I remember a many years back, real-estate brokers tried to sell people on moving to the fictitious neighborhood of West Lawrence. The neighborhood, more commonly known as Far Rockaway, sits just west of the Five Towns village of Lawrence, and has many Orthodox residents and synagogues, and is accessible to the Five Towns shopping districts. It is also a far more affordable neighborhood, located on the Queens side of the Queens/Nassau border. As teenagers, my friends and I would refer unkindly to the area as Black Lawrence, a play on the name of the ultra-wealthy Back Lawrence section of Lawrence, as well as a not-so-sensitive reference to both the Yeshivish Jewish enclave, and the black and Hispanic residents who predominated.

For many, the decision to move to Far Rockaway was a financial one. Though the Five Towns offered some significant advantages over Far Rockaway, not least being lower crime and cleaner streets, Far Rockaway offered lower prices for housing and significantly lower property taxes. Living in a sea of impoverished immigrants and other minorities may have discouraged some, but others were content to ignore the problem by living within the “Jewish” areas. The trend I saw at home continues abroad, as I read in the Forward:

“Suburbia Sells Settlers on the West Bank – Forward.com”

The article indicates that many olim are replicating their American lifestyles by taking advantage of some absurd incentives. My wife and I have long joked about our friends who moved to what we call the Bet Shemesh section of Teaneck, with all its Anglos, minivans,  and wood flooring. Still, living in Israel is a great mitzvah, and while we scoffed at the desire to continue living an American lifestyle even while in Israel, we accepted that those who chose to afford this life were within their rights and were not harming anyone else.

Can the same be said for settlements in the West Bank? As with everything else, generalizations are dangerous. Living in Hebron is different from living in Ariel, which is in turn quite different from living in Gush Etzion. Nevertheless, some strange economic incentive are operating here.

According to the article, Americans are strongly attracted to the gated religious communities of the West Bank. In these modern suburban ghettos (in the Jewish state, no less!) religious families feel safe and comfortable, surrounded by people who share their beliefs, lifestyle and political orientation. Unlike their American counterparts, however, these gated communities are not designed to create a sense of exclusivity or to keep out robbers and other criminals. Rather, they are to keep out Palestinians. And in case the gate wasn’t enough, the communities have application exams, to ensure that all undesirables are kept out.

Security, ironically, becomes an attractive feature of these communities. The IDF serves as both a security guard and a local police force, and military law governs developments. The net effect of this arrangement is that it is much cheaper to develop land in the West Bank than in Israel proper, and those savings are passed along to the consumers. Town residents do not pay municipal taxes for their security and policing, since the army does it for them. The army has thus become a free private security provider to West Bank residents. The costs of providing this attractive level of security are not passed to customers, and unsurprisingly, consumers flock to take advantage of the bonanza.

Once upon a time, Zionists dreamed of a Greater Israel based on geography. Today, we are building a Lesser Israel, importing the crass materialism of American culture and clearly demoting the ideas of social justice and religious dedication that inspired the religious Zionists of a bygone era. I was particularly struck by this statement:

“Before we found Neve Daniel, my husband told me, ‘I love you and I want to live in Israel, but I’m very materialistic and if I don’t have a nice house, we’re not moving,’” said Lara Kwalbrun, a peppy mother of six, as she gave a tour of her luxurious new home while toting a baby in her arms.

I can understand the desire for a nice house, and it’s difficult to censure individuals for taking advantage of a bounty that will surely be claimed by others in any case. Still, there’s something grotesque about the whole thing. A few miles down the road, Palestinians live in abject poverty – a multi-generational misery that has lasted for sixty years. In the other direction, Hareidi Jews live penurious lives at the behest of their religious leaders, content to eke out a life on the increasingly miserly largess of the State. Political and military battles rage over the West Bank settlements, with thousands of casualties implicated in the conflict. And in this raging sea of destitution and desperation lies an oasis of Americans, rich from booming Northeastern real-estate markets, living their American lives in their American homes, secure in the IDF’s protection, and benefiting from a land-development strategy that gives incentives for developing lands in occupied territories over land in Israel proper.

And yet, I can’t help myself. A 2-bedroom co-op in Riverdale goes for $250,000 or more. I can get a 5-bedroom house with separate kitchens in Neve Daniel  for under $300,000! That’s a powerful financial incentive! I can’t even imagine how Palestinians feel about this. I know that it doesn’t seem right to me, that’s for sure.

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