The battle to maintain the Armenian presence in Jerusalem took a dangerous turn on Thursday after 30 masked men infiltrated the Armenian Quarter parking lot and attempted to destroy the barricade erected there, leading to a brawl between them and local residents.
But perhaps more troubling than the mob infiltration were large posters—held by at least one unidentified man outside Zion Gate—that read in Hebrew: “Racism and anti-Semitism from the Armenian patriarch against a Jewish developer” and “Bishop Koryoun Baghdasaryan is threatening to kill a Jewish developer” with Baghdasaryan’s picture.
The posters seems to be part of an effort to smear the Armenian community as anti-Semitic and anti-Israel with several articles in both English and Hebrew appearing in the Israeli media in the past several weeks.
“Its all a lie,” Bishop Baghdasaryan told me, adding that “there is no anti-Semitism in the Armenian Quarter and not any in Armenia. At all.”
These signs emerged mere hours after the attack on the parking lot, Baghdasaryan said adding that he plans to file a complaint with the police for what he says is tantamount to libel.
Now he fears for his own safety and that of his community.
“Where did this come from? It was organized, it was preplanned. The whole thing,” Baghdasaryan said.
It is unclear whether the two incidents were entirely coincidental or connected and planned by the same people. A police spokesman said that the masked men were Israeli Arabs from northern Israel who had pepper spray in their vehicles.
But the man pictured holding the libelous posters outside Zion Gate appears to be wearing tzitzit, the tassels worn by observant Jews. Police were still unaware of this incident at the time of publication.
The accusations of anti-Semitism come at a sensitive time since the Hamas attacks on Israel on Oct. 7 and the subsequent war. More than 1,200 Israelis were killed in the massacres and 240 kidnapped (more than 120 remain in Gaza). Since then, Israel launched a ground war to root out Hamas infrastructure in Gaza and rescue the hostages. Palestinians report more than 20,000 Gazans—among them children, women and other civilians—have been killed, sparking anti-Israel protests around the world.
The escalation of violence (video) in the parking lot today saw “armed provocateurs… with lethal and less-than-lethal weaponry” enter the area with tools, pepper spray, the Armenian patriarchate said.
“A massive and coordinated physical attack was launched on bishops, priests, deacons, seminarians and other Armenian community members in Jerusalem,” the Patriarchate said in a communique. “Several priests, students of the Armenian theological seminary, and indigenous Armenians are seriously injured.”
“Armenian clerics are fighting for their lives against impune (sic) provocateurs,” the communique continued.
People from both sides were detained and formal charges are pending an investigation, police said.
Baghdasaryan said this was the response to a lawsuit filed yesterday in a Jerusalem court to cancel the real estate deal.
“We filed a complaint against them in court and, instead of going the legal route, they chose bullying,” he said.
“Them” is Danny Rubenstein (or Rothman), a Jewish businessman from Australia, and a Christian Arab businessman from Jaffa, George Warwar, who is also involved in the deal.
This latest development in a disputed land deal involving some 25% of the Armenian Quarter is a new and disconcerting step since the contract raised the ire of the community in April.
The contract was signed in 2021 during COVID lockdowns. Then director of the patriarchate’s real estate department—Khachik Yeretzian, or Father Baret—told me earlier this year that the land was always considered prime real estate for a hotel and that various developers, including some from from Armenia and Jordan, had expressed interest in the past.
Ultimately it was Rubenstein (or Rothman) whose offer was accepted for a 49-year-lease with an offer to renew for another 49 years. He intends to build a luxury hotel on the property, according to a copy of the contract presented during an Armenian Quarter protest earlier this year.
Several Armenian priests at the time noted that the agreement disregarded church procedures and didn’t receive proper approval.
Nevertheless, the deal moved quietly forward until the new owners claimed the parking lot in April and installed their own security guards.
Then in the fall—while the Israel-Hamas war captured the world’s attention—Rubenstein himself, along with Warwar, arrived on site with armed men and guards dogs. Construction workers arrived as well to begin work, but after confrontations with local residents and subsequent police intervention, the situation eased again and Armenian residents set up a tent on site in order be on a 24/7 vigil.
WHAT HAPPENS NOW?
After today’s incident, the patriarchate is demanding a police investigation into both Rubenstein and Warwar and blamed them for “organizing their continual criminal attacks on the Armenian Patriarchate and community.”
Baghdasaryan wants the police to investigate the libelous accusations against him personally as well.
“Who sent them, why did they send them—that all has to be discovered in a police investigation,” Baghdasaryan said. “The truth is I have no idea if it is connected.”
Baghdasaryan stressed that this is not a religious conflict. He noted that in the 1980s, there was strong anti-Semitism sentiment in Former Soviet Union republics including Ukraine, Russia and Belarus. Many Jews who lived there actually fled to Armenia for refuge.
Community activist Hagop Djernazian said this attack was an escalation.
“It was like a war zone. It was something very different from previous times,” he said. “We expect that the authorities will take the necessary measures against the company and against those who attacked the community and will not put differences between the different groups in the Old City.”
Setrag Balian is convinced that the attack was orchestrated by Warwar with the backing of a Jewish settler organization.
“They are trying to pit Armenians against Muslims and Arabs and other groups in the Old City. They are telling lies to these groups that you are going against settlers,” he said. “No one is giving them the full information. they are getting paid to attack us. This is a very typical modus operandi of settler organizations.”
Djernazian said despite the complications and different ethnic groups involved, this is not “a religious struggle.”
“We don’t have any problems with Muslims, with Jews,” he said. “This land should remain Armenian land as it was the past 1,700 years.”
The Save the ArQ movement called on local authorities and the international community to put an end “to this violent takeover of the Armenian Quarter.”
“Make no mistake, this is an existential threat and requires immediate and decisive action from everyone,” they said in a statement.