Fighting for their homes in the Holy City

The complex issue of church owned, and sold, lands in Jerusalem.

A view of Keren Hayesod Street (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
A view of Keren Hayesod Street
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Are you racking your brain trying to come up with the perfect gift idea? Are you at wits’ end trying to decide on a wonderful birthday gift for that special friend or relative? How about some land in a national park in Caesarea, with authentic archeological ruins and an ancient Roman amphitheater? Or perhaps some land in Old Jaffa, complete with an iconic Ottoman period clock tower? Or maybe that special person would appreciate some property near or at the Jaffa Gate in Jerusalem’s Old City? If you don’t mind waiting a while, you may even be able to indulge yourself by purchasing the land under the Knesset.
You didn’t know you could buy these things? Well, evidently you can – and much more. Perhaps not surprisingly, the largest landowner in the State of Israel is Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund, a 116-year-old quasi-official organization. The second largest landowner in Israel, however, is the Greek Orthodox Church, which began buying up large tracts of land in the 19th century throughout what is now the State of Israel. Other church groups, notably the Anglican Church of England, the Lutheran Church of Germany and the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) from the US, also began buying up tracts of Holy Land real estate to lesser extents.
As steamships and railroads began bring more people here on pilgrimages and to settle, the churches began to realize that the land they bought – and were still buying – could be lucrative sources of revenue. They thus began to lease portions of their enormous land holdings for the construction of residential and commercial buildings throughout Ottoman and later British Mandate Palestine. Finding itself beset by financial troubles in the 1920s, the Greek Orthodox Church, prohibited by its own rules from selling its land outright, instead leased most of its vast land holdings to KKL-JNF and received a sizable payment upfront in exchange for the Jewish community’s right to use the land on a long-term basis.
By the time the State of Israel was established in 1948, a sizable and already unknown number of residential, commercial, governmental, cultural and religious buildings in Israel had been built on land owned by Christian church denominations in Haifa, Lod, Ramle, Jaffa and particularly in Jerusalem, where the Greek Orthodox Church owned the lion’s share of the land. Thus, in 1952, the church signed an agreement with the fledgling State that left it with formal ownership of its land in Jerusalem, with the KKL-JNF obtaining all rights to use and develop the land through a long-term lease of 99 years, valid until the year 2051. The agreement furthermore entitled the KKL-JNF to sublease the land to private investors and developers, who immediately began constructing various kinds of buildings, including tens of thousands of residential units.
To a struggling new country beleaguered by problems of security, infrastructure and the need to absorb thousands upon thousands of new immigrants pouring into the country from postwar Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, the year 2051 seemed a long way off in 1952. Now, however, 2051 is just 34 years away and many people are wondering – with varying degrees of anger and fear – what will happen to the churchowned lands when the leases expire.
The general assumption all these years has been that KKL-JNF will simply renew its leases for another 100 years, or longer. However, it has recently been learned that the Greek Orthodox Church has been quietly selling off prime parcels of its land holdings to private investors – behind the back of KKL-JNF, and without the knowledge of thousands of people who have bought, and believe they own, the homes they live in. This is the case with areas like the National Archeological Park in Caesarea, the Clock Tower Square in Jaffa and especially in areas in Jerusalem, the capital of the State of Israel.
People living in large swathes of property in Rehavia, Talbiyeh and Nayot are reacting with shock and outrage as they learn that the land they live on has been sold by the Greek Orthodox Church directly to private investors and developers – some of whom are known by name, while others remain shadowy and anonymous. As these homeowners learn that they are not, in fact, home “owners,” they are beginning to fear a future knock on their door, phone call or registered letter informing them that, at best, they will be able to continue to live as tenants in the homes they thought were theirs, or at worst will have to vacate property now owned by rapacious developers.
One group of homeowners has begun to fight back.
Initiated and led by a perhaps unlikely group of immigrants from the US, the recently formed Jerusalem Church Lands Taskforce has embarked on a grassroots campaign to gain control of the homes they purchased and live in. Whatever happens as a result of their efforts, people will remember that it all began with one indefatigable lady using nothing more than her relentless determination and seemingly boundless energy. Irene Grossman, who describes herself as a semi-retired olah hadasha from Baltimore, Maryland and current resident of Talbiyeh, has been married for 52 years and has three children and 17 grandchildren, all of whom live here in Israel. Grossman and her husband made aliya a little less than five years ago to be with them.
She tells us, “We were looking for an apartment five years ago. We looked in different areas in central Jerusalem.
We were told the area was on church land. Our purchase agreement says that it’s being leased from KKL until the year 2051. We knew that. But we were assured, as many other people who bought at that time were assured, ‘Don’t worry about it. First of all it’s going to be a long time in coming. KKL is a government organization, and the government will not let you down. For sure KKL will renew it. KKL will help you.’ We were totally assured.”
Grossman’s feelings of assurance were brought to an abrupt end by friend and neighbor Avi Moshel, who lives three blocks away from the Grossmans. From Queens, New York, and retired from a career in healthcare management, it was Moshel who broke the bad news to Grossman soon after he learned it himself.
“Our children have been relocating to Ramat Beit Shemesh. So we figured we’d also be relocating to Ramat Beit Shemesh. We wanted to be near the grandchildren. So we put our apartment up for sale,” Moshel recalls.
“Everybody kept asking us if it was church land, and we’d say, ‘Yeah, so what? I own the apartment.’ That was when the dichotomy hit us of who owns what.
We were being informed that whoever owns the land owns the apartment. That’s how I began to learn that.
We were shocked. We leased the apartment from KKL, also to 2051, and at that time the land would go back to the owner, KKL, who would renew the lease for 50 more years.
“That’s when I began to think that something doesn’t smell right, something doesn’t fit right.
When we purchased our apartment, our lawyer had suggested that we investigate further this concept of church land. But this was something that was 38 years away. I figured in 38 years I’d be 100 years old, and so I thought, okay, my children will have to deal with whoever it is that owns the land. We own the apartment.
Then I found out that no, we don’t.
“We didn’t know that someone could buy land directly from the church. We were being told that the church only leases the land. We heard that one or two groups of private investors were buying the leases. We now find out that it’s not the leases they bought, but that they’re actually buying the land. The first time you hear that, it’s unbelievable. It’s not that Americans are gullible, but we’re not used to this kind of division.
You buy an apartment, you own it. That’s it. Finding out years later that you don’t own it is very frightening, very upsetting.”
Particularly frustrating is the fact that one group of private investors has remained largely anonymous, while another, led by the Ben-David family of Jerusalem, continues to be silent about their plans for the properties they are buying.
So when a local community center, Ginot Ha’ir, announced an upcoming event involved with answering questions about the land situation in Talbiyeh, a very agitated Irene Grossman went to the program and aired her concerns. She was introduced to Yerushalmim, a political party in the Jerusalem Municipality. Grossman then met with them and found them interested in moving this issue forward. When she asked what she could do to contribute to the effort, they told her to reach out to the community, whose support they said was essential.
“That’s what I did,” Grossman declares.
“The first thing I did was write up a flyer in Hebrew and English. It talked about getting information on what is going on, and getting government assistance to help us with what’s going on. I had it printed up.
The printer was so excited about it that he didn’t even charge me. I printed up several hundred. I put some in people’s mailboxes and gave some to Avi and asked, ‘So what are you going to do with them?’” Says Moshel, “I plastered them up near bus stops and around major street crossings in three neighborhoods that are very much affected by the church lands issue: Rehavia, Talbiyeh and Nayot. We hit a home run.”
“We really weren’t sure how much interest in this there was,” Grossman says. But before long, she began getting messages at the email address printed on the flyer, They soon had an email list of around 100 people, to whom they began sending a short newsletter. Encouraged, the fledgling Jerusalem Church Lands Taskforce decided to hold a meeting last June 27 at Yad Rav Nissim, an auditorium in Talbiyeh.
“The seating capacity of the place was 160 people,” Grossman says. “We were discussing back and forth, ‘Do you think we’re going to get 160 people?’ We ended up plastering the people along the walls. We had to add extra seats. People were sitting on the floor. People were outside and they couldn’t get in. The media also came. So this was a major encouragement.”
It was followed by two more: a general meeting at the Knesset on July 5, chaired by MKs David Amsalem and Rachel Azaria, and a closed-door Knesset meeting on July 31, attended by representatives of KKL, the Justice Ministry and the Israel Tax Authority.
Meanwhile, negotiations have been initiated between KKL, a few lawyers on the Taskforce and members of the Yerushalmim Party.
“In addition, Rachel Azaria, our contact and Knesset member, has already signed up 49 MKs to support a bill that she wishes to introduce,” Grossman says.
Are they tilting at windmills? Are these worried Jerusalem residents aware that they are up against some very powerful people with almost limitless reserves of money? “The developers may have money, but we’ve got people, and people mean votes. I have letters from people who wrote to KKL, to lawyers, to different government officials. They either received no answers, or they got ‘nothing’ answers. It’s only since we got together as a group that we are receiving answers. I really believe that there’s a lot of strength in community,” Grossman says.
Concluding with a bit of realpolitik, Moshel insists, “The Knesset is a political body, interested in elections and full of people who want to rise politically. Maybe even rising to be prime minister.
If there’s a real groundswell, there are members of the Knesset who might want to use this issue as a stepping stone. I’m going to vote for whatever party fixes this problem and makes a fair solution law, and so will a lot of others.
“We want to be property owners. We want control of our property.
That’s what we’re looking for. We want to know that our property belongs to us. We’re in Jerusalem, the capital of Israel. What the Ottoman Empire did when they were here needs to be undone.
“Let’s have the government undo it, in favor of its current citizenry.”