After the Greek Orthodox Church lost a 14-year court battle last month over the sale of three properties in Jerusalem’s Old City, Greek Orthodox Patriarch Theophilos III has gone on a PR junket. He has taken his case to Washington, where last week he spoke with senators and congressmen, spreading falsehoods, calling the sale a Jewish land grab.
Long-term leases to the properties, which stand on Church-owned land, were purchased in 2004 from Theophilos III’s predecessor, Patriarch Irenaios, who was dismissed in disgrace and demoted to monk after the details of the sale were disclosed in 2005. The Greek Orthodox Church challenged the legality of the sale, claiming Irenaios did not have authority to sell the leases.
It is important to realize that it is not unusual for the Greek Orthodox Church to sell or lease lands in Israel to Jews; the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, stands on land leased from the Greek Orthodox Church.
In a landmark decision, on July 31, 2017, the Jerusalem District Court ruled in favor of Jewish organization Ateret Cohanim, the purchaser of the leases. Israel’s Supreme Court upheld the lower court’s decision on June 11, 2019, bringing the 14-year legal battle to a close.
Israel’s Supreme Court is generally known to be left-leaning. For it to have ruled in favor of the right-wing Ateret Cohanim organization means that Ateret Cohanim’s arguments and had to have been airtight.
Two of the disputed properties are the Petra and New Imperial hotels, located right next to each other between Jaffa Gate and the entrance to the Old City Market, opposite the Tower of David.
The Petra Hotel was built in the 1840s, by a wealthy Jewish merchant from Gibraltar named Yosef Amzaleg who was also involved in the purchase of Petach Tikvah, Rishon Letzion and Neve Tzedek near Tel Aviv. From 1903 to 1931 the hotel was leased by Yerachmiel Amdursky.
Among its notable guests were Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, the Sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe; Herbert Samuel, the 1st High Commissioner for Palestine; and David Ben-Gurion’s son, Amos, who celebrated his bar mitzvah there.
The New Imperial has hosted guests such as Kaiser Wilhelm II (in 1898) and General Edmund Allenby, who after winning the battle for Jerusalem in 1917 addressed crowds from the Imperial’s balcony.
Patriarch Theophilos III should cease and desist. Israel’s Supreme Court must be respected by all parties. U.S. President Donald Trump, whose family helped Jews purchase properties in Sheepshead Bay and Forest Hill upon which synagogues were built that stand to this day, should tell the patriarch to stop spreading “fake news” about the Jews of Jerusalem.
Dr. Joseph Frager is first vice president of the National Council of Young Israel.