It could seem too much of a coincidence, at first, even for the New York Times, to feature a 4.8 million dollar home for sale outside Tel-Aviv in its International Real Estate section on July 18, 2018, the same day the Israeli Parliament passed a law declaring Israel the national home of the Jewish people.
But when I read the headline, “Luxury on the Mediterranean Coast of Tel-Aviv,” of this week’s featured home–perusing the real estate section at breakfast for homes I could never afford is a weekly shameful indulgence of mine–it seemed like an obvious opportunity for the New York Times to fuse Israeli real estate with Jewish Zionist nationalism. Only the New York Times could pull off this kind of seemingly apolitical–but highly politically charged–sleight of hand, running these two articles on the same day, in different sections, as if somehow the world of the Israeli Parliament could be separated from the world in which Palestinian history is erased in the name of real estate. These two streams seamlessly overlapping each other ensures the perpetuation of Jewish Israeli exceptionalism, Jewish claims to Palestinian land, and a total erasure of Palestinian history.
The five-bedroom, 7100 square foot villa highlighted in the New York Times boasts a pool, pond, fire pit, gardens, an elevator, and is nestled on nearly a half-acre in Herzliya Pituach, a wealthy neighborhood ten miles north of downtown Tel-Aviv. While promoting the home’s amenities, however, the New York Times article also contributes to the Zionist mythology that paints Israel a victim, and warns of anti-Semitism. The lower-level of the house, for example, has a home-theatre and “a ‘safe’ room to be used in case of an emergency like a missile or chemical weapons attack.” Even if there’s something practical or even utilitarian about equipping a home for such emergencies, the gesture feels politically manipulative.
Eran Alayof, the founder of Alayof Group Israel, a prominent Israeli real-estate company, says the real-estate market is thriving in Israel due to anti-Semitism:
The market is ‘booming like crazy,’ said Mr. Alayof, whose family real estate brokerage works mostly with international buyers. ‘With what is going on in the world right now,’ he said, and ‘anti-Semitism in the European countries, there are a lot of Jewish people who want to buy houses in Israel.’
The article masterfully exceptionalizes and normalizes Israel at the same time. Because of the threat of war, for example, builders in Tel-Aviv are currently installing “safe houses” in existing buildings. But according to Inna Fleshler, Israel Sotheby’s International Realty marketing communications manager, Tel-Aviv is, at the same time, just another cosmopolitan, urban, metropolis no different from a big city in the U.S. Tel Aviv “is always in a high demand, like Manhattan,” Fleshler says. Exceptionalizing Tel-Aviv as a place to flee anti-Semitism, a city that needs “safe houses,” while at the same time normalizing and advertising it as just another urban chic big city, commodifies the occupation and colonization of Palestinian land. Ultimately, it becomes one more marketing opportunity for Israeli real-estate to cover up Palestinian history.
Of course, The New York Times isn’t the only venue for advertising real estate in Israel in seemingly apolitical ways. A quick search for HGTV’s popular show, House Hunters International–another embarrassing indulgence of mine–reveals that several episodes from the last few years that have taken place in Tel-Aviv. Titillating titles whet the appetite for buying property in the Israeli city on the Mediterranean such as, Big City, Big Beaches in Tel Aviv, Israel, Dream Apartments in Tel Aviv, Israel, First Home in Tel Aviv, and my favorite, Test of Love in Tel Aviv, Israel, from season 49:
Tom and Sarah met on a Jewish dating site and after two years together in San Francisco have decided to move to Tel Aviv where Tom will join his family’s business. While Tom will be right back at home, Sarah will be thousands of miles from her family, friends, and native language. They’re looking to rent a two bedroom apartment by the sea while they decide if this move is right for them, but in a city with a high demand for flats, their low budget may be a problem. House Hunters International puts love to the test in Tel Aviv, Israel.
Living in Tel-Aviv is at once exceptionalized (“met on a Jewish dating site,” “Tel-Aviv where Tom will join his family’s business”) and normalized (“a two bedroom apartment by the sea,” “a city with a high demand for flats”). That these episodes take place on land stolen from Palestinians simply does not come up, and popular venues for real-estate like HGTV and the New York Times International Real Estate section can claim to be apolitical when displaying properties in cities like Tel-Aviv and Herzliya. Real estate in Israel remains a universal test of love but never a test of politics.
It doesn’t take much effort to find the Palestinian history that lives underneath and around the villa in Herzliya Pituach for sale for 17.5 million New Israeli Shekels (NIS). According to Zochrot, an organization that researches and documents Palestinian life before 1948, Herzliya (named for Theodore Herzl), was founded in 1924 as a pioneer settlement:
These pioneers settled in an area populated by Arabs in all directions…The village Ijlil with its two parts–Qabliya and Shamaliya–was situated to the southwest of Herzliya; Alharam was situated to the northwest, with Arab al-Akabshe Bedouin to the north, Shitake and Arab al-Asuat to the east, and the village of Abu Kishek to the southeast.
The 2007 Zochrot article, written by Eitan Bronstein and Norma Musih, focuses on photographs in “Beit Rishonim” (Founders’ House), a museum that displays the history of Herzliya. One photograph shows Herzliya as valuable property before it was even founded–an act of fortuitous real estate appropriation in itself. The city is empty, despite overwhelming evidence of Palestinian life:
The narrative of ‘making the desert bloom’ appears in this museum undisturbed side-by-side with the narrative of ‘settling in the heart of the Arab population.’ The wasteland photo is somewhat blurry but does show some wild weeds growing. The composition chosen for this photo shows the virgin land waiting for Herzliya pioneers to come along and make it bloom. This ‘wasteland’ is named ‘Herzliya’ even before the town is founded. In other words, the land, nature itself, is named after the Hebrew town even before this name took real form. According to this narrative, the land waited for its Zionist settlers to build upon it and name it after the European man (Herzl) who dreamt it but never lived here.
Another photo in the museum shows goats roaming without a shepherd, further evidence of Palestinian indigenous life existing only as natural background:
The goats, we know, are owned by neighboring Arabs, but they are absent from the caption. The goats roaming without a shepherd enhance the desolate feeling of the image…The Arab surroundings in which Herzliya was settled is presented in the narrative of the Herzliya museum as a faded background, part of the wild landscape that awaited its European settlers, and not as a viable culture somehow rooted in the land. The Arabs are regarded as part of the natural landscape. They roam about like a herd of goats with no shepherd, or perhaps their goats roam about without a human hand to guide them.
Palestinian history in this museum in Herzliya is represented as it lives in Zionist history–background scenery that exists to make the Zionist pioneers look good. If the Arabs appear in any photos, they serve no purpose other than to be “civilized” by the white Europeans.
Though information about Palestine is easily accessible, the Israeli realtors are busy selling expensive villas available only to wealthy Jews. But if you choose to read about it, you’d find that Al-Haram, for example, the Palestinian village northwest of Herzliya, has a rich Palestinian history, and met an unjust end, like all the other Palestinian villages. According to Palestine Remembered, Al-Haram was ethnically cleansed by the Haganah, the Jewish paramilitary organization, on February 3, 1948. One hundred fifty homes were destroyed. You can still see the Sidna Ali Mosque near the Mediterranean Sea today. To those who don’t know the history, it might look like another “ancient ruin,” rustic background to the newer modern sleek buildings. Al-Haram had a shrine for al-Hasan ibn ‘Ali (who died in 1081 A.D.), a descendant of the second Muslim Caliph ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab. The village had an elementary school for boys that was founded in 1921. In 1945, 68 students were enrolled. Al-Haram had a population of 880, and 360 were Jewish. The village thrived. Palestinian life existed. I read that citrus and olive trees dotted the landscape. A spring existed to the north. Palestinian residents of Al-Haram have said that before 1948, they were told by representatives of Jewish towns that they would be safe. But Palestinians weren’t safe. Their land was taken, their history destroyed, replaced with a four-car garage and glass railings and fancy security systems.
For over a century, the Jewish National Fund has been planting trees in Israel to cover up remains of these villages–except, perhaps, a few remnants like a cistern here or a terrace there–or like the the Sidna Ali Mosque, for example, so that visitors to the area can marvel at the “ancient ruins.” When I was a girl, I saved my allowance money to plant a tree in Israel. It was a selfless act, I was taught. Rather than buy material things like Muppets, I was investing in a future. I was proud to have planted a tree with money I earned from doing chores; I still have the certificate that was sent to me. Small children stand around the tree, some with brown pigtails–as I wore my hair, too!–and dig into the earth with shovels wearing blue overalls, the tree full and plush, a primary green, bright, like green M&Ms. Decades later–once I knew that the Zionism with which I was raised was a mythology–I drove through the forests between Jerusalem and Tel-Aviv, witnessing Israel’s efforts to cover up the destruction of Palestinian life and culture and history. The success of the forest depended, in part, on young Zionists like me to pay for it.
The New York Times isn’t asking its readers to help the forest grow, but it might as well be, for the forests and the expensive Jewish villas serve the same purpose: to cover up any hint that Palestinian life existed. But the history of Al-Haram and all the other Palestinian villages ethnically cleansed is out there, available to those who choose to see below the surface of a new home’s radiant heated floors.