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A U.S.-based company has begun selling tiny parcels of land in northern Israel over the Internet, to give American Jews a cheap way to get a "foothold in the Holy Land." Although they are just 1 square foot in size, they are marketed as being the "emotional and spiritual size" of a mountain. Since operations began in late June, "hundreds" of parcels priced at $118 each have been sold, much of it to Jews and Christians in the U.S.

"There are many people around the world who want to own a piece of Israel - The Holy Land - but cannot because it is too expensive, so we priced one square foot for $118 so everyone can afford it if they so desire," Alexander Spero, president of the Israel Land Development Corporation, said in a telephone interview from the company's Pennsylvania offices. "Christians and Jews want to be connected in some way to Israel."

ILDC (no connection to the Israel Land Development company), one of the most recent examples of the confluence of capitalism and Zionism, is the only company sells minuscule parcels of privately owned land in Israel to foreigners, according to industry experts. The parcels are located on agricultural land near Yokneam Illit that must be kept in "park-like conditions," according to zoning laws. Spero bought the plot, described on the ILDC Web site as "prime Israel real estate," earlier this year.

According to area real estate agents, one square foot of similarly zoned land in the region, based on the price of one dunam (1/4 acre), would cost about one dollar. "It is definitely overpriced," said the Boaz Vikman, head of RE/MAX Advantage (Yitaron), which has offices in Yokneam Illit, said of the new project. "If it's on a nature reserve, then nothing else can be done with the land."

Spero holds joint U.S. and Israeli citizenship and divides his time between Pittsburgh and Ra'anana. He says the idea came to him during a recent trip here. "People buy a tree in Israel, which is good, but usually they don't know where it is," he said. "With this, people feel like they are buying something that is theirs. This is real. Of course they can't camp on their one square foot but they can visit it. I want to connect as many people to Israel as I can."

Marketing products to the ideologically inclined is hardly new, but this latest retail project seems to pull Zionist heartstrings just a bit further. The land comes with a certificate of ownership and is marketed as a unique gift for baptisms bar mitzvahs and weddings. Many customers purchase just one plot, but some prefer to buy parcels for their entire family. Spero calls it "a great gift item for any special occasion."

Uriel Rainitz, a real estate agent who helped arrange the sale and is ILDC's Israel representative, likened the company's product to "buying sand or water in a bottle from the Holy Land, but instead people can buy an actual plot that they own, step on, and pass on for generations."

ILDC's Web site, www.israellandgift.com, tells potential buyers that they are "purchasing a very special connection to Israel the Holy Land" and that "it is not the size of the land that matters, it is the meaning attached to the land that matters."

According to the site, "Israel Land Development Corporation believes that owning a piece of land in Israel, aside from living there, is the ultimate connection to this great and amazing country. It is our mission to make this opportunity available to you."

Only 7 percent of the land in Israel is privately owned, according to the Israel Land Administration (ILA), making Spero's project relatively unique. Spokespersons for both the ILA and the Jewish National Fund denied having any knowledge about ILDC.

Prof. Selwyn Ilan Troen, Chairman of the Department of History at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Be'er Sheva and professor of Israel Studies at Brandeis University in Massachusetts, says he understands the religious and psychological pull of purchasing land.

"The notion of having a piece of Terra Sancta, the Holy Land, is very powerful and it is deeply embedded in religious traditions," Troen said. "There is a deeply felt need to be connected - not merely in abstraction, but in a manifest, physical way."

Troen also sounded a cautionary note, saying that ILDC seems to use "modern technology to take advantage of the most ancient feelings. People are always thinking up new schemes. This is clearly a novel scheme, playing on a centuries-old tradition. He called the idea "that with the press of a button, a click of a mouse, someone can purchase the Holy Land with their credit card" an "an enormously imaginative enterprise, a scam."

Vikman of RE/MAX said, in a similar spirit, "people try to sell anything to American Jews."

Spero rejected any suggestion of impropriety. His profit margin, he insisted, is small. He cited the legal and bureaucratic costs involved in individually registering each square foot, as well as taxes, marketing and administrative costs, all of which contribute to ILDC's high overhead. "I would never do anything that would even hint of a scam," Spero said. "That's beyond my character and goes against my feelings for Israel."