The President of the United States took a shellacking the other day, in his own words, so it is to be predicted that he might be looking for someone weaker than him to bully. Historically, when heads of government with tyrannical streaks confront the limits of their power, they beat up a Jew to get their mojo back. Jews thought that getting their own country would save them from this sort of treatment; it has not worked out quite that way, but at least they can grouse about it in cabinet meetings rather than in squalid ghettos.
Obama was visiting Indonesia, full of good will for another “new beginning” with the “Muslim world.” Apparently, saving Muslims from Serbs and Saddam Hussein and Somali warlords worsened our relationship with them. The program to use NASA to celebrate great Islamic contributions to science has failed to launch. To fire up the spirit of comity between West and East, Obama has courageously attacked those international menaces, the people of Israel, for obstructing peace by building housing units in Jerusalem.
Prime Minister Netanyahu fired back: “Jerusalem is not a settlement. It is the capital of Israel.” Yet this new escalation of American chastisement of Israel portrays the builders of new apartments in Jerusalem as enemies of peace.
Who are these bellicose banes, these obstinate obstacles, these improvident provocateurs? If you traveled to Israel and met them, you might be very surprised.
THERE IS A SETTLER CLASS in Israel. They are frontiersmen in the tradition of the Americans who tamed the Wild West. If you trek out to their remote outposts, you find weather-beaten muscular types fighting to carve lives for their families out of inhospitable terrain. Trailers on mountainsides are the starting point, and upward mobility does not aspire beyond prefabricated structures which outdoorsy Americans might use for summer homes in the Catskills or the Smokies.
These are some tough hombres. Some of them are religiously inclined and speak of Biblical prophecies and divinely orchestrated fate. Others are aggressively secularist types who credit their own brawn and ingenuity for whatever they achieve. They have in common an uncommon grit. They stand tall in the face of all the adversity the earth and hostile populations can throw at them. But these are not the folks buying apartments in the expanding urban neighborhoods of Jerusalem.
The way these new apartments are developed relies heavily on people who buy “on paper.” Say the plan is to put up 100 units. The developer starts with limited capital and the banks help a little, but there is not enough money there to make it work without a presale of about 40 percent. Buying an unbuilt apartment entitles you to a premium of about a third. So an apartment which will sell for $120,000 when constructed can be purchased in advance for $80,000. Naturally, the buyer with less cash is drawn to this deal.
What this leads too typically is a building filled with newlyweds. The two sets of parents chip in and the government helps by subsidizing special mortgages. They sign on shortly after the engagement and most often will be renting for a year or more before their place is ready. These tend to be Yeshiva or college students, entry-level working people, who fit your Manhattan straphanger model; these are not the Paul Bunyans who are manning the settlements.
They are ordinary Jews with — to borrow from Shakespeare — eyes, hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions, fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons. Suddenly their starter pad around the corner from Mom who works in the Municipality and Dad who drives a city bus has been designated a militarized zone by Obama and Secretary of State What’s-her-Name.
Maybe all of this will magically lead to a grand rapprochement. Israel and the Arabs will dance the hora together wearing burqas. White doves will fly overhead bearing olive branches. The lion will lie down and the lamb won’t have to lam. The swords will be beaten into plowshares. Yet the sensible person must proceed sensibly until reality is officially called off in favor of utopia. In sensible terms, this strategy looks to be counterproductive. There cannot be peace between Israel and a new country if the new country does not understand what is Israel and what can reasonably become theirs.
The new version of the Merchant of Venice has Shellac in the role of villain, as the world blames Jews for putting up walls. Those who prefer to avoid another shellacking would be well advised to direct their efforts more realistically, and more fairly.