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West Bank settlements’ house prices go through the roof

Growing up in a Jerusalem apartment, Aaron Lipkin used to marvel at the two-storey houses that he would see on weekend drives with his parents.

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BEN SALES

It made little difference to him that those houses were in Israeli West Bank settlements. A religious Zionist, he has no problem living in the territory that the international community views as occupied.

So when he and his wife went house hunting in Jerusalem 19 years ago and couldn’t find anything in their price range, they ventured north to this settlement. Ever since, they have lived there in the two-storey house of Lipkin’s dreams.

A generation later, Lipkin is facing the same problem. His kids want to move back to Ofra – but now it, too, is unaffordable. Lipkin bought his house in 2000 for 550 000 shekels – about $200 000 (R2.8 million) in 2018 dollars, correcting for inflation. Now, houses the same size in Ofra sell for at least 1.5 million shekels, (R5.9 million).

In fewer than 20 years, in other words, the price of housing in the settlement has doubled.

“We’re not sorry for a second when we think about the price of the house, the ease of buying it,” Lipkin, the spokesperson for Ofra and a tour guide, told JTA while sitting in an chair in the corner of his spacious living room. “Today we’re shaking from fear. We have five kids and we have no idea how our kids will buy their own house without becoming enslaved to a crazy mortgage.”

Since the Lipkins moved across Israel’s pre-1967 borders, or the Green Line, hundreds of thousands of Israelis have followed their lead. In 2000, there were fewer than 200 000 settlers living in the West Bank, excluding eastern Jerusalem, according to B’Tselem, a left-wing Israeli organisation. Now, the number is closer to 400 000. And home prices are rising accordingly.

Many of the settlers are ideological – committed to the principle of Jews living in what they call Judea and Samaria and Israel retaining control of the area. But others are drawn by the quality of life offered by settlements – larger houses, more green space, and intimate communities.

The Israeli government has also facilitated that comfort, building access roads that avoid Palestinian areas and increasing the number of bus lines that go directly to the settlements. The changes mean that many settlers can live their lives, if they choose, largely avoiding contact with the Palestinian villages around them. Even relatively distant settlements like Ofra have the feel of a suburb.

But, the settlements are now becoming more like Israel in yet another way: The country’s festering housing crisis, in which home prices have ballooned for a decade, is moving across the Green Line. The safer settlements feel, the more their home prices rise to meet the national average.

According to a November 2016 paper by the Shoresh Institute, a research group in Israel, housing construction in the settlements has not kept up with population growth. An October 2016 paper by Israel’s Center for Political Economics found that the number of average monthly salaries needed to buy a home in the settlements rose from 87 in 2003 to 152 in 2015. That’s only 10 pay cheques less than the national average of 162.

The housing market is also booming in Efrat, a settlement that acts as a bedroom community for nearby Jerusalem. Right-wing politicians like Naftali Bennett, the Minister of Education, have pushed annexation of so-called consensus settlements like Efrat – those that most Israelis assume will remain part of the country under any future scenario – for years.

As he walked through an empty corner townhouse for sale in Efrat, real estate agent Yaniv Gabbay said that as the prospect of a Palestinian state – and corresponding settlement evacuation – becomes more and more distant, Israelis feel increasingly comfortable investing in West Bank property. Another townhouse in this development sold for 2 million shekels (R7.8 million), in 2016, before it was built. This five-bedroom unit on the corner was going for 2.6 million shekels (R10.1 million)as of May.

In an Instagram Q-and-A on Monday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, “I can promise you that no settlements in the Land of Israel will be evacuated.”

Israel’s right-wing is also increasing the country’s settlement building. According to Peace Now, a left-wing Israeli nongovernmental organisation that monitors settlement activity, the amount of new construction in the settlements was 17% above the annual average in 2017.

On Wednesday, Israel announced the advancement of construction plans for 1 000 more housing units in the West Bank.

Meanwhile, Palestinians living in Area C, the area of the West Bank fully administered by Israel, have long protested that they can’t build any houses or infrastructure.

“Area C has been allocated for the benefit of Israeli settlements or the Israeli military, at the expense of Palestinian communities,” according to the United Nations Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs. “This impedes the development of adequate housing, infrastructure, and livelihoods in Palestinian communities, and has significant consequences for the entire West Bank population.”

Hagit Ofran, who heads Peace Now’s Settlement Watch project, said the main problem facing any potential settlement evacuation is the sheer number of residents who live in isolated settlements. She is less worried about Israelis who move to the West Bank for quality-of-life reasons than the tens of thousands of ideological settlers who are committed to living deep in the West Bank.

A few settlers in the northern West Bank said quality of life was the driving factor in bringing them to the territory. When Miriam Shatsky and her husband were looking to buy a home recently, a mortgage agent laughed at them after they revealed their salaries and said they wanted to live in the central Israeli city of Modiin. A few months ago, they were able to buy a five-bedroom apartment for slightly more than $300 000 (R4.2 million) in Karnei Shomron, a settlement with a large English-speaking, or Anglo, population.

“Real estate in the territories was really risky, and we didn’t know we wanted to settle here,” Shatsky said. “As we got better jobs, the target kept moving farther and farther away. Actually, Modiin sounded very interesting to me, but it was knocked off the table because it wasn’t affordable. A lot of Anglo communities are in places that aren’t affordable.”

Lipkin said that after living in the settlements for a while, the differences between quality-of-life concerns and ideology blur. With right-wing politicians frequently calling for some form of settlement annexation, Israel is doing more to absorb the settlements than to leave them. And in the meantime, more Israelis keep moving in.

(JTA)

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Shabbos Project

Shabbos Project in 1 500 cities

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The Shabbos Project is once again happening this weekend in more than 1 500 cities and 100 countries around the world.

Following last year’s pivot to home-based Shabbos experiences and Zoom challah bakes – necessitated by the pandemic – this year, the Shabbos Project is close to returning to pre-COVID-19 levels of involvement.

In South Africa, events centre on the Big Shabbos Walk, with shuls arranging a whole host of Shabbos afternoon programmes, many of them outdoors to take advantage of the weather, which also makes it safer from a COVID-19 point of view.

All across the world, things are back in full swing.

Among the new initiatives: a student from Cornell University in New York is leading a campaign among fellow students to switch off their phones for Shabbos. International youth movement EnerJew is co-ordinating the “Gift Shabbos” campaign in which Jewish teenagers in 20 cities in the former Soviet Union will bake challah and deliver it along with greeting cards and candles to elder community members. And Olami France is co-ordinating a full Shabbos experience for students on college campuses in Toulouse, Aix-en-Provence, and Paris, and for French-speaking students in Jerusalem, Madrid, and Porto.

The Global Jewish Pen Pal Program is organising a challah bake for its community of Jewish pen pals of all ages living around the world. Beit Issie Shapiro, Israel’s pioneering leader and innovator in the field of disabilities, has launched an accessible Shabbos-themed digital platform to help children around the world learn about Shabbos in an engaging and exciting way.

And Zehud, which provides online Jewish education to children in isolated Jewish communities across Europe, is hosting a Zoom challah bake for families from all 57 regions where it’s active.

In Prague, Czech Republic, a community Shabbaton will include Shabbos dinner at a local kosher restaurant, a children’s prayer workshop, and a havdalah concert at the Lauder Jewish day school. Cali, Colombia has an all-week programme, including a flower workshop for women, cocktail class for men, and a Thursday night pizza bake, followed by a central Shabbaton for the community. And in Birmingham in the United Kingdom, four very different organisations – Aish UK, Chabad, Jsoc, and the University of Birmingham Chaplaincy – are joining forces for a special student challah bake.

In Israel, where the Shabbos Project has been a real unifying force in society, a group of women in Kochav Yair have organised a street kiddush for the entire yishuv for people of all levels of observance to get to know each other better. In Eilat, open-invitation Shabbos dinners are happening at four central locations across the city. In Karnei Shomron, members of the religious Bnei Akiva and secular Tzofim youth groups have joined forces to arrange a Shabbos gala dinner for soldiers from the local battalion. And, the residents of Raanana will be providing hot, homemade Shabbos meals to Magen David Adom first responders. Finally, a group of Israel-based influencers on Instagram, from diverse backgrounds and varying levels of observance, are publishing a series of posts to bring awareness of the Shabbos Project to a younger audience.

Meanwhile, a woman in Park Potomac in the United States is going door to door in her neighbourhood, inviting anyone with a mezuzah for Shabbos. Organisers of a challah bake in Lisbon, Portugal are using the proceeds to distribute Shabbos meals to Jewish families in need. And in Nizhny Novgorod, Russia, four families new to the Shabbos experience are hosting Shabbos dinner – they’ve invited all their neighbours and have received a special Shabbos kit to assist them with the preparations.

Other highlights include a glow-in-the-dark challah bake in Toronto, Canada; Guatemala reopening its shul for special Shabbos services after a two-year hiatus; a Shabbos dinner run by and for university students in Nice, France; and a Shabbaton for high school learners in Montevideo, Uruguay.

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Libya’s destroyed Jewish graveyards being rebuilt online

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(JTA) During a visit to his native Libya in 2002, David Gerbi saw something that he says still haunts him almost 20 years later.

“I was horrified to see children playing atop the ruins of the Tripoli Jewish cemetery, scampering about debris littered with human remains,” Gerbi, who left Libya many years ago for Italy, told the Behdrei Haredim news site in Israel last week.

The experience turned Gerbi into an advocate for what are known as heritage sites in his old community. But over the years, his efforts to preserve or restore communal Jewish sites in war-torn Libya, where no Jews remain, came to naught.

So Gerbi began to consider alternatives. And now, the psychologist who lives in Rome has announced a new effort to set up a virtual cemetery to replace each of the physical Jewish ones that have been devastated in his country of birth.

“Especially in Tripoli and Benghazi, the Jewish cemeteries were obliterated,” he told the news site. “So I decided to make a virtual cemetery for our loved ones buried in Libya.”

The virtual cemeteries will have sections for prominent rabbis and commemorative pages for victims of the Holocaust – hundreds of Libyan Jews died in concentration camps operated by Nazi-allied Italy – as well as other pages recalling the victims of three waves of pogroms, in 1945, 1948, and 1967, he said.

Users of the website will be able to light memorial candles virtually and dedicate Kaddish mourning prayers through the website interface. “It will be a way to remember the dead of a community gone extinct,” Gerbi said.

The initiative is a collaboration with ANU – The Museum of the Jewish People in Tel Aviv, which seeks to document the experiences of Jews around the globe and over time. Together, they’re asking people with information about Jews buried in Libya to reach out.

Their effort is in line with other initiatives that aim to rebuild extinct Jewish communities online because their former homes are so inhospitable to restoration efforts, such as Diarna, a massive website that allows users to explore the cities in North Africa and the Middle East where Jews used to live.

Gerbi’s effort is narrower, focusing exclusively on the cemeteries of Libya, where, during World War II, 40 000 Jews lived in communities with a centuries-long history.

The Holocaust and the antisemitic policies of the independent Libyan government that followed, as well as hostility toward Jews by the local population, drove all of them out. By 2004, Libya didn’t have a single Jew residing in it, according to Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust museum.

Gerbi’s family was part of that migration. They fled Libya in 1967 when he was 12 years old, making them among the last Jews to leave the country. By 1969, the country had only 100 Jews.

The decades that followed, under the iron-fisted rule of dictator Muammar el-Qaddafi, offered few opportunities for preservation. But the central government collapsed after he was overthrown and executed in 2011, and the last decade has been marked by intermittent fighting among clans and militias with competing claims to leadership.

While those conditions have been harsh for Libyans, Gerbi said he hopes the shake-up could eventually give rise to a government that would be willing to address the country’s Jewish history and possibly normalise relations with Israel, as other Arab nations in the region have done in the past year. But he knows that could take many years, and he has essentially given up hope of having officials facilitate physical restoration work in the near future, Gerbi told Behadrei Haredim.

The situation of those sites was poor even before Libya erupted into civil war, he said.

It’s been 19 years since his visit to Tripoli’s Jewish cemetery, but “the gruesome sights and chilling images I saw won’t let go of me”, he said. In 2007, Gerbi visited the site again, “and I was shocked to discover that even the debris had been cleared out. They built a highway on the ruins of the Jewish cemetery and high-rise buildings. There’s isn’t a shred left.”

In Benghazi, Gerbi saw a warehouse full of boxes with human remains stuffed into them haphazardly. They had been collected from another Jewish cemetery before it was destroyed, he said.

Old synagogues are also at risk, said Gerbi, a prominent member of the World Organisation of the Jews of Libya, which promotes the interests of people whose families have roots in Libya.

Earlier this year, he told Italian media that an abandoned and ancient synagogue in Tripoli is being turned into an Islamic religious centre without permission.

“The Sla Dar Bishi in Tripoli is in the hands of the local authorities [read: militias] since there is now no Jew living in Tripoli,” he told Moked, the Italian Jewish news site.

“It was decided to violate our property and our history,” he wrote. “The plan clearly is to take advantage of the chaos and our absence.”

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Accusations of antisemitism absurd, say Ben & Jerry’s founders

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(JTA) In an interview that aired on HBO, both of the founders of the Ben & Jerry’s ice cream brand reiterated that they stood behind the company’s decision to stop selling their products in the West Bank.

But for Jerry Greenfield, being accused of antisemitism is “painful”. For Ben Cohen, it’s “absurd”.

“Ben & Jerry’s and Unilever are being characterised as boycotting Israel, which isn’t the case at all. It’s not boycotting Israel in any way,” Greenfield said in an interview with Axios that aired on its HBO show on 10 October.

The Jewish duo, who founded the company in 1978, are no longer its owners, but they remain the most recognisable public faces of the company. They had previously defended the West Bank decision in a New York Times op-ed shortly after the move took place in July, but the Axios interview gave them a chance to expound on the human side of the aftermath.

“It’s a very emotional issue for a lot of people and I totally understand it. It’s a painful issue for a lot of people,” Greenfield said.

They were also asked how it felt to be “wrapped up in accusations of antisemitism”.

“Totally fine,” Cohen said, laughing. “It’s absurd. What, I’m anti-Jewish? I’m a Jew! All my family is Jewish, my friends are Jewish.”

Ben & Jerry’s had long been engaged in social issues when it decided to pull its product from the West Bank after months of pressure from pro-Palestinian activists in the wake of Israel’s latest armed conflict with Gaza. The decision prompted calls to boycott Ben & Jerry’s and its parent company, Unilever, along with accusations of antisemitism from some pro-Israel activists. The state of Arizona divested nearly $200 million (R2.9 billion) from Unilever in September, and several other states have since reviewed their investments in the conglomerate.

Unilever has also said in public statements that it doesn’t believe Ben & Jerry’s is boycotting the state of Israel, and that it plans to keep selling within the borders Israel established after the Six-Day War in 1967. However, Israeli law outlaws business that boycotts the West Bank, so it remains to be seen whether the company will be allowed to follow through with its plan.

When asked why Ben & Jerry’s continued to sell its ice cream in states with policies that aren’t in line with Cohen and Greenfield’s values – such as Texas, where access to abortion is now limited, and Georgia, where voting rights have been curtailed. Cohen didn’t have an answer.

“I don’t know. I mean it’s an interesting question, I don’t know what that would accomplish, we’re working on those issues of voting rights and … I don’t know. I think you ask a really good question, and I think I’d have to sit down and think about it for a bit,” Cohen said.

Greenfield suggested that the answer had to do with international law.

“One thing that’s different is that what Israel is doing is considered illegal by international law, so I think that’s a consideration,” Greenfield said.

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