Saifedean Ammous : Apartheid Comes to New Jersey

By Saifedean Ammous 

It was a cold Sunday morning in Teaneck, N.J. Some two-hundred-odd Jewish-Americans were entering the Orthodox synagogue Congregation B’nai Yeshurun where they were to hear a sales pitch by the Amana Settlement Movement aimed at convincing them to buy homes in illegal Israeli settlements.

America, the land that gave the world the separation of church and state, is hosting an auction where only members of one religious group can buy property.

And here I am, a Palestinian who grew up hundreds of meters away from some of these very settlements. I cannot buy any of these houses and am not admitted into the auction room. Literally and figuratively left out in the cold, I light a cigarette and get over it immediately; being denied entry is not an entirely novel experience for a Palestinian.

A group of around 50 pro-peace activists gather outside to protest the auction. Rabbi Steven Pruzansky comes out to speak to journalists; he doesn’t seem to understand the controversy. "Everyone can buy land anywhere. I was in the Bahamas and they were selling land; in Florida they sell land to anyone, why can’t we buy land in Israel?" When a journalist mentions to him that these are colonies for Jews only, he says that he prays hard for peace, and looks forward to the day when Jews and Arabs can live together, but for now this is hard because of the "security situation." It doesn’t occur to him that this "security situation" may itself be the result of these exclusive colonies being built on stolen Palestinian land.

I ask a middle-aged man leaving the presentation what he thought of it. He tells me he will definitely move to Israel one day. I ask him if he knows anything about the legal status of these settlements; he tells me it is "unclaimed land." I mention to him a recent report by Israeli group Peace Now which finds that 40 percent of settlements are built on confiscated private Palestinian land (as opposed to the other 60 percent that are built on illegally occupied land.) "Peace Now and B’Tselem are the two most anti-Semitic organizations in the world," he replies, "Can they prove it?"

I tell him that this is based on documents from Israel’s "Civil Administration" and that the Israeli government never denied these reports, but he’s having none of it. I ask him if he thought about asking Amana about the legality of the land, but he answers with a stern "No, I don’t want to ask them. I don’t need to know."

One of my most vivid memories of growing up under Israeli apartheid came in the summer of 1993, when our house in Ramallah would receive water only three days a week. I remember driving one day near the colony of Shilo (back in the good old days when we could still drive between Palestinian cities) and witnessing the water sprinklers bursting at full blast outside the settlement to water the surrounding hills, ensuring the view for the colonialists was a little greener. Someone today will buy a house in Shilo, and in a few years, on a hot summer day, she will wake up to this beautiful green view, while I would wake up praying there would be enough water to shower.

Settlements receive around 10 times the amount of water per capita that Palestinian cities and villages receive. While we had to resort to buying plastic dishes to cut down on dish-washing, they would spend their days in swimming pools enjoying the lush green views afforded to them by their sprinklers.

And today, this colonialism is taken to absurd lengths. Having helped turn the West Bank into the world’s biggest constellation of ghettoes surrounded by walls and racially-exclusive colonies and roads, Amana was still not satisfied. Nor were they satisfied with the economic and political support that the American government provides to the Israeli government’s abuses of human rights and international law. They had to squeeze money from the people of New Jersey to build more exclusive illegal colonies, dispossess more Palestinians, and take more water from my family. All part of "Keeping the Zionist Dream Alive," as the Amana brochure put it.

Watching the quintessentially American family of a dad, mom, and three kids emerge enthusiastically from their blue Ford SUV toward the auction made me think of all the families I knew whose lands were taken by Israel; often forcefully displaced and separated, these families can not even buy these lands back if they wanted to. In "The Only Democracy in the Middle East," real estate is run by imaginary ghosts from 3,000 year-old books that displace families from their only homes to auction them as second and third homes to Americans.

I wonder what drives this beautiful family to wake up on a Sunday morning and go find out about joining a colonial project instead of going to the mall; contributing to its success with their money by not knowing and not wanting to know about the reality of what they are getting into. It sounds too banal to be true, but a consumerism that willfully and consciously chooses to be blind to the consequences of its purchases is helping prop up the world’s only remaining colonial apartheid system.

The night before coming here, this family doubtlessly weighed the option of joining this project against skiing, shopping, or visiting relatives. Unfortunately for my future bathing prospects, they have decided to join in Amana’s quest to "Keep the Zionist Dream Alive."

– Saifedean Ammous is a PhD student in Sustainable Development at Columbia University in New York. (

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