Menu JTA Search

Shul hosts land fair — or land grab

SIGN UP FOR THE JTA DAILY BRIEFING

Protestors across the street from Congregation Bnai Yeshurun in Teaneck, N.J., decry a program Feb. 25 selling West Bank houses to American Jewish investors. (Jacob Berkman)

Protestors across the street from Congregation Bnai Yeshurun in Teaneck, N.J., decry a program Feb. 25 selling West Bank houses to American Jewish investors. (Jacob Berkman)

TEANECK, N.J. (JTA) — The “road map” peace plan may enjoin the Israeli government from expanding settlements in the West Bank, but that hasn’t stopped a private group from trying to pick up where the government was mandated to leave off.Congregation B’nai Yeshurun, a Modern Orthodox congregation in this New York City suburb, sparked controversy Feb. 25 with a real-estate fair urging American Jews to invest in West Bank homes.Outside the synagogue, some 20 Palestinian supporters protested the meeting, depicting it as an elaborate land grab.The Israeli government was supposed to stop funding new building in the West Bank when the road map was adopted in 2003. That has forced settlers and their supporters to find private funding, and they must be succeeding: The Jewish population there is growing significantly faster than in Israel proper.Binyanei Bar Amana, a contractor based in Jerusalem’s Ramat Eshkol neighborhood, urged those attending the real-estate fair to spend tens of thousands of dollars on homes that could be rented out at cost to Jewish settlers in the disputed territory, which the Palestinians claim as their own. Amana, a private, for-profit contractor, is offering to arrange bank loans — preferably with Bank Igud, which is associated with the project and is offering mortgages for up to 65 percent of a home’s price. Amana also will match potential renters with homeowners and, for a small fee, will act as a management company. “We will assist you in becoming acquainted with the communities and properties,” said an informational sheet Amana handed out at the synagogue. “We will provide you with a photograph of the location of the house in the community.” Amana is offering homes in 12 settlements. Some are within the West Bank security fence, which many expect to be Israel’s future border if a Palestinian state one day is established, but some are outside the fence. The homes range in price from $93,000 for 97 square meters in Otniel to $165,000 for 111 square meters in Kiryat Netafim. The homes can be customized, which would raise the price, Amana spokesman Aliza Herbst said.Teaneck resident Jack Fogash said he was considering buying two homes in the territories, calling it a sound investment and an act of charity to provide a place to live for Jews who cannot afford their own homes.Fogash also said he did not see a problem with Jews living in the West Bank, since more than 1 million Arabs live in Israel.Fogash, 60, said he might move to Israel when he retires, but if so he most likely would move to Jerusalem.Herbst said that if Israel evacuates settlers from the West Bank — something she called highly unlikely — home buyers should be covered financially. When Gaza settlements were evacuated in 2005, settlers received compensation packages for their homes amounting to about $1,000 per square meter, roughly what the homes will cost if buyers do not customize them. Herbst said Amana has been flooded with e-mail inquiries from prospective buyers and synagogues interested in holding similar presentations. Amana will make several more sales stops in New Jersey, New York and Connecticut before Passover. Amana has about 1,000 homes to sell, and Herbst insisted it was a moneymaking venture and an investment opportunity, not an ideological project. Six or seven sales were expected from the Teaneck event, she said. Reporters were not admitted into the synagogue’s sanctuary, where organizers said some 250 prospective buyers listened to the sales pitch.The protesters were from a loose coalition of 11 organizations, according to Yoram Gelman, a member of Wespac, a political action group that supports what he called “peace and justice.””I feel terrible that my people are doing this,” said Gelman, who was born in Haifa but left with his family in 1945 when he was 5 years old. He now lives in Westchester County, N.Y., where Wespac is based.Gelman claims that the sale of land in occupied territory is illegal according to international law.Ori Nir, a spokesman for Americans for Peace Now, wasn’t sure if that was the case, but said he opposed the sales all the same. “The legal issue here is not our focus,” Nir told JTA in a telephone interview two days before the event. “Politically we think American Jews would do much better for Israel’s interests and well-being if they would invest their money in promoting peace and security for Israel and not enterprises that would perpetuate its conflict with its neighbors.”Strengthening Jewish settlements in the West Bank will make a two-state solution to the conflict more difficult to implement, Nir said. Samer Khalaf, director of the Arab-American Anti Discrimination Committee’s New Jersey chapter, told protesters that offering the homes just to Jews was discriminatory.Khalaf, a labor lawyer of Syrian and Palestinian descent, stood behind a police barricade with a line of protesters screaming slogans such as “What happened to your Jewish ethics?” and “What did the Palestinians have to do with the Holocaust?” “We cannot buy land in the settlements — you must be Jewish,” he said. “If you’re Palestinian and you want to sell land to a Jew, God bless you. But it has to be reciprocal.”In fact, under Palestinian Authority law, selling land to a Jew is a crime punishable by death.B’nai Yeshurun Rabbi Stephen Pruzansky was unconcerned by the protests, saying he believed it was the religious obligation of Jews to settle the land of Israel, of which he said the West Bank is a part. □

NEXT STORY