Israeli expo in NYC markets penthouses in settlements

Israel/Palestine
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At the Jewish Agency’s 2010 Aliyah Expo in New York last week, people asked one another, “When is your flight?”–no if’s about it. Many planned to move to a country that seems increasingly intent on ostracizing itself from the international community. And yet, during the four hours I spent at the Aliyah Expo, I heard just a single concern. “My husband would love to have a goat,” one woman with a thick New York accent told a Jewish Agency aliyah specialist, lamenting, “but you have to live on a moshav for a goat!” It’s like moving to Arizona in the wake of the anti-immigrant bill SB1070 and worrying about finding a house with a big enough swimming pool–oblivious to those who have died of thirst while crossing in the desert.

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“Jobs are waiting for you in Israel,” a fresh-faced woman from the Jewish Agency promised us during the Aliyah Expo’s “Young Professionals Wine and Cheese Reception.” Both the young and the old exchanged business cards and ate cheese that had melted from the heat of the packed room. The minglers were a mixed crowd: from orthodox black hats and t-shirts for the men, to headscarves and tank tops for the women–and even a pair of flip flops with an Israeli flag on the strap.

Another Jewish Agency employee approached the front of the room and gravely addressed the assembly. “I’m going to talk quickly about the crisis that just occurred,” he began. He wasn’t talking about the Mavi Marmara. Rather: the economic crash of 2008. As English speakers, he assured us, we already have a leg up on the job market; acclimation is the real issue. For best results, sell all of your possessions, grab your free one-way ticket to Israel, and throw yourself into Hebrew lessons upon arrival. “Your aliyah will be as successful as the amount of effort you put into it,” he advised. Such is the nature of Jewish privilege that one gets to experience it as labor.

Here is a short summary of my (already abridged) “Summary of Aliyah Benefits for Olim [immigrants]” sheet: As a single person moving to Israel, my aliyah payment would be about $4,000 (families get about $14,000), and I’d receive the first installment upon arrival at Ben Gurion airport—in cash; free health care for a year; five months of free Hebrew classes; free tuition for a BA and/or masters degree; rent subsidy for five years (about $60/mo for a single, $105/mo for families); job counseling; a 70-90% reduced property tax; low mortgage rates; and more.

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Down the hall, another session was starting: “Aliyah First Steps.” In a soothing voice, the presenter promised to tell us everything we needed to know “so that it’s not so scary” (the antecedent being the logistical hassle of claiming the myriad perks offered to Jewish immigrants to Israel). Afterward, Andrew and Alana, two recent college graduates, got to chatting and discovered they’re both on the same July 6th Nefesh B’Nefesh flight bound for Ulpan Etzion, an all-expenses-paid, live-in Hebrew intensive program in the East Jerusalem settlement of East Talpiot. Andrew, an Upper East Sider, said he’s making aliyah because he wants to learn Hebrew, join the IDF, and get a free masters degree. Between the army and higher ed, Andrew’s next four years are accounted for. “I have more job security than any of my friends,” he said with a laugh. "Why join the IDF instead of the American army?" I asked. Andrew gave me a baffled look. “I don’t want to be in, like, Grenada,” he scoffed, adding, “If I’m going to die for my country, I want it to be in someplace where I have a connection.” A Teaneck, New Jersey native, Alana also wanted to serve her adopted country: “I want to be prime minister of Israel!” she gushed.

As a 24-year-old, I know how to write a college paper and have (hopefully) learned critical thinking skills, and so I am too old to wield a gun in the IDF. For women making aliyah, army service is required for those 18-21; for men, it’s 18-23. Newcomers have a special unit in the IDF: Garin Tzabar. Before shipping out, the Americans get prepped by Israel Scouts, a New York-based non-profit. Young immigrants can also join their Israeli peers for a pre-army year at a number of leadership academies called Mechinot; some, like Hemdat Yehuda, list their addresses as mobile trailers in West Bank settlements: outpost leaders.

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The Jewish Agency says settlements are great if you’re making aliyah with kids. "Try to visit within a year of your aliyah with your children,” the website reads. “Small communities with a high percentage of olim, such as settlements in the Galilee, or Judea and Samaria, often offer more support than major cities.” That’s an understatement. At the Aliyah Expo, I learned of the Go North program from Nefesh B’Nefesh, the Jewish Agency’s North American partner. Go North families get $25,000 and a vehicle subsidy of up to $16,000 (with extra employment help, a “local ‘buddy’ family,” and more). And for the past five years, Nefesh B’Nefesh and the Jewish Agency have offered “Community Aliyah,” which offers extra rent subsidies, job counseling, social events, and more to families that move to settlements like Gush Etzion, Ariel, and Ma’aleh Adumim. Whether it’s the Galilee or the West Bank, the Jewish Agency is committed to “Judaization” on both sides of the green line: separation and containment of Palestinians while expropriating their land.

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About 3,800 North Americans made aliyah in 2009 (of a total 16,244), and about 4,000 North Americans are expected in 2010. Yedioth Ahronoth reports that 1,000 people attended the Aliyah Expo last week.

Strange how one sees the erasure of the Green Line all the way from New York. Its absence was in the real estate room, where agents and mostly orthodox families (or so it seemed to me) perused floor plans for homes in new developments in Jerusalem "neighborhoods." Shmuel Aron of Brooklyn Realty was peddling new units in Katamon and Har Homa, each with identical luxury apartments in identical high rises but only one within pre-1967 Israel. This brought to mind a lunch in February at Mazin Qumsiyeh’s home in Beit Sahour, just outside of Bethlehem. He turned to the window and gazed long and hard at the glittering white towers rising out of what used to be the Palestinian-owned Abu Ghneim Mountain: now the settlement of Har Homa. “Look, it’s creeping down on us," he said sadly. “Every morning to have to see that.”

Holyland Properties of Brookyn wanted to sell me a high rise apartment in a new development in East Jerusalem’s Eshkol Heights. Tivuch Shelly Levine was in town from Israel to sell units in Modi’in (within the pre-1967 borders, barely, so as to grow "naturally" into the West Bank) starting at $366,000, and units in the settlement of Maale Adumim (where she’s based) starting at $217,000. The Israeli construction company Chazon and Galili was there peddling units in a new neighborhood of Beit Shemesh, with red tile roofs as if over the Green Line yet within the 1967 borders; it takes some committed googling to tell a settlement from a suburb. Chazon and Galili first got into the business by building the settlement of Har Nof on top of the Deir Yassin massacre site.

Finally, with the Aliyah Expo drawing to a close and the crowds clearing out, I stopped by Kedumim 3000, the deeply ideological settlement construction giant whose bulldozers break ground all over the West Bank, including Kiryat Arba, the hothouse for settler violence on the edge of Hebron. The Kedumim 3000 backdrop advertised "penthouses and apartments with a view of the Temple Mount" in the Maale Hazeitim "Neighborhood in [East] Jerusalem.” A gold dome could be seen through the window in the artist’s rendering of a sleek, modern living room. A blackhat family with a baby stroller was deep in conversation with the Kedumim proprietors, a mess of floor plans spread out in front of them. "Do you mind if I take a pamphlet?" I asked out of courtesy as I lifted one from the tall stack. "No!" the man snapped. "I haven’t enough." Apparently, a screening process was at work.

As I left, I passed by the Jewish Agency’s welcome table, with its now-empty bowl of specially made fortune cookies. Shouldering a swag bag full of fliers and informational cards–possibilities for a future life I will not realize–I headed for the bathroom. There I found a discarded fortune cookie fortune. It read, “Israel is for tough cookies.”

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