Activists protest settlement real estate sale in New Jersey

A general view of the settlement of Kiryat Arba, near the West Bank city of Hebron. (MaanImages/Mamoun Wazwaz)

On a sunny but chilly Sunday morning, Rabbi Steven Pruzansky of Congregation Bnai Yeshurun was preparing to welcome temple members and other local Jewish families to his synagogue to “strengthen the Zionist dream” by purchasing new houses in the occupied West Bank.

The enticement of Jews to move to restricted, Jewish-only enclaves on land seized from Palestinians is nothing new: whether through the lure of cheap housing or the dream of bringing about the coming of the Messiah by “redeeming the land”, religious and secular Jews alike have been drawn to these enclaves since the first settlement Kiryat Arba was established in 1968. What was new this time was the location of the sales pitch: Teaneck, New Jersey.

Pruzansky insisted to reporters that this was in fact the third such sales presentation to be held at his synagogue. However, it was certainly the first to attract significant press attention, which began with an article that appeared in the English-language Jerusalem Post on February 9th. The article drew the attention of human rights watchdogs around the world from Amnesty International — whose Executive Director condemned the planned sales pitch in a statement, to the Israel-based Peace Now — which indicated that this was the first such presentation, to their knowledge, to be made in the United States.

The choice of Teaneck as a forum to encourage ethnically-based discrimination is not without its own significance. More than being home to a growing community of Modern Orthodox Jews, clearly targeted by the sales pitch, Teaneck has been a major flashpoint in the ongoing struggle for civil rights in the United States. In 1990, an unarmed 16-year-old African-American, Phillip Pannell, was shot in the back by white police officer Gary Spath. The resulting firestorm of protest, including large rallies led by the likes of Jesse Jackson and the Reverend Al Sharpton, also served to draw attention to the illegal blockbusting practices of local real estate agencies, which had helped to fill the powder keg ignited by Spath’s deadly bullet.

The wounds of the past had not yet fully healed when Amana, the development arm of the Israeli settlement movement Gush Emunim decided to make Teaneck the target of its own bid to encourage discriminatory real estate sales. Amana, established in 1976, has completed over fifty building projects, developing over 2,000 Jewish-only housing units, according to its website. One settlement promoted on the website, Bat Ayin, made headlines in 2002, when several residents were arrested by Israeli authorities for their role in a plot to detonate a cart filled with explosives in the street outside a Palestinian girls’ school in East Jerusalem. The explosives were set to go off at 7:35 in the morning, when the streets would be filled with girls making their way to class. This is in keeping with similar actions attributed to Amana’s parent organization, Gush Emumim, in the 1980s.

Of the nearly eighty settlements promoted on Amana’s website, the organization chose to promote twelve to the attendees of the Teaneck event. One hour after the presentation began, attendees were climbing all over one another to get at the pile of “sell sheets” for the dozen communities — including the infamous Kiryat Arba in Hebron. The atmosphere inside was very similiar to that of a time-share presentation with an Amana representative fielding questions over the public address system while other representatives met individually with prospective buyers. Rabbi Pruzansky chose to hold the presentation in his synagogue’s sanctuary, to emphasize the attempt at theologically justifying the settlements. Journalists were barred from entering the sanctuary, providing synagogue representatives with the opportunity to exaggerate the number of attendees, which appeared to fall markedly short of the 250 Amana and Pruzansky claimed.

Outside on the sidewalk opposite the synagogue, an ad-hoc group of protesters, representing eleven different Palestinian solidarity and human rights organizations, chanted and waved flags and placards calling attention to the illegality of the event. The protesters, numbering between forty and fifty at their peak, frequently responded to taunts from counter-demonstrators by chanting “Racists, Racists, Racists”. The counter-demonstrators, waving their own placards with slogans such as “Go Home”, and “Remember 9/11”, often hurled racial invectives at the group across the street. At one point, a counter-demonstrator attempted to cross the street, seemingly intent on assaulting one of the protesters, and was restrained by police. The children of event attendees inside Congregation Bnai Yeshurun watched the scene intently through the synagogue’s glass doors, largely ignoring the sales presentation.

Attorney Samer Khalaf of the New Jersey chapter of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, told reporters that “this country, decades ago, got away from selling land to someone based on their religion, ethnicity or race — that’s essentially what’s going on” at the Amana event. He noted that settlements on occupied land are clearly illegal under international law, which is considered a part of US law. By mounting their sales pitch in the United States, Amana was actively encouraging citizens to violate these laws. Another protester added, “By allowing Amana to solicit material support for an organized attempt to break US and international law, that’s no different from what state authorities are doing here today.”

New Jersey officials told reporters that they had no jurisdiction over overseas property sales, but the protesters, who included a significant number of attorneys, indicated that they would continue to explore the legality of the event in the context of multiple areas of state and federal law. They were able to obtain a copy of one of Amana’s sales contracts, which has been forwarded to human rights and legal advocacy groups and will be closely scrutinized. The State of New Jersey is heavily invested in Israeli bonds, and even maintains an office in Israel for the purpose of encouraging trade. Clearly, the State has the leverage to act if it chooses to do so.

Individuals and organizations from both New Jersey and New York — many of whom were Jewish — attended the protest. One demonstrator even commented that there seemed to be more Jews protesting the event than participating in the counter-demonstration across the street. “I feel terrible that my people are doing this”, said Haifa-born Yoram Gelman, noting that the deliberate conflation of Judaism and Zionism was fostering the spread of anti-Semitic sentiments around the world. Aaron Levitt, of the New York-based Jews Against the Occupation, told reporters that settlements, and American inaction with respect to them, was bolstering anti-American sentiment as well. “The enemies of the U.S. are able to use the Israeli occupation as a rallying cry”, he said.

Organizations such as Amana have been highly successful at fueling the growth of the settlements despite stated American and Israeli policies to the contrary. At the beginning of 2006, there were approximately 450,000 settlers living in the occupied territories and the Israeli organization Peace Now notes that tenders for 952 housing units in the settlements were publicized in 2006.* All of this is in direct contradiction to the principles outlined by the Quartet (the United States, United Nations, European Union, and Russia) in the Road Map, and despite the 2005 Gaza “disengagement” in which approximately 9,000 settlers were removed from Gaza, with many simply relocated to the West Bank.

“I know from our friends, acquaintances and neighbors that there are many people that are looking to have a piece of the rock”, said Bnai Yeshurun member Yitz Stern. Amana “made a seriously compelling argument for buying a home there”, he stated. “I don’t see what the big deal is”.

Amana has stated that presentations will follow, naming Cleveland, Fort Lauderdale, and Miami as future stops on its American sales tour.

*Editor’s note: This article originally cited a Peace Now statistic that there were 250,000 settlers in the West Bank at the beginning of 2006. However, this does not include the illegal settlement population in East Jerusalem, and the figure of 450,000 reflects this.

Andrew Muhab El-Kadi is a member of the Palestine/Israel Education Project and Abraham Greenhouse is Interim Director of the Palestine Freedom Project

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