Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

29 Av 5762 - August 7, 2002 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








With Their Body and Soul -- and Their Money

by Arnon Tzitron

Part II

A major battle against grave desecration began just over eight years ago, in Iyar 5754. For an entire year a relentless campaign by the chareidi community was waged against leading figures in business and government who shared in common an interest in razing an ancient cemetery -- the resting place of early Yaffo dwellers for over 2,000 years -- down to the ground.

This is the story of those demonstrations, and of the company that defied them. Its success at defying the pressure of the chareidi community and gedolei Yisroel was followed by miserable failure to market the project and a general collapse.

Police Brutality Against Bulldozer Blockers

On the 19th of Av 5754, three months after the first small demonstrations, a large, mass demonstration was held in Yaffo.

HaRav Chaim Kanievsky appeared at the construction site in Yaffo -- unexpected and unannounced -- to participate in the demonstration.

Roshei yeshivos and roshei kollelim arrived from around the country, distraught over the terrible desecration of the graves taking place unhindered for months. Yet the work continued.

The police, under orders of the heads of the Tel Aviv District, positioned large forces, sending mounted officers and water cannon. The policemen arrived at the scene with clear intentions: to allow the archaeologists to continue their grave desecrations and to thwart any attempt to halt the digging, although according to orders issued by the municipality itself (stipulations in the original building permit), and announcements by the Religious Affairs Ministry, the work being performed was illegal because of the presence of graves in the construction site.

Some 200 avreichim were arrested over the course of the year during confrontations with police, and many of them were brutally beaten for no reason. In some cases they were even left with broken ribs or covered with blood.

Y. Schiff of Tzfas, one of the leading activists in the struggle, wrote a detailed journal on the daily events in Yaffo.

"This morning Ilan Gat managers arrived at the cemetery accompanied by a huge bulldozer from the Chachmon Yosef Company driven by an operator named Amos. An inspector from Asra Kadisha conducting his routine rounds glanced at the site and his eyes bulged at the sight of the bulldozer laying waste to the ancient graves. He quickly summoned volunteers to the spot and about ten avreichim from Jerusalem arrived on the scene. They went straight to the bulldozer operator, asking him to stop destroying the graves. When he refused they lay down on the ground in front of the scoop, stopping the work by force.

"In the meantime R. M. Ordentlich . . . had begun arguing with the bulldozer operator when two policemen armed with billy clubs suddenly burst onto the scene, accompanied by the head of the patrol department of Yaffo Police, Elchanan Meor. Meor grabbed Rav Ordentlich and, together with the policemen, fell upon him with vicious blows. Rav Ordentlich tried to justify his presence using the inspector's badge given to him by the Religious Affairs Ministry, but Meor laughed cruelly and continued striking him. When he was on the verge of collapse from the bombardment of blows, they left him alone and cast their eyes upon the rest of the avreichim.

"First they snatched T. K., a bochur from America. Officer Meor laid him flat on the ground and began to beat him brutally on his head and legs, pitilessly and indiscriminately. The boy was severely weakened and was about to pass out from the blows he took. In a broken voice he asked for a bit of water. One of the Romanian construction site guards ran to fetch him a bottle of water, but Meor intercepted him, snatched the bottle from the astonished guard's hands and hurled it away shouting, `He'll get up whether he likes it or not,' and resumed showering the boy with blows."

T.K. later said he was sure those were his last moments.

"His friend, D.K., seeing his dire condition, approached the scene in an attempt to help. He begged Meor to stop mauling him and to call an ambulance. Meor responded by pouncing on D.K., whose arm was broken and whose body was later covered with other marks as well.

"Workers from the construction site went up to T.K., who lay covered with blood, picked him up as he lay prone and threw him down onto the street on the other side of the fence that surrounded the construction site. The other demonstrators were also badly beaten, managing to flee the construction site by the skin of their teeth. Complaints later filed with the Police Investigations Squad were dismissed, citing insufficient evidence."

Gedolei Yisroel Join the Demonstrations

On the 28th of Shevat, ten months after digging began, a mass demonstration was held at Kikar Shabbos in Jerusalem with approximately 50,000 people on hand. At 4:00 p.m. the streets turned black, as a river of people streamed towards the intersection.

Moving tefillos and heart-rending crying came over the loudspeakers. Av Beis Din of the Eida Chareidis HaRav Moshe Aryeh Freind spoke through bitter tears. HaRav Shmuel Halevy Wosner raised the banner of the obligation to fight for the fundamentals of faith -- the perpetuation of the soul and techias hameisim -- with mesirus nefesh.

During the course of the demonstration, HaRav Auerbach (zt'l) arrived but, feeling weak, he did not mount the speaker's podium, remaining seated in his car instead.

Likewise at Kikar Malchei Yisroel in Tel Aviv, the heart of Israeli secularism, a large demonstration and mass tefilloh was held. Dozens came clad in sackcloth, protesting the terrible wrong with prayerful cries. Secular residents passing by openly sympathized with the demonstrators.

"In Tel Aviv tremendous resources are always devoted to preserving wretched 50-year-old buildings. No one is allowed to wreck even the handle of a balcony window. So why do they allow the destruction of an entire cemetery from ancient times? Just because of the contractors' greed?" asks a local secular resident rhetorically, one among many.

Demonstrations in Yaffo increased. From across the country buses arrived carrying thousands of Jews. Among the demonstrators are gedolei hador, including HaRav Aharon Yehuda Leib Steinman, HaRav Michel Yehuda Lefkovitz, HaRav Nissim Karelitz and others.

To this day the sight of HaRav Steinman reading Tehillim with heartfelt cries is etched into the memories of some of the activists.

Unsuccessful Attempts at Compromise

Senior officials at the Religious Affairs Ministry and the Chief Rabbinate tried continually to reach a compromise agreement with the heads of Ilan Gat.

After years of public battles and litigation, Rabbi Micha Rothschild, one of the heads of the struggle against grave desecration in Israel who has tremendous knowledge on the issue, says, "In Yaffo it would have been possible to reach an engineering solution to avoid halachic problems. The cemetery was located on the lower slopes of the hill, where an underground parking garage for project residents was planned. An engineering solution differing from the original plans was proposed and the promoters said, `No, impossible, the zoning plan does not allow it.'

"I say, to destroy an ancient cemetery is allowable. To shatter the skeletons of people whose only desire was to lie in peace, who paid in full for their last holdings -- that is allowed. That is legal. But to raise a building three meters cannot be done! That would disturb Yaffo's skyline!"

Says Porat, "With Udi Ilan it may have been possible to reach a compromise, but he was led by forces greater than him. Ragunis, who was in charge of construction; Attorney Sochovolsky, who represented the church and hatched the entire development scheme; Attorney Yigal Arnon, who represented the enterprising company; and of course Antiquities Authority Director-General Amir Drori, who turned the promoters against every attempt at compromise. They gave him atzas Achitofel; they were the baalei taivo who wanted to fight against religion."

Eyal Ragunis, a reserves major and formerly a member of one of the most elite combat units, and Avraham Sochovolsky, a senior real-estate lawyer who specialized in representing large houses of worship in real-estate suits, were the most active in attempts to compromise. Nonetheless, Ragunis repeatedly lied, even during the last compromise meeting, which continued until 3:00 a.m. He kept insisting an engineering solution would be impossible.

"I Saw the Uncovering of Skeletons . . . "

In the middle of Av 5754, about three months after the first demonstration, the chief assistant of the Religious Affairs Ministry's burial department sent a letter of testimony to Israel Police's legal counsel. "Based on a summary prepared together with the Tel Aviv District Commander and representatives from the Religious Affairs Ministry and the Antiquities Authority, continued digging is conditioned on oversight by a representative of the Religious Affairs Ministry, and in the event a grave is uncovered during the digging, all digging must stop. For a few months this arrangement was upheld, but a few days ago the Religious Affairs Ministry representative was suddenly sent away, and despite our protests, this situation has not been rectified. Following my involvement it came to light that over the course of the days the overseer was removed, work was done at the site of the graves. I filed a complaint at Yaffo Police, but they have already informed me the file has been closed.

"On Wednesday, the 19th of Av, a reinforced crew from the Antiquities Authority under police protection conducted extensive excavations over a wide area. Dozens of graves were uprooted and human bones and skeletons were removed . . . I saw the uncovering of skeletons and their removal, and at the end of the workday, at my request, I received approximately 60 crates of human bones and skeletons."

The High Court

At the beginning of 1995 the leaders in the struggle decided to turn to the High Court. Although it was obvious the court would not be particularly receptive to chareidi activists, senior jurists believed the explicit documents, the agreements with the police and the Antiquities Authority and the paragraphs included in the zoning plans would compel the High Court to halt the ongoing devastation.

These secular jurists' predictions proved incorrect. The High Court decided to postpone the hearings for two months, citing a minor technical matter: The appellants did not officially notify the other side they had contacted the High Court. But they did send announcements and at that point they had already been debating the issue with their opponents for over a year. Postponing the hearing for two months while allowing work to continue would have the effect of making the issue moot since that was more than enough time to complete all the digging for the project.

Attorney Raanan Har-Zahav, representing Manof which filed the appeal, told the three judges that in another case he had handled recently this demand was waived altogether and it would seem reasonable to simply rectify the matter immediately with a handwritten notice. But the judges rejected his argument and insisted that a corrected appeal be filed, saying every judge has a right to decide when to enforce this requirement and when to overlook it.

Har-Zahav then requested another hearing the next day, but the judges determined the file would be sent to the back of the line.

In a final attempt, Har-Zahav asked the court to issue a temporary restraining order, but this request was rejected as well.

Har-Zahav was known as a left-wing faithful, but even this "credential" was of no use in confronting the High Court judges.

By the time the next hearing was held, the wanton destruction of the ancient cemetery was already complete.

During the course of the two months the appeal was pending, the bulldozers operated 20 hours per day, using huge spotlights to illuminate the area by night.

Demonstrations Around the World

During the final months of the grave desecration, the agitation in the chareidi street in Israel and abroad grew more and more intense. Outraged religious Jews from every sector of the population remonstrated in interviews with the media, in letters to newspaper editors and by taking part in daily protest vigils at the construction site. It seemed the State of Israel was the one place on the planet where it was possible to trample over one of the most fundamental and universal a human rights.

The site was visited by various religious figures as well as by tourists from different countries, who showed aversion to the very idea of clearing a cemetery to make room for a commercial enterprise. They cited various attempts to clear burial grounds that the German, French and Polish governments nipped in the bud.

Chareidi communities around the world, particularly in London, held protest demonstrations drawing thousands, outside of their local Israeli consulate offices. In Montreal a three-mile procession was held with black- shrouded coffins as a sign of mourning over the violation of the sanctity of the dead.

In Manhattan a mass demonstration attracted over 10,000 people to the Israeli consulate. A protest rally was also held on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C., while Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was holding talks inside. When he emerged from the building Rabin was greeted with loud shouts of derision. Demonstrators rushed toward him from all sides and security personnel had to protect him with their own bodies. Rabin was taken aback, grew pale and blushed in turn and was quickly led into his official car.

On Erev Rosh Chodesh Adar Sheini of 5755, a mass tefilloh and his'orerus gathering was held at the site, drawing tens of thousands. Moving speeches were delivered by HaRav Nissim Karelitz, HaRav Shabsai Yudelevich, and HaRav Shimshon Pincus, but the work continued unabated.

A few days after the large gathering, when it became clear all was lost, Badatz heads in Jerusalem and Bnei Brak issued kisvei cherem and curses, employing exceedingly harsh language: "We hereby warn all who have yiras Hashem in their hearts not to assist the transgressors, to pay heed not to do any business with the grave robbers from the above- mentioned company, or with the Ilan Insurance Company belonging to them . . . And this shall serve as a warning as well to all who wish to purchase an apartment or store in the buildings they are trying to build on the above- mentioned cemetery, for he who does so risks the safety of the members of his household."

The statement was signed by HaRav Nissim Karelitz and the members of his beis din, as well as HaRav Shmuel Wosner and the members of his beis din.

The Badatz' Curse

The kesav cherem issued in Bnei Brak was given to one of the activists in the struggle who was asked to travel to Jerusalem immediately and deliver it to HaRav Moshe Aryeh Freind, av beis din of the Eida Chareidis.

The Badatz of the Eida Chareidis in Jerusalem deemed it unacceptable. "It's too forgiving," they said. They sat down on the spot and wrote a terribly frightful writ that explicitly implicated anyone involved or living in the project. "And we, the Badatz in the holy city of Jerusalem, warn all of the promoters, the builders and all those who assist them that they will feel in their souls that they shall not be expurgated for their sin, and the hand of Hashem will strike them -- body, soul and property (i.e. bankruptcy, etc.). And know there is Judgment and there is a Judge." The text includes even harsher language not reprinted here.

The mainstream media followed the battle, but coverage of the demonstrations and gatherings was brief and banal and interviewees were typically people from the Antiquities Authority who presented the struggle as a war against science. Some of them told bald-faced lies about the graves that were dug up, even saying 2,500- year-old dog bones were found.

Editors did not hesitate to broadcast a malicious report that every avreich arrested by police was given a $1,000 cash payment by the Eida Chareidis.

Army Radio conducted an in-depth interview with Udi Ilan, who presented his stance at length. During the course of the conversation, on several occasions, the interviewer said that chareidi representatives had refused to comment.

In fact, leaders of the struggle tried repeatedly to rebut Ilan's statements but had been unable to make themselves heard. Their efforts to contact the studio and the editorial desk were totally thwarted.

Sudden Death

On the 23rd of Iyar 5755, several weeks after the release of the kisvei cherem, Eyal Ragunis suddenly died of a heart attack at the age of 37. On that same day the High Court conducted a hearing in which it rejected the appeal filed by the grave desecration opponents.

The heart attack took place three weeks after Ragunis underwent a thorough checkup a Tel Hashomer Hospital. He was found to be perfectly fit. "The doctors told him he was as healthy as a horse," recalled family members sitting shiva.

On the morning of his death Ragunis complained of chest pains, raising concerns among his family members, who knew him to be strong and healthy and accustomed to physical exertion. Since he had never voiced a similar complaint, his mother demanded he visit a doctor for an examination. Ragunis insisted on driving to the Kupat Cholim himself. There his mother spoke with the managing physician who suggested doing an EKG. The test showed completely normal heart function.

Moments later Ragunis felt faint and, before his stunned mother, collapsed on the floor. The ambulance drivers who transported him to Asaf Harofeh Hospital tried to resuscitate him with defibrillators but he was soon pronounced dead.

At the beginning of the winter of 5756, about six months after Ragunis' abrupt death, 53-year-old attorney Avraham Sochovolsky suddenly died of a heart attack. His passing sent shock waves among his close family, his partners and his employees. "Avraham was never sick. He was famous throughout the profession for his ability to work hard at a fast pace. We cannot remember him missing even a single day of work," said his office partner, Attorney Zeev Hartavy.

Even before these two deaths it had become clear to many involved in the project that it had taken a turn for the worse.

One bright morning a young IDF soldier unexpectedly strolled into a large church in Yaffo and began spraying bullets inside the church. The soldier had no previous history of mental instability, was not involved in any political or religious activity and other soldiers in his unit considered him dedicated, quiet and easygoing.

The shooting spree sparked a real intifadah in Yaffo. Large, angry demonstrations drew hundreds of local Arabs, normally known as a passive population active in municipal institutions and operators of many flourishing businesses in Yaffo and its environs. Since 1967 Yaffo had not seen any incidents of violence.

At the same time the Territories began to heat up. On Erev Sukkos 5756, 20 local Arabs were arrested by Border Patrol soldiers summoned to the scene of rioting. A distinguished member of the Arab community in Yaffo, pharmacist Farchi Gadai, was arrested by security forces on suspicions of planning a terrorist attack against Jewish property in Yaffo. His arrest shocked both Arab and Jewish public figures in Yaffo and Tel Aviv.

Market at a Standstill

Night patrols by Border Patrol soldiers become a common sight in Yaffo. Local Tel Aviv newspapers gave the developments prominent coverage, fostering an atmosphere of panic. "In Yaffo there are hidden armories," says one article, quoting a ranking police official.

Digging at the hilltop plot had long since ended and it now functioned like a normal construction site. The lavish sales office was open for business as usual, seemingly. Yet those involved in the project had already made pronouncements regarding the extent of the market stagnation.

During 1996, average sales totaled only half an apartment per month. Yaffo, until recently a lively spot in high demand, was now somnolent from the early afternoon hours. Foreign and local tourists rarely visited. Sales came to a standstill at all Yaffo construction sites, including north Yafet Street (Shaarei Yaffo).

By November 1996, two-and-a-half years after digging began, the Andromeda project had posted sales of only 35 of the 270 apartments slated for construction. Of those 35 apartments 17- 20 were sold to associates and interest holders at insider prices.

Ilan Gat refused to concede, adamantly maintaining price levels above $4,000 per square meter. But Yaffo was transformed from a hot spot in high demand to a place Tel Avivans consider violent and even dangerous.

Ilan Gat, holding one-third of the shares in the project, began to post losses. The funds from a May 1994 stock issue -- NIS 21 million including convertible warrants -- provided the company a fair amount of breathing room, but its financial position was deteriorating.

Meanwhile another major construction project the company executed in Ra'anana (Lev Hapark) suffered a huge loss of NIS 11.5 million. Due to the need to continue to invest more money in Yaffo, company managers decide to cash in a booming project (Paamonei Aviv) in the North Tel Aviv neighborhood of Ramat Aviv Gimmel. Another NIS 8 million was immediately funneled into Andromeda, but in the process cutting off future cash flows the company otherwise stood to gain from its successful Tel Aviv venture. During the 1994-95 real- estate boom, Ilan Gat accrued heavy losses that wore away at its capital and stock-issue capital.

Despite the prolonged recession the entire real-estate industry has faced in recent years Udi Ilan waged an all-out battle to save the company his father founded in 1954, as well as the prestigious project standing mostly desolate on the hilltop, housing no permanent residents. Based on advice offered by friends and experts, Andromeda was converted two- and-a-half years ago into a luxury apartment-hotel. Millions of shekels were invested to furnish the apartments and to place large ads in the domestic and foreign press.

The wife of former Tel Aviv Mayor Shlomo Lahat was asked to head the marketing team for the apartment- hotel complex, but all of her efforts failed. The hotel industry was hit by the least lucrative period in its history, in the Intifadah, and the project continued to suffer more and more losses.

With the last of its financial resources Ilan Gat invested in a development of single-family homes in Even Yehuda, a location in high demand among top high- tech workers in Israel. But then the high-tech industry collapsed and this promising project proved to be a high-priced disaster as well. So far only three of the 27 homes built there were sold.

Attempts were made to realize an office building the company owns in Ramle and another building in Or Yehuda, but the prices offered were ridiculously low. Today there is no business real-estate market to speak of, and definitely not in Ramle or Or Yehuda, which are glutted with cheap real estate.

The End of a Family Saga

Several weeks ago Udi Ilan sold the family's shares in the company to long-standing partner Rafael Gat for the symbolic price of one shekel. Thus ended a family saga stretching back more than 50 years -- in a quick and panic-stricken deal.

Those associated with the company and figures in the capital market were unsure what specifically motivated the final sale, assuming it followed a dispute stemming from the company's dire financial state.

Recently it emerged that the deal was part of a general move imposed by the banks. Udi Ilan's shares and a large portion of Gat's shares were sold to young financial investor Chaim Gair for a single shekel.

One shekel for control in the company (50.1%), compared to the $17 million that appeared to be a sure thing when the enterprise first set out.

In Retrospect

"I do not derive any happiness from other people's misfortune," says Porat, lowering his voice and measuring each word carefully. "Binefol oivecho al tismach is said even of Am Yisroel's most bitter enemies. But beyond that, I know how many years it takes for a project like this to mature, not to speak of the destruction of the family company that was founded so many years ago and had survived all of the changes in the Israeli market.

"Ilan Gat could have been sold eight years ago, without Andromeda, for NIS 200 million ($40 million). The company had many good assets and a lot of cash, which helped it to raise millions when it issued shares to the public.

"To me Udi Ilan is a symbol of a personal tragedy," says Porat. "I believe he was dragged into the struggle against his initial intentions. Inside he is a nice guy. And in any case, who am I to judge?

"To us it was already clear six years ago that the project was a failure, and would bring down misery on all those involved. From Ragunis to Chukchil, the owners of the earth- moving company.

"Does the fall of Ilan Gat come as a surprise to anyone? Anyone who meddled with the dead lost his status or his assets or cholilo passed away suddenly within a short period of time . . . We warned the project's promoters, we told them they were flirting with danger -- both personal and financial -- but they did not want to listen to us."

Porat pulls a 1995 copy of Globes out of his briefcase. A large front-page article features a picture of Udi Ilan. The text of the article stresses that the company is set to make a financial breakthrough and that it is about to get involved in projects worth $200 million, with Andromeda the crown jewel.

The Ilan family stands to gain from the Andromeda project on four fronts, says the article. The company has a 33 percent share of profits, the company is entitled to 8 percent of sales for managing construction and sales, the Ilan Insurance Agency will receive a premium of over $500,000 to insure the project and the partners made an agreement entitling Ilan Gat to a special bonus of 25 percent of turnover in the event the apartments are sold above the anticipated price.

"You see," says Porat, "we do not understand economics very well and nevertheless in 1995 I would not have invested one shekel in the Ilan Gat Company. Not even one single shekel."


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