Jerusalem's Secret Garden Finds Itself Under the Bulldozer

The inhabitants of Mahane Yisrael are embarking on a final battle over a small plot of land in the heart of the neighborhood and which they have turned with their own hands into a flourishing community garden.

Few neighborhoods in Jerusalem have a history that can vie with that of Mahane Yisrael. The neighborhood was the second built outside the city walls and the first built by Jews without philanthropic aid.

Down its two narrow alleys, Jews and Arabs lived alongside a leper colony, a luxury hotel and a gracious European home with Italian marble flooring. In the past decade the neighborhood, near Mamilla, has undergone extensive changes wrought by developers building homes for wealthy Jews abroad that occupy them a couple times a year, if that. A ghost neighborhood, in the local vernacular.

small community garden - Emil Salman - 22112011
Emil Salman

Now the inhabitants of Mahane Yisrael are embarking on a final battle over small plot of land in the heart of the neighborhood and which they have turned with their own hands into a flourishing community garden. On Monday, authorities attempted to destroy the garden, but were turned away by activists.

When the neighborhood was founded in 1866 at the junction of King David and Agron streets, it was at the edge of town, adjacent to the Muslim cemetery. Its founders, members of the North African Jewish community in Jerusalem, built it as part of the process of separation from the Sephardic community in the Old City.

Over the years, Arab families moved into the neighborhood and also a family of Italian pharmacists who built a luxurious home. Eventually a convent was built there, which served lepers and today is a part of a building belonging to the American Consulate.

A number of historical buildings were built around it - the Palace Hotel bounded the neighborhood from the north and the YMCA and the King David Hotel from the south.

As in other neighborhoods surrounding the Old City in that period, Jews and Arabs enjoyed relatively good relations.

Attorney Uziel Hazan, the neighborhood's unofficial historian, who has also written a novel about it, relates that Kruchi, a veteran resident and the hero of the novel, told how on the 9th of the Hebrew month of Av, when the destruction of both Temples is marked, as the Jews would sit on the floor in mourning, he would see a Christian Arab shed a tear.

After a while the neighborhood became run-down and the British Mandatory government wanted to demolish it. In 1948 its Arab inhabitants fled and Jewish refugees from the Old City came in their stead. The demolition plans remained in effect until the 1980s, when a plan was passed for the preservation of the neighborhood and its buildings.

Preservation, however, is a fuzzy concept in Jerusalem. Real estate developers, in cooperation with the municipality, found various creative ways to build while maintaining the appearance of preservation. The Palace Hotel was demolished entirely apart from its facade to make room for the Waldorf Astoria.

Another historical building was dismantled and rebuilt on a different site. An additional story was added to it and it will became the lobby of a prestigious multi-story residential project answering to the name King David Residence, which will overlook the neighborhood.

The new buildings, many of them empty during most of the year, close in on the neighborhood from all directions.

"When I came to the neighborhood 15 years ago, it was pretty quiet, without all the monsters surrounding it," says songwriter and singer Yaakov (Yankale ) Rotblit, who lives in Mahane Yisrael. "They not only block the light and the sun, luxuries of a sort, they also are evidence that the Holyland [Project] didn't happen by chance - it's a system. Anyone who buys an apartment there doesn't intend to live in it but rather to come on holidays and show the city wall to his guests."

In the midst of this real estate orgy, a small plot of land has survived in the heart of the neighborhood, 750 square meters owned by the Israel Land Administration. Up until two and a half years ago it served as an improvised parking lot or as a dump for building waste. At that time, ago a group of neighbors cleaned up the plot of land and turned it into a community garden.

The garden is a green spot today - vegetable patches, a herb patch, some fruit trees and a compost heap in one corner. But its beauty is only the backdrop to its real use: a meeting place that forged an active community.

"What this garden has done to the neighborhood is a wonder of wonders," says Rotblit. "All at once a community sprang up. There have been two weddings there, a performance. People don't work so much cooperatively but there are events at which the whole neighborhood gathers and you see faces, you put out cakes."

This fraternity has not impressed the Israel Lands Administration, which has issued an eviction order to the garden, which is to be sold to real estate developers.

"What do they want - for us to bring back the piles of rubble that were here?" asks Noga Eshet, an activist against the destruction of the garden.

The ILA bases itself on a ruling handed down to one family, which fenced off a part of the garden, to evacuate the area.

Although the fence was taken down a while ago, the ILA is determined to carry out the ruling to the letter and demolish the garden. The eviction was scheduled for Monday but ILA director Bentzi Lieberman promised Deputy Mayor Kobi Kahlon, who supports the residents' struggle, that he won't destroy the garden, at least for now.

On Monday, authorities and police officers came to carry out the demolition order in any case. They were met by a dozen or so residents as well as rabbinical students from a nearby school who organized a prayer at the site in support of the struggle. Kahlon and city council member Yosef (Pepe ) Alalu also came. Only after a long talk with Kahlon, did the ILA authorities turn back. The ILA says they are allowing the garden to remain in place temporarily.

This week Adam Teva V'Din - The Israeli Union for Environmental Defense, joined the battle. "The Mahane Yisrael neighborhood has been witness in recent years to accelerated processes of development, in the context of which many building projects have been carried out in the neighborhood, a rare and unique remnant of Jerusalem as it once was, with concrete and high rise construction," wrote the group's lawyers Yael Dori and Sheli Lev to the ILA. "There is no logic to the destruction of a community garden that has been nurtured by the inhabitants."

The ILA has responded that it is not a matter of a "community garden" but rather of "criminal trespassing on state lands." Moreover, according to the ILA, the southern part of the plot intended for use as a public area is not being used and "the Jerusalem municipality can expropriate the land and build a garden - community or public - on it. That is its original designation."

The ILA noted that the plot in question "is located only 100 meters from Independence Park, which has been planned as an open public area and serves the neighborhood."

In his book on Mahane Yisrael, Hazan's character Abu Hana describes the struggle best: "There are people in the neighborhood who erase the past and perpetuate the present, which tomorrow will become the past and will be erased again by those who come after them."