Making the old city young again

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On a rooftop in the Old City with Ateret Cohanim
The April, 2012 AFSI Chizuk Mission

It was our great pleasure to have Fern Sidman, popular journalist with Arutz Sheva and many American Jewish media outlets, accompany us on our recent AFSI Chizuk mission to Israel. Fern wrote up an overview report of our travels, concentrating on our connections with the people and the land of Israel ,which is uppermost in the minds of our AFSI members. Time and space did not permit the inclusion of our visits to the Rishon Le Zion museum and synagogue, a Golan winery, the shofar maker, the boatride on the Kinneret, the Yom Hazikaron evening at the Knesset, our visit to Har Herzl on Yom HaZikaron, the exploration of the ancient synagogue in the Jordan Valley,  our visit to the Lebanon border, and the Yom HaAtzmaut BBQ at Kidmat Zion, catered by the Luria family. Although uniting with our Israeli brethren is primary on our itineraries, AFSI also tries to include some lighter moments. To savor the full complement of experiences and events that are packed into the AFSI Chizuk missions to Israel, plan to join us on our next one: NOVEMBER 7-15, 2012, including Shabbat Chaye Sarah in Hebron, and sooooo much more. Call the AFSI office: 212-828-2424;;

By Fern Sidman
As the semi-annual Americans For a Safe Israel (AFSI) Chizuk Mission to Israel drew to a conclusion on May 1st, the tour participants told the media that, "Our beloved brethren living on settlements slated to be dismantled by the Israeli government are not alone. We stand with them and our mission will never cease until every Jew has the right to live in any part of Eretz Yisroel." Having distinguished itself from other tours of Israel that  focus exclusively on sights of historic interest, AFSI conducts a thorough exploration of the entire settlement movement; providing emotional and material support to these beleaguered communities. 
Ranging from visits with Gush Katif evacuees now living near Ashkelon, to those in Hevron who have been evicted from their homes, to such settlements as Migron and Bet El/Ulpana where scheduled government demolitions are expected to take place, AFSI members devoted their time, energy and resources to assisting these courageous Jews in maintaining their rightful presence in their homes. "For these people, this is a dark moment in the Jewish history. Their future is fraught with arduous challenges and we are here to say that we are with them in the days, weeks and years ahead," said AFSI members.  
Commencing their trip with a visit to the new settlements of the Yesodot region near Ashkelon where the former Gush Katif evacuees are re-building their lives and communities, AFSI members were welcomed by Anita Tucker of the Gush Katif settlement of Nezzer Hazzani. With palpable ebullience in her voice, Ms. Tucker said during an extensive tour of the community which is currently under construction, "Every day we come a step closer to re-establishing our lives. You can see the houses that are being built, along with the community center and synagogue and even though it's not under construction as of yet, with G-d's help, you will see our red and yellow playground for our children."
Extending plaudits to Ms. Tucker for her hospitality and dedication, Helen Freedman, executive director of AFSI declared, "Because we at AFSI have always maintained a close affinity with our dear friends in Gush Katif, our support to these extraordinary people who have embarked on the Herculean task of re-building their glorious communities continues unabated. We wish to recognize the dynamic work of Anita Tucker, Dror Vanunu, Yael Ellenberg and Moshe and Rochel Saperstein as well."
As the residents of Hevron find their sovereignty under siege by the government of Israel, AFSI members met with community leader David Wilder, who led an extensive tour of the city, including the recently purchased, occupied and now evacuated home known as Beit HaMachpela that has been at the center of a political storm. Yifat Akobi, whose family had been evicted from the home, said, "Through a directive by the civil administration, the Jewish residents of Beit Hamachpela were ordered to leave their home. This eviction order was predicated on a statement by the Arab seller of the property that there was a "problem" with the documents  of ownership, yet no concrete evidence buttressing his claim has been proven. We will continue to assert our rights by camping outside the home in a tent until we can re-enter our legally purchased home."  
Mr. Wilder referenced the previous publicized case of Jews being forcibly extricated from Beit HaShalom, another building legally purchased by Jews on the spurious claim by the Arab seller that although he sold the property and received handsome compensation, he "changed his mind and gave the money back". In court and in front of witnesses, the seller was unable to produce any material evidence of this alleged transaction. "If all this was not enough, most recently Jews were also to be evicted from Beit Zachariah. It is not difficult to reach the tragic conclusion that the Defense Ministry of Israel, under the leadership of Ehud Barak and other prominent members of the government do not believe that their should be a Jewish presence in the holy city of Hevron. With all the court wrangling, our legal expenses have reached astronimcal proportions, but we will not relinquish our G-d given right to live here," declared Mr. Wilder.
While standing only steps away from the Ma'arat HaMachpela, Mr. Wilder thanked AFSI for their unwavering support. It was at this juncture that AFSI members initiated a spontaneous demonstration for the Jewish right of sovereignty in Hevron when a Chilean government official who was accompanying the local Palestinian governor of the region told the AFSI assemblage that they had no right to pray there. Chants of "Hevron is Jewish!" could be heard as a heated exchange took place between them and the cadre of Palestinian apologists.
Also visiting the new Jewish settlement of Eitam, near Efrat, AFSI members planted trees with the help of "Women in Green" leader Nadia Matar. "The last time we planted trees here, the Arabs ripped them out, but this will not serve as a deterrent to our right to live here," said Ms. Matar. Pointing to the illegal appropriation of land and wheat fields by Arabs, Ms. Matar expressed her gratitude to AFSI for making the journey to the rocky hilltop to express tangible support for a future Jewish presence there. We have subsequently learned that the newly planted trees were also torn out by the Arabs. Nadia and Yehudit hope to plant larger trees, once they solve the water problem. Perhaps then, the Arabs will fail in their efforts to uproot the WIG work.
Guiding AFSI members through the cobblestone streets of the old city of Jerusalem was Dan Luria of Ateret Cohanim, the organization dedicated to reclaiming and restoring buildings and property originally owned by Jews and expropriated by Arabs throughout the last few centuries. "The miracles we saw after the liberation of the old city of Jerusalem after the 1967 war represented the second stage of our redemption," Mr. Luria declared. Telling AFSI members that today, "5000 Jews live in the old city of Jerusalem, and of that number 1000 live in areas outside of the Jewish quarter, it is our goal to see this number grow exponentially so that we may declare our rights to all of old Jerusalem." Explaining the fatal consequences that would most definitely befall an Arab who sold his house in the old city to a Jew, Mr. Luria said, "For the last 33 years, no Arab who works with Ateret Cohanim has ever been killed. We spirit them overseas to a safe destination."
"The Torah is replete with references to the redemption of Jerusalem", said Mr. Luria. "In sefer Shmuel Bet, Hashem tells Dovid HaMelech to buy Jerusalem and redeem it. The Ramban says that we suffered devastating plagues because we forgot Jerusalem. It is our sacred obligation to redeem all parts of the old city," he continued.
Continuing his tour into the heart of the Muslim Quarter of the Old City, Mr. Luria guided the AFSI contingent in to Beit Wittenberg, now owned by Ateret Cohanim. Originally puchased by Moshe Wittenberg in the 1880s in a deal brokered by Eliezer Ben Yehuda (the father of the modern Hebrew language), it was discovered that the building was once the famous Mediterreanean Hotel where Mark Twain stayed in Jerusalem when he visited in 1867. "One hundred years after this property was purchased by the Wittenberg family, former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon bought it in the 1980s. Because he thought it was important for Jews to be able to live anywhere in Jerusalem, he made his residence here," said Mr. Luria.
After leading the AFSI group beneath the walls of the Old City, on a tour of King Zedekiah's cave, located between the Damascus and Herod gates, Mr. Luria then took the group to Har HaZeitim, where he was joined by Jeff Daube, former AFSI board member and current Jerusalem representative of the Zionist Organization of America. Showing the tour participants the rampant Arab desecration of Jewish graves there, Mr. Luria said, "This 3000 year-old cemetery, where great rabbis and leaders are buried had been tranformed in to a garbage dump by the Arabs, as they stoned visitors, firebombed cars, and led goat herds through it, as well as having donkey races. Anywhere between 40,000 and 60,000 Jewish graves have been destroyed by the Arabs."
Answering the call for a Jewish presence in the area, Ateret Cohanim, (with the generous financial assistance of renowned Jewish philanthropist Irving Moskowitz), built Ma'ale HaZeitim, the Jewish neighborhood near the Mount of Olives. "Jerusalem is our home; and if the Jewish people are the rightful owners of this holy city, we must unabashedly and unequivocally possess this land and behave as owners," said Mr. Luria. 
From there, AFSI members celebrated Yom Ha'Atzmaut in grand style with at the Netzer settlement in the Gush Etzion bloc. Amid dancing to traditional Israeli music, Women In Green leader, Nadia Matar, welcomed Helen Freedman and the AFSI participants and expressed her gratitude to them for their continued support. "We cannot thank AFSI enough for their unwavering loyalty and great assistance. Every time they come to Israel, they visit with us; always offering to help in any way they can and for that we are very appreciative," said Ms. Matar. 
AFSI members were treated to a most pleasant surprise when during the celebration at Netzer, they had the opportunity to meet with former Soviet refuseniks, Yosef Begun and Professor Dov Rogansky of Hebrew University. "I am thrilled to see these wonderful Jewish activists here at Netzer and among them are many who championed the cause of my freedom and the freedom of countless other Jews from the former Soviet Union", said Mr. Begun.
No AFSI trip to Israel would be complete without a visit with their friend, Aryeh King, of the Israel Land Fund. Meeting him in Beit Hanina, in the northern part of East Jerusalem, AFSI members listened intently as Mr. King explained the dilemma he finds himself in as he attempts to reclaim land belonging to Jews that have been illegally occupied by Arab squatters for decades. "The area we are standing in belongs to Jews and that has been proven by the court. Even its name, Beit Hanina has Jewish origins as it was named after Hanina Ben Dosa. Before 1948, these homes belonged to Jews. When the JNF sold property bought with Jewish donations to Hebrew University, they then sold it to Arabs for rock bottom prices," Mr. King said ruefully.  
He added that, "We offered to buy the land from Hebrew University but they declined our offer because they were afraid that their donors would no longer contribute to them if it was discovered that they sold property to "right-wing Jews" in Israel.  It is Mr. King's objective to build a new Jewish community in Beit Hanina which will be called Nof Shmuel, after the Tomb of Shmuel Hanavi, which is visible from the new properties to the west.
As they headed for Tiberias to spend Shabbat, AFSI members made stops to Daliat at Carmel/Usfiye where they visited with Druze leader Riad Hassoun who presented an informative and colorful tour of the village. Stopping at the Yad L'Banim memorial to the fallen Druze soldiers, Riad said, "We Druze are proud to have  served in the Israeli army and we are proud to be part of this great history."
Since securing a Jewish presence throughout the land of Israel is a main priority for AFSI, they then visited with both Aharon Pulver of the Israel Independence Fund (IIF) and Mayor Shimon Gafson of Nazareth Illit. During an slide presentation of the city, Mr. Gafson explained that Jewish homes were purchased by Arabs with cash provided to them by petroleum rich Arab countries. "We are now buying back our original properties from Arabs and we do not tolerate illegal Arab building which is a pervasive phenomenon throughout Israel. Right now, we are offering 3-bedroom apartments for as low as $120,000. We are encouraging Jews to come back to both the lower and upper Galilee region, where they once represented the majority."
As AFSI members spent a most relaxing Shabbat in Tiberias with their guide, Era Rappaport and his wife,  they were joined by MK Ayoob Kara, and Israel Danziger. Danziger is the director of Mishmeret Yesha, an organization that trains rapid response teams to counter terrorist attacks in settlements and yeshivos throughout Judea and Samaria. Enlightening AFSI members to the current state of affairs that the settlement movement finds itself in, in relation to the Israeli government's plans to demolish what they perceive to be "illegal outposts", Mr. Danziger called for unity amongst residents of Judea and Samaria and exhorted them to chose representatives that will protect their interests.
While in the Golan Heights on the following day, AFSI members made a stop at a most special museum dedicated to those forcibly expelled from Gush Katif at Avnei Eitan, a settlement where Gush Katif families have relocated to. The moving exhibit also included a most powerful and emotionally wrenching film of the birth, expansive growth and ultimate demise of the once thriving Gush Katif communities. Addressing the AFSI contingent was a therapist working with children from Gush Katif who are still suffering from horrific and sustaining trauma.
After spending their last night of the AFSI tour at the Midreshet Golan guest house in the Golan Heights, the tour members concluded their trip with visits to Elon Moreh, where they were given a most spectacular and informative tour of the region of Schechem by community leader Pinchas Fuchs. From there, AFSI visited the 777 Hilltop community near Itamar, where they met with the courageous shepherd Tomer Pnini. With only two families living in the same house, these shepherds have been consistently and brutally attacked by local Arabs who have stolen their sheep. Pointing to a scar on his forehead, Mr. Pnini said, "Each day we encounter a struggle between us and Arabs from the town of Aqaba who come with sticks and iron bars. Just two weeks ago we saw two tractors of terrorists. We sent our children back with the flocks and our wives do guard duty. If you try to defend yourself by shooting at these attackers, your arms will be confiscated by the army of the Israeli government," he said. 
The settlement of Chavat Gilad was AFSI's next stop as the glowing faces of the community's children lit up as they enjoyed the brand new state-of-the-art playground that had been built with help of AFSI members and funds from the Israel Independence Fund. Standing with the children on Chivat Gilad, AFSI executive director, Helen Freedman said, "We've seen and heard the pain of our people who live in this region; these amazing people who wage a battle for a Jewish presence in the land of Israel, each and every day. Now, we are with the next generation. These wonderful and precious children who will follow in the footsteps of their parents; who will grow and flourish in these communities and we are very proud to be in a position to provide them with a playground just like other children have." 
From there AFSI members visited the Bet El/Ulpana community and were guests in the home of  American-born, Alex Traiman, the writer and director of the powerful documentary "Iranium" which explores the menacing threat of a nuclear powered Iran. 
Speaking of recent controversy surrounding the Israeli Supreme Court's pending order to demolish five of the 14 buildings comprising the Ulpana neighborhood of Bet El, Mr. Traiman said, "Yesterday, the international media was here and they made us feel that we were thieves on our own land. They accuse us of building our homes on private Palestinian land and nothing could be further from the truth. In the year 2000, the Bet El Development Company paid $79,000 to a grandson of the original property owner, according to Jordanian land records. In 2007, an affiliate of Peace Now made bogus claims that the land was purchased from the wrong grandson of the original property owner and it was his cousin who was the rightful owner of the land. After getting a ruling in favor of the petitioner from a Palestinian Authority court, the Peace Now people then took that ruling to the Israeli Supreme Court to petition for demolition."
The next stop on the AFSI tour was to the embattled settlement of Migron where tour members were greeted by Aviella Deitch, a Milwaukee native who now serves as spokesperson for the community. Founded in 1999, subsequent to the presentation of facts by an archeological team that the area contained a significant Jewish historical presence, the Israeli government stepped in to help when several dozen Jewish families moved there. Now, says Ms. Deitch, "A suit was filed in the Israeli Supreme Court which claims that Migron was built on privately owned Arab land. The plaintiff in the suit was not listed as an Arab or Arabs but as Peace Now on the complainants' behalf. The homes of three families here have already been demolished and even though the Arabs eventually dropped their case against us because they could not produce the necessary documentation proving that the land belonged to them, the Israeli Supreme Court's ruling still stands and Migron is slated to be demolished this coming August.' 
The final stop on the AFSI tour was to the thriving town on Kedumim in the northwestern Shomron. It was there that AFSI members met Raphaella Segal, the exuberant Assistant Mayor of the community. Leading AFSI members on a tour of Kedumim, she pointed to the very place that the late Prime Minister Menachem Begin addressed the community and affirmed his complete support for the growth of Kedumim and other communities like it in the region. 
Showing the tour participants the various satellite communities of Kedumim, located on hilltops surrounding it, Ms. Segal said, "It was with the incredibly generous support of people such as yourself and the generosity of Irving and Charna Moskowitz that we were able to build the synagogue that you see. We have also installed high-tech security systems." She added that, "Today Kedumim has a school for Ethiopian girls and a school for boys with ADD and ADHD. We also have a music school that was donated by Cleveland philanthropist Dennis Seaman in memory of his father. For this and much more, we are very thankful."
Hosting the AFSI group for their farewell dinner at their home, Ms. Segal and her husband beseeched the AFSI group to make Kedumim their first stop on their next trip. "Tonight, we are enjoying your last evening in Israel with you, but please the next time you come, please make us your first stop so we may enjoy the future developments of this community together with great joy, said Ms. Segal.
On the way to the airport, AFSI members voiced their thoughts and feelings about the Spring 2012 Chizuk Mission. "I am very blessed to be a part of this holy mission to Israel. AFSI is so unique, because unlike other tours, they truly reach out in so many tangible ways to those Jews struggling to maintain a Jewish life in our biblical homeland. AFSI members are always giving; be it through monetary contributions or emotional and psychological support to their brothers and sisters. You can see that AFSI members really care as the  the pain of Israel's reality is etched on their faces. May G-d continue to bless all those people in every community that we've visited with strength to carry on and may He bless AFSI for their constant devotion and dedication", said Nancy, a nurse from the New York area.