Sold out

A small Jewish neighborhood in Jerusalem suddenly finds its future up in the air.

Nof Zion 521 (photo credit: Seth J. Frantzman)
Nof Zion 521
(photo credit: Seth J. Frantzman)
Joe and Rozanne Polansky are soft-spoken but determined. As they sit in their living room, with its beautiful panoramic view of the Old City and east Jerusalem, they relate what drew them to the place. In 2008 they first saw Nof Zion, the Jerusalem community they now call home. It was an empty shell, precariously overlooking the Old City basin and surrounded on three sides by the Arab neighborhood of Jebl Mukaber.
When they returned in April 2009, however, things were thriving. “We loved the community, it was full of life and affection and gave us a great feeling.”
The Polanskys are from North Bellmore, Long Island, New York. Joe worked in construction before going back to school and becoming a state inspector of schools for the blind. Initially, they envisioned spending six months out of the year in the new community.
But the enchantment of it all led them to place their house in the US up for sale and move to Jerusalem permanently.
For outsiders it might seem a strange choice. Nof Zion strikes the visitor as being half built and it feels isolated, even though it is only a 10-minute walk from the UN headquarters and Armon Hanatziv.
This is no accident. The developers never bothered to finish the job. They completed only around 100 units out of a promised 400. They never constructed a synagogue, despite claiming on their website that “the synagogue will be the first public building erected.” Ground wasn’t broken for a hotel, country club, and a number of other amenities. The rest of the project is just a sea of earth and weeds.
Sad patches of grass attempt to break through the hardscrabble earth of the “garden” apartments, trying to put down roots like the new residents themselves.
The seven buildings that were constructed are home to some 75 mostly middle-class families and several renters, including one UN worker and two basketball players.
Dawn Yonah, another resident, who relocated from the Washington, DC, area, relates a story similar to the Polanskys’.
When she first signed a contract on the property, there were few residents. But she believed in the vision of Digal, the developers of Nof Zion.
“We were aware of the location of it, but as Zionists it didn’t bother us. We received a special feeling immediately from the residents.”
The unbeatable view of the Old City, the promises and the price tag all made the choice easy. But little seems to have turned out as hoped. It was a struggle to get bus service and mail is delivered intermittently. The owners were promised 24-hour security, but that never materialized, and now residents volunteer to do their own neighborhood watch.
Yonah relates that a year and a half ago “there were rumors of financial problems with Digal; a lot of Americans refused to sign contracts for their apartments.”
Joe recalls that it didn’t seem like Nof Zion would be affected.
“We heard rumors only of it affecting other properties.”
Digal’s website lists six other projects that it is involved in, including three residences in Romania, a synagogue and hotels in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
The story of what has befallen Nof Zion has been widely reported in the media. Following Digal’s financial difficulties, a Palestinian businessman named Bashar al-Masri stepped forward with an offer to buy the property. Currently there is a campaign to find a Jewish buyer to match his offer or place pressure on the developers and creditors not to cave in.
Bemunah, an organizaton, and other Jewish investors have stepped forward with plans to keep the property in Jewish hands.
Masri’s role is worth considering. He was born in Nablus and is a Palestinian entrepreneur. His uncle is Munib al-Masri, an extremely wealthy Palestinian who made his money abroad and is now a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council and owner of a famous Italian renaissance-style palace above Nablus.
Bashar is the manager of Massar International and the mastermind behind the Qatari-backed Rawabi development, the first planned Arab city in the West Bank, which is currently under construction and will house 40,000 wealthy and middle-class Palestinians. Requests for an interview were not returned as of press time.
The residents of Nof Zion are undaunted in their desire to see their community succeed, but they are also wary of the future.
“We don’t want to see this beautiful Jewish community broken apart. We will build and do whatever it takes. People here are determined to see our community continue to thrive,” says Yonah. “Our community is like a large family, we aren’t disconnected.
There are more than 70 children here.”
Some of the children attend a day-care center in the temporary synagogue which is located in a neighbor’s unused apartment.
Up until recently there was a deal between the owners and the other residents, but now even that seems up in the air, and the synagogue may have to move elsewhere.
Miranda Jones, Dawn’s daughter, has put her feelings down in writing in an article titled “An Oleh’s view of Nof Zion.” She stresses that “this is not a matter of political Right versus Left… Nof Zion is a private, legal community that is growing each day as new families move into the apartments… Virtually every family has an amazing story, with historical roots that go deep into Israeli soil, and lofty visions of a glorious future.”
Many of the residents stress this point: There are no tensions with the Arab neighbors. Jones writes that “the playground is visited daily by both Jewish and Arab children.” During the tensions over Silwan in the fall, there was some vandalism, but the situation is generally quiet.
The residents have been proactive in defending their interests by purchasing bonds from the developer in order to have a say in any final decision.
Motti Mintzer, an attorney and one of the first people to move into Nof Zion, has been instrumental in bringing families to live there and giving voice to the residents’ concerns.
“I don’t mind who owns it, as long as they carry through on their plans and the promised Jewish character remains the same, as well as the security of its residents. If this basic character of the project is changed – the company, Bank Leumi and the potential investor are exposed to lawsuits in an amount which is more than triple than the amount proposed in [Dov] Weissglas’s [representing Masri’s] offer.”
As of press time no decision had been made regarding the Palestinian bid to acquire Digal’s assets, but it seems that whatever happens, the people of Nof Zion will doggedly press on in their desire to make the community succeed.