Can significant numbers of American Jews be enticed into buying homes in Jewish settlements on the far side of Israel’s separation fence?
Based on the results of real estate fairs that two emissaries of the settler movement held with potential buyers in Orthodox synagogues in Teaneck, N.J., and Hillcrest, Queens, on Sunday, the answer may well be a qualified “Yes.”
The response was “positive beyond anything we had imagined before coming here,” said Aliza Herbst, spokesperson for Yesha Council leader Pinchas Wallerstein.
Interviewed Monday after making sales pitches the previous day to crowds of about 100 at Congregation B’nai Yeshurun in Teaneck, N.J., and 20 at Young Israel of Hillcrest in Queens, Herbst said she would have been happy to have even one commitment by an American Jew.
But she said four people who attended the meetings “definitely” intend to purchase a house and several others asked her for contracts to show their lawyers.
Herbst traveled to the New York area with her companion in the venture, Alon Farbspein, director of Binyanei Bar Amana, a settler-run construction company.
Herbst added that she and Farbspein expect to hold further meetings with potential buyers of West Bank houses in Fort Lauderdale, Miami, Los Angeles, Cleveland and Toronto in the coming weeks.
According to Herbst, the “Buy a house in Yesha” campaign is the brainchild of Wallerstein, one of the founders of Gush Emunim (Bloc of the Faithful), which began settling the Arab-populated heartland of the West Bank during the 1970’s.
It was begun, she said, to address a growing concern that fewer Israelis have been moving to West Bank settlements on the other side of the separation fence since the government of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert discontinued subsidies that reduced the cost of new homes there by $20,000 or more for buyers.
The campaign aims to sell houses in 12 settlements beyond the separation fence, ranging from $93,000-$160,000, and then rent the houses to young Israeli couples.
The houses, yet to be built, will be within the perimeters of existing West Bank settlements, including Kiryat Arba, Shilo, Karnei Shomron and Sussia. Herbst said that Binyanei Bar Amana is capable of building up to 1,000 new houses a year if there proves to be a market for them.
Advanced word of the real estate fair at B’nai Yeshurun, a Modern Orthodox synagogue where the senior rabbi, Steven Pruzansky, has long been known as an avid backer of right-wing causes, was first revealed in an article in the Jerusalem Post and drew rebuke from Americans for Peace Now and the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee.
Outside B’nai Yeshurun, the usual bucolic tranquility of a suburban Sunday morning was shattered by shouts of “Free Palestine” and “Zionism is racism” from about 20 pro-Palestinian demonstrators, and “Stop Hating Jews” from a few members of the synagogue. The groups glowered at each other from opposite sides of West Englewood Avenue as police kept them apart.
Rabbi Pruzansky kept print and television reporters outside the fair because, “The press brings a circus, and we are interested in practical accomplishments.”
He added, “We believe that we must fulfill the biblical commandment to settle the Land of Israel. This is a holy endeavor.”
Yet he contended that the houses are also “a good investment and a potential home for oneself” if and when home buyers decide to make aliyah or retire to Israel.
Asked about the long-standing policy of the United States that settlements are an obstacle to the peace process, the rabbi responded emphatically, “Peace is an illusion that will not come in my lifetime or that of my children, unless the Messiah comes.”
Also appearing at B’nai Yeshurun to endorse the effort was New York Assemblyman Dov Hikind (D-Brooklyn), who said that he and his wife Shani intend to purchase a house in one of the settlements.
According to Hikind, “American Jews who are committed and passionate about Israel always ask me, ‘What can I do in concrete terms to help Israel?’ This is an amazing opportunity to do just that; to own a piece of property in the Land of Israel and to give an opportunity for a young family to live there.”
Herbst and Farbspein talked specifics with potential buyers on such issues as cost, mortgage terms and government compensation should West Bank settlements be evacuated.
Herbst contended that U.S. citizens who buy property in West Bank settlements are not contradicting U.S. policy. She asserted that the Bush administration signed off on the growth of existing West Bank settlements within their current boundaries, as long as Israel does not build new settlements, in an April 14, 2004, letter to that effect sent by Dov Weisglass, a top aide to then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to then-U.S. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice.
But the actual text of the Weisglass letter relevant to the settlements appears far more ambiguous, stating: “Within the agreed principles of settlement activities, an effort will be made in the next few days to have a better definition of the construction line of settlements in Judea and Samaria [the West Bank]. An Israeli team, in conjunction with [U.S.] Ambassador [Dan] Kurtzer, will review aerial photos of settlements and will jointly define the construction line of each of the settlements.”
Geoffrey Aronson, director of the Washington-based Foundation for Middle East Peace, said the letter was never accepted by the U.S. “It seems to me a real stretch for Amana to claim that the Weisglass letter confirms that purchases of houses in West Bank settlements by American citizens is consistent with U.S. policy,” he said.
Aronson cited a 2003 State Department policy statement entitled “Performance-Based Roadmap to a Permanent Two-State Settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict,” which contains a proviso requiring Israel during the first phase of a negotiated agreement with the Palestinians “to freeze all settlement activity (including natural growth of settlements).”
Such nuances seemed lost on a number of people who left the B’nai Yeshurun event stating they were strongly considering buying a house.
Lee Weinblatt, an advertising executive and resident of Teaneck, who already owns an apartment in Jerusalem, said of the West Bank properties being offered, “The prices are so low, you can buy one of these houses for less than the deposit you would have to put down for a house in Teaneck.”
He said he had been convinced by Herbst and Farbspein that “the houses being offered for sale will be in established communities, not on new land. There is nothing here that is sinister or that would upset Condi Rice.”
Teaneck residents Norman and Roza Chideckel, who are dual U.S. and Israeli citizens, said they are “thinking very seriously” about buying a house. “I think it is very important to keep building the Land of Israel despite the position the Israeli government is presently taking,” Norman Chideckel said.
Roza Chideckel, an attorney and real estate agent, said, “I see this as a great opportunity to buy a house in order to help young couples, and when we eventually return to live in Israel, we will have a home waiting for us.”
Would she be concerned about safety? “No,” she said, “I believe we will be very safe, safer than we are here in Teaneck.”