A plan to build a heritage center for Yemenite Jewry in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan has been frozen by the Jerusalem Affairs Ministry, three years after it was announced, the state told the city’s district court on Tuesday.
The Ateret Cohanim organization had pushed the plan as part of its effort to Judaize the now Palestinian neighborhood. The center was supposed to be built in a 19th-century synagogue located in the small Yemenite Jewish neighborhood that used to exist in Silwan. That neighborhood was founded in the late 19th century, but was expelled by the British in 1938. Afterward, dozens of Palestinian families moved in.
For the past 20 years, Ateret Cohanim, a nonprofit group that encourages Jews to move to predominantly Palestinian neighborhoods of East Jerusalem, has tried to get the Palestinian families evicted from the part of Silwan that used to be a Jewish neighborhood. To this end, after receiving approval from the custodian general and the Jerusalem District Court in 2001, it became the trustee of the Benvenisti Trust, which bought the land in question 130 years ago.
The decision to freeze the project came after the Interior Ministry’s registry of religious trusts launched an investigation into Ateret Cohanim’s management of the trust.
In recent years, the trust has started eviction proceedings against dozens of Palestinian families. Last week, the Jerusalem District Court heard an appeal by seven families against their eviction orders, but decided to postpone its ruling until after the Supreme Court rules on two similar cases.
In 2015, Ateret Cohanim managed to evict the Abu Nab family, who had been living in the old synagogue – the only building from the original Jewish neighborhood that still stands. In 2018, it held a ceremony to launch the heritage center project, attended by ministers Zeev Elkin and Miri Regev, as well as Moshe Leon, who would later became mayor of Jerusalem.
The Jerusalem Affairs and Heritage Ministry allocated 3 million shekels ($925,000) to the project and chose the East Jerusalem Development Company to carry it out. The company then solicited bids to renovate the building.
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The invitation to bid said that the new heritage center is to serve as the epicenter of a new Jewish neighborhood that Ateret Cohanim is planning to establish at the site. The project goals, as defined by the invitation, are “increasing awareness of and solidarity with the work of the residents and their supporters and creating an experience that will make it possible to present the importance of the site, the activism and the importance of supporting local activists to thought leaders.”
But in September 2020, the religious trusts registry began investigating the Benvenisti Trust in response to a petition filed in court by the Ir Amim organization. Ir Amim charged that the trust was a shell organization run by Ateret Cohanim for its own purposes, and that these purposes deviated from the founding goals of the trust, which was established in the late 19th century.
Around six months ago, Ir Amim also petitioned the court against the planned heritage center, arguing that it was unreasonable for one government agency to be investigating the trust while another government agency was pouring money into it. Moreover, the organization said, it is improper for the state to finance a heritage center on private property that essentially serves Ateret Cohanim’s needs.
On Tuesday, the prosecution asked that this petition be dismissed; they claimed that there is no reason to move forward with it, as the project has already been frozen.
On the grounds that it’s no longer relevant, since the project has been frozen. It attached a letter from the Jerusalem Affairs Ministry to the East Jerusalem Development Company ordering the freeze, due to both the petition and the investigation into the trust.
Attorney Avraham Moshe Segal, representing the trust, said the petition was the latest “in a very long chain of actions by left-wing organizations that are trying with all their might to impede the trustees’ steps to evict squatters from the trust’s lands. This petition is unique in that these organizations are also now seeking to rewrite history and deny the general public the ability to learn, in a direct, unmediated fashion, about the self-sacrifice of residents of the old neighborhood, who created the first absorption center of the return to Zion out of nothing.
“But in the end, every truth comes to light, especially a truth that redounds to the glory of the state of Israel and the Jewish people’s heritage,” he added. “We’re certain this project will go forward, the old synagogue will be renovated and the heritage center will be built.”
Ir Amim’s director of the policy development department, attorney Oshrat Maimon, welcomed the decision, saying that the slated heritage center “was another means of uprooting the community life of Silwan, alongside the attempts to uproot the families from there. The center is not intended to preserve heritage,” she said, but rather to further an agenda of expulsion, “out of a cynical exploitation of the neighborhood’s history and partners who support the expulsion.”