JNF Blasts 'Greedy' Investors Who Bought Jerusalem Land From Greek Orthodox Church

Jewish National Fund pays 1 million shekels to investment company to settle lease dispute, but questions who actually owns the land in three upscale neighborhoods

A street in Jerusalem's Nayot neighborhood, where many of the lands are or were owned by the Greek Orthodox Church.
Emil Salman

The Jewish National Fund on Wednesday transferred 1 million shekels ($284,000) to an investment company that bought land in upscale Jerusalem neighborhoods from the Greek Orthodox Church recently, but labeled the investors a “bunch of greedy land dealers.”

JNF (also known as Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael) made the payment to Nayot-Komemiyut after its previous attempts to pay the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate failed and when the company threatened that if it did not receive the money, the historic lease agreement between the JNF and the Patriarchate would be nullified – casting major uncertainty on those owning the apartments on the lands. The leases are due to expire in about 30 years.

The payment is for the leasing of the lands for the past 10 years, meaning the JNF recognizes Nayot-Komemiyut’s ownership of the lands.

Around 1,000 families live in the central Jerusalem neighborhoods of Nayot, Talbieh and Rehavia, on lands that were sold by the Greek Orthodox Church to the anonymous group of Israeli entrepreneurs behind Nayot-Komemiyut.

The JNF, which signed the original 99-year lease agreements with the church in the mid-20th century, had refused to recognize the sale and claimed it was illegal.

More than two months ago, lawyer Avraham Aberman of Ephraim Abramson and Co., representing Nayot-Komemiyut, contacted the JNF with a demand for the annual leasing fees, which are about $34,000 per year, for the several dozen acres on which these families live.

At first the JNF sent a check to Aberman made out to the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, but Aberman returned the check. In any case, the patriarchate refused to accept payment.

Aberman made it clear to the JNF that if it didn’t pay the bill within three months, the lease agreement would be terminated – meaning the JNF would lose its status on the land and the apartment owners have to deal with the developers independently.

With the deadline only days away, the JNF relented and paid the money to Nayot-Komemiyut.

In a letter sent by JNF Chairman Danny Atar to the affected residents, Atar vigorously attacked the Nayot-Komemiyut investors, calling them “a bunch of land dealers whose full identities are not known.”

He argued that the land sale was a “covert deal” and accused the entrepreneurs of being greedy. “The buyers of the rights from the Patriarchate continue to harden their positions in order to maximize their profits by cynically using you, the residents, as ‘hostages’ to maximize their financial profits.

“The JNF believes that the process of selling the land was deficient and faulty, and that the ownership of the land in question isn’t clear,” he continued. “Despite this, the JNF administration decided to acquiesce to the demands of the land dealers and make the requested payment for the annual leasing fees, going beyond the letter of the law to minimize harm to the residents.”

Aberman vehemently denied Atar’s claims. “This isn’t a covert deal; we reported it to the JNF immediately upon it being signed. We’re talking about a company that reports to the Israeli Tax Authority. The JNF itself earned billions over the years from marketing this land, and now it’s trying to show how righteous it is.”

“The letter from the JNF is significant mainly because of the public acceptance of responsibility implied by it,” said Itai Gutler, a Jerusalem councilman and member of the action committee dealing with church lands.

“We welcome the official attention of JNF Chairman Danny Atar and are pleased with his declarations of intent. At this stage, though, what the residents want are actions. After the Knesset’s summer recess, we will continue to advance legislation on the matter and, given what the letter said, we will make sure the JNF also does everything it can to resolve the issue.”