Scientology in Israel: Arson, Attempted Murder, Foreclosure, General Paranoia -- And a Visit by the Voice!

Scientology's unopened building in Jaffa
Scientology's unopened building in Jaffa

Here at the Voice we've reported this year on some pretty hard to believe worldwide developments in the ongoing Scientology saga -- from allegations of lying about child molestation in Australia, to splitting up families in California, to a months long siege by an intimidation squad in South Texas, to bizarre interference with a company trying to bring a life-saving machine to market in Florida.

But nothing seemed quite as strange, as wild, as ready for a Hollywood movie, as what has been happening with a Scientology building in Jaffa, Israel. We could hardly believe our eyes as we read about an attempt to blow up the Scientology facility -- and allegedly by Scientology's own agent. There was a botched car bombing that hurt a man and his young daughter. There were allegations of a religiously-themed frame job, of a failed attempt to assassinate a local government official by thugs dressed as police officers -- it just got stranger and stranger. We devoured stories about the allegations, but it was difficult to tell exactly what was going with Scientology's "org" as it attempted to open. What was really happening?

Then, last week, we found ourselves in Israel. So we stopped by.

We arrived in Tel Aviv last Wednesday to stay with friends. After a dip in the Mediterranean, we decided to drive down to nearby Jaffa.

If modern, high-rise Tel Aviv is one of the world's younger big cities, Jaffa is one of the world's oldest. The old Arab port city has been annexed in today's Tel Aviv-Yafo, but it still retains its distinct and antiquated nature. You cross into it, and immediately you are in another era. And not far down the main artery of Jerusalem Boulevard, you see it: the Alhambra.

The Alhambra Cinema building was constructed in 1936, under the British Mandate for Palestine, and for decades, in its Art Deco architecture and sheer size, it has remained a landmark of that period of history.

Scientology in Israel: Arson, Attempted Murder, Foreclosure, General Paranoia -- And a Visit by the Voice!

By 2007, however, it was little more than a ruined hulk...

Scientology in Israel: Arson, Attempted Murder, Foreclosure, General Paranoia -- And a Visit by the Voice!

In September 2009, an Arab Muslim builder from Nazareth, Naif Salati, was contracted to restore the Alhambra to its former glory.

Salati was an interesting choice for the job. He's not only a skilled contractor, he's also a deeply religious man. As his Tel Aviv attorney Eitan Erez told me, Salati has 6 children, 17 grandchildren, and has been to Mecca on Hajj 13 times. "A Muslim is obliged to take the trip once in his lifetime. Mr. Salati is very dedicated," Erez told me.

He had also won a very lucrative job worth 13.5 million shekels (about $3.5 million) to renovate the Alhambra.

But from the beginning there was something strange about the man who had hired him, a local attorney named Gur Finkelstein.

According to the national land registry, Finkelstein had become the sole owner of the Alhambra. Finkelstein mentioned no other owners to Salati, and there was no reason for Salati to think that Finkelstein was not the building's landlord.

So Salati did not think it was too unusual, at first, that Finkelstein added an odd condition to the Alhambra's renovation contract. As Salati submitted bills for payment, Finkelstein asked him to add 25 percent to what he charged, for "expenses." And after he received his payments, Salati was instructed to return that 25 percent to Finkelstein, in cash.

It was a strange request, but again, Erez pointed out, it appeared to be Finkelstein's building and Finkelstein's money. So Salati kicked back the 25 percent as he worked on the building.

Then, on April 13, Salati was confronted with stunning news: Gur Finkelstein had been arrested at his office, and was charged with attempted murder and arson.

For the first time, Salati learned that Finkelstein did not in fact own the Alhambra. The attorney was only working for the Church of Scientology, who was in fact using Salati's renovation of the building to turn it into the newest of its "Ideal Orgs," a push for new facilities that is creating large, and largely empty, "orgs" for Scientology around the world.

By that time, April, Salati had already signed a second contract with Finkelstein, for an additional 5 million shekels ($1.3 million) to do additional work after fire had broken out in the Alhambra in both October 2010 and February 2011, destroying some of the work Salati had already done.

Now, Salati was confronted with stunning information: Israeli prosecutors believed Finkelstein himself had paid a gang to set fire to the Alhambra those two times. The motive? To create more work for Salati and keep the 25 percent kickback coming to Finkelstein.

Over the ensuing months, the extent of allegations against Finkelstein and his hired thugs grew to amazing proportions:

-- On May 9, 2010, a bomb fails to go off that is intended to kill a Tel Aviv municipal official, Shota Hovel, who had threatened to demolish part of the Alhambra when he found that an unpermitted 1,000-square-meter addition had been built on to the 7,000-square-meter theater.

-- Weeks later, on May 28, 2010, Hovel is attacked by two men dressed as police officers who hit his face with a stun gun. Hovel manages to fend them off and run away.

-- On September 8, 2010, a man in Haifa named Daniel Cohen, who is married to Finkelstein's ex-wife, is attacked by two men he does not know. He evades them and is unhurt.

-- On October 12, 2010, the Alhambra is set on fire for the first time.

-- On November 21, 2010, a car bomb attached to the bottom of Daniel Cohen's car goes off, injuring him and his 4-year-old daughter. Both recover from the assassination attempt.

Daniel Cohen's car after the failed assassination attempt
Daniel Cohen's car after the failed assassination attempt

-- In February, a second arson attempt is made on the Alhambra with a stolen truck and 300 liters of gasoline in a tank. It appears to be an attempt at major damage, but again fails to do significant damage.   The seemingly unrelated crimes -- arson attempts in Jaffa, a car bomb in Haifa some 60 miles away -- puzzled police, until they got a break.

They arrested a man whose name has not been released publicly (things work differently with the police and the press in Israel, which is in part why the full Finkelstein story has only gradually emerged since we first mentioned it in May).

The man was found in possession of explosive devices, and confessed to police who he had been working for as he helped set up the bombs in several attacks. He named an Arab Muslim family in Jaffa, the Bakher family.

This reportedly puzzled police even more. In Jaffa, the Bakher family was one of means, and had no criminal past. But when members of the family were arrested, they quickly pointed the finger at Finkelstein.

For police, Finkelstein's motives for the crime were clear: he had fought with Hovel over permitting on the Alhambra renovation, and the attorney has been indicted for trying to assassinate the city official. He set fire to the Alhambra twice, police believe, to keep Salati at work so he could continue to profit from his kickback scheme. And he attacked Daniel Cohen because Cohen was married to Finkelstein's ex-wife, who Finkelstein was battling in a custody case. In July, Finkelstein was rearrested in jail and charged with trying to order the assassination of the unnamed demolitions guy who had led police to the Bakhers and ultimately Finkelstein. So now he also faces charges of trying have a witness against him killed from jail.

Israeli TV has aired interviews with Finkelstein's family and friends who say he's the nicest guy in the world and would never harm a fly. His attorney, meanwhile, vows to prove Finkelstein's innocence in court.

Gur Finkelstein, left, with his attorney (Photo: Ohad Zwigenberg)
Gur Finkelstein, left, with his attorney (Photo: Ohad Zwigenberg)

But regardless of Finkelstein's fate, there's still a building that Scientology has paid millions of shekels to renovate, and would still like to open. And there's an Arab Muslim builder who says that Scientology owes him millions more, and is trying to get his money, in part by foreclosing on the building.

As we said previously, on Wednesday, we stopped by for a look...

Scientology in Israel: Arson, Attempted Murder, Foreclosure, General Paranoia -- And a Visit by the Voice!

As you can see, Salati's work has been pretty magnificent. The doors facing Jerusalem Boulevard were closed, but we got up close and managed to snap a photo of Scientology's front desk area...

Scientology in Israel: Arson, Attempted Murder, Foreclosure, General Paranoia -- And a Visit by the Voice!

A man inside appeared, and asked for names. He was provided with a couple. He gave his own name as Nadav as he opened the door and asked what we were interested in. We told him that we were curious to see the building that had been so much in the news, and wondered if 1) Scientology was now in business in Jaffa and 2) could we come in and look around?

Nadav told us that the building was not open to the public, and he could not give us a tour. He said we could walk around and look at the renovation of the building, if we were interested. So we thanked him and did just that.

Salati's work restoring the place is impressive. Not only does the structure look as if it had just been built, but ironwork in the windows is evocative. But the one thing that struck my traveling companion, who is from Tel Aviv, was the proliferation of cameras on the building. "You don't see that here. This is really, really unusual," I was told...

Scientology in Israel: Arson, Attempted Murder, Foreclosure, General Paranoia -- And a Visit by the Voice!

At the rear of the building, we heard activity. We found an open door, and a man came out, holding a walkie-talkie. He was Russian-Israeli, and he asked what we were doing there. (The word "security" immediately came to mind.) We asked him if the building was open, and he said it wasn't, which is why the front doors were closed. We thanked him, and then continued our tour of the outside.

We talked to some local vendors who worked near the building. They told us that people did come and go from the building, through the back door where we'd seen the security guard.

One pomegranate juice man told us Scientology was a "sect" and not really welcome in the neighborhood. Everyone we talked to was familiar with the story of Gur Finkelstein, the arsons, and the attempted murders.

To get a better angle for photos, we then crossed to the median strip in the middle of Jerusalem Boulevard. As we were taking pictures, Nadav and the Russian security man approached us, and this time their questions were more insistent. Who are you? Why are you taking pictures? While my companion, who spoke Hebrew, was answering, I angled my phone to take a photo of the two men, trying not to be too conspicuous about it.

Nadav immediately came over to me, however, and said in English "Delete that photo you took of me, please."

I smiled, but said no. He repeated his request.

I then pointed down at the ground at our feet.

"See that? It's public land."

He got the picture. "I see how it is," he said, and the two of them turned away.

Nadav, right, and the Russian security guy
Nadav, right, and the Russian security guy

After our visit to the building, I made several unsuccessful attempts to reach local journalists who had written about Finkelstein and the Alhambra. On the last night of my visit, however, I got lucky.

Eitan Erez, attorney to Naif Salati, the builder, said he could meet me at a restaurant at the Tel Aviv port.

Tel Aviv attorney Eitan Erez, on suing Scientology: "Nobody messes with us."
Tel Aviv attorney Eitan Erez, on suing Scientology: "Nobody messes with us."

We went over the basics of the case, and what his client, Salati, had been through. But I had to ask him, now that he's suing the Church of Scientology for millions of shekels...

Does he really know what he's getting himself into?

Scientology has already filed a counterclaim against Salati, and has filed its own foreclosure petition on the building. As usual, Scientology is not going to take the easy option -- pay Salati for the work he claims has not been compensated -- and is instead going to play rough. I quickly outlined for Erez the kinds of legal shenanigans Scientology is known for around the world, and how in one case the church spent years -- and millions of dollars -- to keep from paying a court judgment.

But Erez just gave me a smile.

"Nobody messes with us," he said.

I have to say, if Scientology is going to pick a fight in Israel, they could have picked an easier target. Not only is Salati a sympathetic figure, his attorney, Erez, is a prominent local litigator and he's also vice president of the Israeli Bar Association.

But Scientology does appear loaded for bear. The church hired a prominent local attorney of its own, Yehuda Ravel, and didn't hesitate to pay 200,000 shekels (about $55,000) in order to file a counterclaim against Salati's lawsuit, and provided a guarantee against possible losses. That guarantee was signed by Neil Levin, with the legal affairs office of the Church of Scientology International in Los Angeles.

(Levin has another interesting distinction. He was -- and may still be -- the president of the Church of Scientology California, which was once the "mother church" until it was made largely dormant in a 1980s corporate reorganization. For years, Scientology fought the famous Wollersheim judgment, saying that CSC was broke, but then, in 2002, CSC suddenly coughed up nearly $9 million in cash in order to keep new information out of the court record that could have threatened Scientology's tax exempt status. I wrote about all this here at the Voice in 2008.)

In the meantime, while Salati and the church fight over money, Scientology also has a headache with local municipal officials who have not approved an occupancy permit that would allow Scientology to open for business. In Israel, Scientology does not have the status of a religion that it does here in the United States, and it may be facing an uphill battle to win over local officials. Also, if Scientology tends to lure in gullible middle-class and wealthy youngsters -- the sort that might be numerous in secular Tel Aviv -- opening an org in a working class Arab neighborhood like Jaffa seems an odd choice.

I told Erez that I planned to keep in touch with him as the lawsuits moved forward. It will be interesting to see if Scientology operates the way it has elsewhere. If it's anything like in the past, Salati will be pressured to drop his lawsuit, moves will be made to get Erez kicked off the case, the same will be aimed at judges, and the court will be flooded with paper. Something tells me, however, that Israeli courts might not be so clueless about Scientology, and won't tolerate what happens time and again in this country.

Or maybe that's just the country's charms talking. This was my first trip, and I did not just work on a Scientology story over there. From the mosaics of Caesaria, to the alleys of Acre, to the charms of Jerusalem, the mysteries of Masada, and a good soak in the Dead Sea, the place mesmerized me. I hope to be back soon, and you can bet I'll go by again to admire the work of Naif Salati on a Jaffa landmark, whoever the tenant happens to be.

The Top 25 People Crippling Scientology #1: L. Ron Hubbard #2: David Miscavige #3: Marty Rathbun #4: Tom Cruise #5: Joe Childs and Tom Tobin #6: Anonymous #7: Mark Bunker #8: Mike Rinder #9: Jason Beghe #10: Lisa McPherson #11: Nick Xenophon (and other public servants) #12: Tommy Davis (and other hapless church executives) #13: Janet Reitman (and other journalists) #14: Tory Christman (and other noisy ex-Scientologists) #15: Andreas Heldal-Lund (and other old time church critics) #16: Marc and Claire Headley, escapees of the church's HQ #17: Jefferson Hawkins, the man behind the TV volcano #18: Amy Scobee, former Sea Org executive #19: The Squirrel Busters (and the church's other thugs and goons) #20: Trey Parker and Matt Stone (and other media figures) #21: Kendrick Moxon, attorney for the church #22: Jamie DeWolf (and other L. Ron Hubbard family members) #23: Ken Dandar (and other attorneys who litigate against the church) #24: David Touretzky (and other academics) #25: Xenu, galactic overlord

Tony Ortega is the editor-in-chief of The Village Voice. Since 1995, he's been writing about Scientology at several publications. | @VoiceTonyO | Facebook: Tony Ortega

Keep up on all of our New York news coverage at this blog, Runnin' Scared


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