It is the loveliest property on the block in a genteel neighborhood of Englewood, New Jersey. Everything about the mansion is picture-perfect: the stone residence, the country-club-quality landscaping, the frozen pond, all enclosed by an elegant fence.
Appearances aside, however, this block is anything but placid.
The property belongs to the Libyan government, which acquired it more than a quarter-century ago. For much of that time, the US had no relations with Libya. The Libyan government did not use the estate, which deteriorated and became an eyesore on a major street of the city in Bergen County.
The house and grounds were recently renovated. The estate is now the residence of Libya's ambassador to the United Nations, Abdurrahman Mohamed Shalgham. His next-door neighbor is Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, the author of Kosher Sex, a prolific columnist whose works are published in The Jerusalem Post, and now a mightily aggrieved neighbor.
Not many people in the area thought about Libya in Englewood until last summer, when Boteach wrote in a column that Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi "is going to be my neighbor." Boteach wrote that when he moved into his home 10 years ago, he had known that the adjoining property was the residence of Libya's UN envoy. He said he had "endeavored to walk next door and greet my Muslim brothers who purportedly lived there, but we almost never saw any people."
The neglected property suddenly became a bustling construction site last year. Crews repaired the house and grounds (and, in the process, damaged a fence and cut trees that belonged to Boteach). It appeared that Gaddafi, who travels with a Beduin-style tent, would pitch it on the grounds of the Englewood estate when he came, for the first time, to the US for the opening of the UN General Assembly.
THIS TALE could become a litany of facts, grievances and anxieties about Libya and terrorism. But the crux of it is that Gaddafi could not pitch his tent in Englewood (or in Central Park in Manhattan).
This is not, however, the end of the issue. Although Gaddafi was nowhere in Englewood, Boteach has taken up his pen now that Libya has renovated its property, hoisted its green national flag next to the American Stars and Stripes and moved its envoy into the wealthy city of 30,000 people.
The battle, however, seems to have degenerated into ad hominem attacks. Pity Steve Rothman, the former mayor of Englewood and the longtime congressman whose district includes the city. Last week, he issued a statement in which he assailed Gaddafi, outlined the history of the estate and the legal conditions on the property, which limit its use to a residence for Libya's UN ambassador. Rothman also noted that it was president George W. Bush who had removed Libya from the list of state sponsors of terrorism.
Gaddafi "is still, and has always been in my mind and many others, a madman with the blood of innocent Americans and others on his hands," Rothman said in a statement. "However, we have been able to keep him out of Englewood now for 27 years and counting - despite his government's ownership of the Englewood property!"
Boteach apparently found this insufficient and had alluded to running for elective office, believing himself ill-served by his elected officials.
"Earth to Congressman Rothman, you represent the concerned citizens of Englewood, not the oil-rich dictatorship of Libya," he wrote. "Will he [Rothman] really defend the right of an envoy of a terror-sponsoring government to live in our midst, spending millions of dollars on his home while refusing for more than a quarter of a century to pay even one dollar in taxes?"
THIS IS a red herring at the expense of local officials. Englewood went to federal court in the 1980s to try to compel Libya to pay local taxes. Even if Libya paid, some other issue could be raised to object to the Libyan residence. Many people are terrified of Libya. They recall that president Ronald Reagan termed Gaddafi the "mad dog of the Middle East." Everyone remembers Lockerbie. Fear is not diminished because Bush revoked the US trade embargo on Libya and opened an embassy in Tripoli.
And in Bergen County, Boteach has a mansion next door to the Libyan envoy.
"I now have the Libyan flag flying 10 feet from my property and can shortly look forward to my children negotiating with Libyan security personnel every time they hit a baseball over the fence," he wrote. Maybe, instead of a criticism of officials regarding local property transactions, this should be an object lesson in real estate. The moral of the story is that it is important to check out your neighbors before you buy your mansion.
Nobody, with the possible exception of other diplomats, wants to live near diplomats from friendly or rogue states. Diplomatic residences can be an annoying nuisance or a hazardous presence. These homes may be high-traffic sites for parties or plain gawking. I, for one, have gone to gawk at the Libyan estate, which is two miles from my house.
More to the point, diplomatic residences may be magnets for public demonstrations against a government. We can probably expect that in Englewood, unless everyone lowers the volume.