Discouraging Diaspora Jews from owning vacation homes in Israel is contrary to the Zionist narrative and against the interests of residents of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

Apartment in Tel Aviv Apartment in Tel Aviv 311. (photo credit: Courtesy)

Jerusalem and Tel Aviv’s admirable ascension over the past decade has come at a cost: Real estate prices have increased steeply and populations that could afford to live in the cities a generation ago can no longer do so. Young professionals, essential to the cities’ growth, are being forced out of the city centers.

Various solutions to the severe housing shortage have been proposed, and a healthy debate now ensues on the merits of such alternatives.

Yet what should be avoided is a tendency to deflect the core problem by finding a scapegoat.

Unfortunately, such a scapegoat was found: Diaspora Jews who own vacation homes in Israel. And a remedy is being put in place: A new sanction against such vacation- home owners, doubling their property tax.

Such a sanction is not only against the interests of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, but is also contrary to the Zionist narrative. At Zionism’s core is the encouragement of Diaspora Jews to view Israel as their national homeland.

The Jewish Agency has shifted its focus in recent years from advocating aliya to urging Diaspora Jews to strengthen their relations with Israel. A strong manifestation of such relations would be for a Diaspora Jew to choose Israel as his vacation home, as opposed to another destination.

This would no doubt be an admirable display of Zionism.

Having said that, it is certainly legitimate to sacrifice Zionist interests for the interest of the residents of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. If imposing such a sanction would lead to a reduction in housing prices for the local residents, then government should indeed consider balancing the two conflicting interests to promote the welfare of residents. But as broadly agreed, levying the additional tax would have a negligible effect on housing prices.

Beyond enforceability issues, it is unlikely to prompt a large number of owners to sell or rent their property.

What it does, however, is deliver a strong message that is clearly being received by Jerusalem and Tel Aviv’s part-time residents: We don’t want you here.

Such an approach toward vacation- home owners is fundamentally flawed. There are certainly heavy costs, but there are also many benefits that vacation-home owners bring.

Vacation-home ownership fuels the economy, creates jobs, infuses capital, generates population diversity, globalizes the city and boosts tourism. It also creates a long-term trickle-down effect: The vacation- home owner’s children, relatives and friends are much more likely to visit Israel, spend money in restaurants and stores, invest in local businesses, direct funds to Israeli charities and maybe even make aliya.

Beyond the economic benefit to the cities and its residents, Diaspora Jews visiting their Israeli vacation homes regularly contribute to the development of Israel’s society across various spectrums. Greater day-today interaction of foreigners and Israelis exposes Israelis to global business opportunities, and fosters innovation, idea-generation and standards.

Such an affluent demographic brings more of the outside world into the heart of Israeli cities. Israeli society is strong enough to allow a higher degree of pluralism and sustain a more diverse range of residential preferences.

Rather than broadcast the message of “Israel for the Israelis,” it is time to invite Diaspora Jews to feel part of the Israeli story. We need to ask them to participate in their own way, not in the way prescribed by government regulations. Israel should better understand the concept of vacation- home ownership and embrace it – not fight it. Encouraging vacation- home owners to spend more time in Israel is far more beneficial than encouraging them to spend no time at all in Israel (e.g. rent or sell their place).

The current debate is reminiscent of a debate that occurred in Israel in the 1920s. Just like now, much of the local Israeli public and many Israeli leaders were critical of a wave of affluent Diaspora Jews coming in, boosting real estate prices and bringing with them Diaspora European behavior patterns: “The homeowners have arrived,” they were mocked.

“These are no country-builders.”

It is true that the 1920’s Fourth Aliya boosted housing prices (over 100 percent) and contributed to the economic hardship of the late 1920s.

But those same immigrants also transformed Tel Aviv from a collection of neighborhoods into a metropolitan city. They created an industrial infrastructure in Israel, and brought with them technology, art, capital and innovation. Their arrival was highly beneficial to Israel’s development – economically, socially and politically. Contrary to some perceptions at that time, they were indeed builders of Israel.

Israel has since grown and today serves as a prime connecter of Diaspora Jews. Moreover, Israel is a key enabler for the survivability of Judaism itself. Vacation-home owners today are builders of Israel. They should be welcomed with warmth and gratitude.

This regulation unfortunately sends a message in the opposite direction, and does so without providing much relief to the housing shortage.

The writer is a board member of the America-Israel Friendship League, and chairman of the AIFL think tank.