Jewish National Fund Makes Progress to Remove Legal Obstacle to Sale of Church Land

If the JNF stops leasing land from the Greek Orthodox Church, a sale of the land could leave hundreds of families giving up their homes without compensation

A conference of residents of apartments built on church lands in Jerusalem, March 2018.
Emil Salman

Jewish National Fund Chairman Danny Atar is making progress with mediation between the fund and the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate that would remove a legal obstacle to the sale of Church land to private companies.

But board members told Atar last week that the mediation was being done without the board’s authorization and hundreds of families living in apartments on Church land would suffer.

According to the agreement prepared by a retired judge, the JNF would receive 17.5 million shekels ($5 million) from the Patriarchate and would no longer oppose the sale of land in Rehavia, Talbieh and Nayot in Jerusalem that it had leased on a long-term basis from the Patriarchate.

The JNF, also known as Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael, must give its answer to the mediator in about a month.

A dispute between the JNF and the Patriarchate began in 2000 when the JNF was fraudulently persuaded to pay $20 million to supposedly extend its leases on Church property in Jerusalem. The Patriarchate was not a party to the fraud, but in 2008 the JNF and the Patriarchate reached an agreement under which the Church would compensate the JNF for damages.

According to sources close to the Patriarchate, one reason the Patriarchate agreed to the JNF’s demands was to receive official recognition by the Israeli government, without which it could not operate. According to those officials, the Patriarchate was in any case to be compensated for its payment by a lease agreement for the land it owns.

The JNF sued the Patriarchate in the Jerusalem District Court to uphold the agreement and pay the damages incurred in the fraud.

Meanwhile, a private firm, Komemiyut Nayot, bought the rights to extend the lease, and eventually full rights to most of the Church land in Jerusalem. These two deals sparked a storm of protest among residents of the neighborhoods built on Church land, because if the leases, which expire in about 30 years, are not renewed, the residents will have to give up their homes without compensation.

Apartment prices in these neighborhoods have already plummeted as a result of the two deals.

According to the JNF, the deals are illegal, but it has not yet been able to annul them. But following the sting operation of 2000, a caveat was noted in the land ownership registry that the JNF can oppose the sale of land. The mediation agreement in the works would pave the way for the deals to go through.

Last week Atar presented the main points of the agreement to the board, but at least two board members were surprised that a mediation process was underway.

One of them, Vice Chairman Hernan Felman, said the process was improper and had not been approved. Other board members said that under this agreement the JNF would be leaving residents without protection against the real estate company.

“The JNF doesn’t need the money, it needs to stand with the residents,” Felman said. Vice Chairman Zeev Noyman added: “We are deliberating and nothing has been decided.”

An organization of residents protesting the deals said in a statement: “The JNF’s conduct, where the good of the residents is not a top priority, is very unfortunate. This is more proof that urgent government intervention is needed.”

Atar responded: “The claims mix up a number of cases, intentionally or by mistake .... The case in question is a financial suit and does not involve the sale of the lands to private developers or the rights of the residents.”