Did Israel let real estate developers destroy a privately-owned nursery?

In a city known for its sacredness, from the perspective of the governing bodies and many developers it appears that nothing is sacred – except money perhaps.

 RUVENI'S NURSERY: The carnage (photo credit: EITAN GORLIN)
(photo credit: EITAN GORLIN)

Driving or walking around Jerusalem can be depressing for long-time residents. Many remember Jerusalem as quaint and inspiring, where beauty and awe could be glimpsed in every direction. Now, as far as the eye can see, we view mostly urban blight while choking from dust and debris and forever navigating cranes and bulldozers. In a city known for its sacredness, from the perspective of the governing bodies and many developers it appears that nothing is sacred – except money perhaps.

Which brings us to the story of Rahamim Reuveni. He is 86 years old and owns, or thought he owned, Jerusalem’s oldest plant nursery, a Baka and German Colony favorite going back scores of years. He has dark skin and white hair, with a white kippah perched on top. He has the hands of someone who has spent a lifetime working with them. In the past, he operated greenhouses, sowed wheat, and planted fruit trees. On Fridays, there would be lines of people out into the street buying flowers that he raised. These days, he sits on a low stool quoting the Bible and crying his eyes out while bulldozers tear apart his sukkah, uproot 70-year-old pomegranate trees, and obliterate a lifetime of memories. According to Rahamim, the reason people keep returning with bulldozers is that there is a plan to build a 10-story building there.

Working the land for 76 years

Rahamim’s connection to this particular plot of land goes back 76 years. In the early 1930s, a few years before he was born, his parents, with three young children, journeyed on donkeys to then-Palestine from Isfahan, Iran. It took them eight months. When the Reuvenis finally arrived in Jerusalem, their guide stole their valuables and imprisoned the family in a room in the Old City, demanding that Rahamim’s father come back with more money. Fortuitously, Rahamim’s mother’s brother was living in shchunat habucharim, the Buchari neighborhood, and the father was able to ransom his family.

From then on, they were abysmally poor. His father worked as a porter and flower peddler. They lived in a basement (where one sibling died from pneumonia) in a crowded neighborhood behind Jaffa Road not far from a building used by the police. So when the war in 1948 broke out, they found themselves under barrages of rockets and bombs. Because Rahamim’s oldest brother, Nehemiah, was fighting in the war, they were given the option of relocating to the far outskirts of Jerusalem to live in homes abandoned by their Arab occupants, which is what they did. There were no roads, running water, or electricity, and they survived by carrying water in buckets from a well they discovered.

Just after Sukkot, Nehemia was killed. Rahamim, only 11 years, had to grow up fast, quickly becoming the family’s provider. He tilled the land and lay stone. He operated hothouses and a nursery. He raised sheep and chickens. He planted flowers and trees, becoming a big distributor.

 RUVENI'S NURSERY: The carnage (credit: EITAN GORLIN)
RUVENI'S NURSERY: The carnage (credit: EITAN GORLIN)

He grew wheat for use in shmura matzot. When he and his brother first planted the wheat, his brother whimsically made the following blessing: “May we eat this matzah at the Kotel.”

That year, Israel captured the Old City, and that’s exactly what they did. Rahamim’s eyes tear up when he recounts the story. The reason he had sufficient space for all this farming and grazing was that there were 12 neighboring dunams that no one seemed interested in, until after 1967 when representatives of the Vatican showed up claiming ownership. As he tells it, a bunch of big-shot Jerusalemites ganged up on him, and even though he was represented by Reuven Rivlin, the land was returned to the Vatican, which subsequently sold it for development.

After unsuccessfully fighting to hold onto that land, Rahamim continued with his original homestead, which housed a greenhouse and a nursery, perched against the home where he grew up and continues to live. Reuveni’s Nursery was a neighborhood mainstay until four years ago when bulldozers and wrecking crews, escorted by Border Police and cops, came and destroyed his hothouses. Apparently, the Israel Land Administration (the minhal) responsible for property belonging to Arabs before 1948 did not recognize his right to be there and wanted him out. Afterward, volunteers and supporters helped Rahamim clean up the mess, but it never returned to its original glory.

All the while, he was led to believe there was some way to resolve his issues with the minhal. In fact, however, the minhal announced a tender, and building rights on the land were sold for NIS 20 million to the Chasids, a real estate family whose high-rises dominate the new Jerusalem skyline.

I ASKED Rahamim how he knew that the property rights were sold. He said he saw a document at the Land Administration office that lists the Chasids as the buyers and the sale price at approximately NIS 19 million – NIS 25 million including taxes and other expenses. He also showed me a sign printed by the Land Administration announcing the tender. Multiple lawyers confirmed Rahamim’s account. I called the Land Administration hoping to find out more. I was told to send an email with questions, which I did. I have not heard back. I also went to the Chasid real estate office (located in a renovated Arab mansion a few hundred meters from Rahamim’s property), where I was told by an authoritative and well-dressed man, in the company of everyone else working there, that they are not interested in answering any of my questions or helping me to understand the facts of the case.

According to Rahamim, three generations of the Chasid family visited him. They told him that they won the tender and, among other things, wanted to negotiate with him to secure more air rights. He cursed at them and kicked them out. Soon after, the bulldozers returned, first accompanied by a self-proclaimed “senior official” in the minhal, and then, a few days later, under the supervision of Alon Chasid. Overwrought, Rahamim suffered a minor heart attack. A week after his heart attack, I, by chance (divine providence, according to him), bumped into him. He was distraught and desperately looking for people to help him, and I agreed to come the next day to hear his story.

When I arrived, he was being physically restrained by two police officers whose combined ages didn’t approach his. His once proud nursery looked like a flattened garbage dump. A man wearing a big kippah and tzitzit over his shirt (Alon Chasid) was standing in the shade of one of the few trees that hadn’t been uprooted, instructing a bulldozer operator whose machine was clawing apart a sukkah. Rahamim was crying and cursing, begging them to stop. He loved that sukkah, and he was especially devastated because his brother Nehemia was killed just after Sukkot. In all this mayhem, I couldn’t conduct a proper interview, so we agreed that I would come back in a day or two.

When I returned, there was a woman, Efrat Gerlich, sitting with him. She seemed even more upset than he was. Born in Jerusalem 64 years ago, she is a musician and playwright and represents the eighth generation of her family in the Land of Israel, descending from the proprietors of Jerusalem’s first printing press. She loves nature, gardening, and culture, and her heart is breaking into pieces over what is being done to her beloved Jerusalem. She remembers a time when planting trees was a Zionist ethic. But now a different ethic is at play.

EFRAT IS INCENSED that culturally and historically significant structures are routinely being destroyed. Still upset about the fate suffered by the Pargod Theatre, one of Jerusalem’s great cultural institutions, she couldn’t believe that Silo (a community-oriented café and meeting place in south Jerusalem, which showcased DJs and poetry with fruit trees for shade and dirt and grass for the kids to play in) was closing that week to make way for another massive steel and concrete development project. When she heard from friends what was being done to Rahamim, she immediately went to see how she could help. She also recalled that her husband used to buy flowers at the nursery.

As she and Rahamim got to talking, they realized that her upcoming play and his brother who died in 1948 are both named Nehemiah. Rahamim carries pictures of his brother. He wells up at his mention and brings him up right away in conversation.

They agreed that this wasn’t a coincidence, and Efrat suggested that the play be staged at his demolished nursery on Sukkot. The play is about the Jewish return to Zion from Persia (formerly the Babylonian Empire) in the 5th century BCE, precipitating the Second Temple period and Judaism as we know it today. She suggested that the play be staged on Sukkot because, in the biblical tome Ezra-Nehemiah, Ezra instructs the Jews to build booths during Sukkot, rejuvenating a commandment that according to the texts hadn’t been practiced since the time of Joshua. Efrat has already started distributing flyers and publicizing the performance of her play. It will take place during Hol Hamoed Sukkot on October 4 at 4 p.m. at 65 Emek Refaim, on the grounds which once housed Reuveni’s nursery. Cholent will be served.

WHILE TALKING to Rahamim, I tried to understand how the minhal was even permitted to sell his land. I heard a minhal employee explain that since his property belonged to Arabs before 1948, it was his responsibility to come to an arrangement with the state, which they claim he never did. But isn’t living and working on a plot of land for 76 years enough evidence? I recognize that the same could be said in regard to many Palestinians, including the ones who built his house, and I intimated this question to Rahamim, but he remained adamant: The 1948 war was a war for survival, and Rahamim firmly believes in the Bible. Passages from the Tanach roll off his lips. “When you enter the land, you will plant fruit trees.” He can’t understand how religious Jews and Zionists can cut down fruit trees in the Land of Israel when it is so expressly forbidden. And not just one fruit tree, but an entire nursery.

Since our interview, a court granted Alon Chasid a restraining order against Rahamim. The next time Alon showed up to the former nursery, this time with a truck and building supplies, Rahamim was arrested.

I saw Rahamim after his release from the police station. It was a profound and troubling sight to behold, a scene out of Ecclesiastes, a broken man reliving a lifetime of memories under a tree he planted while others destroy his life’s work. Rahamim attributes much of his problems to refusing to pay bribes.

I spoke to Hanan Cohen, a lawyer who appealed Rahamim’s case to the Jerusalem District Court and the Supreme Court. Both refused to even look into his claim that it defies logic that a man tied to a piece of land since before the state would not be granted ownership. He ascribes this to corruption and the fact that back then people with Rahamim’s ethnicity and straightforward approach to life were steamrolled by Histadrut and Mapai players who themselves were piling up ownership of abandoned Arab property. This might explain the past, but what about the present?

Given that Israeli arms sales totaled $12.5 billion in 2022 and Israel’s GDP is around $500 billion, why would the state of Israel destroy Jerusalem’s oldest nursery and crush an elderly man who fed Jerusalem and settled its frontier for a paltry few million shekels?

And where is the municipality in all this? Clearly on the side of the bulldozers, according to Rahamim, who, at almost 87 years old and a symbol of a bygone era and ethos, refuses to back down. He is fighting for Nehemia, his brother. He is fighting against injustice. Along with volunteers, Rahamim is rebuilding his sukkah and looks forward to hosting visitors over the holiday.

I asked Rahamim what was the best-case scenario he could envision, Hew said that he’d like the minhal to return the money it received from the Chasids and that he be allowed to rebuild his nursery and dedicate the space to educating and serving the community, including soldiers and at-risk youth.

If you prefer that to the wanton destruction of our history, trees, and green spaces with the rapidly approaching end game of taking one of the most dreamed-about and magical locations on the planet and turning it into a boilerplate city, I suggest you take advantage of this Sukkot’s festivities at Reuveni’s former nursery. ❖

The nursery is located at the intersection of Emek Refaim and Pierre Koenig streets in the German Colony.