Sunday, February 13, 2011

Two Articles on Jerusalem

End of the Tunnel? Hotzot Hayotzer, the Artists Colony in Jerusalem, faces eviction after 40 years of pioneering Judaica

Seth J. Frantzman

Published in the Jerusalem Post on February 6

George Goldstein speaks with a soft voice, tinged by a French accent, when he recalls moving into the Hotzot Hayotzer 40 years ago. In his hand is a slightly faded photo of him at his loom with Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek and artist Mordechai Ardon looking on. Despite the fact that he and more than tweny other artists at the Jerusalem Artists Colony face eviction in 22 days, he seems resigned to whatever fate will come; “I opened my workshop here in September of 1969 with the support of Kollek and Yigal Allon [then minister of education and culture] and it was the first place for traditional tapestry and weaving and is it still the only tapestry workshop in the country making things in the traditional way.” Goldstein came to Israel in 1960 and his work has enjoyed great success over the years, with large tapestries hanging in the Great Synagogue of Strasburg, Jerusalem’s Shaare Tzedek hospital and at Yeshiva University in New York.

Hotzot Hayotzer was once a pioneering project to bring culture and people to the ruined no man’s land that separated East and West Jerusalem. When once Jordanian snipers had sat atop the parapets of the Old City Walls, in 1967 the city was re-unified and the mayor desired to link the city together. By bringing dynamic artists and setting them up with workshops and galleries next to the Old City walls the municipality and government was showing its commitment to reviving this part of Jerusalem. That was in 1969. Today things have changed. The grand villas of Kefar David and the rejuvenated Yemin Moshe peer over into the row of workshops that is Hotzot Hayotzer. Nearby a dilapidated park is being remade by the Jerusalem Foundation into Teddy Kollek park. The Artists Colony has been left untouched. Although a restaurant, Eucalyptus, opened there over a year ago, the retinue of artists has remained unchanged, it seems, for almost a decade.

One of the “new” arrivals is Oshrit Raffeld, whose positive energy bubbles over as she describes the tragedy that is befalling the place; “It isn’t packed with tourists, but that is because Kefar David changed the route people take to the Old City…we were once the main way for tourists to get to Jaffa gate. At our own expense we paid the municipality to put up signs, we advertised and marketed ourselves.” For her, and for the other artists, it is the landlord, the East Jerusalem Development Company, that is to blame for the problems.

The East Jerusalem Development Company, despite its connotation as being involved with “East Jerusalem” was actually set up in 1966, before the Six Day War. It is owned jointly by the Jerusalem Municipality and the Ministry of Tourism. The company currently manages several projects and properties, including Yemin Moshe, the famous old village created by Moses Montefiore in 1891, The Davidson Archeological Park next to the Western Wall, Zedekiah’s cave (Solomon’s quarries) near Damascus Gate and the Old City Walls walkway. The Artist Colony seems to be one of its least impressive projects, considering the beauty of Yemin Moshe and vibrancy of the Davidson Center. So what went wrong?

A little over a year ago the tenants of the Artist Colony were sent letters of eviction but the order was postponed for a year and the EJDC raised the rents by 30%. Raffeld recalls that “in the past they renewed our contracts yearly…but suddenly everyone was told to leave, no matter if the artists open their shops regularly. The company now claims that we didn’t agree to the rent raise, we didn’t object but we want contracts that protect us.” According to Gideon Shamir, director of the EJDC, it is primarily about the unpaid rent. The artists refuse to pay the higher rate and therefore they must go; “they pay a very low rent, we wanted to raise it to a more realistic price [According to Raffeld the price of the rent is 45 NIS per square meter]. There was a deadlock and the court order is for them to leave, I can tell you that we approve of thinking about the future of this place, but there is no connection between the future and the fact that the artists refuse to pay. We want this to be a place of culture and tourism.”

There is no doubt that the Artists Colony does not attract tourists. It is hard to find and there is no public parking. The new Mamilla mall funnels tourists into the Old City in a way that would make it surprising if any of them wandered down to the area of the colony. However some tourists do chance upon it. A couple from Toronto remarked after passing, “it looked closed to us, maybe it’s open later, there is nobody there.” They were wrong, half the workshops were open at 10:30am when they had passed, but they looked very much closed from a distance. Majd Ashhab who works in Mamilla and used to park near the place recalls that “they are closed always and they don’t allow us to park there, I’ve never seen anyone walking there.” However three students at the Jerusalem University College who study nearby were surprised to find such a special place in Jerusalem. After wandering by several times they chanced upon the workshops and were delighted to meet the artisans. Lauren Walker from Minnesota thinks that although the steep prices dissuaded her it was nice to meet the artists in the flesh. Josiah Sinclair, another student, who bought a leather belt says “this place is more authentic from the rest of the touristy places, this is how I imagined Jerusalem.”

Hotzot Hayotzher faces an uphill battle. The connection between the artists and their landlord seems completely broken. Every year the municipality hosts an artist’s festival called “Hotzot Hayotzer”, but over the past years the artists who have shops in the colony complain of being excluded. Most of the support for the artists comes from personal connections they have made. Goldstein recalls “I made many friends in forty years.” Letters of support have been sent from abroad and are being collected by Anat Galili-Blum, spokesperson of the artists. She believes there is going to be a “protest letter storm, hundreds of letters” from all over the world urging for the eviction to be cancelled. Judging by the connections and high quality craftsmanship that has brought attention to the artists it isn’t an exaggeration. Silversmith Yaacov Greenvurcel’s Judaica has been shown at museums around the world, including the Jewish Museums of Berlin and Vienna. For him “this is a microcosm of what is happening in Israel, the bureaucracy, the mall culture.” Accusations that the artist’s work is outdated are belied by the fact that the artwork of Greenvurcel, Raffeld and Yossi Sagi, among others, appears modern, cutting edge and even chic.
In the end only time will tell whether the EJDC gets its way and the recalcitrant artists are removed. While it is true that the site is not a burgeoning center of tourism, the artists are right that it is a unique space, a street of workshops where pioneering Jewish artists are creating dynamic creations. The question for the city and the tourism ministry is whether the current location is worth preserving when compared to other options. As of press time the tourism ministry had not replied to a request for comment on the situation.

Sold Out? A small Jewish neighborhood in Jerusalem suddenly finds its future up in the air

Published in Jerusalem Post on January 3

Joe and Rozanne Polansky are soft spoken but determined. As they sit in their living room, with its beautiful panoramic view of the Old City and East Jerusalem, they relate what drew them to the place. In 2008 they first saw Nof Zion, the Jerusalem community they now call home. It was an empty shell, precariously overlooking the Old City basin and surrounded on three sides by the Arab neighborhood of Jebel Mukaber. When they returned in April of 2009 however things were thriving; "we loved the community, it was full of life and affection and gave us a great feeling." The Polanskis are from North Bellmore, Long Island. Joe worked in construction before going back to school and becoming a state inspector of schools for the blind. Initially they envisioned spending six months out of the year in the new community. But the enchantment of it all led them to place their house in the U.S up for sale and move to Jerusalem permanently.

For outsiders it might seem a strange choice. Nof Zion strikes the visitor as being half built and it feels isolated, even though it is only a ten minute walk from the U.N headquarters and Armon Ha Natziv. This is no accident. The developers never bothered to finish the job. They completed only around 100 units out of a promised 400. They never constructed a synagogue, despite claiming on their website that “the synagogue will be the first pubic building erected.” Ground wasn’t broken for a hotel, country club, and a number of other amenities. The rest of the project is just a sea of earth and weeds. Sad patches of grass attempt to break through the hardscrabble earth of the “garden” apartments, trying to put down roots like the new residents themselves. The seven buildings that were constructed are home to some 75, mostly middle class Israeli families and several renters, including one U.N worker and two basketball players.

Dawn Yonah, another resident who relocated from the Washington D.C area, relates a similar story to the Polanskis. When she had first signed a contract on the property there had been few residents. But she believed in the vision of Digal, the developers of Nof Zion; "we were aware of the location of it but as Zionists it didn't bother us, we received a special feeling immediately from the residents." The unbeatable view of the Old City, the promises and the price tag all made the choice easy. But little seems to have turned out as hoped. It was a struggle to get bus service and mail is delivered intermittently. The owners were promised 24 hour security but that never materialized and now residents volunteer to do their own neighborhood watch.

A year and a half ago Yonah relates that “there were rumors of financial problems with Digal, a lot of Americans refused to sign contracts for their apartments.” Joe recalls that it didn’t seem like Nof Zion would be affected; “we heard rumors only of it affecting other properties.” Digal’s website lists six other projects that they are involved in, including three residences in Rumania, a synagogue and hotels in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. The story of what has befallen Nof Zion has been widely related in the media. Following Digal’s financial difficulties a Palestinian businessman named Bashar al Masri stepped forward with an offer to buy the property. Currently there is a campaign to find a Jewish buyer to match his offer or place pressure on the developers and creditors not to cave in.

Masri’s role is worth considering. He was born in Nablus and is a Palestinian entrepreneur. His uncle is Munib al-Masri, an extremely wealthy Palestinian who made his money abroad and is now a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council and owner of a famous Italian renaissance style palace above Nablus. Bashar is the manager of Massar International and the brainchild behind the Qatari backed Rawabi development, the first planned Arab city in the West Bank which is currently under construction and will house 40,000 wealthy and middle class Palestinians. Requests for an interview were not returned as of press time.

The residents of Nof Zion are undaunted in their desire to see their community succeed but they are also wary of the future. “We don’t want to see this beautiful Jewish community broken apart, we will build and do whatever it takes, people here are determined to see our community continue to thrive” says Dawn. “Our community is like a large family, we aren’t disconnected. There are more than seventy children here.” Currently some of the children attend a day care in the temporary synagogue which is located in a neighbor’s unused apartment. Up until recently there was some deal between the owners and the other residents but now even that seems up in the air and the synagogue may have to move elsewhere.
Miranda Jones, Dawn’s daughter, has put her feelings down in writing in an article titled ‘an Oleh’s view of Nof Zion.’ She stresses that “this is not a matter of political right versus left…Nof Zion is a private, legal community that is growing each day as new families move into the apartments…virtually every family has an amazing story, with historical roots that go deep into Israeli soil, and lofty visions of a glorious future.” Many of the Residents stress this point: there are no tensions with the Arab neighbors. Miranda writes that the “playground is visited daily by both Jewish and Arab children.” During the tensions over Silwan in the fall there was some vandalism but the situation is generally quiet.

The residents have been proactive in defending their interests. They have purchased bonds of the developer in order to have a say in any final decision. Motti Mintzer, an attorney and one of the first people to move into Nof Zion, has been instrumental in bringing families to live there and giving voice to the residents’ concerns; “I don’t mind who owns it as long as they carry through on their plans and the promised Jewish character remains the same, as well as the security of its residents. If this basic character of the project is changed - the company, Bank Leumi and the potential investor are exposed to lawsuits in an amount which is more than triple than the amount proposed in Weissglas' [representing Masri’s] offer.” As of press time no decision had been made regarding the Palestinian bid to acquire Digal’s assets but it seems whatever happens the people of Nof Zion will doggedly press on in their desire to make the community succeed.

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