund dinner at the Sheraton Meadowland Hotel in East Rutherford, though the rabbi, still in jail, was unable to attend. The special guest speaker was former assistant secretary of defense Richard Perle. The dinner took place on the same day a young Israeli apparently went beserk and massacred seven Palestinian laborers from Gaza. Not a word was said about the slaughter by any of the speakers, who condemned PLO terrorism, the American press, and James Baker, who had called on Shamir to give up his dream of “Greater Israel.”

Dov Hikind, the New York State assemblyman from the 48th District, which includes Borough Park, a mostly Orthodox Jewish neighborhood, briefly introduced me to Rabbi Leiter during the cocktail hour that preceded the dinner ceremonies. Young, cheerful, and energetic, Leiter was greeting supporters and posing for photographers. Marc Belzberg, one of Ateret Cohanim’s major financial contributors and the group’s master of ceremonies at this year’s dinner, came by, as did Sam Rappaport, a Philadelphia real estate developer and the largest Israel Bond holder in America, along with several members of the extremely rich Reichmann family of Canada. The three Reichmann brothers, owners of Olympia and York Developments Ltd., one of the largest privately held real estate companies in the world, with properties that include the World Financial Center in Manhattan, have a net worth of more than $9 billion, according to Forbes Magazine. “I want you to see that people, even with our views, are dignified, civilized people,” Hikind said.

The five hundred or so guests then assembled in the main ballroom of the Sheraton Meadowlands for dinner and speeches. I was seated at a table with Matthew Feldman, a New Jersey state senator, and Samuel Bisgay, a member of the central committee of the Republican Party of Orange County, California, who coproduced the thirty-minute documentary film “In the Gardens of Abraham: the Story of Hebron,” videocassettes of which were later distributed at the dinner. The film is used by the Hebron Fund to solicit donations. “I was looking for a cause,” said Bisgay, who is also on the executive board of Americans for a Safe Israel.

Hatikva” and the National Anthem were piped over the public address system, and then a Torah scroll, a gift to Hebron’s settlers, was carried into the hall by several dozen men who then danced around it. “Remember the pogroms, the massacres, the Holocaust,” Senator Feldman whispered in my ear as I watched the men dancing around the Torah. “Land for peace won’t work.”

Nathan Miller, of Fairlawn, New Jersey, dedicated the Torah from the rostrum:

We must return and restore the holy Jewish city of our Patriarchs. We must rebuild Hebron and return to our roots—every Jew must be a partner in this mitzvah. We thank Hashem [God] and pray this is the beginning of redemption. May the Torah unite all of Eretz Yisrael and remind us of our sacred paths and goals. May we witness the Messiah in our time.

Then a rabbi in a dark business suit and a yarmulke blessed the Torah, declaring, “May it be used to redeem all of Hebron into Jewish hands.”

Following the rabbi’s invocation, the master of ceremonies, a radio talk-show host in New Jersey, compared Hebron’s settlers to the chalutzim (pioneers) who built Israel “out of rock and sand. We are here tonight,” he said, “to stand side by side with our people of Hebron to swear our support to them in every way possible.”

Then it was Miriam Levinger’s turn to speak. When I had tried to interview her in Israel several years ago, she had acidly replied that she wasn’t in the mood to talk to a Jew from “the galut,” a derisive term for the diaspora. But she was now clearly eager to talk to this well-heeled diaspora audience. “I’m sure my husband is very sorry he couldn’t be with you tonight,” she said, prompting hearty laughter. “He couldn’t come. We had a parting of the ways…. He has his religious books and I’m sure he will be occupied for the next five months. I spoke to my mother-in-law and I think she’s a bit pleased because she told me now he’s going to eat regularly and go to sleep on time,” she said as the crowd erupted in laughter and applause.

After describing what a moving experience it is to walk through the same hills where King David wrote the Psalms, she continued: “I grew up in the East Bronx and I was a very frightened Jewish child. I remember running away. And I see my children—the way they walk around Hebron, forty or fifty families in a city of 70,000 Arabs, and not so very friendly Arabs at that—and they walk around as if they own the market…. They are not afraid and they have no traumas and if they are asked, ‘What are you doing here?’ they say, ‘We are reclaiming Hebron. And God promised us that one day we would do this!’ ”

When Mrs. Levinger finished speaking, the master of ceremonies read a telegram of greetings from Ariel Sharon, who apologized for not being able to come, although he had been advertised as the featured speaker. It was imperative, he said, that he stay in Israel and help the prime minister form a new government:

We have been successful in preventing the Labor Party from forming a coalition which would have been supported by members of the Knesset who follow the directives of Yasir Arafat. We will be able to form a strong Jewish government which will be able to withstand the pressures that were leading us down the road to suicidal policies…. I congratulate Rabbi and Mrs. Levinger, my dear personal friends, true heroes of our generation.

Several weeks later, during a phone conversation, I asked Richard Perle why he had been willing to speak at the Hebron Fund dinner, for during the Reagan administration he had been a strong advocate of a policy of combating “international terrorism.” It seemed ironic that in a speech to a group that hails Rabbi Levinger as a national hero, he advocated breaking off talks with the PLO until it gives up terrorism.2

Perle told me that he doesn’t support Rabbi Levinger, nor, for that matter, had he ever heard of the Hebron Fund before he was invited to address its fund-raising dinner. “They presented themselves as representatives of the Jewish community of Hebron,” he said. Although he was aware of the controversy over Levinger, Perle said that he didn’t know that some of the principal Jewish leaders of the Hebron settlement had been members of the Gush Emunim terrorist underground. I told him that one of Hebron’s former Jewish mayors, Menachem Livni, had received a life sentence for taking part in the underground (although only three of its members, convicted of murder, are still being held, and they are in a yeshiva halfway house in Afula). Perle replied:

There is something to be said for a country that puts its terrorists in jail and gives them life rather than turning them into national heroes. Whatever one thinks of the settlements from its foreign policy aspects, Israel does not countenance acts of terrorism by its own citizens. Whatever the irony of my speaking [at the Hebron Fund dinner], there is a fundamental distinction between states that support terrorism and states that fight it.

Perle admitted that the anti-Arab hostility he sensed from some of the people at the dinner had made him “uncomfortable”; and he worried that because of the passions unleashed by the intifada, this might not be an auspicious time to expand the Jewish enclave in Hebron. “My hope is that in the course of an eventual settlement some understanding will be reached by which Jews will be permitted to live in places that are particularly sacred and holy to them just as Arabs will be permitted to live in such places.”

If Rabbi Leiter were granted his wish, however, there wouldn’t be an Arab left in Hebron. It is not that Leiter, a JDL activist in his youth, wants to forcibly expel them, as does his former leader, Rabbi Meir Kahane. Leiter believes that Jews can eventually buy all the Arabs out. “There is a natural migration of Arabs out of the center of town,” he told me. “The PLO is pumping in money to stop it.” Leiter contends that if the army did its job and uprooted PLO terror cells from their bases in the territories, Palestinians wouldn’t be afraid to sell their homes to Jews—and with the high purchase price they would receive, they could move to Europe or America.

Ateret Cohanim also advocates getting rid of Arabs by buying them out. “We pay [the Arabs] well above market value,” Louis Bloom once told me. “They are very glad to leave the Old City [of Jerusalem], and with the money they can go to Europe and open up a little business. You can get more out of Arabs by being nice. If there were another way to get them out we would use it, but we think Kahane’s way is a disaster.”

4.

The struggle over real estate is at the heart of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. Much of pre-1967 Israel was not conquered, but was purchased from local Arabs and absentee landlords between the late nineteenth century and 1948. Yet it’s hard to imagine a more effective way to incite Palestinian terrorism and violence than to increase the Jewish presence in the Muslim and Christian quarters of Jerusalem’s Old City, not to mention downtown Hebron, and elsewhere in the Gaza Strip and West Bank, while shutting off talks between the US and the PLO. Palestinians also fear that the changes in the occupied territories, where more than 50 percent of the land is now in Israeli hands, will rapidly accelerate as a great many Jews from the Soviet Union settle in Israel. While the Israeli government has not directed the new arrivals to the territories, their presence has squeezed the housing market, inflating rents and impelling many native Israelis to consider moving to West Bank settlements with their generous, government-subsidized mortgages. As world attention is fixed on the Gulf, settlement leaders believe Israel will be able to quietly “thicken” existing settlements, unimpeded by American pressure.

For many religious Jews associated with Ateret Cohanim and the Hebron Fund, the impending arrival of hundreds of thousands of Soviet Jews is only the latest sign that the divine plan is on schedule—although, ironically, donations to them have dropped as the Israeli government and world Jewry direct their resources to settle the new immigrants. Still, both groups welcome the Soviet Jews because their arrival strengthens the hold of the Jewish people on the land of Israel, hastening the coming of the Messiah, the rebuilding of the Temple, and redemption.

Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, the French-born spiritual leader of the Ateret Cohanim Yeshiva in Jerusalem, put it this way. “We must settle the whole Land of Israel, and over all of it establish our rule,” he wrote in the fundamentalist journal Artzi (“My Land”) in 1982. “In the words of [Nachmanides]: ‘Do not abandon the land to any other nation.’ If that is possible by peaceful means, wonderful, and if not, we are commanded to make war to accomplish it.”

  1. 1

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

  2. 2

    On June 20, President Bush suspended talks with the PLO for failing to condemn forcefully the aborted May 30 terrorist attack on Israel by Iraqi-backed sea-borne Palestinian commandos.

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