After Years of Struggle, a Wall in the Heart of Jerusalem Is Coming Down

The wall was built in 1952, along with the first residence of Israel's presidents, annexing a public park within its' borders. 'Nobody protested at the time because our neighbor was the president'

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The wall in Rehavia (left), Jerusalem, Israel, March 18, 2018
The wall in Rehavia (left), Jerusalem, Israel, March 18, 2018Credit: Emil Selman

A festive ceremony on Monday will mark the end of a 50-year dispute over a wall in the middle of the Rehavia neighborhood of Jerusalem. The wall will come down and a public park that was annexed by the [old] President’s Residence in 1952 will return to the public. The event marks the culmination of a struggle that raised important questions about preservation and narratives.

Rehavia was planned by Richard Kaufmann in 1923. He built it as a garden neighborhood, sometimes described as having a human shape, with the Gymnasia High School as its head and a small boulevard-park as the spine, which then splits into two arms, Rambam and Ramban Streets. In 1952 the continuity was broken by the establishment of the President’s Residence during the term of Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, Israel’s second president.

The park was attached to the residence. Ben-Zvi and his wife lived in a small apartment and a large adjacent hut became the official reception area. The disputed wall was built in order to fence off a reception area at the entrance.

“The residence took away part of the park, part of Kaufmann’s perfect plan. The government made a snap decision that no one objected to, since we had the president in our neighborhood,” says Rehavia-born Dr. Ilan Ezrahi, head of the Ginot Ha’ir community council.

In 1972 the presidential residence moved to its current location in the Talbieh neighborhood and the hut became home to the Yad Ben-Zvi research institute. A few years later residents started demanding that the wall come down and the park be restored to the community. The protest escalated with plans — later cancelled — to expand the institute in the 1990s. When Yad Ben Zvi did expand five years ago the protests intensified.

Yad Ben Zvi structure in the Rehavia neighborhood

Dr Nirit Shalev-Khalifa of Yad Ben-Zvi, who began dealing with the issue a few years ago, says that residents ignored the story of this space as it developed in the decades after Kaufmann’s plans were executed. “Conserving a location also means preserving cumulative values associated with it and this place is part of Rehavia’s story,” she says. “It is part of Jerusalem becoming a capital, not something to be dismissed out of hand.”

She shows photos of soldiers standing next to the wall as a guard of honor for a foreign dignitary. “This is where our statehood took shape, where the first German ambassador walked, with hundreds of demonstrators lunging at him. This place represents Rehavia and Israel better than the original Kaufmann plan.”

The wall will now come down as part of a larger plan to renovate the park.