Governing principles

Jewish Quarter and Yemin Moshe are controlled by separate state companies whose residents say are charging extra taxes.

jerusalem housing 521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
jerusalem housing 521
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Some 30 local neighborhood councils across the city have become a kind of laboratory for self-managing residents’ associations, but here is a paradox: Two neighborhoods are directed, one could even say controlled, by state companies. The fact that the two are not remote disadvantaged neighborhoods but among the most well-known and tourist-oriented areas – the Jewish Quarter in the Old City and Yemin Moshe – makes it all the more difficult to understand. The residents of the two neighborhoods are not particularly connected to each other, but they are both going through a similar process – striving for their independence and asking to be freed from the authority of these companies.
The two groups of residents, which have formed action committees, have even hired the same lawyer to represent them in their struggle to close down the company (in this case, the Company for the Reconstruction and Development of the Jewish Quarter, or the JQDC) or at least to put clear limits to its control over their lives (for Yemin Moshe, the East Jerusalem Development Company, or EJDC).
In the case against the JQDC, the residents’ struggle is backed by the mayor and, more importantly, by the state comptroller and the Knesset, who all agree that the company no longer has any reason to exist. A decision, by the way, which has not prevented the company from not only continuing to exist but even developing, hiring more employees and launching new projects.
As for the EJDC, things are a little more complicated. While the company does develop a few tourist projects (its original mandate) – it is run by the municipality and the Tourism Ministry – the tension between the company and the residents reached a new high recently and, as in the case of the Old City, legal action and public demonstrations have replaced repeated attempts to reach an understanding or a peaceful solution.
In between, the residents of the two neighborhoods are organizing protests, displaying posters against the companies and trying to mobilize public opinion – especially the municipality’s support – in their endeavor.
Yemin Moshe, overlooking the Old City, is one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods. It was established in 1891, next to Mishkenot Sha’ananim, the first neighborhood outside the walls of the Old City built as a solution for the overcrowded and unsanitary conditions inside the Old City. Moses Montefiore built the windmill, intending it to provide the residents with sufficient means of sustenance rather than the charity upon which the Jewish families in the city depended.
Over the years, and especially during the years preceding the War of Independence, the neighborhood was inhabited by Sephardi families, who led a very traditional life. During the 19 years between the creation of the state in 1948 and the Six Day War in 1967, the neighborhood faced repeated attacks by Jordanian snipers. After the 1967 war there was a tremendous change in the situation, but relief was not imminent for the residents, most of whom were not wealthy.
Jerusalem’s mayor at the time, the legendary Teddy Kollek, thought that the breathtaking view from Yemin Moshe could be put to better use, so he led a controversial evacuation of the residents to turn Yemin Moshe into an upscale neighborhood for artists and intellectuals.
For many years, harsh criticism has been expressed about what has been described as a “lifeless, silent and elitist” neighborhood, so different from the popular character of the original residents of Yemin Moshe and the rest of the city. But over the years, many of the artists left and were replaced by businessmen, foreign residents and well-to-do Jews who live abroad most of the year.
From the time that the original residents left, the East Jerusalem Development Company has been in charge of the neighborhood. Run by the municipality and the Tourism Ministry, the EJDC aims to develop the tourist aspect and attractions of the neighborhood and to lay the groundwork for cohabitation by residents and tourists. The residents are thus “framed” – as company and its interests, “which do not, to put it mildly, always match ours,” says David Lifshitz, who has been living in Yemin Moshe for 15 years.
Basically, the residents complain that they do not receive what they believe they are entitled to, considering the high additional taxes they are required to pay, on top of the usual property tax. “This company [the EJDC] has a mandate from the Lands Authority to administer the plots of the neighborhood and to lease them to the residents, but they are not here only for administrative issues. And while they inquire into any aspect, including any detail regarding our life here, they do not provide us with the minimum services we expect. They don’t seem to care about what’s important for us, the residents,” says Lifshitz, who is a member of the neighborhood’s action committee.
Gabriel Danon, the lawyer who represents the residents, sounds furious. “These people [the residents] pay their property tax, which is very high here anyway, and on top of that they have to pay a special services tax, which is in itself already an outrage, let alone that the company doesn’t provide any of the services for which it imposes this supplementary tax, so what’s going on here? And I haven’t yet mentioned the ‘agreement charge,’ which is a special payment every resident has to fork out when they sell their property. So they pay property tax and service fees, and if they decide to sell, they pay again for the right to sell their private property, besides regular sales taxes the state might require. This is crazy and partly illegal,” he says.
“What finally drove us to go public with our protest,” continues Lifshitz, “is that the EJDC doesn’t provide what it should, notwithstanding the issue of legal or illegal taxes we pay. Anything here that looks good is the result of our own initiative – whether it’s the residents or workers we employ, like gardeners or cleaners – but that should have been provided by the EJDC. That’s what we pay them for. Look around.
Wherever you see dirt or neglect, that’s their territory, their responsibility. So why do we pay NIS 1,900 extra on top of NIS 22,000 in municipal property tax, and then we clean up the neighborhood ourselves?” According to Danon and Lifshitz, the EJDC is not doing what it should be doing according to the terms of its mandate, namely representing the residents’ interests. “It is as if the EJDC has its own interests – but what about the residents’ interests? Well, too bad!” says Danon.
But there’s more. According to the members of the residents’ committee, neglect, lack of cleaning and parking lots are not the worst offences. Lifshitz says they have many security problems, such as women being attacked and molested in the dark alleyways at night, but they never get any response to their requests, such as additional lighting or reliable solutions for these menaces.
“The EJDC was a good idea at the beginning, back in the first years after the Six Day War,” recalls artist Tzivia Ofek, one of the veteran residents of Yemin Moshe. “It was a rare combination of good people who had only one thing in mind – to do what is good for Jerusalem and its residents. But that’s over now. Today there is absolutely no need for this company, not to mention that it doesn’t fulfill its obligations. They are a bunch of people who treat us like we’re nothing, are only interested in making a profit on our back and couldn’t care less about our needs and our rights.”
Ofek says that what hurts her and her neighbors the most is the deep rift in the relationship between the residents and the EJDC administration, recalling that two years ago the residents were nicknamed “faltzanim” (pompous) by EJDC CEO Gideon Shamir in an interview with a local newspaper.
Another issue raised by the Yemin Moshe residents is preservation. They claim that Shamir and his team have no understanding of and don’t really care about preserving the unique style and character of the neighborhood – they just care about making a profit.
Ofek cites the controversial project to turn the small parking lot down the hill facing the Sultan’s Pool intosome of the residents put it – by the a luxurious housing project. She adds, “It will probably turn into just another ghost house instead of enabling this beautiful neighborhood to thrive and develop with families and children.”
On the subject of what is known as “ghost neighborhoods” in the city, Ofek says that in Teddy Kollek’s time there was a condition included in the sales contracts at the beginning of the renovation project of Yemin Moshe. It required that the potential purchasers take part in living in the city. That was a way of preventing people from acquiring property without really living there and participating in the life of the neighborhood and the city. Today, this condition is no longer required. One of the direct results is that one person acquired 11 houses in the neighborhood but spends less than a month per year in one of them, Ofek says. “That is what ruins this neighborhood. That shouldn’t happen. But under the EJDC’s administration it happened, and it’s a shame. That is one of the reasons we organized ourselves and are striving to put an end to this intolerable situation.”
The Jewish Quarter within the walls of the Old City was found to be in a shameful state of disrepair after the Six Day War. In November 1967, the government decided to renovate it from scratch. During the first years, it was the desired destination of Israeli families, mostly non-religious, who wanted to live in the Old City after its reunification. Over the years, most of the secular and national religious families left as more and more haredim, mostly Americans, came in and changed the character of the neighborhood.
“When I came with my family to live in the Jewish Quarter in the early 1970s, about 500 of the 600 houses here were inhabited by secular or religious families,” recalls resident Amnon Shiloni. “Today, we are only 12 secular families.”
But in this case, the problem of the Old City residents is not connected to the haredi-secular issue but to the fact that both suffer from what they call the “dictatorship” of the Company for the Reconstruction and Development of the Jewish Quarter, directed by former deputy mayor Shlomo Attias, a member of Shas, very close to Construction and Housing Minister Ariel Attias (no relation) and joint owner, with the municipality, of the JQDC.
“The way this company works is the core of the problem,” says Rivka Shor, a resident and active member of the residents’ action committee. “Frankly, we don’t understand what’s going on here. Two years ago, the Knesset announced a decision to shut down the company by 2013, but then they appointed a new director, Rabbi Attias, and from that moment, the company is just growing and flourishing and adding employees and launching new projects instead of fulfilling the Knesset’s ruling and preparing the company for its closure.”
Shor talks about the dirt, the neglect, the lack of attention to the needs of the residents, and the poor maintenance of the entire neighborhood, despite the fact that, like Yemin Moshe, it is a highly tourist-oriented area. “They keep complaining that they don’t have enough money for all the things we ask them to provide; but at the same time we see that they have money for new offices and additional employees, so what’s going on?”
Shor and her friends on the committee, as well as other residents, agree that there is no need for the JQDC and that the Jewish Quarter should be treated as part of the city, like any other neighborhood.
Danon says that in the case of the Jewish Quarter, a large number of the complaints are aimed at financial aspects, mostly the taxes and fines imposed by the JQDC on any small change made inside the houses or the prices fixed for the property tax. Danon says that every action taken by the company is seen by the residents as yet another attempt to make their life miserable instead of giving them the services they are entitled to.
“Today we enjoy a harmonious community life – religious, haredi and secular or Masorti all together,” says Shor. “We know that this is not just another neighborhood. We are aware of its appeal for tourists, and the huge number of visitors all year long doesn’t make our life easy. We accept it; we knew about it before we came to live here. However, even that could be done in another way, through more respect for us and our needs, through more sharing and consulting us – like the food festival they held here in the winter. Nobody told us about it, nobody consulted us. It’s as if we’re just statistics – but we live here!”
Shlomo Attias has a lot to say on the subject. “First of all, let’s clarify the situation,” he says. “I know it is only a small proportion of the residents who are behind all this agitation. Most of the families here appreciate the company and my administration. Secondly, the housing minister, who is the owner of this company, appointed me; and as long as he is minister, I am the director of the company. I work to make it the best company and not to close it down – that is my mission.” Attias says he knows that some of the residents draw attention to the fact that he is haredi and says he feels hurt when people accuse him of “working for the haredim.”
“I represent the state, not my community or my party, not even my religious way – I know my duty.” He adds that despite his personal views, he had no problem organizing and financing the Independence Day events, even when some of the activities didn’t exactly fit his lifestyle – hinting at some instances such as men and women singing together. But according to him, the main issue is the attempt of a dozen families, some of the oldest in the Jewish Quarter, who are trying to avoid paying fines and taxes for the illegal construction they have done over the years, which Attias swears he will take to court, “no matter how long and difficult it will be.”
Attias also rejects all criticism regarding his handling of the Hurva Synagogue after its renovation, namely that women are not allowed inside the main hall because a beit midrash is installed there. “What do you expect me to do? To prevent good Jews from learning Torah in Jerusalem when I am in charge? What’s the problem with women who see the inside hall through the ezrat nashim?”
Attias, who is aware of the fact that the residents of the Jewish Quarter action committee are represented by the same lawyer who represents the residents of Yemin Moshe against the EJDC, concludes with more than a hint of irony that “nobody – not even the mayor – can close down this company. Although I agree that they can make my life here difficult, my suggestion is that all these areas should be included under the Company for the Reconstruction and Development of the Jewish Quarter, and instead close down the East Jerusalem Development Company!”
In response to a question by In Jerusalem, a municipal spokesman wrote that the municipality of Jerusalem cares about the development of the Jewish Quarter and the improvement of its residents’ conditions and the services provided to them and to the millions of tourists who visit every year. “The company was established to renovate the quarter and has, in fact, completed its historical role and no longer serves the public interests or the municipality’s policy regarding the Jewish Quarter. The position of the city’s administration is that all the company’s activities be handed over to the municipality, an attitude that is in accordance with a decision by the state control committee in the Knesset in October 2009, which was approved by the government.”