Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Synagogue in US hosts event to aid West Bank settlers

Synagogue in US hosts event to aid West Bank settlers
The Associated Press
Published: February 25, 2007

TEANECK, New Jersey: As protesters chanted and waved signs outside, roughly 250 American Jews were able to get information on buying homes in the West Bank during a Sunday event promoted as a way to help Jewish settlers.

The sales pitch, organized by the Israel-based Amana Settlement Movement, took place in Teaneck at an Orthodox synagogue, Congregation B'nai Yeshurun.

The event drew rebukes from an Israeli group, as well as pro-Palestinian organizations, who say such efforts undermine international peace efforts.

The opposition groups believe the gathering represented the first time West Bank homes have been offered for sale in the United States.

They also questioned if the sale of what they consider illegally occupied lands violates anti-discrimination laws, but a New Jersey official has said U.S. state and federal authorities have no jurisdiction on overseas property.

Rabbi Steven Pruzansky said people were interested in the houses as an investment and as a possible home for themselves, "as well as to make a public statement that there are Jews in the world who believe, want to send a message that, the land belongs to us, to the Jewish people, and we make that statement without any shame, any hesitation."

Aliza Herbst, a representative from Amana, said the company was turning to North American Jews to buy homes so it can rent them out to young Israeli families who want to move into the West Bank, but can't afford to build.

One person who left the Teaneck event with plans on buying was Jack Forgash, 60, of Teaneck, who said he would see the purchase not only as an investment.

"I would consider it generosity, charity, a form of giving somebody a chance to live in a house, not be homeless," said Forgash, who described himself as a business executive.

"I don't see a problem with Jews living there because I recognize the fact that over a million Arabs are living in Israel proper, and they came to be happy with their lives," Forgash said.

The settlements are controversial because Israel promised in the early 1990s to freeze settlement construction on the West Bank and Gaza Strip as part of the Oslo peace process. The lands were captured in the 1967 Mideast War. In addition, under the 2003 "road map" peace plan, Israel agreed to remove dozens of Jewish outposts from the West Bank.

Nearly 270,000 Jewish settlers, up 6 percent over the past year, live in the West Bank among 2.4 million Palestinians. In the summer of 2005, Israel evacuated all 8,500 settlers from the Gaza Strip.

Many Orthodox Jews believe that Jews have a right to settle on lands that are part of the biblical land of Israel.

Opposition groups, however, contend that increased settlement damages efforts to create a Palestinian state, a goal backed by the U.S. government.

"Every settler who is added to the West Bank makes the realization of President Bush's vision of a two-state solution more difficult," Ori Nir, a spokesman for Americans for Peace Now, the sister organization of Israel's largest peace group, Peace Now, said last week.

Aaron Levitt, a member of Jews Against the Occupation, said the sale was deliberately inflaming the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

"The enemies of the U.S. are able to use the Israeli occupation as a rallying cry," the 37-year-old Queens, New York, resident said as he took a break from protesting in a crowd of about 25 people.

Samer Khalaf, a member of the New Jersey Chapter of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee who was also protesting, said his group wants to make sure "discrimination doesn't rear its ugly head in New Jersey."

"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," the 39-year-old Paramus attorney said, adding that his group also wants to discount the argument that the land can be sold because it is not occupied.

Police were on site to make sure the protest remained peaceful, which it did, even after a handful of counter-protestors gathered in front of the synagogue.

In a letter to American Jews, Amana noted that the Israeli government has ended new home subsidies for settlers.

"Almost all communities in (the West Bank) are full, with no possibility of accepting new young couples or families," the letter said. "If we don't find a solution now, we will create our own population freeze, which may, in turn, begin a phenomenon ... of families leaving in communities."

Single-family homes begin at $120,000 (€91,365), the letters said. American Jews were asked to buy a home and then rent it to settlers for about $250 (€190) month.

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