The Plot Thickens in Saga Between Hollywood Has-been and Haredi Community

West of Jerusalem, a quiet ultra-Orthodox community has ambitious development plans and Yoram Globus - once the co-owner of a Hollywood studio - as a partner.

In the early 1980s, Yoram Globus and Menahem Golan – two of Israel’s most successful film producers – managed to do what no Israeli had accomplished before. They bought a failed U.S. production company, the Cannon Group, and briefly became top Hollywood producers.

At the height of their success, the cousins began laying the groundwork for a return to Israel and looked for a site to set up local studios. They received an offer to buy a large tract of land at a negligible price near the West Bank settlement of Ma’aleh Adumim, but preferred to stay within Israel proper.

They ultimately chose a 60-dunam (15-acre) site just west of Jerusalem, near Moshav Neveh Ilan, where two failed hotel construction projects stood. The pair built what became known as GG Studios – at the time the largest facilities of their kind anywhere in the country. Later, they purchased an additional 140 dunams in an adjoining forested valley.

In the late 1980s, however, a rift developed between Golan and Globus, and the two went their separate ways, leaving Globus with the land at Neveh Ilan. Befitting a man who was on top of the world at the time, he had grand visions for the site, not least a biblically themed, Disneyland-style amusement park.

Consultants were brought in from the United States to help assess the project’s feasibility, but when they presented him with the costs, he came to his senses, realizing that it was too big for little Israel. Instead, he built a modest facility called Globusland, which promised Israeli visitors a film experience replete with enchanted castles, haunted forests, car chases and major battle scenes. (He didn’t give up completely on his dream, however, building another 6,000-square meter amusement center on the outskirts of Haifa, which he was ultimately forced to close after sustaining millions of shekels in losses.)

The years passed and Globus’ 140 dunams on the road to Jerusalem remained vacant. As his Hollywood fortunes faded, the land became more important to him, but the National Master Plan for the area stopped him in his tracks. Since he was not a real estate developer, he looked for partners who were. He tried to link up with the property development company Housing & Construction Limited, but the company’s ups and downs during the 1980s and 1990s made it an unreliable partner.

The proposed development site was the last patch of open landscape separating three disparate communities: an ultra-Orthodox village, a Finnish-Christian one, and an Arab municipality. If he were to build, Globus had to link up with one of the three adjoining communities, which also posed a problem. The first he approached was Yad Hashmona, a one-of-a-kind settlement founded in 1971 by a small group of Finnish Christians and, later, Messianic Jews. Globus undertook negotiations with the community, but the Finns were not enamored of the project and the head of the regional council, which is the municipal authority in the area, likewise declined to support it.

Globus then approached the adjoining Arab village of Abu Ghosh, but didn’t find any willing partners there, either. The residents of the village recognized the project’s proposed site as a valuable piece of land for growing olives.

A quiet place

Another 15 years have elapsed, and Globus has finally found his partners in the nearby ultra-Orthodox community of Kiryat Ye’arim.

Also known as Telz-Stone – after Irving Stone, the Cleveland greeting card entrepreneur and a generous contributor to the community – Kiryat Ye’arim lacks a local exit to the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem highway (Route 1), and bus services are somewhat limited. Anyone wanting to reach from the west has to double back through Abu Ghosh.

As is the case with the other communities in the area, Kiryat Ye’arim is a quiet place where buildings are, for the most part, no more than four stories tall. Six hundred dunams of modern-day Kiryat Ye’arim were purchased before the establishment of Israel in 1948 by a businessman, Menashe Elissar, who was attracted to the site as the location of the biblical Kiryat Ye’arim, where the Ark of the Covenant was kept for two decades until King David brought it to Jerusalem. But Elissar never developed the site.

In the 1970s, however, Stone – who made his fortune with American Greetings, the big rival of Hallmark – contributed funds to build a yeshiva there that would eventually become the home of the Cleveland-based Telshe Yeshiva. Construction began on an impressive building in the center of the plot along with housing for students and teachers, but ultimately the yeshiva never moved to Kiryat Ye’arim.

What was initially envisaged as housing for the yeshiva quickly became a residential community of mainly English speakers, albeit with another yeshiva – Be’er Yitzhak – at its center.

Additional housing was added and, in 1992, Kiryat Ye’arim was separated from the existing regional council in the area and given its own local council. Plans for additional residential construction were also approved. The town now has close to 4,000 residents, but the National Master Plan calls for the number to expand to as many as 10,000. The community wants to attract Haredi Jerusalemites, transforming it into a real urban community.

In 2004, an Interior Ministry panel approved plans to expand Kiryat Ye’arim’s municipal area on condition that it be done with the consent of the authorities in Abu Ghosh – which had jurisdiction over a part of the expansion area – and that proper highway access be developed. The conditions were not met.

When Eli Yishai, from the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, regained his position as interior minister in 2009, the community's residents saw it as a propitious time to ask for a new panel to be convened, which happened the following year. This time the residents sought to annex less land to the community and proposed that a tunnel be built so that traffic would bypass the community on Shabbat.

However, they encountered tremendous opposition not only from Abu Ghosh and the moshav cooperative communities of Yad Hashmona, Neveh Ilan and Nataf, but also from the Interior Ministry’s planning authority, which argued that the expansion contradicted the National Master Plan, which attaches major importance to preserving the landscape of the area.

The district planner at the Interior Minister also objected to the creation of an ultra-Orthodox urban area there rather than encouraging construction for Haredi residents in nearby Jerusalem and Beit Shemesh. A large number of environmental groups voiced their own opposition. MK Ariel Atias (Shas), the housing and construction minister at the time, supported the expansion, but that proved insufficient and the committee voted the plan down.

But the Kiryat Ye’arim local council, which since 1996 has been headed by Avraham Rosental, is not giving up. There is not a single vacant apartment in the community, and while there is a shortage of housing for Haredim, there is “open space with a few animals” adjacent to Kiryat Ye’arim, Rosental notes. He added that the council had come to an agreement with the relevant neighboring authorities. The only party that could object, he acknowledged, is Adam Teva V’Din (Israel Union for Environmental Defense).

“If we go with what they say, there will be nowhere to build in this country,” Rosental counters, “while what’s needed is a place to live.” And, he adds, it is not a large city that is being proposed, but rather the expansion of the community from 4,000 to about 15,000 or 16,000.

“We’re in a totally secular area and have very friendly relations with our neighbors," Rosental says. "People from Abu Ghosh are our customers and we patronize their businesses.” It doesn’t look like there would be plans to build anything else at the proposed site, and it could be of major assistance to the 1,500 families who would live there, he adds. “In the face of the housing shortage and claims that Haredim want to take over neighborhoods in mixed cities, here we don’t want to take over anything. This Haredi community already exists, so let’s expand it.”

Environmental issues

Before a committee was convened at the end of 2012 to consider adjustments to the municipal boundaries in the area, agreement was reached with Globus, the movie producer consenting to the transfer of the land in question from the jurisdiction of the Mateh Yehuda regional council to the Kiryat Ye’arim local council. The agreement also called for Globus to develop 1,000 housing units there.

And as far back as 2010, Kiryat Ye’arim had come to an agreement with the Mateh Yehuda council to share the improvement taxes generated from any construction on the site. Under its current leadership, however, the latter council said it would oppose development on more than 100 dunams (25 acres).

The maneuvers over the future of the site also raise larger questions over the criteria applied on land use questions, environmental issues and the redrawing of municipal boundaries. In practice, however, the process seemed to be affected by deals among the various entities involved, by political affiliations and by the desire to develop the site into valuable real estate rather than leaving it as a nature reserve.

Complicating things further was a change in the political landscape on the local level. Last year, Issa Jaber was elected as head of the Abu Ghosh local council. He explains that his predecessor as council head, as well as members of the Abukatish family of Abu Ghosh, who also own land in the area, were willing to have some of it developed for housing. They were concerned, however, that if the Interior Ministry transferred the land in question to the jurisdiction of Kiryat Ye’arim, the family would lose more of the land.

“Somebody caused the Abukatish family to feel that their land would be lost, so they looked for any means to save it, and were ready to join up with anyone going in to save a significant part of their land,” Jaber said. “I spoke with them and explained to them that if there was anyone who would help them, it would be the Abu Ghosh local council, and that it would be absurd for them to link up with anyone else."

The current plan was developed by agreement between the previous Abu Ghosh council leader and Kiryat Ye’arim, Jaber said, and after last year’s elections, officials in Abu Ghosh decided that agreement over the disposition of the land was a mistake. “The land belongs to Mateh Yehuda and is geographically contiguous with Abu Ghosh,” Jaber said. Since some of the land is owned by Abu Ghosh residents, he claims that if jurisdiction should be shifted to any other local government, it should be to the Abu Ghosh local council.

And, he adds, Abu Ghosh also has a housing shortage. “We would like to address the needs of young couples in our community. Also, if they allow Kiryat Ye’arim to expand to the west, the road to Abu Ghosh – which is essential to the area – will become theirs and as a result will paralyze tourism in the area and the secular population that lives here will be harmed.”

The Interior Ministry said no final proposals on changes to the jurisdiction of the site have been submitted, and therefore the interior minister has yet to be asked to weigh in on the matter.

Emil Salman
Itzik Ben-Malki
Emil Salman
Emil Salman