Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Ateret Cohanim

Measuring only about a thousand meters in length and width, the old city of Jerusalem is unquestionably the most disputed square kilometer on the face of the planet. On top of the temple mount stands the Al Aksa mosque, Al Aksa being Arabic for “The Farthest,” since it was the farthest mosque from Mecca, at the time of Mohammed on the the most distant colony of the expanding Islamic Empire. The mosque itself is built over the ruins of a destroyed Byzantine chruch, the church having been erected over the ruins of the Jewish Holy Temple, the single holiest site in the world and spiritual center of world Judaism.

A Breslov Yeshivah in the Old City, Moslem (formerly Jewish) Quarter

After Israel captured the Old City in 1967, the Jewish Quarter was rebuilt on the ruins of the old, and Jewish families began returning to the area. However, of the 19,000 Jews who were expelled from the Old City prior to Israeli independence in 1948, there was only room for 4,000 to move back in. The remainder of the homes had not been destroyed but rather occupied by Arabs.

But deep in what was once the Jewish Quarter, now the Muslim Quarter, one synagogue out of what used to be eighty in the Old City had survived the onslaught. After the reunification of the city, the son of one of the former worshippers at the synagogue came wandering through the area talking to locals, trying to find the site where his father had prayed. Finally, one man took him by the arm and let him up a flight of stairs, to his house. Breaking through the wall, he revealed the synagogue, intact, complete with the original books and chairs, exactly as it had been left when the Jews fled the riots in 1934. “More than I protected it,” the caretaker said, “it has protected me.”

A rebuilt Synagogue

In 1978, Rabbi Shlomo Aviner opened the Ateret Cohanim (Crown of the Priests) Yeshivah on the site. Aside from full-time torah study, slowly at first, they began re-purchasing properties in the modern-day Muslim Quarter, in what used to be the Jewish Quarter.

Rabbi Aviner, Head of the Ateret Cohanim Yeshivah (he lives in Beit El.)

For a Jew to purchase property in the old city of Jerusalem is not as simple as buying a condo in Miami. The religious apartheid system in effect in most Muslim countries today prohibits the sale of property to a Jew on pain of death. Jerusalem being under at least nominal Israeli sovereignty, this edict can not be enforced by the courts, so it is usually taken care of by either family members preserving family honor, upset neighbors, or special hit-squads dispatched by the Palestinian Authority. Over the years, the real estate agents of Ateret Cohanim worked out an effective system for purchasing homes. First, an Arab middleman, usually a Christian with connections and ears, hears through the grape vine about someone who wants to sell his home for an exorbitant fee. The middleman then informs Ateret Cohanim, for a fee of course. Ateret Cohanim then sets up a front company, sometimes two or three, to purchase the home. The next step is to collect enough money from overseas donors to purchase the property. The Arab selling his home also has to be protected from his coreligionists, so overseas lawyers have to find him a job and get him a visa in a foreign country. The transaction itself happens very quickly, often overnight, and before protests and riots can stop it, another home is reclaimed.

Arches in the Moslem Quarter, which used to be the Jewish Quarter. Daniel Luria is our wide-eyed tourguide.

It’s not a steady business, and homes can only be purchased once someone expresses an interest in selling and is willing to take the risk in exchange for the profit.

Entrance to a Breslov Yeshivah, complete with Islamic, and some Jewish Graffiti.

Walking through the Muslim Quarter, I remember the last time I was here in 2000. It was immediately before the second “Al-Aksa Intifadah,” named for the Mosque about 400 meters away, erupted in this very spot. At that time I felt very alone wandering through here. Very few Jews dared to walk through the Muslim Quarter.

Memorial for one of the early residents, in the days when it was far more dangerous for Jews in this neighborhood.

Today, Jews can walk freely through the Moslem Quarter

But in 2000, real estate projects were broken from off Ateret Cohanim into a separate entity known as the Jerusalem Capital Development Fund. Since then, operations have accelerated, and so far over a thousand Jews have moved into the area. Numerically, it's a drop in the bucket compared to what used to be here, but it's a start.

Playground. Unfortunately, it's still too dangerous to let children wander freely through the city, and playgrounds must be built on rooftops, under guard, like this one.


aliyah06 said...

Hey, Landsman! Love your blog--great pictures, lots of history! Keep up the good work.

Ephraim said...

Glad to hear you're enjoying reading it as much as I enjoy writing it! Thanks for stopping by.