My word: Sharks and Holyland

You cannot hide corruption forever – certainly not on the scale of Holyland. And small acts of corruption tend to grow into something bigger.

Former prime minister Ehud Olmert enters court prior to conviction in Holyland trial, March 31, 2014 (photo credit: DROR EYNAV/POOL)
Former prime minister Ehud Olmert enters court prior to conviction in Holyland trial, March 31, 2014
(photo credit: DROR EYNAV/POOL)
A beached fish with protruding bones is a strangely disturbing sight. Particularly in landlocked, riverless Jerusalem. Admittedly this specific fish is a concrete sculpture, but its sudden arrival on a traffic circle close to my apartment was disquieting nonetheless. Neighbors have pronounced it ugly and out of place, and we continue to wonder who commissioned and paid for it.
My fear is that the arrival of the fish means property sharks can’t be far behind.
I live in the sort of fast-gentrifying neighborhood where development plans hover over the tenement blocks in something between a threat and a promise. And all Jerusalemites live in the shadow of the Holyland complex – some of us metaphorically, others in the very real sense. Holyland, the apartment buildings whose name has become synonymous with corruption and ugliness, mars the landscape from almost anywhere you look in southern Jerusalem.
Talk about a shady deal.
When former prime minister Ehud Olmert was convicted on March 31 for his role in the Holyland Affair as Jerusalem mayor some 20 years ago, I felt no joy. His conviction, along with that of a host of other officials and even his successor in city hall, Uri Lupolianski, signals the downfall of his career, but leaves the complex standing, tall but not proud, as if forever pointing an accusatory finger.
Ten people were convicted by Judge David Rozen this week for their part in the Holyland deal; three were acquitted, and the state’s witness, Shmuel Duchner, who died during the trial, is possibly resting in a little more peace.
The judge must be praised for taking a stand. And the state prosecution, which has known better days, also had reason to feel satisfied with a case that came to a successful conclusion from its point of view.
But the verdict evoked mixed emotions. As my Jerusalem Post colleague Herb Keinon noted, there was anger, sadness and frustration. “There is, at the same time,” Keinon pointed out, “satisfaction knowing that the system works, and that there are indeed checks on the most powerful. There is even something to be proud about in living in a country where, indeed, no one is above the law – even the mightiest.
“That pride, however, is tarnished when considering that we now have one former president in prison for rape, a former prime minister now likely on his way to jail for bribery, a former chief rabbi also accused of bribery and fraud, a former IDF chief of staff facing legal problems, numerous mayors facing indictments and a string of former MKs and ministers who have spent time behind bars. Receiving a real-life reminder every once in a while about equality before the law is one thing, but this is going overboard.”
If Olmert’s conviction was a cloud with a silver lining – showing that Israel is seriously tackling corruption, from the top down – it did not dissipate the cloud itself, which is still large, dark and menacing.
Former mayors Olmert and Lupolianski took the phrase “charity begins at home” and twisted it out of shape.
Olmert apparently used bribes to help his debt-ridden brother, and Lupolianski used under-the-table donations to help Yad Sarah, the charity he set up. (Yad Sarah, it should be noted, does indeed do incredible, often life-saving, work and we’d all be poorer without it.) Ironically, Olmert started his political career in the 1970s as an anti-corruption crusader. In my neighborhood, he was once popular as a Likudnik, and, no less important in the Katamonim, as a Beitar Jerusalem Football Club fan.
Nowadays, he would now be booed were he to dare show his face in these parts. In fact, one wonders where he can show his face – or how he can look at it in the mirror.
Former friends said they always knew Olmert would go far; they just didn’t realize he’d get there traveling first class at the expense of others. When he reached for the sky, Holyland grew to its monstrous dimensions. Its construction has Olmert’s arrogance built in.
I’m not the first to note that the country’s earlier leaders lived in humble homes, whereas Olmert and others managed to accrue millions of dollars and several grand apartments and houses, ostensibly on the salaries of government employees. It is even fishier than the strange statue parked on the traffic circle.
Curiously, Olmert, whose various real-estate purchases came under increasing scrutiny over the years, did not choose to live there. Perhaps it was not to the taste of his artist/writer wife, Aliza. On the one occasion I visited one of their former homes, a beautiful stone house on Kaf Tet Be’november Street, it was decorated with her works (not necessarily to my liking but in good taste nonetheless) and we discussed one of her favorite charitable works, helping children who cannot live at home with their families.
HOLYLAND STANDS for all that is ugly – not just because its architecture is so out of place in Jerusalem’s biblical hills.
It was clear to all even as it was being erected – relentlessly, story after story, tower after tower – that it was born in sin.
It is its own indictment sheet, as one journalist put it.
The affair exposes more than just corrupt real-estate deals; it sheds light on the ties that bind the moneyed and the influential.
Olmert’s decision as prime minister to risk the escalation of hostilities along the northern border that resulted in the 2006 Second Lebanon War bothers me less than the fact that as war broke out then-IDF chief of staff Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz somehow found time to call his stockbroker and sell shares. It is not surprising that Halutz and Olmert (along with then-Mossad head Meir Dagan) recently teamed up as business partners. It seems they were businessmen all along. But how can we put our faith in leaders whose first thought is for their investment portfolio? It marks a betrayal of public trust.
Residents of Holyland – those who are willing to talk to the press – speak of their fears of being tainted by association and ruefully note that their apartments are possibly the only ones in the capital that have dropped in value. They take some consolation in the view. As much as the towering blocks disturb the landscape for so many Jerusalemites, they offer the Holyland residents an amazing vista.
Nonetheless, it is a complex cut off from the city’s natural environment and needs. “These are apartments for homeless millionaires,” my late friend Judy Davidson used to say as we passed through certain neighborhoods.
Not all was lost with the destruction of the old Holyland Hotel that once stood on the now scarred site. The muchloved replica of the Second Temple and model of Jerusalem at the time of the Great Revolt against the Romans was saved. It was transferred to the Israel Museum, where it still serves as a cultural landmark, although the phallic presence of the Holyland block can be seen from there, too.
Still, particularly at this time of year, there are some positive aspects to this generally sordid affair. As the Post’s Gil Hoffman wrote, “The rise and fall of Ehud Olmert will serve as a lesson to younger politicians.”
You cannot hide corruption forever – certainly not on the scale of Holyland. And small acts of corruption tend to grow into something bigger.
Pundits across the country used Passover-related terms to describe the anti-corruption clampdown. The clean-up campaign was called “biur hametz” – the burning of the leavened products that takes place just before the holiday starts.
Jews everywhere end the Seder night with the prayer: “Next year in a rebuilt Jerusalem.” In just over a week, the wish will again reverberate around the globe. May Jerusalem be built in peace and decency, as befitting a city where you separate the holy from the land at your peril.
[email protected] The writer is editor of The International Jerusalem Post.