Thursday, March 8, 2007

Seeking New Israeli Settlers, Synagogue Draws Protesters



The New York Times

A real estate fair in Teaneck, N.J., seeking Americans to buy homes in the West Bank met some opposition.

By TRYMAINE LEE

Published: February 26, 2007

TEANECK, N.J., Feb. 25 — As several dozen people screamed at one another across West Englewood Avenue on Sunday, waving Palestinian flags, Israeli flags and clenched fists, Rabbi Steven Pruzansky stood inside Bnai Yeshurun synagogue, smiling. He proclaimed the day a success.

Hundreds of Jewish families from New York and New Jersey had just gathered at a real estate fair at the synagogue that was anything but typical.

It was an attempt by an Israeli group to entice American Jews to buy and perhaps move into moderately priced homes in Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Homes that the buyers did not want to live in would be rented to Jewish settlers.

“We’re fulfilling a biblical commandment,” Rabbi Pruzansky said in an interview after the fair. “God commanded us to settle the land of Israel. This is a very natural step,”

“There is an ideological motivation, but we also believe we might be able to attract prudent investors,” he said.

Under the 2003 “road map” to peace drawn up by the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia, Israel agreed to halt all settlement growth in the West Bank and the Palestinians agreed to disarm militant groups there.

But the plan stalled shortly after it was introduced. The Israeli government has argued that normal population growth in existing settlements should be acceptable.

The United States calls West Bank settlements obstacles to peace, since they are on land the Palestinians hope to turn into their state.

“Peace is an illusion already,” Rabbi Pruzansky said. “By having Jews live there, we are strengthening the land, adding a safeguard.”

The Israeli government has all but cut off money for new homes, forcing those who support the settlements’ growth to look elsewhere for financing — including to Jews in the United States, who would own the homes from afar.

The real estate fair was criticized by pro-Palestinian groups and by Amnesty International. Protesters gathered across the street from the synagogue, hurling chants of “Racists, racists, racists.”

“The major point in our minds was that we saw this as an event that was racist in its very nature,” said Samer Khalaf, a member of the executive board of the New Jersey Chapter of the Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.

“That’s what, in essence, we were protesting — that you have a group taking land away from Palestinians, Muslims and Christians and giving it to Jewish people from all over the world.”

Aliza Herbst represented the Israeli housing group, the Amana Settlement Movement, which held the fair and which would build the homes and rent them to settlers.

She said the homes would be built on land owned by the Israeli government that is designated for settlement.

Yitz Stern, a member of the Bnai Yeshurun congregation who attended the fair, said he and his wife had been thinking for years about moving to Israel, but until yesterday’s presentation they thought they could not afford to do so.

“Living in Jerusalem proper has become very cost-prohibitive,” he said. “I’m a normal middle-class guy, and I don’t have that kind of money.”

According to Ms. Herbst, homes in some West Bank settlements cost only $117,000. Mr. Stern said, “I know from our friends, acquaintances and neighbors that there are many people that are looking to have a piece of the rock in Israel.”

The fair’s organizers “made a seriously compelling argument for buying a home there,” he said, adding, “I’m going to think about it.”

Mr. Stern said he believed that the contested land was part of Israel and that Jews had a God-given right to it.

“I can see why some would be upset, but if we’re talking about these physical developments, I don’t see anyone being displaced, and if that’s the case I don’t see what the big deal is.”

Rabbi Pruzansky said he was pleased with the way the fair turned out. Asked if the protest had soured it, he said, “I think what they did was give us some free publicity.”

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