Rothschild Foundation Uses Threats to Keep Poor Arab Israeli Town Tiny

Foundation says that 'ceding' land would violate agreement and prompt return of all lands family gave to Israel after independence

The Arab Israeli town of Jisr al-Zarqa, 2016.
David Bachar

The Rothschild Caesarea Foundation, a partnership between the state and the philanthropist family that owns some 30,000 dunams (around 7,500 acres) near Caesarea, is refusing to have even a fraction of the land allocated to the adjacent Arab town of Jisr al-Zarqa.

In a letter sent recently to the Interior Ministry, the foundation said that even discussing this possibility violates the state’s obligations under a decades-old agreement with the Rothschilds and could lead the family to take back all of the land that it purchased and then gave to the state after independence.

Ministry officials criticized the foundation’s threats and its demand to halt discussion of the issue.

“The idea that the state can’t exercise its sovereignty in large swaths of territory is a retreat to the 19th century,” said Prof. Neta Ziv, academic director of the Israel Affordable Housing Center and the Housing Community Law Clinic at Tel Aviv University, who has been helping Jisr al-Zarqa. The days when Baron Rothschild controlled the prestate Jewish community “are long gone.”

Jisr al-Zarqa is one of Israel’s poorest towns. But over the past decade, all the surrounding communities – Kibbutz Ma’agen Michael, Moshav Beit Hanania and Caesarea – have rejected every proposal to help it by giving it more land.

The latest proposal, put forth by several government ministries, involves land owned by the Rothschild Caesarea Foundation that it agreed decades ago to allocate to the Hof Hacarmel Regional Council, but which has never in fact been used. There are two plots in question: an 80-dunam strip north of Caesarea, on which planners propose building an access road to Jisr al-Zarqa, and 202 dunams near Or Akiva.

“This entire town is a sardine tin,” said Jisr al-Zarqa Mayor Murad Amash during a recent meeting of the Haifa Geographic Commission, which is studying the issue on the Interior Ministry’s behalf. “This distress has killed the residents. We’re suffocating inside this bubble. We currently have no solution.”

The Central Bureau of Statistics says the town’s population density is 8,534 people per square meter – far higher than any of the surrounding Jewish communities. Nevertheless, the Rothschild Caesarea Foundation refuses to transfer any part of the two plots under discussion to Jisr al-Zarqa.

Last week, members of the Haifa Geographic Commission toured the area, including the earthen embankment that Caesarea built 15 years ago. The next day, posters appeared in Caesarea warning against plans to “cede land north of the embankment and connect it to Jisr al-Zarqa.”

“Residents, awake!” the posters screamed. “This is an emergency, worse than you could imagine. It’s liable to be the end of the Caesarea we know.”

But sources familiar with the plans said the access road wouldn’t actually connect Caesarea to Jisr al-Zarqa; it would merely give Jisr al-Zarqa residents better access to the rest of the country.

In mid-March, the Rothschild Caesarea Foundation and its executive agency, the Caesarea Development Corporation, sent a letter to the Interior Ministry demanding that it “make every effort to thwart Jisr al-Zarqa’s request to annex territory.” It cited a 1958 memorandum of understanding that froze existing municipal jurisdictions over the foundation’s lands. In the foundation’s view, this memorandum means that land which has been under Hof Hacarmel’s jurisdiction for decades cannot now be transferred to Jisr al-Zarqa.

The memorandum was incorporated into a 1962 agreement between the state and the Rothschild family that has since been extended several times, most recently until 2022. “Any attempt to transfer any land without the Caesarea Foundation’s consent would be a gross violation” of this agreement, the letter said.

Moreover, it warned, any such violation would prompt a demand for the return of “all the lands, in Caesarea or outside it,” that the Rothschild family bought and gave to the state after its establishment – around 500,000 dunams in all. Infringement would also “severely damage cooperation between the Rothschild family and Israel, whose many fruits are evident throughout the country.”

The foundation is a 50-50 partnership between the Rothschild family and the state. But its managers evidently consider this joint control to be strictly theoretical.

The letter also threatened unspecified additional consequences. “We’re certain no Israeli government official would want Israel to violate its commitments ... with all the possible consequences that would entail,” it said.

One possible consequence relates to the foundation’s obligation under the agreement to promote higher education. As TheMarker reported two months ago, the state is trying to persuade it to increase its spending in this area by hundreds of millions of shekels.

One Interior Ministry official slammed the letter’s “lordly worldview, which has no justification today.” Nevertheless, he added, dealing with the foundation’s threats “isn’t a simple challenge.”

Ziv was even blunter. “The fact that the state is barred from exercising its sovereign authority ... is unacceptable,” she said, adding that its agreement with the foundation “doesn’t allow standard municipal considerations to be weighed and leaves the baron’s representatives with the power to decide to whom any land should be allocated.”

“Contributions to higher education, welcome though they are, cannot be a substitute for distributive justice,” she added.

Cesar Yeudkin of Bimkom, Planners for Planning Rights, which has also been helping Jisr al-Zarqa, similarly denounced the foundation’s conduct. All the surrounding communities agree that Jisr al-Zarqa should be helped, he said, “but in practice, nobody is willing to show enough flexibility to reach an appropriate solution.”

The Rothschild Caesarea Foundation said in response: "As long as Israel remains a country of law and doesn't become a totalitarian country, anyone preaching protection of the freedoms of the individual must oppose steps that trample property rights and blatantly violate the commitments of the authorities. It is not for nothing that the attorney general and senior legal officials over the years have issued directives that the government must respect the agreements signed with the Caesarea Foundation and the House of Rothschild in connection with the work of the Rothschild family in establishing the State of Israel. This is private land that the Rothschild family donated to the state, and the state's foolish attempt to shirk years of neglect of one community by harming another community or the entire region around it runs contrary to law and justice."

The foundation added that in its relations with the State of Israel, "the Rothschild family is always on the side that is giving and contributing and had never received a single shekel for its ongoing contribution."

No response could be obtained from the Caesarea city council.