This week in Jerusalem: The church, the tax and the buzz

Peggy Cidor's round-up of city affairs.

Minister Tzachi Hanegbi (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Minister Tzachi Hanegbi
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
The church, the tax and the buzz
Whether it is another attempt by Mayor Nir Barkat to put pressure on the Finance Ministry or a decision to advance the interests of Jerusalem residents, even at the risk of a diplomatic incident, there have been major reactions.
About six months ago, Barkat announced his decision to charge churches in the capital city taxes (arnona) for their attached banquet halls, restaurants and hostels, since these are revenue-generating businesses.
The existing policy to exempt places of worship from taxes is to remain unchanged, but the expansion of this rule to businesses operated by churches, synagogues and mosques has never been officially granted.
Barkat claims the Treasury is obligated to compensate the city for the large number of businesses exempted from arnona (the revenue loss is estimated at about NIS 700 million for 2017). Negotiations have been going on for years on the issue between the state and the Vatican and agreement was apparently close, but the mayor decided to act now. Employees of the municipality were sent to collect the “debt” of the churches and some churches’ banks accounts were sequestered.
The response came quickly. Signs appeared in the Old City accusing the state of “persecuting churches in the Holy Land,” and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was closed – an unprecedented step. Not surprisingly, the happenings were highlighted by the media worldwide.
Following the intervention of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the sensitive issue, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre reopened at dawn on Wednesday. The Prime Minister’s Office will lead a joint committee together with the municipality to work out a solution acceptable to all sides regarding city taxes on businesses run by religious groups here.
The church, the land and the buzz
A second sensitive matter regarding churches and the state also made headlines this week. MK Rachel Azaria (Kulanu) failed to convince legislators and others that her bill enabling the state to seize church land sold to private entrepreneurs was targeting major real-estate players and not the churches. Her bill aims to allow the state to retroactively confiscate land that the churches have sold to private investors since 2010, fairly compensating the new owners.
The aim is to protect Jerusalem residents whose homes are located on land that until recently, was owned and leased to them by the Greek Orthodox Church. These residents recently discovered that the church sold this real estate to private investors who threaten to expel the residents from their homes.
Kosher exit
Rabbi Aaron Leibowitz (Yerushalmim) launched the Hashgacha Pratit local kashrut service several years ago, a move that the Chief Rabbinate opposed with a protracted struggle. This week the kashrut issue took a new turn with the decision of the Tzohar rabbinical organization to offer its own kashrut services, based on Leibowitz’s organization. Tzohar will take responsibility for the 39 restaurants and food outlets currently under the supervision of Hashgacha Pratit, and for the five kashrut supervisors it employed.
Rabbi Oren Duvdevani announced the dramatic news and the move was completed on Monday, when Tzohar announced its withdrawal from the kashrut supervision of the Chief Rabbinate in order to absorb Hashgacha Pratit. Leibowitz always said that the goal of his initiative was to broaden the kashrut supervision and open it to competition – and this is exactly what he has now achieved. He had already won a key battle when the High Court ruled to allow restaurants to declare that they follow the rules of kashrut – even if not under the Chief Rabbinate’s supervision.
Take the A train
Have you ever had the feeling that you were waiting too long for a bus in Jerusalem? You were probably right.
A delegation of MKs in the Economic Affairs Committee traveled earlier this week on several bus lines and the light rail and concluded what every Jerusalemite already knew: we all wait too long for our buses: some 1.25 million minutes more on the average than in any other city in the country.
These and other results were presented and debated at the committee’s meeting on Monday, attended by Jerusalem council member and holder of transportation portfolio Elad Malka (Hitorerut). Malka, who has been working to improve transportation in the city, said that opening bus services in the city to additional companies – thereby ending Egged’s virtual monopoly – is the first goal to achieve.
“Egged says there is a shortage of drivers,” he explains, “but we see that when other companies offer a higher wage [NIS 42 per hour instead of the current NIS 39 offered by Egged] candidates for the posts appear – haredim, Arabs and any Jerusalemite who seeks an employment. So the problem is Egged’s offer and not a shortage of candidates. We want to put an end to that situation.”
To demolish or not?
Four dilapidated buildings opposite the Central Bus Station and near the new high-speed railway station are at the heart of a fierce controversy. The vacant, boarded- up buildings are an eyesore, but they are classified as historic and thus should be preserved. Unfortunately, they are centrally located on a key part of Jaffa Road included in the already-approved grand renewal project for the entrance to the city. No fewer than 23 towers with housing, commercial and office space – including hotels and tourism facilities – are planned in the area, with the new railway station at the center.
Mayor Nir Barkat, principal promoter of this large project, wants to demolish the old buildings, but organizations for preservation and environment are adamantly opposed. Last week a decision to authorize the demolition was already made, but the bulldozers were stopped at the last moment.
Stay tuned for updates.
Blues for the blue line
Responding to an emergency call of the residents’ association, some 300 residents of the German Colony and the surrounding neighborhoods gathered last Monday to hear the latest developments on the Emek Refaim light rail issue. Opponents of the planned segment seemed disheartened.
Things look bleak for those who prefer the tunnel option under Harakevet Street. Transportation Minister Israel Katz (Likud) apparently favors moving the segment from Emek Refaim, but may endorse an above-ground line on Harakevet Street that could be detrimental to Mesila Park. This could heighten tensions between the Emek Refaim residents’ association – perceived as wealthy and influential and the residents of the less affluent Katamonim neighborhoods.
The residents’ association claims that the tunnel alternative could save the city some NIS 700m., in part by preventing the need for compensation to local merchants and businesses.
The municipality has three months to present an alternative to Emek Refaim, but the committee ruled that this period can be extended.
He’s back
Former deputy mayor and president of the local Meretz branch, Pepe Alalu, is back. On Sunday (March 4) Alalu will announce his dramatic decision to run for mayor in the October 2018 elections. The event will take place at the Cinematheque, including a screening of a documentary about his life as a local politician and city council member – mostly in the opposition. The candidacy will be announced at the end of the film, which was made by his son, Michael.
Alalu seeks “to bring back hope in peace and justice to this city.” It is still not clear whether he will run at the head of his party or on an independent list. His decision brings the number of declared candidates to six (not including Barkat, who hasn’t yet divulged his plans).
Marathon winner and more
This year’s marathon will feature judoka Yael Arad, who will take part in a “sport happening” included in the marathon’s events. More than 35,000 people are expected to attend the happening at the Jerusalem Pais Arena open for the public March 6 to 8 from 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. Entry is free. A wide range of sports accessories and novelties will be on display available there.
Among the multinational and multicultural marathon runners will be a group of youngsters from America who are in recovery programs from various types of addiction. They will run together with family members and caregivers, having found sports helpful in coping with their alcohol and drug addictions.