Raze Homes to Deny Palestinian ‘Victory’

This debate on whether to destroy the houses in the Gaza settlements before disengaging is part of a series of discussions among younger scholars sponsored by the Center for Israel Studies of the University of Judaism.

During recent months we have been witness to heated protests by settlement residents opposed to the disengagement and evacuation plan,

and these manifestations are likely to intensify during the coming summer. However, even for the majority of Israelis who accept the logic of disengagement, the process includes knotty, painful decisions.

One of them is the conundrum of whether or not to destroy the settlers’ homes as part of the evacuation of the Gaza Strip and northern Samaria. What makes this question so grave is today’s situation in which it is impossible to coordinate the disengagement process with the Palestinian side. While the Israeli government’s disengagement decision of June 2004 stated that no settlers’ homes or sensitive structures, including synagogues, would remain standing, the rising voices being heard today, even among the security forces, of leaving houses intact, renews the need to stand firm and not alter the government’s original decision. The intensity of the emotionally charged situation, for both Israelis and Palestinians, demands that the settlers’ home be razed during the pullback.

The decision to establish Jewish settlements in Gaza was taken after the 1967 Six-Day War, in recognition of the political and security importance of Jewish settlement as a buffer along the Egyptian border. From 1948 to 1967, Gaza was controlled by Egypt and used as a base for launching terror attacks against Israel, and the violence continued in the late 1960s. Successive Israeli governments, beginning with the Labor led-government of the time, encouraged Israel’s young adults to settle there, on a mission supported by all parties within the Zionist consensus. Following the “three nos” of the Arab summit in Khartoum, settlers had no reason to think that the communities were temporary.

Since then, the settlements have come a long way. With their own hands, settlers built homes and schools, constructed farms and factories to provide income, and raised their children. Today, one can find five generations of a family born and living there. Gush Katif takes pride in its magnificent educational institutions. There are also cemeteries where loved ones have been interred, including those murdered by Palestinian terrorists.

Throughout the years, settlers there have been subjected to constant attacks, including infiltration attempts and shootings at vehicles en route to the settlements as well as mortar fire at settlers’ homes, which has lethally intensified in recent years. Since publication of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s disengagement plan late in 2003, and because of the Hamas’ desire to take credit for causing Israel to withdraw and evacuate settlements, the settlers’ lives have become even more difficult.

Those who now advocate leaving the homes standing propose transferring them to the Palestinian Authority on humanitarian grounds in return for monetary recompense. The transfer can, in their opinion, be carried out directly or through a third party. In countering this contention, it would be wise to remember that the government’s guiding principle in its original decision to destroy the homes and sensitive buildings while leaving other facilities intact was intelligence information about the planned takeover of the buildings by terror organizations. Last March, Abu Mazen went so far as to agree to a joint committee of Palestinian organizations, including the terror organizations, which would determine how to distribute the Jewish property left in the Gaza Strip.

On this background, the idea of transferring homes to a third party in return for some economic recompense would seem to be more promising. The idea of transferring the homes to the Palestinians via a third party who would allegedly monitor those who took up residence in them sounds reasonable and certainly more economic than simply destroying the property. However, at the time of this writing, there is still no proposed third party capable of preventing the Hamas from raising their flags on the houses or using former Jewish homes as bases for terror attacks. Regardless of the third party’s capabilities, in the final analysis those enjoying the fruits of the settlers’ efforts will be the Palestinians — if not those who committed the terror acts then those who aided, abetted and encouraged terror against the settlers. As the Bible so succinctly asked, “Have you both murdered and inherited?”

Beyond considering the deepest feelings of the settlers, who are flesh of our flesh, it is also essential to examine the ramifications for Israel’s long-term interests of leaving the homes to the Palestinians. We have already seen how steps perceived by Israeli decision-makers as serving Israel’s interests have been etched into Palestinian and Arab consciousness as Israeli weakness. It is important to consider well whether leaving the houses for the Palestinians in the name of coordination and trust, even in return for a seemly sum, is worth the damage of feeding the Palestinians’ belief that they can successfully chase Israeli settlers from their homes, take over their property, and fly the flag of the Palestinian Authority over their homes.

Amira Schiff is a doctoral candidate in the political studies department at Bar-Ilan University. She is currently writing her dissertation on pre-negotiation process in the Israeli-Palestinian and the Cypriot conflicts.


Hancock Park Shul War Back in Court

The rabbi of a small, embattled congregation is charging that anti-Semites and self-hating Jews are using zoning laws to get Orthodox Jews out of Hancock Park as an epic eight-year legal battle heads back to court.

Nine neighbors filed a complaint last month asking a judge to bar the congregation from using two homes — one under construction on the corner of Highland Avenue and Third Street and the rabbi’s residence on June Street — for daily and Shabbat services.

The neighbors say they welcome diversity and are simply interested in maintaining Hancock Park’s architectural integrity and residential quality, which they say was the intention of the zoning law the congregation has been trying to skirt for the last eight years.

With vast, lush landscaping and mansions in Spanish, Tudor and Mediterranean-revival styles built mostly in the 1920s and 1930s, Hancock Park is recognized as one of the most attractive neighborhoods in the city. Over the last few decades, it has also become a heavily Jewish neighborhood, along with nearby La Brea Avenue and Beverly Boulevard.

Hancock Park is zoned for residential use only, and Etz Chaim relies on a controversial federal law that allows religious institutions to override local zoning codes. Chaim Rubin, Leader of Congregation Etz Chaim, has been quite aggressive in his assertion that the suit is motivated solely by neighbors’ aversion to having religious Jews in Hancock Park, which decades ago had restrictive covenants where Jews and blacks, among others, were barred from owning homes.

“They think they are going to stop me. I am not going anywhere. I am here to stay. It is my congregation and we are going to serve God and practice our religion as we see fit because this is guaranteed to us in the United States of America,” said Rubin, whose father founded the congregation in his June Street home 30 years ago. “I don’t live in Poland anymore, I don’t live in Germany anymore and nobody can come in and tell me I have no right to practice my religion.”

Somewhere amid the stark assertions of anti-Semitism and civic duty lies a more nuanced truth where divergent ethnic lifestyles and allegiance to a religion or to civic pride have pitted neighbor against neighbor in a tale with parallels across the country. Similar cases nationwide have pitted religious institutions against homeowners trying to return full zoning control to local communities, and the issue is expected to reach the Supreme Court in the next five years.

The Etz Chaim case hearing is scheduled in U.S. District Court for Sept. 8.

This is not the first time that Etz Chaim, with about 40 worshippers on Shabbat and 10 to 15 men at a daily minyan, is involved in a legal battle.

The congregation, which purchased the home at 303 S. Highland in 1995, lost repeatedly before zoning boards, the City Council, local courts and the state Superior Court in its effort to acquire legal rights to pray in the home. After President Clinton signed into law in September 2000 the Religious Land Use and Institutionalize Persons Act (RLUIPA), giving religious institutions the right to override local zoning laws, the city attorney’s office entered into a settlement under which the congregation could use the Highland Avenue building in a limited capacity.

The neighbors’ July 10 complaint to U.S. District Judge Harry L. Hupp contends that the February 2002 settlement agreement amounted to the city issuing a conditional-use permit (CUP) — which would be necessary to house a religious institution in a residential zone — without the public hearings and notifications that usually go along with the CUP process, violating the plaintiff’s rights to due process.

On Aug. 6, the congregation filed a motion to have the charges dismissed, saying the plaintiffs have no standing to sue since residents do not have rights to make claims about the zoning of neighbor’s property, according to Susan Azad of Latham & Watkins in Los Angeles, lawyer for the congregation.

The plaintiffs also accuse the city of violating church-state separation by according special treatment to the congregation in not halting its allegedly illegal use of the rabbi’s June Street home while the Highland home is under construction.

The city has not yet responded to the complaint, but in a separate action the city claims that the extensive remodeling violates the settlement agreement, which called for the congregation to do minor upgrades to the property while maintaining its residential character.

In June 2002, much of the original 3,600-square-foot building was demolished, and an 8,150-square-foot building (1,600 feet of which are underground) is going up in its place. The renovated house, set to be finished sometime this winter, will include a “living room” with a large dome ceiling and a balcony for services, and a library and classrooms upstairs. Rubin said the building will be landscaped and have no signage indicating it is a shul. The renovations total about $1 million.

“Once we had to redesign the building and to make the changes required in the settlement agreement, we felt that it would be worthwhile to make it look very beautiful and make it accommodating for all of our needs,” said Rubin, emphasizing that the Department of Building and Safety issued permits for all the remodeling.

After the congregation demolished the building, the city asked the Department of Building and Safety to issue a stop-work order, contending the extensive renovations violated the settlement. Construction was halted for several months until the court granted the congregation’s motion to have that stop-work order lifted. Earlier this month, the city filed an appeal to that ruling.

“That structure suggests a rather brazen determination to flaunt what the rabbi believes to be either his rights under civil law or some divine calling,” said Leonard Hill, a television producer and Hancock Park resident who is president and a founder of the newly formed League of Residential Neighborhood Advocates, which is funding the lawsuit.

“The only reason we are doing this is we believe that this is a wonderful place to live and we want to turn it over to future generations with the same sense of historical integrity, peace, tranquillity and openness that currently makes it such a special place to live,” Hill said.

Underlying the plaintiff’s suit is the belief that RLUIPA undermines the equal protection guaranteed by the Constitution.

“The real question is, does the federal government from Washington get to dictate which landowners get special treatment in land use projects, or do local communities get to determine how land use is done?” asked Marci Hamilton, co-counsel for the plaintiffs with Leslie M. Werlin of Van Etten Suzumoto & Becket in Santa Monica.

Hamilton, an RLUIPA expert and professor of church-state law at Cardozo Law School of Yeshiva University, argued a case before the Supreme Court in 1997 that resulted in the court declaring unconstitutional the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a law similar to RLUIPA.

Hill — a Jew who spent time on kibbutz and in yeshiva and was bar mitzvahed at Sinai Temple — has little tolerance for the claim that the opposition is controlled by anti-Semites and self-hating Jews. “The rabbi is unwilling to engage in substantive debates about equal protection, separation of church and state, historic preservation and maintenance of neighborhoods, responsibilities to neighbors — all that goes by the way and, instead, the red cape of racism is immediately raised by the rabbi in an effort to cloud the true merits of the debate,” Hill said.

But Azad wonders why neighbors — who in the suit cite two large bar mitzvahs at the June Street home — are not as outraged by other large parties in the area.

“If the city is going to cite Rabbi Rubin for inviting people into his house, they would have to go after all the people who have Girl Scout meetings and book club meetings and the other things people normally do when they invite people into their house,” she said.