On zero population growth, Condi & condoms

How does the Quartet plan to stop the natural growth of communities like Betar Illit and Efrat?

rice israel 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
rice israel 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
Take your favorite houseplant and do something stupid: put it in the freezer. Within two hours it will be irreversibly dead. Like plants, human communities and families grow, flower, reproduce and spread their roots. Unless someone does something stupid and attempts to "freeze" them. On May 2, four ministers of the "Quartet" - comprised of US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and representatives from Russia, the United Nations and the European Union - expressed "deep concern at continuing settlement activity and called on Israel to freeze all settlement activity, including natural growth." Rice and her partners are opposed to all settlement activity, not just the planting of a rickety caravan on some wind-swept hilltop in Samaria. They are opposed to building in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Har Homa, to new apartments in the city of Ma'aleh Adumim, or new housing in the Gush Etzion town of Efrat. They do not give any dispensation to Jerusalem's new neighborhoods. They are opposed to construction in settlement population centers despite President Bush's assurances of April 14, 2004 when he wrote: "In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli populations centers, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949 [the 1967 lines]." How serious is that Bush commitment? National security adviser Stephen J. Hadley admitted in a January briefing that Bush's 2004 letter was aimed at helping prime minister Ariel Sharon win domestic approval for the Gaza withdrawal. "The president obviously still stands by that letter of April 2004, but you need to look at it, obviously, in the context of which it was issued," he said. Is the "context" of 2004 different from the context of 2008? The Quartet makes clear that the "natural growth" of Jewish communities is taboo. That means Zero Population Growth, or even negative population growth. It is a call for no new apartments for growing families and no construction of health clinics, kindergartens or schools. What would that mean for the ultra-Orthodox Jews in the burgeoning West Bank towns of Betar Illit and Kiryat Sefer, where children under 17 comprise two-thirds of the population? The "knitted kipa" national religious communities are not too far behind in the size of their families. Shas politicians could never accept such a diktat. How does the Quartet plan to stop the natural growth of these Jewish communities? With procreation police? Campaigns advocating birth control? "Sorry," the religious Jews will respond, "we gave at the ovens." In their case, ZPG stands for "Zionist Population Growth." A FEW years ago, an imprudent ad agency placed posters of bikini-clad models at bus stations in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods. Within hours the stations and posters were toast. A few months later, an anti-AIDS poster campaign was launched with a picture of a condom. Incredibly, the posters in the ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods were left unscathed. Why? Probably because the residents had no clue what the product was. These are neighborhoods where televisions are banned and late-night activities do not include watching Jay Leno. Large families mean larger apartments. Married children mean a demand for nearby housing. The ultra-Orthodox community of Mea She'arim was visited recently by US Ambassador Richard Jones, who showed just how much he was out of touch with his audience when he expressed concern "about where things are built in Jerusalem... Sometimes people do have to move to a different location. They cannot always stay close to their families." Would an American ambassador ever make such a statement in an Arab society where sons traditionally stay close to their fathers and clans? Incredibly, it is a tragic fact that the government of Israel actually approved the Quartet's road map in 2003, with its restrictions on settlements and natural growth. The Israeli government, which at the time included several right-wing ministers, expressed 14 "reservations," but they have no standing in talks with the US government or the other members of the Quartet. And not one of those reservations included opposition to the "natural growth" restriction. To use a rabbinic term, the restriction is a gezera (decree) that the community cannot bear. So why did Israel's leaders accept such a decree? Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that government leaders who supported the road map live primarily in the tony coastal plain, have few children, or have children living on the West Bank of the Hudson, the Rive Gauche of the Seine, a government-granted homestead in the Negev, or eventually in a state correctional facility. Compare those leaders with two gentlemen very dear to me who passed away last week. Joseph Black, my father-in-law, made aliya at the age of 92 and moved into our home in Efrat. (Is that defined as "natural growth?") When he died at the age of 97, we were comforted by his six grandchildren (our children) and seven great-grandchildren, all of whom live in relatively new homes nearby. Our neighbor, Ernie Alexander, died at age 85 while we were still sitting shiva. His tribe numbers some 60 children, grandchildren and their offspring. Virtually all live in Israel, and most live "over the Green Line." They prove that "natural growth" is an irrepressible and irresistible force. The writer served as deputy chief of mission in Israel's embassy in Washington. He blogs at www.lennybendavid.com