Israeli Village's Artists Rally to Maintain Haven, Not Just Ritzy Real Estate

Israel Lands Authority recently announced plans to cancel the acceptance committee that approves who may move into Ein Hod, which has operated for decades on a unique model of a cooperative society in which only artists may buy land or build homes.

Ein Hod
Rami Shllush

How many people in Israel would turn down the chance to double the value of their home?

Dan Chamizer for one — along with many of his neighbors in the artists village of Ein Hod.

The Israel Lands Authority recently announced plans to cancel the acceptance committee that approves who may move into the village, which has operated for decades on a unique model of a cooperative society in which only artists may buy land or build homes. Residents are preparing to fight the decision in court.

If the Lands Authority gets its way home prices are likely to surge, but the community will lose its unique character as an artists’ village.

“If I am willing to give up on my house being worth twice as much, I don’t understand why the [Israel Lands Authority] is not willing to give in too,” said Chamizer, a sculptor and famous quiz-master, this week.

Ein Hod, situated on the western slope of Mount Carmel, south of Haifa, was founded in 1953 as an artists’ village, with Dada artist Marcel Janco as the driving force behind it. Today some 150 artists and their families live in Ein Hod. In the 1970s, the cooperative society signed an agreement with the Lands Authority, in which various activities in the village, including accepting new members, required the approval of the society.

The Lands Authority held a meeting three weeks ago with representatives of the cooperative society and their lawyers in the offices of the Haifa region business director. The ILA said the new policy decided on for Ein Hod, after being examined by the legal department and Justice Ministry, states that a recent amendment to the cooperative societies law applies to Ein Hod too, and the approval of the society or acceptance committee is no longer needed for various actions. “In addition, new allocations of land will be made only through public tenders,” said the ILA.

Residents said they have yet to see the legal opinion the ILA received, but they were given three months to prepare and try to oppose the new decision. “It will be the end of the village the way it is,” if the decision is not changed, says Tamar Navon, an architect and member of the village council, who has lived in Ein Hod for 15 years. Mosh Kleiner, a musician and chairman of the council, said the change “will turn the place into just another neighborhood of villas.”

“Today, we conduct selection, but as opposed to other acceptance committees it is not selection on a racist basis, it is selection because the village was originally founded as an artists’ village, and if there is no acceptance committee whose criteria are artists, it will go to whoever pays the most,” said Navon.

Chamizer says that in this case, despite the name “acceptance committee,” the village is one of the most pluralistic places in Israel. “Ein Hod is the first place in Israel where gays and lesbians lived out of the closet already in the 1950s. Druze and Muslims lived and live here.” He mentions the Dada movement, and its spirit still is felt in Ein Hod, he said: The village is “not just avant-garde, but tolerant too. It is exceptional.”

None of the residents who spoke with Haaretz raised the possibility they are being harassed for personal reasons, but Chamizer thinks that “in other periods no one would have thought to take away this gem.” The village has become “bohemian,” like other places around the world, he says. “Meretz receives most of the votes here, Haaretz is the only newspaper read here. Today it is a body that is easy to abuse,” he said.

From the green garden next to his house, Chamizer points towards the top of the ridge where the religious cooperative moshav Nir Etzion sits. “Imagine that tomorrow their contract ends. Would someone have thought to open the contract? It is a kibbutz that accepts only religious people.” He also mentions the nearby Arab village of Ein Hawd and the Druze towns of Daliat al-Carmel and Isfiya. “A different character does not always testify to racism or exclusion,” he says.

Until the 1990s, plots in the town were sold at relatively cheap prices, which allowed even artists of relatively limited means to buy land in Ein Hod. But since then prices have risen greatly. “The value of properties has risen all over the country, but if it will be open and without limitations, it will be more expensive,” says Navon.

In the last tender, conducted in 2009, dunam (quarter-acre) plots of land were sold for almost 1 million shekels (about $258,000 at today’s exchange rates), but these prices are still relatively low compared to nearby towns such as Zichron Yaakov or Kerem Maharal.

Navon says she is aware that Ein Hod is seen as a village of rich people, mostly because of the famous artists who bought homes there; but she insists this is not true, that most of the people are not rich. She lives in a small, old home — and says she is far from the only one. A look at the village from inside shows that she is right. While there are some large homes, many others are not grand.

Because of the limitations on acceptance, the demand for homes in Ein Hod has not grown. “As far as the residents are concerned, the move may not be a bad thing. The value of properties will rise,” she says. But residents prefer to preserve the unique character of the place, she says.

The present system has its disadvantages too. For example, the charter does not allow someone to inherit a house, says Chamizer. The residents also have to pay for most of the local activities, but “there is a desire to preserve this fragile experiment,” he says.