By Barak Ravid and Yair Ettinger
The cabinet today voted to transfer the Sergei building in Jerusalem’s Russian Compound to the ownership of the Russian government, following negotiations that have been underway since the beginning of the 1990s.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will inform Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin of the decision when he arrives in Moscow today.
A number of groups have protested the move, including the Legal Forum for the Land of Israel, which petitioned the High Court of Justice yesterday against it.
The building, on the corner of Queen Helene and Monbaz streets in downtown Jerusalem, has for many years housed offices of the Agriculture Ministry, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority and the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel. The agreement between Israel and Russia stipulates that these organizations will continue to occupy the premises. One wing of the building, which is not currently in use, will be handed over to the use of the Russian government.
The Sergei building was built in the 19th century by Russian diplomats and pilgrims and named after Grand Duke Sergei, the brother of the Russian czar. Grand Duke Sergei was head of the Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society, a non-ecclesiastical organization charged by the czar with taking care of Russian pilgrims, whose purpose was to strengthen Russia’s hold on the region.
After the establishment of Israel, the Custodian General took charge of the building. When ties between Israel and the Soviet Union were severed, the building’s Russian tenants left.
But in the beginning of the 1990s, Israel agreed to transfer the building to the Russian government. In January 2008 Israel pledged to resolve the matter within six months and Russia officially gave up any claim to rights to the structure by other Russian bodies.
In its petition yesterday, the Legal Forum for the Land of Israel argued that the transfer of the building contradicted the opinion of Attorney General Menachem Mazuz, who counseled the cabinet to act with restraint on non-urgent matters.
The forum’s attorney, Yitzhak Bam, said “transferring a central asset in Jerusalem to the ownership of a foreign government with imperialistic aspirations” was a decision too important to be made by a transitional government.
A few weeks ago, the forum asked the High Court for an injunction against the transfer, arguing that it constituted a treaty between two governments and as such required the approval of the Knesset and the cabinet. The High Court did not issue the restraining order but did demand that the state explain its reasons for transferring the property. The Foreign Ministry and the Prime Minister’s Office subsequently decided to bring the transfer to a cabinet vote.
The National Library in Jerusalem protested the transfer, arguing that it should be part of a deal bringing one of the world’s largest collections of ancient Jewish manuscripts from Russia. Known as the Ginzburg Collection, the manuscripts were purchased by the Zionist Movement in the early 20th century and were to have been sent to Jerusalem. The outbreak of World War I prevented the collection from arriving in Palestine and after the Bolshevik revolution it was confiscated by the state. It is now in the Lenin Library in Moscow.
The Chabad movement hopes Israel will not transfer the building until the return of the library of their leader, Rabbi Shalom Ber, confiscated during World War I and now housed in the Russian National Library in Moscow. Chabad is suing the Russian government in the United States over the return of the books.