New York to West Bank: Americans sold the dream of settler homes as Gaza war rages

'Come Home' tour advises Jewish Americans on how to buy property in Israel as well as illegal settlements in occupied Palestine

Unreal estate: how companies are advising Americans on buying land in West Bank and Israel. Illustration: Nick Donaldson/ Getty Images
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Stuart Honickman walked out of a synagogue in New York's Long Island holding a goody bag filled with information about purchasing land and homes in Israel – and in illegal West Bank settlements.

An Israeli real estate company had just run a seminar on how Jewish Americans can quickly and easily buy up property.

“I thought I had to put down a massive amount of money right away and it doesn't have to be like that,” said Mr Honickman, a business development executive for a New York photo store. “And there's mortgage companies that are here, as well. So you know … it's beautiful.”

The event in the village of Lawrence, a largely Jewish suburb about 25km south-east of Manhattan, was one stop on the “Come Home” tour in the US and Canada, organised by My Home In Israel, an Israeli real estate brokerage firm.

An event promoting real estate in Israel has raised tension in New York

An event promoting real estate in Israel has raised tension in New York

Mr Honickman, whose two sons and parents already live in Israel, said the October 7 Hamas attacks and the subsequent war in Gaza had “awakened a dream for a lot of people and they're starting to explore, how do I fit in over there?”

He said last week's real estate event, which had a heavy police presence as pro-Palestinian protesters gathered across the street, provided legal and financial advice for Americans purchasing land in Israel, including lawyers, developers and insurance companies.

This particular event was focused on Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and several other cities and communities, including Ma’ale Adumim, Neve Daniel and Efrat – all settlements in the occupied West Bank.

Such settlements are considered illegal under international law. Israel has long disputed this and the pace of development has only increased under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Last month, his far-right government approved plans to build nearly 3,500 new settler homes in Ma'ale Adumim, Efrat and Kedar, a move deplored by several countries and bodies, including the UAE and the UN, which said such plans “fly in the face of international law”.

When Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich announced the plans, he said the move was aimed at “deepening our eternal grip on the entire land of Israel”, an inflammatory remark that critics saw as a rebuke to US President Joe Biden's administration, whose condemnation of settlements has grown in recent months.

Israel has encouraged American Jews to undertake “aliyah”, the act of emigrating to Israel, and Israeli real estate roadshows such as the one in Lawrence are not new.

Critics, however, say the latest push to raise awareness about buying property is a response to October 7 by many in Israel who see building settlements as a way to displace more Palestinians and ensure a two-state solution can never come to pass.

The National was barred from entering the latest event in Lawrence and My Home In Israel representatives did not respond to several requests for comment.

Mr Honickman said the turnout was larger than at similar events in the past.

“I think more people really want to know: is this a viable option for us?” he said.

“Every individual has to come to their own understanding of where they fit into world history, and are they going to wait and wait and wait? Or are they going to stop to explore the opportunities that have been presented to them.”

In Israel, polls show younger people are the most likely to hold ultranationalist views. This appeared to be borne out in Lawrence, too, with a youth-led rally outside the event.

People blasted music, danced and waved Israeli flags, as the streets of the village that is home to a yeshiva, or Jewish rabbinical study centre, swelled with the sound of pro-Israel chants, honking vehicles and nationalist songs including the viral war anthem Harbu Darbu.

The song includes lyrics naming Palestinian celebrities including Bella Hadid and appears to call for the killing of Palestinians with lines such as: “All IDF [Israeli military] units are coming to do Harbu Darbu [war and pain] on their head.”

There was a sense of joy on one side of the street, periodically interrupted by spiteful taunts hurled against pro-Palestine counter-protesters across from them.

Some pro-Israel demonstrators shouted: “Who's fasting? Ramadan Mubarak!” The counter-protesters screamed back: “How many babies will Israel kill today?”

One ultranationalist shouted: “You losers! There are a thousand more of us than of you!”

Avi Elefant, a younger Jewish-American demonstrator from Lawrence, stated that any condemnation of settlements in the West Bank, and their increasing expansion, was "totally wrong".

“We have the right as Jews to actually move to the land of Israel. This has nothing to do with political bias. I think it has everything to do with our right,” he told The National alongside other younger protesters.

West Bank versus Judea and Samaria

According to the UN, the population of Israeli settlers in the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem, grew from 520,000 to more than 700,000 between 2012 and 2022.

“These settlers lived illegally in 279 Israeli settlements across the occupied West Bank, including 14 settlements in the occupied East Jerusalem, with a total population of more than 229,000 people. At least 147 of these settlements were outposts, illegal even under Israeli domestic law,” the world body said in a report last year.

All settlements are located in Area C, the 60 per cent of the West Bank whose security is controlled by Israel. Given that Israel has not annexed the West Bank, Jewish settlements in the territory are not considered by Israel to be under its full sovereignty.

Josh Vitow, a Lawrence-based real estate broker who came to the demonstration “as a curious spectator”, said that in a heavily ultranationalist community like this one, there is a particular interest in buying land in the West Bank.

“The feeling of the vast majority of the residents here is that Israel has a just claim to the West Bank, or as we call it Judea and Samaria, and that the settlements are not illegal, that the territory is not Palestinian territory, it is disputed territory,” he said.

This new “awakening” for many Zionist Jews has also served as a lightning rod for protests.

Rich Siegel, a Jewish-American activist in nearby Teaneck, New Jersey, has long argued that real estate seminars and sales events like the one in Lawrence breach not only international law but also US domestic fair housing policy, because most of the properties are available only to Jews.

He said the Teaneck community saw an “amazing turnout” of protests when the real estate tour made a stop at a local synagogue this month.

Mr Siegel explained that his journey to the movement for Palestine and against Israel came with discovering his faith.

He was raised among “atheist Zionists, secular Jews who really worshipped Jewish tribal identity and the state of Israel, instead of worshipping God and Judaism”.

A few kilometres away in the New York borough of Brooklyn, another real estate event that was supposed to take place the day after the one in Lawrence was cancelled at the last minute on the advice of police due to planned protests.

Abby Stein, a founding member of Rabbis for Ceasefire and an author and activist with dual US-Israeli citizenship, said that every settlement being built in the West Bank is an “active step” away from any possible future of justice and peace.

“We as Jews know that. People tried to kill our hope and our rights and our expectations for 2,000 years and they failed,” she told The National. “One of my big issues with the state of Israel is that they're not letting me truly love and enjoy this land of my ancestors."

'Cult survivor'

Many ultranationalists equate "anti-Zionism" with anti-Semitism, but Mr Siegel and Ms Stein describe this argument is “ahistorical”.

Ms Stein argued that any interpretation of Judaism that ascribes one political or national ideology to the Jewish people is flawed.

“If you look at the Torah, we started out as 12 tribes who are literally fighting with each other all the time … trying to meld Zionism and Judaism into one, to me, it doesn't work,” she said. “It's a contradiction. And trying to say that there's one way to be Jewish, it's probably the only wrong way to be Jewish.”

Mr Siegel adds: “I'm feeling that I'm a cult survivor, and that I look at the people that I left behind and I'm just appalled at how totally immune they are to Palestinian suffering.”

He said those who are supporting Israel amid the war in Gaza are “shooting themselves in the foot”.

“The whole world is appalled by it and Israel is not going to come back from this,” he predicted.

Many of the Zionists in Lawrence said they “feel for Palestinians”, with some adding that “Jews are the Muslims' brothers”.

For them, Israel is not to blame for any Palestinian suffering, including the more than 31,800 people that Gaza health officials say Israeli forces have killed in the enclave since October 7.

I would love to start a new organisation that's called PRO, the Palestinian Relocation Organisation
Stuart Honickman, at real estate event encouraging Jewish Americans to purchase land in Israel and the West Bank

“Palestinians should want to live in peace with us, and we give a lot of jobs to the Palestinians. And I think that Hamas is the real people to blame for this because they're causing a lot of hatred,” Mr Elefant said.

Mr Honickman added that he wants Palestinians to “have a beautiful life”, but his vision for what that means includes their displacement.

“I would love to start a new organisation that's called PRO – the Palestinian Relocation Organisation, and really cater to what their needs are … if you can't have a security partner, then you have a problem. I wouldn't have a thug living in my basement.”

For Ms Stein, that worldview is a dangerous one.

“Anything short of genocide is going to require recognition that Palestinians have a right to this land, have a connection to the land, that you cannot destroy, that you cannot kill,” she said.

Updated: March 23, 2024, 2:06 PM