Monday, June 04, 2012

Ulpana: When the Elders of Chelm make Aliyah

By Tuvia Brodie

Chelm is a fictitious village where foolish villagers are happily led by a Rabbi who is advised by village elders. Many stories are told about the wisdom of these elders. For example, near their village there was a river that had a bridge over it. Once, there was a hole in the road surface of the bridge. Villagers kept stepping into the hole, falling ten feet, breaking a leg. They didn’t know what to do. Finally, someone suggested they ask the Rabbi. But the Rabbi was out of town. So they asked the elders—who had a solution: build a hospital under the hole (h/t Shmuel Sacket).
These elders have now made aliyah. They live in Israel. They work for the government.
Like the foolish villagers before them, Israel’s officials love their elders of Chelm.  For example, take the problem of five stone apartment buildings in a place called Ulpana, a neighbourhood in the town of Beit El. These buildings were built several years ago when Ehud Barak, the current Defense Minister, was Israel’s Prime Minister. If pictures are any indication, these building are made with reinforced concrete that is layered over with cut limestone block. The walls are approximately thirteen-fourteen inches thick. Each building houses six families. These are not American-style brick homes. They are as sturdy as fortresses.
To make sure people would move into these apartment buildings, Mr Barak’s government offered incentives, including infrastructure and roads to service the buildings, plus individual home-owner assistance to buy and finance purchases. These buildings were not a private-initiative project. They were government-initiated, using a private contractor. The project is an example of how a government can fund, build and encourage families to move to less-than-convenient places. It is also an example of what can happen when the elders of Chelm work for the government.
To build a new neighbourhood of reinforced-concrete-and-stone apartment buildings in Judea-Samaria, several things have to happen. The Housing Ministry has to issue a permit.  A local community Council has to approve a Master Plan.  Land must be purchased. Then (at least perhaps in this case), a community construction ‘arm’ has to secure and file the land contracts. Then, the government has to build the infrastructure—roads, retaining walls, electricity, sewage, sidewalks, etc. Finally, construction can begin.
That’s the process: the Housing Ministry, a Community Council and its construction ‘office’ must each touch paper—permits to build, a Master Plan and contracts for land purchased; unless, that is, you are dealing with the elders from Chelm; in that case, the process changes.
Here’s how it changes:  construction for the project at Ulpana began approximately 1998. At that time, all necessary paperwork was required to have been completed, validated and filed with the appropriate offices.  However, no one seems to have confirmed that the land-purchase contracts (and other paperwork) had been filed. The government didn’t track anything. In fact, there was so little oversight that the building contractor seems to have told the police (according to one news report) that he didn’t have any building permits—and he doesn’t know if a Master Plan for the project actually existed.  He doesn’t know who holds the purchase contracts for the land upon which he built the buildings.  He also apparently does not know that the purchase of one parcel of land was never completed—or that the seller of the second—and final-- parcel may not have owned the land he sold to the builder. The project unfolded with government participation—and absolutely no evidence of competent oversight. The builder finished his work and sold the apartments, bringing his plan to its natural completion. Everyone seemed happy—until that is, some Arabs showed up and said, ‘you don’t own the land you built on.’
In Israel, the elders of Chelm don’t just work in the housing industry. They also work on the Supreme Court and for the Prime Minister’s office.
Who’s at fault here?  Based on news reports, the government encouraged and supported thirty families to move, and these families now own something that was constructed by a private contractor without proper paperwork. During construction, the government never spoke up. What do the courts do? Who should accept responsibility for this—and what should the penalty be?
The elders of Chelm on Israel’s High Court had the answers: you throw out the families living there and destroy the buildings.
If that doesn’t sound like a high-quality legal decision, don’t worry. The elders of Chelm also work in the Prime Minister’s office. They have a counter-solution: transport the buildings (with their fourteen-inch thick walls) to a different part of Beit-El.
The government loves this solution—but no one knows if such a plan is physically possible--or legal.
Sounds like another hospital-under-the-hole-in-the-bridge idea.  Quick, someone find the Rabbi-or, in this case, a pro-Israel Prime Minister.

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