The battle lines have been drawn

Residents of the Hutzot Hayotzer artists’ colony face eviction after 40 years of pioneering Judaica.

hutzot hayotzer_58 (photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)
hutzot hayotzer_58
(photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)
George Goldstein speaks with a soft voice, tinged by a French accent, when he recalls moving into Hutzot Hayotzer 40 years ago.
In his hand is a slightly faded photo of him at his loom with Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek and artist Mordechai Ardon looking on.
Despite the fact that he and more than 20 other artists at the Jerusalem artists’ colony face eviction in 22 days, he seems resigned to whatever fate will come.
“I opened my workshop here in September of 1969 with the support of [Teddy] Kollek and Yigal Allon [then minister of education and culture] and it was the first place for traditional tapestry and weaving, and it is still the only tapestry workshop in the country making things in the traditional way.”
Goldstein came to Israel in 1960 and his work has enjoyed great success over the years, with large tapestries hanging in the Great Synagogue of Strasbourg, Jerusalem’s Shaare Zedek Medical Center and at Yeshiva University in New York.
Hutzot Hayotzer was once a pioneering project to bring culture and people to the ruined no-man’s-land that separated east and west Jerusalem. Whereas once Jordanian snipers had sat atop the parapets of the Old City walls, in 1967 the city was reunified and the mayor desired to link the city together. By bringing dynamic artists and setting them up with workshops and galleries next to the Old City walls, the municipality and government were showing their commitment to reviving this part of Jerusalem.
That was in 1969. Today things have changed. The grand villas of David’s Village and the rejuvenated Yemin Moshe peer over into the row of workshops that is Hutzot Hayotzer. Nearby, a dilapidated park is being remade by the Jerusalem Foundation into Teddy Kollek Park.
The artists’ colony has been left untouched. Although a restaurant, Eucalyptus, opened there over a year ago, the retinue of artists has remained unchanged, it seems, for almost a decade.
One of the “new” arrivals is Oshrit Raffeld, whose positive energy bubbles over as she describes the tragedy that is befalling the place.
“It isn’t packed with tourists, but that is because David’s Village changed the route people take to the Old City… We were once the main way for tourists to get to the Jaffa Gate. At our own expense we paid the municipality to put up signs, we advertised and marketed ourselves.”
For her, and for the other artists, it is the landlord, the East Jerusalem Development Company, that is to blame for the problems.
The EJDC, despite its connotation as being involved with “east Jerusalem,” was actually set up in 1966, before the Six Day War. It is owned jointly by the Jerusalem Municipality and the Tourism Ministry.
The company currently manages several projects and properties, including Yemin Moshe, the famous old village created by Moses Montefiore in 1891, the Jerusalem Archeological Park and Davidson Center next to the Western Wall, Zedekiah’s cave (Solomon’s Quarries) near the Damascus Gate and the Old City walls walkway.
The artists’ colony seems to be one of its least impressive projects, considering the beauty of Yemin Moshe and the vibrancy of the Davidson Center.
So what went wrong?
A little over a year ago the tenants of the artists’ colony were sent letters of eviction, but the order was postponed for a year and the EJDC raised the rents by 30 percent.
Raffeld recalls that “in the past they renewed our contracts yearly… but suddenly everyone was told to leave, no matter if the artists open their shops regularly. The company now claims that we didn’t agree to the rent raise. We didn’t object but we want contracts that protect us.”
According to Gideon Shamir, director of the EJDC, it is primarily about the unpaid rent. The artists refuse to pay the higher rate and therefore they must go.
“They pay a very low rent,” he says. “We wanted to raise it to a more realistic price. There was a deadlock and the court order is for them to leave. I can tell you that we approve of thinking about the future of this place, but there is no connection between the future and the fact that the artists refuse to pay. We want this to be a place of culture and tourism.”
Tourism Ministry spokeswoman Shira Kaveh claims the artists are being evicted because there are too few tenants and the existing ones haven’t signed a rental contract.
There is no doubt that the artists’ colony does not attract tourists. It is hard to find, and there is no public parking.
The new Mamilla mall funnels tourists into the Old City in a way that would make it surprising if any of them wandered down to the area of the colony. However some tourists do chance upon it.
A couple from Toronto remarked after passing: “It looked closed to us. Maybe it’s open later; there is nobody there.”
They were wrong. When they passed at 10:30 a.m., half the workshops were open, but they looked very much closed from a distance.
Every year the municipality hosts an artists’ festival called “Hutzot Hayotzer” – which will continue to run if the residents are evicted – but over the past years the artists who have shops in the colony complain of being excluded.
Most of the support for the artists comes from personal connections they have made.
Goldstein recalls, “I made many friends in 40 years.”
Letters of support have been sent from abroad and are being collected by Anat Galili-Blum, spokeswoman of the artists. She believes there is going to be a “protest letter storm, hundreds of letters” from all over the world urging for the eviction to be canceled.
Silversmith Yaacov Greenvurcel’s Judaica has been shown at museums around the world, including the Jewish Museums of Berlin and Vienna. For him “this is a microcosm of what is happening in Israel – the bureaucracy, the mall culture.”
Accusations that the artists’ work is outdated are belied by the fact that the artwork of Greenvurcel, Raffeld and Yossi Sagi, among others, appears modern, cutting edge and even chic.
In the end only time will tell whether the EJDC gets its way and the recalcitrant artists are removed.
While it is true that the site is not a burgeoning center of tourism, the artists are right that it is a unique space, a street of workshops where pioneering Jewish artists are creating dynamic creations.
The question for the city and the Tourism Ministry is whether the current location is worth preserving when compared to other options.