Former Attorney General Discovers Settler Group Took Over His Family’s Sheikh Jarrah Home

His legal journey to reclaim the home reveals the settlers’ modus operandi in their drive to ‘Judaize’ Sheikh Jarrah

aerial photo of Sheikh Jarrah

Nir Hasson writes in Haaretz, 15 June 2021, “A nonprofit settler group took over a building in East Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood that belongs to the family of Michael Ben-Yair, a former attorney general and retired District Court judge. The group controlled the building for years, collecting rent totaling hundreds of thousands of shekels from Palestinian residents, without the knowledge of the legal heirs of the building’s original owner.

Ben-Yair discovered two years ago that his grandmother’s house had been taken over by the group. No one from the Justice Ministry’s Administrator General and Official Receiver Division, rabbinical courts or a settler group had tried to find her legal heirs. Since then, he’s been waging a legal battle to wrest the building from the settlers, and to allow its Palestinians residents to remain there. On his journey, Ben-Yair discovered the settlers’ contorted and legally dubious methods to “Judaize” Sheikh Jarrah.

‘They could have easily found us.’

Nahalat Shimon was a small Jewish neighborhood in the Western part of Sheikh Jarrah in the late 19th century. Michael Ben-Yair, who was attorney general under Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, was born there in 1942. In 1948, the residents fled after the neighborhood was conquered by Jordan’s Arab Legion. Like most Jewish residents who fled from East Jerusalem to the western side of the city, the family was compensated for the loss of their house, and received an alternative house and store in the Romema neighborhood.

AG SJ info

In the 1990s, settler organizations began a drive to replace the Arab residents of Sheikh Jarrah with Jewish ones, based on a law that allows Jews to reclaim property they held in 1948, even if they were compensated for its loss. Nahalat Shimon was divided into an eastern section called Karm al-Jaouni, where land was owned by the councils of the Jewish Ashkenazi and Mizrahi communities. Land in the western section, called Umm Haroun, where Ben-Yair’s family lived, was privately owned by Jewish families.

Land in the eastern section was subsequently purchased by a nonprofit group called Nahalat Shimon, which is controlled by a foreign company and run by a settler activist named Yitzhak Mamo. In the western section, Mamo and settler groups needed the cooperation of Jewish families who had inherited the properties. In some cases, they received cooperation and purchased the buildings, evicting Palestinian families living there. In the case of Ben-Yair’s family, they took a different method.

The house and an attached store are listed in a “trust document,” a type of will drafted by Ben-Yair’s grandmother, Sarah Jannah, daughter of Menashe Shvili. In 1927, she declared before a rabbinical court in Jerusalem that the house and store would pass to her heirs and then the heirs’ heirs. She added that if, God forbid, no family member remained alive after the original heirs, the property would be transferred to a neighborhood Georgian synagogue. This was common in those days, in cases of families with no living descendants.

Based on this last phrase, a right-wing nonprofit group called Meyashvei Zion (settlers of Zion), managed by Mamo, appealed in 2002 to a rabbinical court, asking that Mamo and another person named Oren Sheffer be appointed as court delegates to determine who the property belonged to. The court approved their request. Shortly thereafter, the two informed the court that they had not found any heirs, and the court quickly appointed the two as trustees of this building, without any significant effort by the court to locate the heirs.

Sheikh Jarah, Jerusalem

The decision was based on the presumption that no heirs could be found, even though Sarah Jannah appears in the Population Registry, since she died in 1955, after the state was established. Anyone wanting to could have easily found her heirs through a simple search at the interior ministry. “The identity numbers of the whole family were consecutive,” says Ben-Yair. “My brother’s ends in 03, mine ends in 04, my grandparents’ ID numbers ended in 05 and 06, respectively.”

In 2004, the Administrator General and Official State Receiver, which had managed the property since 1967, objected to the appointment of the new trustees, arguing that an effort should be made to locate living family members, but the court denied this request. A year later, the receiver handed the building over to Mamo and Sheffer, even reimbursing the nonprofit 250,000 shekels ($77,000) for rent the state had collected from Palestinian residents up to that time. Over the next nine years, the group received 600,000 shekels in revenues from the property.

In 2011, another nonprofit group, the Georgian community council, managed to take control of the property with the support of a rabbinical court. This group also failed to search for the real heirs. Minutes from rabbinical court sessions in 2016 show that the Georgian council knew that the property had legal heirs who were not benefiting from it. The council even knew their names. “They told me it belonged to Professor Yair somebody … Prof. Michael Ben-Yair; we’re trying to find him,” said the Georgian trustee David Bandar, in one of the sessions.

‘Lack of basic decency’

When Sheikh Jarrah stared making headlines following the eviction of Palestinian families from their houses a decade ago, Ben-Yair joined demonstrations organized by a solidarity movement against Jewish settlers. He even drafted a pamphlet stating that Jewish families who had fled homes there had received compensation for their houses, making the demand to reclaim their old houses illegal and immoral.

Two years ago, Ben-Yair discovered that settlers had begun evicting Palestinians from a store which he believed was part of his grandmother’s house. He subsequently appealed to the official receiver, attorney Sigal Yakobi, who is also the acting director-general of the Justice Ministry. “Up to that time I thought the property was still registered in my grandmother’s name and I assumed it was occupied by Palestinian refugees, living there untroubled. Since we’d received compensation in 1948, I didn’t bother checking the current ownership in the land registry office,” he says.

Ben-Yair says that when he met with the official receiver, she did a review and discovered that the property had been released.

“I told her that we are the heirs, so she asked to see the trust document and she was stunned. She saw that it was a private and not a public trust,” he recounts. At the meeting, the family members learned of their grandmother’s will for the first time. Ben-Yair and his sister, Na’ama Bartal, subsequently asked the court to look at the trust file. The court rejected the request, saying they did not have sufficient documentation to prove their family relation to their grandmother.

Ben-Yair appealed the decision to the Tel Aviv Magistrate’s Court, asking that the Interior Ministry be directed to give him the documents confirming that he is his grandmother’s grandson. Ben-Yair won the appeal, and the Interior Ministry is due to hand over the documents next week.

At the same time, attorneys Michael Sfard and Alon Sapir, with the assistance of Peace Now, submitted a request to the rabbinical court to appoint the family members as the trustees. “Michael Ben-Yair did not go into hiding and was not abducted to an enemy country; he did not change his name or hide in his bedroom. Not only is this a person who is easy to find, he is a public figure who makes public statements and even published a book about Sheik Jarrah three years earlier,” Sfard and Sapir wrote in their request to the court.

A ruling on their request has yet to be handed down, but meanwhile the rabbinical judges ordered that all activity in the trust be suspended. Ben-Yair and his sister said they hope that they will soon get their house back and that afterward they intend to sue the trustees from Meyashvei Zion and the Georgian council for the money they collected from the Palestinians over the years.

Since the trust document prohibits the sale of the house, Ben-Yair hopes to convince his family to lease the property to the Palestinian family living there for a token fee for an extended period. “It’s not just a matter of ‘what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is mine.’ It’s a basic lack of decency and inconceivable under any legal system that I should receive both compensation as well as the property for which I received the compensation,” Ben-Yair says. “It would also involve eviction of Palestinians who would become refugees for the second time, while they are not entitled to seek to reclaim their property from before 1948. Justice requires that they not be evicted and that their custody of the house be ensured.”

“It’s a crazy story,” says attorney Sfard, who is representing Ben-Yair. “The person they were supposed to look for was sitting right there in his office on the floor above the Official State Receiver in the Justice Ministry. It just shows the intensity of the concealment and of the connection between the Judaizing elements and the rabbinical court. The court is supposed to ascertain that the trustees are not doing anything to distort the wishes of the person who left the bequest or created the trust.”

“Ben-Yair’s story gives us an opportunity to peek into the system of dispossession in East Jerusalem,” says Hagit Ofran of Peace Now. “The state authorities, the Official State Receiver and the rabbinical court are enabling and even promoting the Palestinians’ eviction and replacement with settlers. The government can no longer argue that Sheikh Jarrah is just a real estate matter. It is a political matter that is the state’s responsibility, and the state is also responsible for preventing the injustice.”

‘There may have been some confusion’

The administration of the rabbinical courts says: “In 2011, several people came before the court and claimed no heirs were found. Therefore, the court ordered that in keeping with the trust document, the property be used for a public purpose. The Georgian council is also among the current custodians. The material in the file shows that the name of the woman who established the trust – Sarah bat Menashe Hannah/Jannah/Shvili is spelled in different ways, which may have caused confusion.

“It is most important to note that those who claim to be the deceased’s heirs have to date not proven that they are indeed her descendants, and they conducted a legal proceeding on this matter before other forums. Despite this, and out of caution, when the applicant first contacted Rachel Shakarji, the supervisor of religious properties earmarked for charitable purposes, she wrote to the court and requested that a temporary injunction be given instructing the receivers of the trust not to take any actions that would alter the condition of the trust from a legal or economic standpoint.

“An injunction was immediately granted by the court and it remains valid, even though those who claim to be the heirs of the person who established the trust have not proven their relation to her and even though half a year has passed since the temporary injunction was issued. Considering the time that has passed since the trust’s establishment, the location of the property and the upheavals that occurred there, it is possible that mistakes occurred. However, as noted, to date the claim of the familial relationship between the applicants and the originator of the trust has not been proven.”

Ben-Yair with his sister Bartal standing in a narrow alley in Sheikh Jarrah in 2019.
Ben-Yair with his sister Bartal in Sheikh Jarrah in 2019.Credit: Hagit Ofran / Peace Now

Attorney Shlomo Toussia-Cohen, who is representing the Georgian council, declined to comment for this article. In their response to the rabbinical court, the Georgians claimed that Ben-Yair and his sister had not proven their blood relation to Sarah Jannah and that Ben-Yair’s public pronouncements about the rights of the Palestinians there indicate that he seeks to act counter to the principles of the trust and therefore is not entitled to a part of it.

The office of the Official State Receiver responded: “This is a trust property that was managed by the Official State Receiver and regarding which a release request was submitted by the appointed trustees in the early 2000s. In light of the fact that this is a trust for private purposes, the Official State Receiver opened an inquiry to the court, which appointed the trustees, and expresses its position that the relatives of the deceased should be appointed as the trustees. However, this position was not accepted by the court and therefore in 2006 the property was released to the trustees. It goes without saying that it is the duty of the appointed trustees to act in accordance with the purposes of the trust as set down by the deceased.”

Yitzhak Mamo and Meyashvei Zion declined to comment.” This article is printed in its entirety.

© Copyright JFJFP 2021