Settlers launch first drive in U.S. to sell homes
A campaign launched to convince American Jews to buy homes in the West Bank is the first organized sales effort of its kind.
A campaign launched this week to convince American Jews to buy homes in the West Bank is the first organized sales effort of its kind, activists from both sides of the political spectrum said.
Amana, the settlement arm of Gush Emunim, hosted housing fairs in New York and New Jersey this week and plans are underway for similar events in Miami and Chicago.
Never before have Diaspora Jews been asked to directly underwrite settlement expansion by either buying or financing the building of West Bank homes. But spurred by what they have termed a successful start, Amana has set its sights on Jewish communities throughout the U.S., with hopes of expanding the new and somewhat surprising trend.
About eight homes in settlements, including Kiryat Arba and Karnei Shomron, were sold this week and dozens of American buyers are "seriously considering" purchasing in the coming weeks, representatives of Amana told AngloFile.
Ranging in price from $93,000 to $165,000, the homes are to be rented to settlers for $250 to $400 a month and are as being marketed as a way to "leave your thumbprint on the destiny of Israel." The campaign essentially allows Israeli settlers, who will pay the American owners monthly rent, the opportunity to live in homes they would not have been able to afford to buy.
Potential buyers are told that the investment is "insured, protected and 100 percent legal." Amana representatives tell concerned buyers that if settlements are dismantled as part of a final-status agreement with the Palestinians, they will be reimbursed for the cost of their homes.
Officials from the Prime Minister's Office would not confirm Amana's promise regarding compensation and said in a statement: "We are not familiar with this issue and therefore will not comment."
Israeli law regarding compensation for people evacuated in the Gaza pullout includes certain provisions for home owners who do not live in the area in question. Officials at Sela, the disengagement administration, noted that an "isolated group" of Gush Katif evacuees who were not Israeli citizens received compensation for their homes, but they would not provide further information, citing privacy concerns.
"It's an investment, but also a statement of ideology," said Alon Farbstein, an assistant executive director at Binyanei Bar Amana, the organization's construction company, who attended housing fairs in Teaneck, New Jersey and Queens, New York this week. "People from Israel often come and ask for donations, but we're not asking for charity. We have come to offer them something and they are so appreciative."
The Union Bank of Israel, Bank Igud, is offering mortgages of up to 65 percent of the price of the home. A bank representative present at the fair offered an annual interest rate of 5 percent for 20 years, according to materials distributed there. Some buyers won't need a mortgage, Farbstein says, and those who do may take also loans from U.S. banks instead. The Americans who already signed purchase contracts have made a down payment of $3,000.
The support of the settlement movement among certain pockets of U.S. Jewry is hardly new. Americans have purchased homes in the West Bank in years past and rented them out to local residents. Organizations such as Ateret Cohanim have also asked American Jews to underwrite the purchase of homes in East Jerusalem through talks at parlor meetings or synagogues abroad.
But activists from Amana, as well as Peace Now and Gush Shalom on the left, say that this is the first organized attempt to sell homes in the territories to Diaspora Jewry en masse.
"Until now, there have been housing fairs [in the U.S.] for property in Jerusalem, Modi'in and Herzliya, but we are the first ones to bring a housing fair for Judea and Samaria," Farbstein said. "The question isn't why we are doing this now, but why we never did it before. And the answer is, I don't know."
The campaign has been met with swift condemnation from a plethora of left-wing organizations, which held a protest on Sunday outside the Teaneck, New Jersey synagogue where the fair was being held. About 25 protesters stood outside, as some 250 American Jews streamed into the synagogue to hear the Amana sales pitch.
Americans for Peace Now, which did not participate in the protest, issued a statement condemning the campaign and spokesperson Ori Nir said "every additional home bought or built makes a peace agreement less obtainable."
The event and parallel protest received considerable coverage in U.S. media outlets.
But some Jewish communal leaders say that their congregants are eager to get involved. "People want to do something good for Israel," said Rabbi Steven Pruzansky, the spiritual leader of Congregation Bnai Yeshurun, the New Jersey synagogue that sponsored the first fair. "They want to fulfill the mitzvah of settling the land of Israel and it's hard to do that in Teaneck."
Targeting affluent Jews
According to insiders, Amana is targeting affluent Jewish communities with a strong modern Orthodox presence. For this segment of the population, they say, laying out $150,000 for a home is hardly a financial burden.
"This is a chance for Americans to put their dollars where their mouth is," said Dov Hikind, a New York State assemblyman who attended the fair and plans to buy a West Bank home in the coming weeks. "If this was purely an investment, I'd tell you to go to Wall Street.
"I believe in God and have faith, but there are no guarantees," he said when asked about the potential risk. "I don't live my life in fear that it [another evacuation] will happen. I've got to have faith and do what I think is right."
Amana has begun a serious marketing campaign, complete with a toll-free U.S. phone number. Their Web site now features extensive information in English about building possibilities, with links to each of the 10 settlements involved in the campaign (see box) and possible floor plans. Color pamphlets distributed at the fair include photos of red-roofed homes with green lawns and expansive parks, with an Israeli flag waving in the background.
As part of their sales pitch, Amana representatives say that government subsidy cuts have made purchasing homes in the area increasingly costly, so that young families can no longer afford to buy there. They have warned of a potential "population freeze," which they say could jeopardize the settlement movement.
"It is within your power to help this Zionist powerhouse remain steadfast in its ascent - to create a positive trend where no political party in Israel has succeeded through policy or politics, and to leave your thumbprint on the destiny of Israel," the promotional material reads.
Recent years have seen an increase in the number of American Jews who own property in Israel and this campaign seems to be riding on the trend. But unlike other building projects, the Amana campaign is not meant to provide U.S. Jews with a vacation home. Buyers are not considering immigrating here or moving into the homes that they purchase, but rather allowing settlers to live there for them. Amana buyers are making an intentional political statement meant to actively strengthen the settlement movement.
Indeed, the Amana materials tell Americans buyers that purchasing a home "is a giant step forward in your love of Israel in the very areas where our forefathers walked this land."
Counter to U.S. policy
Michael Sfard, an attorney for Peace Now, filed a complaint with the attorney general against Amana last year, demanding a criminal investigation because the settler organization continues to expand its outposts.
Representatives for Peace Now also take issue with the Amana claim that there is a need for such a campaign. "There are many empty houses in the settlements and there is no housing shortage," said Dror Etkes, director of Peace Now's Settlements Watch program. "They are doing this to increase their cash flow."
Activists also say that calling the project "legal" is somewhat dubious. "Settlers are supposed to get building permits and if they have done so, selling these homes would be legal under Israeli law. Of course, it's totally illegal under international law," said Adam Keller, spokesperson for Gush Shalom.
He also says that the timing for the campaign is hardly coincidental. "The settlers need the financial and political support of the ultra-Orthodox [sic] and the fundamentalist Christians in the U.S.," he added. "They would not be able to go on without it. The settlers feel that they are in a weak position - they feel that they are on borrowed time. The international consensus is that the solution will include a Palestinian state and that the Israeli settlers will have to be evacuated. They are trying to build up their position, get more housing and mobilize maximum support."
American embassy officials had no information about the legality or illegality of the project under U.S. law, but said that the expansion of settlements ran counter to American policy. Spokesman Stewart Tuttle said that buying homes in the West Bank would be a "huge risk" given the unknown results of a final status agreement.
Tuttle added that the embassy warns citizens against traveling in these areas. "Advising against residence is assumed," he said.