TEANECK, N.J. – As protesters chanted and waved signs outside, roughly 250 American Jews received information on buying homes in the West Bank during an event promoted as a way to help Jewish settlers.
Though the U.S. government, Palestinians and the international community see any settlement construction in the West Bank as harmful to Middle East peace efforts, supporters consider it an expression of their faith.
Rabbi Steven Pruzansky of Congregation B'nai Yeshurun, the synagogue where information was distributed Sunday, said people were interested in the houses as investments and possible homes, "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."
Dror Etkes of the Israeli settlement watchdog group Peace Now said he believes it's the first attempt by the Jewish settlement movement to sell homes in settlements in the U.S.
Aaron Levitt, one of about 25 protesters outside Sunday's meeting, said the sales pitch was deliberately inflaming the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
"The enemies of the U.S. are able to use the Israeli occupation as a rallying cry," said Levitt, 37, of Queens, N.Y., a member of a group called Jews Against the Occupation.
Police were on site to make sure the protest remained peaceful.
The event was organized by the Israel-based Amana Settlement Movement. 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 for about $250 a month.
A letter from Amana said prices of single-family homes begin at $120,000.
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.
Nearly 270,000 Jewish settlers, up 6 percent over the past year, live in the West Bank among 2.4 million Palestinians.
Since capturing the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the 1967 Mideast War, Israel has built 142 settlements in those territories, despite persistent international and Palestinian opposition. In addition, settlers have established dozens of outposts with the declared aim of preventing the establishment of an independent Palestinian state.
In 2005, Israel dismantled two dozen settlements in Gaza, evacuating all 8,500 settlers, as part of its withdrawal from the area. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was elected last year on a promise to draw Israel's final borders without waiting for a peace deal with the Palestinians — by dismantling most West Bank settlements, but keeping large blocs close to Israel. However, he has since shelved that plan because of ebbing support in Israel for unilateral moves.
The U.S. has persistently opposed settlement construction. Under the U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan of 2003, Israel promised to freeze settlement construction, in parallel with a Palestinian pledge to dismantle militant groups. Neither side has kept its promise, and settlement construction continues, particularly in the settlement blocs close to Israel.
"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 the Israeli group Peace Now, said last week.
Opponents of Sunday's sales pitch suggested that the sale of what they consider illegally occupied lands could violate anti-discrimination laws, but a New Jersey official has said state and federal authorities have no jurisdiction on overseas property.
Samer Khalaf, a protester and a member of the New Jersey Chapter of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, 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.