US millionaire ‘hid purchase of West Bank property’

Philanthropist Irving Moskowitz said to have used shell companies to conceal plan for outpost in abandoned church near Hebron

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

Irving Moskowitz speaking at Beit Orot, November 2011. (CC BY-SA Mazel 123, Wikimedia Commons)
Irving Moskowitz speaking at Beit Orot, November 2011. (CC BY-SA Mazel 123, Wikimedia Commons)

The right-wing American philanthropist Irving Moskowitz purchased an abandoned church near Hebron for future use as a Jewish West Bank settlement, employing a variety of shell corporations and charitable organizations to cover up the acquisition of the property, the Haaretz daily reported Thursday.

News broke last week that activist Arieh King, a Jerusalem City Council member, bought the property near the al-Aroub refugee camp between Hebron and Jerusalem three years ago and in recent weeks began refurbishing it with the intention of establishing a new settlement outpost there. However, the source of King’s funding was unknown until this week.

The report said that the church property was owned by a Presbyterian church in Pennsylvania through a group called “The Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions” until 2008.

At that time, Joan Davenport, the nun who managed the property, left Israel. “We decided to finish our mission in Israel because they told us in Bethlehem that there were enough local Christians and that they did not need us,” she said.

Jerusalem City Council member Aryeh King, in Jerusalem on October 22, 2014, (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Jerusalem City Council member Aryeh King, in Jerusalem on October 22, 2014, (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The site includes eight buildings, among them a large central structure and several smaller ones. Twenty years ago the Presbyterian church was turned into a hostel, but the business venture failed and the site was abandoned and left in ruins.

The compound was built by Thomas Lambie, an American missionary who worked in Ethiopia before coming to Palestine in 1947. He established a hospital for tuberculosis patients at the site, where he was buried after his death in 1954.

The property was sold to a Swedish organization in March 2008, according to Pastor Keith Coleman, the head of the Pennsylvania church.

That Swedish group, Scandinavian Seamen Holy Land Enterprises, has no offices or other property holdings and appears to only have existed for the purposes of that deal. One of the group’s representatives is the husband of noted Norwegian Israel activist Gro Faye-Hansen Wenske.

In 2012 that organization was taken over by the American Friends of the Everest Foundation — a misnomer, as the group operates in Jerusalem rather than in the Himalayas.

The Irving Moskowitz Founation is the group’s only contributor and Moskowitz’s son-in-law Oren Ben-Ezra manages the organization alongside Moskowitz’s wife Cherna, according to its nonprofit filings.

The group controlled nearly $8 million’s worth of land and buildings in East Jerusalem as of 2012, according to AFEF’s tax exemption forms. And the organization currently holds over $11 million in assets, it reported in 2015.

For the past few months the compound has undergone repairs and is expected to house as many as 20 families. A new fence has also been built despite a stop-work injunction by the Israeli Civil Administration in the West Bank, which cited the lack of a building permit for the fence.

The nature of the site was kept a secret even from those working on it. A man who went by Emanuel, who claimed to be Norwegian, dealt with the Palestinian workers in the compound. Emanuel claimed he wanted to merely restore the church to its former state, Haaretz reported.

The IDF was unaware of the site’s intended purpose, and security for the settlement-to-be was even handled by a private company, the report said.

Repairs stopped when news of the compound’s refurbishment broke last week, and its owners have alerted the army that there are no plans to move people into the space in the near future.

JTA contributed to this report.

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