By Melchett Mike
December 17, 2009
It is extremely seldom that any aspect of my religious education interferes with my relatively secular equilibrium. But Biblical lessons and warnings about the existential dangers to the People of Israel from certain of its own behaviours are starting to appear to me worryingly relevant for the modern State of Israel.
Last month, a real estate agent in Jaffa offered to bring me in on a deal, which was about to close, if I agreed to increase his commission from two to three percent (no little chutzpah in itself). In the end, no details of the property were revealed, but, last week, I was introduced to the seller by chance in the local supermarket. The deal had hit a hitch, and he brought me to the apartment to take a look.
The following day, the agent – who had somehow heard about this opportunistic meeting – called to inform me that, if I were to purchase the apartment, I would still owe him the commission. "Ata yechol likfotz" (literally "You can jump") I advised him in my most fluent Hebrew (i.e., that of abuse!), warning him to never call me again. (I am seriously considering obtaining an agent's license, in the – perhaps naive – belief that an honest practitioner will soon attract clients.)
In Golders Green a few years ago, a not particularly bright (and soon to become unemployed) agent, who knew I was a solicitor, offered to reveal to me the competing bids for a house in return for an envelope stuffed with cash. While such behaviour should not, therefore, be surprising for Israel's real estate agents – to whom Woody Allen's assessment of politicians, "a notch below child molesters", could equally be applied – it is for its lawyers, so many of whom seem more concerned not to miss out on a piece of this country's economic pie than to represent the best interests of their clients.
Introducing me to a deal in Tel Aviv a couple of years ago, my former lawyer quoted me a price which I knew to be around $300,000 above the asking one (which I discovered had not been increased). A short while later, the lawyer informed me that the property had already been sold. Smelling a rat, I called the seller to confirm. It was still on the market. But my lawyer probably had a better combina – surely the most important word in Hebrew slang, referring to a non-transparent and usually far from kosher commercial "arrangement" – with another client.
Israel's real estate lawyers are also renowned for tipping each other off about deals and carving up between themselves, at lower than market values, properties that should be going to auction (following bankruptcies and liquidations). Of course, there are corrupt lawyers in the UK too. But they are very much the exception. Here, dodgy lawyers – especially in the field of real estate and based in Tel Aviv – often appear to be the rule . . . so much so that discovering a straight one sometimes feels like winning the Lotto.
Finding a property here, especially an older one with character, without some major encumbrance – usually not apparent on first inspection or revealed (and sometimes even concealed) – is also the exception. I have come across many with entire rooms appropriated from communal space, and one in Jaffa where virtually the entire living room floor turned out to have been built without a permit. The Israeli real estate market can be a minefield, and it helps to be naturally suspicious, a yekke, and to have an extremely thorough lawyer.
And the surprises don't always end with the signing of the contract. When I received the keys to my current apartment, on Melchett, back in 1999, I walked in to find that a kitchen cupboard – a "fixture" in legal terms – had been removed. Leaving their homes for the very last time, Israelis are notorious for taking every last light bulb with them.
The shortage of affordable real estate in Tel Aviv is blamed, naturally, on the French 'invasion' – a commendable focus for resentment by any standards – but word on the rechov (street) also has it that large investment companies are snapping-up properties before they even hit the market (this in a country where over a third of the primary income is reported to already be controlled by a mere 19 families).
Even when you think that you have found a property, and offered the asking price, the boom in prices here over the past five years has caused many Israeli vendors to greedily wait for an even better offer.
My diagnosis of our sickness is simple (if a little racist, and without obvious cure): there are just too many Jews here.
And they are not deterred, as many Diaspora Jews are, if not by moral or religious considerations, then at least by concerns about incurring Jewish communal opprobrium and/or provoking anti-Semitism ("What will the goyim say?") In a country where questionable ethics and corruption run from the Prime Minister down – and Ehud Olmert is only the most recent example – very few people have any such compunction. It is very much the law of the jungle.
Perhaps most depressingly, whenever I express disappointment at such behaviour, the reaction from my fellow Israelis is usually one of resignation: "Why are you even surprised?" There is also the oft-heard justification that "If everyone is at it (i.e., even our leaders), then why should I be the only freier (sucker) to miss out?!"
The People of Israel would appear, once again, to have lost its moral compass. Let us just pray that that poisonous Persian dwarf is not God's instrument of correcting us.
[If any overseas readers of melchett mike are interested in investing in real estate here – especially in Tel Aviv or Jaffa, something I would highly recommend – I will be happy to share the benefits of my experience and findings . . . free of charge!]