You can fight city hall

German Colony residents are once again battling a construction project – this time to prevent the Colony Hotel from taking shape next to historical buildings on Emek Refaim.

smadar theater 311 (photo credit: Sarah Levin)
smadar theater 311
(photo credit: Sarah Levin)
It’s Friday afternoon and a group of people has gathered around a small white plastic table on which is displayed the model of a new project that is planned for the neighborhood. The model shows a massive building overshadowing the historical buildings of the Templer period situated at the corner of Emek Refaim and Derech Beit Lehem.  
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Chava, a tall, redheaded woman wearing a light blue dress, hands out flyers to passersby. Explaining that it is the duty of all the Jerusalem residents, not just those who live in the neighborhood, to fight against the greed and profiteering that are threatening to destroy the special character of the German Colony, she invites them to sign the petition.
It appears that most of the people already know about the protest against the Colony Hotel project, and many sign willingly. It is close to 11 a.m. on Emek Refaim, one of the trendiest streets in the city, and the number of residents who join the little group in the middle of the street grows by the minute. For the benefit of the few still not familiar with the situation, Chava and her companions explain, with a lot of passion, that once again the German Colony is in danger. 
“I don’t live in this neighborhood,” says Danny, a tall, white-haired man in shorts holding a bottle of mineral water in one hand and the handlebars of his bicycle in the other, who just signed the petition. “But I spend a lot of time here for business and leisure, and I admire the residents here. They would never cave in to anyone who might jeopardize the special character of this neighborhood. I wish residents in other neighborhoods would act the same way.”
The list of public struggles waged by the residents of the German Colony residents in the last few years is impressive: the Four Seasons Hotel, the Smadar movie theater, the Jerusalem Pool, and now the Colony Hotel, to name just a few, including some that have not been totally successful.
“It’s true that most of the German Colony residents are well-to-do people,” says Danny, “but I wouldn’t say that it’s the only reason it is easier for them to mobilize.”
“I would rather sit at an outdoor cafe than stand and protest,” laughs Ronit Lumbroso, an architect in her late fifties who specializes in exhibitions and art design.
“But then who’s going to fight for me and my family’s interests? It’s clear that I don’t have a choice, just like my fellow residents and activists in the neighborhood. And yes, it’s true that most of us are from a rather high socioeconomic level, that we are educated – the number of architects and attorneys among us is higher than everywhere else, and it certainly helps. One can say that we are naturally more aware of the rights and laws, but over and above all of these, it is our deep passion and concern for this outstanding neighborhood. It is not just any neighborhood – it has very special architectural and historical treasures, which attract developers and they, in turn, are the ones who are jeopardizing this very special neighborhood. So, yes, we fight back because we can, but primarily because we care,” says the mother of three and grandmother of two.
The little gathering on Emek Refaim keeps attracting new passersby, despite the heat and the growing crowds of people streaming out of the neighborhood restaurants, cafes and take-out shops and the usual hum of activity that takes place on any Jerusalem street in the hours before Shabbat.
Very few didn’t stop – an impressive achievement in itself, though not everyone who stopped and asked questions signed the petition.
“It is clear that we also need money. Struggles cost money, we all know that,” Chava tells me before she goes back to the plastic table and the model depicting the Colony Hotel project.
IF THE hotel project is built as planned at the entrance to Emek Refaim, it will render a dramatic change to the look of the neighborhood. The Colony Hotel project is the third plan submitted to the district planning committee. This is the critical phase when residents can submit their objections to the project.
There is no doubt that the residents of the German Colony (and some of the surrounding neighborhoods) are very active in anything connected to preserving the residents’ rights and needs, especially versus the establishment. It is a strong community that is ready to fight for its rights and is well aware of the law. As a community, the residents of the German Colony are very well organized and well structured. And they have several successful battles under their belt to prove it.
“They lead their struggles with a certain style,” said a member of the board of a neighboring local council. “Perhaps they succeed because they don’t need to be empowered by their local council or any grass-root organization. They can empower other people instead, which means that it is not only the means they have, it is first their awareness.”
Elan Ezrachi is a former IDF pilot and a high-ranking official at the Jewish Agency. A resident of Rehavia, he is also the chairman of the Ginot Ha’ir community council. The father of three is married to Rabbi Na’ama Kelman-Ezrachi, the dean of  Hebrew Union College. He is also the nephew of Yehuda Ezrachi, the first local activist who fought to protect the city’s landscape from real estate sharks and overambitious developers.
“I remember, as a youth, what my uncle did against the project of the Pinsker Towers near the Rose Garden of Talbiyeh. Originally it was planned to be at least three towers, but through the mobilization of the residents there, he managed to prevent it. He was the pioneer of the struggles against abusive real estate projects in the city, in the early 1970s. For me, it is clear that the message conveyed is that people here, in Jerusalem in general, but in this part of the city particularly, know, remember and cherish the values of their local history, of their legacy. They feel a commitment. They don’t only love the neighborhood and appreciate its special character, but they also feel obliged to preserve it.”
Nomi Zussman is one of those few Israelis who recently took the opposite route and moved to Jerusalem from the center of the country. Born and raised in Jerusalem in a secular family, she moved back here three years ago, following her husband’s career. “We have two children, and we live on Rehov Klein. One morning I see, pegged on the fence, an invitation to present my opposition to some building project near me. The municipality invited me to find out if this project disturbed me, if I had any objection, and if so, said that I could come and present my objections to the committee. Now, that’s very nice,  but I ask the municipality – is this my job? Isn’t it the municipality’s responsibility to represent my interest as a resident in the best way possible? Why is it me who has to be vigilant?”
But in fact, says Zussman, since she’s been back in Jerusalem, she hasn’t stopped being involved in local struggles for her neighborhood. “At the moment I am very active in three different struggles in the neighborhood: I’m trying to bring to the attention of the public the issue of the seniors’ home on Rehov Rahel Imeinu, a piece of architectural historical art that was sold to developers, and it breaks my heart to see what is planned there – this is something that has to be saved.
Then she adds, “You know, I think that living in Jerusalem means a never-ending struggle for each and every inch here.”
DURING THE past few years, residents of the German Colony – and, to a certain extent, residents of  all the neighborhoods included in the Ginot Ha’ir local council (which includes Rehavia, Katamon, Kiryat Shmuel and Talbiyeh ), have been involved in a few struggles over preservation and planning constructions, which have been largely represented in the media, such as the Smadar movie theater and the Jerusalem Pool.
In all cases, the involvement of the community council was very strong and quite efficient. Shaike El-Ami, the director-general of the Ginot Ha’ir Council, appointed two community workers to support and follow the struggle.
“I believe in participatory democracy, not in representative democracy,” says El-Ami. “I am a very strong believer in pluralism. I am known for my rejection of any orthodoxy. I believe that what I am expected to do here is to serve the residents, not to impose my agenda on them,” he explains.
“Frankly, I don’t think that local elections are the solution to getting an active and dynamic neighborhood to become aware of its rights and interests. As I see it, the residents who decide to become active in various issues are the real representatives of their neighborhood and of themselves. They make a choice. I am here to give the infrastructure, to follow and assist with the means I have here, which belong to the people, not to me or to the local council as such.” 
El-Ami, who wears a crocheted kippa and lives in Efrat, says he never felt judged because of that by the residents, despite the fact that quite a few of them are secular and left-wing.
El-Ami adds that the whole neighborhood is characterized by a diverse blend of residents – religious and secular. As for the work he and his team are doing versus the municipality’s attitude, El-Ami has no hesitation: “I am an employee of the Jerusalem Association of Community Councils and Centers. The recent clash between the mayor and the association is none of my business. But despite being part of the establishment, I serve the residents. My position is just an additional way to estimate realistically the chances and the outcomes of campaigns and public struggles. I consider it as an asset that helps the residents to achieve their goals.”
Zussman says she is concerned that the municipality hasn’t yet really grasped what its position should be in the Colony Hotel case, as well as others. “We conducted negotiations with the developer for about a year until we finally realized he was mocking us. But we say – why us? Why do we have to do this? It’s the municipality’s job, and we want to say it loud and clear and obtain such a result. But for all these things,” she adds with a deep sigh, “we need money to be raised, and that’s why we ran the petition” (which already had 3,500 signatures on Sunday evening).
To charges that the municipality should be waging battles on behalf of residents against property developers, city hall responds, “The Fibers Institute [the site of the planned hotel] was sold by the government to private investors. The plan [for the hotel] was coordinated with neighborhood residents and in the coming days it will be brought to the local and district [planning] committees where the residents will be able to submit their objections according to the law.
“The Jerusalem Municipality is acting in an unprecedented manner to preserve the [neighborhood’s] character in future building projects and as such has invested a lot of money in crafting a master plan for the colonies, headed by a licensed architect and in coordination with the local council.”
The fact that the local council is a registered association makes it easier. The local council collects the money, which the residents decide how to use in regard to any particular struggle.
“The situation that exists on other local councils, where the decisions are made by the board or the director. just doesn’t exist here,” adds El-Ami.
So who are these active residents and what is their general profile?
“We are mostly between 40 to 60 years old,” says Lumbroso. “Well-to-do,though not particularly rich, involved, people who care about theirenvironment, who love their neighborhood and its architecture.Basically, I would say we act as thorns in the establishment’s side.”
“I think it is simply because the residents of this neighborhood sharea genuine respect for the architectural and historical values of thisplace. They are deeply aware of its importance, of the legacy they havein their hands. They feel that they should not only enjoy it but alsopreserve it for the future generations,” concludes Ezrachi. “And on topof that, we have the Anglos who live here. They are so highly aware ofthese things, they have a tradition of organizing, of collecting moneyfor such activities. They all do their share, no complaints ever. Theyknow and have a lot of experience in organizing confronting theestablishment.” 
For El-Ami, things are very simple. He is careful not to sound likesomeone opposed in principle to any development project. “Like withthis plan for the Colony Hotel, which is already the second plan thedevelopers have submitted, and as happened with the Four Seasons Hotelproject, the residents have managed to send a clear message: Nothingwill be done here without our consent. And if we believe that a projectin our neighborhood is bad for us, we will once again form a group toprotest, fight back and bring finally the change we need. There is noother way.”
Perhaps the best conclusion was given by a nine-year-old girl at theFriday protest with her mother. Asked if she understood why her mothersigned the petition against the Colony Hotel, the little girl answeredwith no hesitation, “Because the Moshava is our home, and we decide.”
With a wide, satisfied grin, her mother concluded, “I think that ourbest success is the next generation. Perhaps they won’t even have tofight.”