The Kever Rochel Controversy
Part I. Background: Brother vs. Brother
By Israel Zwick, February 24, 2014
Many Israelis often refer to their Arab neighbors as “cousins.” This is because they are believed to be descendants of the biblical Ishmael, half brother of Isaac, both sons of Abraham. It is truly regrettable that this conflict between “cousins” has endured for so long with no end in sight. When the conflict erupts into violence, it is inspiring to see the “achdut” or unity among the Israeli brothers working together and helping each other to survive the violence. However, when the violence is latent as it is now, we often see conflicts arise between brother and brother. The daily newspapers in Israel are replete with disputes between the secular and religious, the left and right, the Ashkenazim and the Sephardim, the workers and the managers, to name just a few.
Brother vs. Brother. Recent Jerusalem protest; clashes and arrests were reported. (Photo: Gil Yohanan)
One might understand how disputes may arise between different ideologies and interests such as the secular and religious. However, it is truly incomprehensible when brothers with similar ideologies, interests, and goals are in conflict. Then their efforts and resources become directed more to the conflict than to achieving their common goals. This is what is happening now in the conflict between Evelyn Haies and Rabbi Benny Elon over three small properties adjacent to Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem. Each of the protagonists is passionately devoted to reclaiming the Jewish presence in the area of Kever Rochel, as it is known in Hebrew, and developing educational and religious activities at the site. Yet for the last few years, they have been devoting their resources battling each other in court cases in Israel and New York over the rights of ownership and management of the properties. The cases are still ongoing with no resolution on the horizon. In the meantime, development of the properties is at a standstill, and has even regressed somewhat from damage to the property.
I know Evelyn Haies personally. I met her about eight years ago when I rented an apartment in her neighborhood in Arzei Habirah. I frequently took my grandchildren to the playground there, and I often encountered Evelyn as she passed through. She was eager to engage me in conversation, mostly about her activities involving Kever Rochel. It was obvious that she was passionate about the cause and devoted considerable resources in time, effort, and money to organize educational and religious activities at her Beit Bnei Rachel site adjacent to Kever Rochel. She had big plans for developing the site and tried to get me to become involved. I was impressed by her efforts to reclaim a Jewish presence at one of Judaism’s holiest sites, but at the time I had other obligations that were more urgent.
I once visited Evelyn in her modest home which was simply furnished even by Israeli standards. She didn’t own a car and traveled frequently to Kever Rochel with the #163 bus from Shmuel Hanavi. She still carries an outdated cell phone with an old battery that needs frequent recharging. Yet, she contributed over $500,000 towards the purchase of the three parcels adjacent to Kever Rochel. Apparently, this represented a major portion of her total assets. She explained that she lives by the motto, “ A penny saved is a penny LOST,” because she wanted to see her money doing something useful rather than sitting in a bank.
I never met Rabbi Binyamin “Benny” Elon but I was familiar with his work. He is part of a prominent Jerusalem family with a long history of involvement in Jerusalem affairs. He distinguished himself as a Member of the Knesset and Minister of Tourism in the early part of the 21st century. Over 10 years ago, he introduced the Elon Peace Plan which suggested a greater involvement of Jordan in the establishment of a homeland for the Palestinian Arabs, a subject which is still being discussed today. As a resident of the community of Beit El, he has been actively involved in promoting the rights of Jewish settlement in the liberated areas of Judea and Samaria. His recent project involving the establishment of a yeshiva adjacent to Kever Rochel, is the one that is causing friction with Evelyn Haies. I have the utmost respect and admiration for Rabbi Elon and share many of his views. So when I heard about the nasty legal battle between him and Mrs. Haies, I found it to be very disconcerting and puzzling. Rabbi Elon was operating a yeshiva for young men and Mrs. Haies was operating an active educational and religious program for women. So why were these two people who were working for same goal battling each other? Shouldn’t they be working together to develop the property as an active educational and religious center that will attract more Jewish participants to the area? Why are they wasting so much effort and money on court cases? I had to find out for myself.
Evelyn Haies at Beit Bnei Rachel, February 20, 2014, (Photo: I. Zwick)
So one day when Mrs. Haies was sponsoring a Torah reading at her center, I decided to join her. Mrs Haies was able to obtain a refurbished Sefer Torah for Beit Bnei Rachel in 2005 and it has been used often for prayer services at the center. I met her and one of her supporters, Atarah C. Gur, at the #163 bus on Shmuel Hanavi. During the trip, Evelyn and Atarah provided me with some of the background information on the dispute with Rabbi Elon and lamented to me about all the difficulties and financial losses that she was encountering. However, nothing that she said prepared me for the tragedy that I witnessed upon arrival at Kever Rochel. If Rochel Imeinu is watching, she must surely by crying over the feud between her children.
Torah Reading at Beit Bnei Rachel, February 20, 2014 (Photo: I. Zwick)
To be continued in Part II. The Tragedy
The Kever Rochel Controversy
Part II. The Tragedy. Rochel Imeinu is shedding tears
.By Israel Zwick, February 25, 2014
I recall my first visit to Kever Rochel in 1969, around the same time that the United States was preparing for it’s first manned landing on the moon. There was a sense of euphoria and freedom in the air from both events, which represented the triumph of good over evil. In Bethlehem, Jews and Christians were celebrating the freedom to visit their holy sites in peace and security. It was a beautiful, bucolic scene. Kever Rochel was in a open area, appearing much as it did in photos of 50 years earlier. Jewish and Christian visitors were mingling freely with the local Arab population and purchasing souvenirs in the local market place, with its ancient Mediterranean flavors. It was a model of peaceful coexistence between the three main monotheistic religions. At the American Embassy in Tel Aviv, eyes were glued to the television sets which would soon show the first human to set foot on the moon, a triumph over the evil Soviet empire which still refused to allow its 3 million Jews to practice their religion or emigrate to Israel.
Rachel’s Tomb circa 1970, after 1967 Six Day War
I had the opportunity to return to Kever Rochel several times over the next few years and not much had changed. The area was even more inundated with Jewish and Christian tourists eager to visit the holy sites and enjoy the rustic beauty of the scene. There was freedom of movement throughout Bethlehem, and even open-air concerts in the evening, without fear of terrorist incidents.
It was not the same when I returned to Kever Rochel after the Oslo Agreement which gave the town of Bethlehem to the Palestinian Authority and removed Israeli security forces. Kever Rochel had been transformed to an isolated military garrison because of the terrorist incidents which followed the Oslo Accords. This time, instead of the ancient rustic scenery, only concrete walls, watch towers, and barbed wire were visible. Israeli security forces did not allow any Jews to exit from the fortified compound, they had to board their bullet-proof buses and leave the premises.
Rachel’s Tomb after Oslo Accords and construction of protective barriers
This was still not as bad as the scene I observed when I visited Beit Bnei Rachel with Evelyn Haies and Atarah Gur on February 20, 2014. Not only was there no peaceful coexistence between Jews and Arabs, but there signs of friction and strife between Jews, just a few steps from the prayer services at the tomb of Rochel Imeinu. I expected to see the neat, clean, nicely decorated room that Evelyn Haies used to sponsor her numerous educational and religious events, and was so prominent in the photos that she sent to my email. Instead, I saw a room that was cluttered and in disarray, with the decorative wall hangings hiding in shame in plastic garbage bags.
The students from Rabbi Elon’s yeshiva that were roaming around the premises seemed to have no interest in political controversy. They just wanted to go about their business and viewed Mrs. Haies’ events as an intrusion into their space, and a restriction on their freedom of movement. On the other hand, Mrs. Haies viewed the students as usurpers and vandals of the property that she worked so hard to develop and maintain for more than 10 years. Occasionally, Mrs. Haies would have difficulty restraining her emotions, which only served to enhance the negative image that the students had of Mrs. Haies. To me, viewing this strife and friction between Jews at a site that should be bringing Jews together for study and prayer, was a tragedy. I felt I had to do something to help the situation. But what could I do? I was just an American outsider with no knowledge of the complex legal entanglements that resulted in this situation. I’m neither an attorney nor a mediator and can’t hope to assist in a conflict that even the courts can’t resolve. Yet, something has to be done. The current situation is untenable and detrimental to both parties. Evelyn Haies and Benny Elon both have good ideas and ambitious plans for developing the property but their legal battles are diverting their resources and preventing them from doing anything.
There has to be another solution. But what could it be? What can be done to end this nasty conflict so that the two protagonists could work together instead of against each other?
Continued in Part III: Comment, Analysis, and Resolution.
The Kever Rochel Controversy
Part III: Analysis, Comment, and Resolution
By Israel Zwick, February 27, 2014
On June 8, 2012, Uri Blau published an article in Haaretz which attempted to explain the complicated legal manipulations and transfers involved when Jews want to purchase Arab property in Judea and Samaria. The purchase of even a small parcel of property becomes a masterful operation of intrigue that could rival the covert operations of Mossad and the CIA. It involves a tangled web of lawyers, real estate agents, and non-profit organizations, to ensure that the property is legally transferred while protecting the identity and safety of the actual buyer and seller.
Among the more prominent and contentious transfers of Arab property, was the sale of three small parcels adjacent to Rachel’s Tomb, in the early part of the 21st Century. Apparently, the property became available at a good price because of the Second Intifada and the numerous terrorist activities that were occurring at the time. The primary actors in the unfolding drama were two prominent Israelis, Benny Elon and Chaim Silberstein, and a relatively unknown American woman, Evelyn Haies, who generously provided most of the funding. The legal issues involved are complex and beyond the scope of this article. Interested readers are referred to the article by Uri Blau as well as a summary in Courthouse News Service, published on March 25, 2013. (http://www.courthousenews.com/2013/03/25/56004.htm). The case has been going through both Israeli and American courts for the last few years with no resolution in sight.
Since I am not an attorney and can’t comment intelligently on the legal merits of the case, I would like to offer a different perspective on the conflict, based on my experiences with Israelis and Americans on my frequent visits to Israel. Since the judicial pathway has been unsuccessful in resolving the conflict, perhaps an alternative and fresh perspective is needed to bring the protagonists closer to an amicable and successful resolution. Evelyn Haies and Benny Elon have similar interests and goals for developing the property adjacent to Kever Rochel. Yet, they can’t seem to resolve their differences. Perhaps the conflict is not a legal and financial one that can be resolved by the courts, but a cultural and cognitive conflict that requires a different approach. Perhaps I can illustrate from personal experiences that I encountered in Israel.
In my dealings with Israelis, I learned of the concept of the “Stupid American Tourist.” Apparently many Israelis view the American tourist as someone who comes to Israel for about two weeks and stays in a luxury hotel. After eating a sumptuous breakfast in the morning, he boards a posh tourist bus which drives him around to the holy sites, antiquities, and museums. At the end of the day he dines in a nice ethnic, restaurant with a view of the Judean Hills. He then returns to America without gaining any knowledge of the challenges and sacrifices that Israelis must endure on a daily basis.
While this view may be somewhat exaggerated, I have personally encountered misconceptions about Americans from native Israelis. My wife and I were in Israel when the Gaza war broke out at the end of 2008. While we knew that we couldn’t do much to help, we felt that we couldn’t ignore the situation and do nothing. So we approached several major charities in Jerusalem to volunteer our services. The conversation went typically as follows:
Israeli: So you’re an American and you would like to help us? Well we could use about
$100,000 to improve our educational and health care facilities, could you write us a check?
Me: Well, I recently retired from government service and I’m living on a fixed pension, so I’m really not in a position to donate a significant sum of money.
Israeli: You mean you can’t write us a check? Well then surely you must have friends in America in your synagogue who could write us a check, perhaps you can connect us to them.
Me: My friends in America aren’t wealthy and they all have synagogues, yeshivas, and favorite charities that they donate money to. I don’t think they would be interested in finding new charities.
Israeli: You mean all you want to do is donate your time? Well since you can speak English, we could use someone to answer the telephone and respond to email. We’re open six days per week for ten hours per day, so we’ll see you at 9am tomorrow morning.
Eventually my wife and I volunteered with Yad Sarah because they were the only organization that actually interviewed us to determine our abilities and interests, and designed a volunteer program that was commensurate with our skills and the amount of time that we were able to allocate. I retained my affiliation with Yad Sarah until recently when they terminated the program that I was involved with.
Americans also come to Israel with misconceptions about Israelis. I have encountered Americans who come here with a sense of hubris and superiority. After all, they come from the world’s greatest superpower that has aircraft carriers that are almost as large as Israeli cities and corn fields that are almost as large as the entire State of Israel. They view Israel as a puny, developing country that still produces hummus, halva, olive oil, and wine, as it did in ancient times. In their view, Israel survives only because of American benevolence and generosity that provides Israel with financial, military, and political support. So of course, they know better than the Israelis how Israel should run its affairs. They believe that they have the authority to tell all the Israelis they encounter how they should make peace with the Arabs, reign in the religious minority, and prevent the settlers from “obstructing the peace process.”
I’m not saying that Benny Elon and Evelyn Haies harbor these views, I’m sure that they are more sophisticated, knowledgeable, and experienced than that. However, they are still products of their differing environments and cultural backgrounds. It is these factors that probably led Benny Elon and Chaim Silberstein to believe that Evelyn Haies should make a large financial contribution to their project, put her name on the building, then go back to America and allow the experienced Israelis to manage the project. However, Evelyn Haies is not that kind of person. She is an intelligent and capable woman who firmly believes that she can make a significant contribution to promoting educational and religious activities in the vicinity of Kever Rochel. She is passionate about elevating the significance of Rochel Imeinu and reclaiming a significant Jewish presence in Bethlehem. She is not satisfied with watching Jews entering the fortified complex for a prayer service then leaving in their bullet-proof bus. She would like see Kever Rochel restored to its former glory with easy access for Jews to participate in a myriad of educational, religious, and cultural activities. Isn’t that what Benny Elon and Chaim Silberstein want as well? So why are they fighting each other?
Evelyn Haies will never abandon the 10 years of hard work that she devoted to the project to allow others to take over, nor should she. She can take a parallel and complimentary path to Benny Elon’s efforts to establish a viable center of Torah study at the site. Benny Elon shouldn’t expect someone to just donate a half million dollars and walk away with only their name on the building. Perhaps some people would be satisfied with that, but Evelyn Haies is not one of them.
This is a dispute that won’t easily be resolved in a court of law because it goes beyond financial and legal issues. There are deep-rooted ideological issues regarding the appropriate role for Americans in Israeli society. Neither Evelyn Haies nor Benny Elon will budge significantly from their positions. However, this conflict is not as intractable as the one with our cousins. A resolution that would allow both sides to operate in parallel should not be difficult to obtain. Evelyn Haies needs her own space to continue her classes and prayer services for women. Benny Elon should continue to search for funding from additional sources so that he may develop the space allotted to him to attract and retain more students for Torah study. Right now, neither is happening because they are too involved with battling each other. Their friends, supporters, and associates are urged to convince them to modify their positions, dismiss their court cases, shake hands (figuratively), and return to their valuable work to benefit the Jewish people. There is no reason to continue this ugly dispute that benefits no one except the lawyers.
Among the first Hebrew songs that I learned as a child were “Lo yisa goy el goy kherev, lo yilmidu od milkhama,” and “hine ma tov umanaim, sheves akhim gam yachad.” While we continue to aspire to the former as the the conflict with our cousins endures,” we should be singing the latter with our brothers at Kever Rochel,
Hear Harry Belafonte sing “Hine Ma Tov” on You Tube.