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Correspondence between Coalition for Justice Co-director
Haim Dov Beliak and Matti Dan of Ateret Cohanim

The Commentaries

After terminating his correspondence with Matti Dan, Coalition for Justice in Hawaiian Gardens & Jerusalem Co-director Haim Dov Beliak solicited the commentaries by knowledgeable scholars which follow.

Commentary 1
by Dr. Aryeh Cohen
, Professor of Talmud and Jewish Thought at the University of Judaism, Los Angeles.

Starting with Motti Dan's final comment, I personally witnessed the fine relations between the Jewish members of Ateret Kohanim and their Palestinian neighbors. Standing on the roof of Torat Kohanim, a Yeshivah established in the Moslem quarter, I watched as furniture and other household belongings were forcibly removed from an adjoining building in a successful attempt to forcefully evict the Palestinian families that lived there. I wonder if those Palestinians also think that "there is actually friendship, tolerance and understanding between the Jewish settlers" in the Moslem quarter and their Palestinian neighbors.

I do not have any information which might confirm or deny the veracity of Motti Dan's claims about the ownership of the Ras al-Amud property. Therefore, I will grant his claim that this property was once owned by Jews. However, in Jewish law, rights of ownership are impinged by the needs of the community.

As a paradigmatic story, our Father Abraham ceded his Divine rights over parts of the Land of Israel in the interest of peace with Lot. It was only after this ceding of rights that God gave Abraham His eternal blessing.

In the Halakhic tradition property rights are never absolute. There are many instances in which the use of one's property is curtailed because of the damage that that use would cause the community (either monetary or environmental damage). There is no 'takings clause' (the demand that the government compensate a property owner when he is forbidden from using his property) in Jewish Law since the community's needs supersede the individual's. When a person overplays their property rights, it is referred to as 'the actions of Sodom.' So ownership, in and of itself, of a piece of property does not necessarily translate into the right to exploit that ownership at any cost.

In Jewish law peace is seen as a supreme value, as is the safeguarding of life. As to the former, even the name of God is erased in the cause of peace, as the Rabbis say. As to the latter, even the Sabbath is desecrated to save a life. && Therefore, it seems pretty obvious, that building on a piece of property which both endangers the lives of the settlers and their Palestinian neighbors, and works against a peaceful solution between Jews and Palestinians in Israel would run counter to the letter and spirit of Jewish tradition and morality.

* * *

Commentary 2
by Richard D. Hecht
, Professor of Religious Studies, University of California, Santa Barbara

Mattiyahu Dan is a long-time activist for Ataret-Cohanim. Activists like Dan have sought since the late 1960s to build the Jewish sanctity of Jerusalem by taking up residence in what they believe are former Jewish properties. I met Dan in Winter 1984 when I signed up for a walking-tour of Ataret-Cohanim properties, all examples of what their literature described as "good works" reclaiming Jewish real estate in the Old City. Dan was our guide, providing us with a commentary about the founding of the Yeshivah in the 1930s and how after the Six Day War, he and other like-minded souls had begun the process of returning to these institutions and properties. At that point, the reclaimed Yeshivah was located on the eastern side of the street which served as a relatively amorphous boundary between the Jewish and Muslim quarters of the Old City. We walked along one of the major thoroughfares leading to the Damascus Gate and Dan would stop at one gated doorway or another to show us the Jewish properties that were on the reclamation list and now were in the hands of Muslims. He pointed to the niches carved in the stone which once had held the mezzuzzot for these historic Jewish homes.

Our tour ended at the home of Nachman Kahane, the much less-famous brother of Rabbi Meir Kahane, just a few paces off the Via Dolorosa. We walked through his enclosed garden, went up a stairway and into a small synagogue whose windows faced toward the Temple Mount. There, we met other activists who gave us a very rosey account of Ataret Cohanim's activities, filled with stories of how the Muslim residents of the neighborhood had welcomed them back, including an account of a elderly Muslim who had kept the original key to one Jewish property with the hope that he would be able to return it to its rightful owners. This story was in every respect a counter-narrative to the well-known Palestinian refugee narrative in which a Palestinian has kept as his or her most sacred property the key a home left behind in 1948. We were also treated to a lengthy discourse by Dan himself on the return to Temple worship which was being drawn closer by their resettlement of these and other Jewish properties.

But there was a photograph on the wall in that synagogue that caught my eye. ( It was a very well-known photomontage, an aerial view of the Temple Mount in which the Aqsa Mosque, the Dome of the Rock, and everything else from the Umayyid, Abbasid, Fatimid, Mameluk, and Ottoman periods of the city had been removed and replaced by a reconstructed Second Temple. The Arab, Muslim, and Palestinian pasts had been erased completely and totally. The photo came to represent the increasing radicalization of the Israeli extreme right. As Meir Kahane's use of the photo suggested, there was an alien presence in prime Jewish and Israeli space. For the settlers in the foothills of Judea and Samaria, in the old Jewish quarter of Hebron, and the flatlands of Gaza and its seashore, the photo expressed the complete synthesis of religion and nationalism.

Then as now, Matti Dan and Ataret Cohanim would believe that they have proper relations with their Palestinian neighbors, perhaps even warm relations, although the press accounts belie this. In almost every property "reclaimed" or purchased the environment has been one of friction, confrontation, and hostility. Ataret-Cohanim has expanded its operation in the ensuing decades, and other groups like Elad, perhaps spin-offs of Ataret Cohanim, have joined them to continue to press the original claims. In the last months of the Shamir government, the urban "pioneers" set their eyes on vacant property in Keren Ha-Mufti and Sheikh Jarah, a quarter mile north of the Old City. They attempted to purchase property in the area of the Tomb of Shimon Ha-Tzaddik. In the 1990s they were involved in evicting Palestinians for their homes in Ir-David, below the southern wall of the Old City and were successful in taking hold of a Christian hospice in the Christian quarter. And, in each case, there was substantial resistance.

In the early days of Ataret Cohanim's effort to widen the Jewish presence in Muslim neighborhoods inside and outside the Old City, there was a suspicion that funds to support the purchase of these properties was coming evangelical Christian groups in the US and Europe. The worldviews of these evangelicals and the urban settlers contained parallel interests - rebuilding a Jewish Temple on the Temple Mount was a key element in divine plan for the tribulation, the rapture, and the final triumphant return of the Christ. Several very good journalists tried to trace these connections. Perhaps the best early account came from Robert I. Friedman, Nadav Shragai, and most recently, Gershon Gorenberg. It was assumed that funds were also coming from Jewish individuals abroad, a claim that appears well-founded in case of Dr. Moskowitz's interests in building housing at Ras al-Amud.

Matti Dan's letter to Rabbi Haim Beliak is of interest at several levels. First, there is the worldview from which he speaks. In his opening paragraph, he denounces the efforts to halt Moskowitz's efforts. He writes "I will suffice by saying that like others in this hate-filled world, you are playing a part in stopping the Mashiach [messiah]. Why should he come if there is so much senseless hatred within Am Yisrael [the Jewish people]." He returns to the theme of "senseless hatred" among Jewish people in his penultimate paragraph: "As a final word - Sinat Chinam" (Senseless hatred) has destroyed many in our history. Some advice - don't let it eat you up, or consume you totally. Look at yourself in the mirror and ask yourself some hard questions - Why am I really doing this? Why am I so consumed with stopping Moskowitz? Am I being honest with myself? What is so wrong with Jews living on the Mt. Olives, especially if no Arab was affected, driven off…etc.?" Rabbi Beliak is guilty of sinat-chinam which potentially might delay or squelch the coming of the Messiah. Of course, sinat-chinam is one of the reasons given by the Rabbis of the Babylonian Talmud for the destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of the Romans in 70 C.E. Sinat Chinam is also read back into the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 587/86 B.C.E. and it was also used to account for why the Romans ultimately defeated the rebellion of Shimon Bar Kokhba in 135 C.E. Indeed, if it were not for this hatred within the Jewish community then there would have been no defeat by any enemy, and by implication in Matti Dan, Jerusalem would be really united and we would know that the Messiah is one his way if Rabbis and others would not have committed this transgression of hating other Jews.

But Dan's recourse to the historical trope of sinat chinam suggests something else which I believe is incompatible with politics on the ground and any solution for the problem of Jerusalem. Of course, Dan will immediately say there is no Jerusalem problem except for us haters of other Jews who are actualizing their deep love between "Am and Eretz Yisrael." Sinat chinam is also the boundary line dividing true Jews from false Jews. We cannot love the land of Israel if we are unable to see the maximalist "rare and honest passion to build Jerusalem." We cannot feel the deep connection to the land and the city. In short, we may belong to kelal-yisrael [the community of the Jewish people] by the fact of our births, but we are really inauthentic Jews because we would find something deeply troubling in building Jewish residences in Ras al-Amud or Ma'aleh Ha-Zeitim.

Ehud Sprinzak, one of Israel's greatest scholars of the politics of extremism in Israel and elsewhere, believed that it was always important to locate religious extremists in their thought-world. Not all were the same and hence he sought to describe Meir Kahane's Kach party as "catastrophic messianism." Matti Dan and Ataret-Cohanim represent a different religious worldview which might be most accurately described as a modern Jewish apocalypticism. We might think that "apocalypticism" always involves a great conflagration at the end of time. Many apocalypses do have this, but this does not distinguish them from messianism or millenarianism. What distinguishes ancient or modern apocalypticists from others burning for the end times is that they believe a revelation has been given, a sign, a document, or something else. But only a few can read and understand it properly. They are the real community, a kind of avant garde which must drag the rest of the community kicking and screaming toward what they believe the one and only goal of history. In effect we see that apocalyptic spirit in the words of Dan. Only he and Ataret-Cohanim understand history correctly. Here, it is history which is the revelation, the sign, the book which they and only they have the key to. For Dan and Ataret-Cohanim, the critical event was the Six Day War and the liberation of Jerusalem from the Jordanians. Only they understand the real meaning of the event and they will realize their meaning for all of us. Apocalypticism and politics rarely make good bedfellows, especially in modern, liberal states.

Second, Dan suggests that the property upon which Moskowitz has built his apartment building is Jewish property going back to the 19th century. He offers a curious sentence about the property: "It was deemed to be an extension of Jewish Cemetery, but both Turkish and later British authorities refused the licence." What does it mean to say that both the Turks and the British refused the licence? Answering that question is not essential however. Whether it is Jewish property or no is really not the question. The former mayor of Jerusalem, Teddy Kollek, believed that Jerusalem could only be managed by understanding its urban space much like a mosaic made up of separate neighborhoods. The ethos of Ataret Kohanim and Dan speak from another perspective. They do not recognize the mosaic neighborhoods, especially when those neighborhoods are Palestinian. Here, they take recourse to an American urban and political principle - a Jew should be able to live anywhere he or she might want in their city. It is after all only their city. It is not a Palestinian city. The rights of Palestinians do not matter. The only principle worth speaking of is property rights. What of the Palestinians who left their homes in neighborhoods like Talbieh in 1948? If property rights are the only rights, then shouldn't those Palestinians be allowed to purchase or reclaim their homes?

Ras al-Amud or Ma'ale Ha-Zeitim is quite a walk from the Old City, but it is still prime real estate in Jerusalem's apocalyptic topography. When I visited Ras al-Amud early in the development of the site for Jewish apartment dwellers I found it to be a neighborhood dominated by the "Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine." Everywhere their graffiti were on the walls. They too are territorial maximalists like Dan and Ataret-Cohanim. This is not a neighborhood which would welcome Jews into its streets, and hence that massive police station will certainly be called upon to protect the first new Jewish residents.

* * *

Commentary 3
by Thomas H. Nelson
. Mr. Nelson, who practices law in Portland, Oregon, was previously a professor of law.

You have sought my comment about recent correspondence between yourself and Matti Dan, the Director of Ateret Cohanim ("Crown of Priests"), a group of Israeli settlers committed for religious reasons to reclaiming specific lands in the occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza as a means of insuring for the foreseeable future that Israel will retain control over all of what they refer to as "biblical eretz Yisrael." As will soon be clear, I disagree with Mr. Dan on many points. But every word of this memorandum is written for the love of Israel, whose increasing isolation even from its oldest and staunchest allies, appears to me to place in grave peril a country and a society I have loved for decades.

Referring to Matti Dan's letter of April 1, 2003, I will focus my comments on two inter-relating realities in this correspondence: (1) the principal source of the funding for the Jerusalem developments is in a gambling enterprise in Hawaiian Gardens, and (2) the relationship between the new development at Ras al-Amoud and the larger context of the search for a lasting solution to the conflict between Israel and Palestine.

I conclude in Part I that the context of Hawaiian Gardens exposes the victimization of the economically vulnerable. I conclude in Part II that the expansion of Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem reveals a pattern of territorial expansion that poses grave risks to mercy, justice and lasting peace in the region.

I. The Source of the Moskowitz Enterprise:
Exploitation of Immigrants through Gambling Operations of Dubious Legality

Both the morality and legality of the source of the funding of the Moskowitz enterprise is the pockets of the poor. The deepest moral flaw of Hawaiian Gardens is that it reverses the Robin Hood legend. Moskowitz has created a redistributive scheme based on a form of "robbing from the poor."

But has Dr. Moskowitz broken any laws of the United States? According to the documents published on website, significant portions of the earnings from the bingo parlor that Moskowitz operates in Hawaiian Gardens have flowed to private, for-profit businesses, including one in which Moskowitz has a direct financial interest. But if there were sufficient proof of private inurement in violation of
§501(c)(3) of the [federal tax] code, the government could revoke the exempt status of Dr. Moskowitz's not-for-profit organization.

Or has Dr. Moskowitz broken any laws of the State of California? For years Moskowitz has exercised powerful control of the elected officials on the City Council of Hawaiian Gardens. It is undisputed, however, that the same group of officials - designating themselves as the "Hawaiian Gardens Redevelopment Agency" - has extended public funds for the construction of a gambling casino to Dr. Moskowitz, in apparent violation of California Health and Safety Code, §33426.5 (c) (forbidding direct use of public redevelopment funds for gambling operations).

II. The Target of Moskowitz Philanthropy:
Funding of Israeli Settlements in Territory under Military Occupation

Second, there is the deeply contentious issue about the location of the Ras Al-Amoud development block in a portion of East Jerusalem that has been regarded as Palestinian.

I turn now to the secular issue of whether settlement activity in general in territory that is under military occupation is legitimate under international law. The applicable norm is found in Article 49(6) of the Fourth Geneva Convention: "The Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies."

In the meantime, it remains the case that every other nation in the world except Israel shares the view that all of the provisions on international humanitarian law in the Fourth Geneva Convention are in fact part of the legal patrimony of the world, and that this convention applies in full force to the military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.

The leading statement on the subject, U.N. Security Council Resolution 446, was adopted on 22 March 1979 by a vote of 13-0. [It concluded that] the West Bank and Gaza are occupied territories within the meaning of the Fourth Geneva Convention.

Even if the policy of settlement activity were deemed legal under international law, a view adopted by no country except Israel, that would not mean that the policy is prudent or wise. I turn therefore from the issue of the legality of the settlements in the occupied territories to the moral question of whether the policy of ongoing settlement activity by the Israeli Government is prudent or wise.

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