Newsweek reported this week that as Libyan leader Muammar Kaddafi plans his trip to New York next month to address the United Nations, he is considering – literally – pitching his large Bedouin tent on Libyan-owned property in New Jersey.
That property, it turns out, is on Palisades Avenue in Englewood, and big construction efforts at the site have been ongoing for several months.
Apparently, however, town residents were not told in advance that Kaddafi might soon be in their neighborhood.
“It would have been nice not to find out about this through the Newsweek article,” said Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, owner of the adjacent property and a columnist for this newspaper.
Asked by The Jewish Standard if he had been aware earlier of Kaddafi’s possible visit, Boteach said he would have expected, as a neighbor, to at least have been informed of the construction plans.
Instead, he said, “I woke up about two months ago and saw that massive trucks had been brought in to gut the place. There were maybe 20 vehicles there every single day – big tractors.”
Even then, he said, he suspected that Kaddafi might be coming, given the Libyan leader’s warm reception by President Obama at last month’s G8 summit.
“The property had been a hovel for many years. So this kind of massive effort and expenditure in so short a time pointed to the visit of a high-ranking dignitary,” he added.
Englewood Mayor Michael Wildes was also caught off guard.
“I will be mortified if Kaddafi moves within city limits,” he said. “The Libyan mission owes millions upon millions of dollars to the town and the state. If they think we’re going to pick up their garbage after his years of terrorism and murderous acts, they’ve got another think coming.”
Wildes said he does not have formal confirmation that Kaddafi is, in fact, coming to Englewood.
“I am considering making an inquiry of the State Department,” he said.
Boteach said that when he bought his home 10 years ago, “we knew the Libyan mission owned the property. I was happy to try and establish warm, neighborly relations with my Muslim brothers who ran the mission. But the property seemed abandoned. It was an eyesore,” he said, “big, derelict, and overgrown. I never saw any people there.”
He was especially shocked, then, “to wake up one day and see that the fence separating the two houses was gone and that five trees were cut down.”
Going next door to speak with the construction manager, he said, he established a courteous relationship with project manager Sal Dunia.
“Sal apologized to me and expressed his sincere regret that our fence and trees had been removed without permission, and that we had not been approached about the construction,” said Boteach. “He has since worked to be warm and accommodating.”
He added that he was particularly disturbed by the removal of the trees not just because of his concern for the environment and “because the beauty of Englewood is its greenery,” but for its security implications as well.
“If security are going to watch our home, then we have a right to know,” he said. “It’s where we raise our nine children, our private abode.”
Franz Volcy, who works with Englewood City Engineer Kenneth Albert, noted that Albert investigated the tree removal. Apparently, not all of the required permits had been obtained.
“The city is in the process of putting together a listing of the replanting that must be done and advising the construction officials about what is required,” said Volcy.
“The project manager said they’re putting up another fence,” said Boteach, adding that he is not opposed in principle to Kaddafi’s visit “if certain criteria are met.”
“The repudiation of his WMD programs as well as paying financial restitution to the families of victims of the savage terror attack [the 1988 Lockerbie bombing] is a big step on the part of the Libyan leader to be reconciled with the West,” he said. “But there ought to be certain criteria he should meet prior to ensconcing himself in what is renowned as a town with a massive and influential Jewish community.”
“Foremost among these gestures is a declaration of friendship for the State of Israel,” said Boteach, “and a call to his fellow Arab leaders to renounce any hostility toward the Jewish state.”
That, together with a formal and complete apology to the bereaved families of the Lockerbie attack, would be sufficient for Boteach “to invite Kaddafi to our home as warm neighbors to show him Jewish hospitality – but he ought to come as a friend of the Jewish community and the Jewish people rather than as an invader.”
He added that the incident at Lockerbie has special significance for his family, since “it took place almost on the exact day that I arrived in Oxford, England, to begin 11 years as rabbi of the university.”
Boteach said that without such overtures by Kaddafi, “the idea of a leader of an Arab country with declared hostility toward Israel simply moving into Englewood, even for a short time, could cause its residents severe discomfort.”
He said he looks forward to discussing the matter with Libyan officials, “discussing the appropriate overtures with the Libyan ambassador to the U.N. whose official residence this is reported to be. We are, after all, neighbors, quite literally.”
“Kaddafi’s move into Englewood is an opportunity as well as a risk,” he said. “If he reaches out to the local Jewish leadership and publicly declares his friendship for the Jewish people, then it is incumbent upon us to reciprocate the bold gesture. But if he simply moves into a tax-exempt mansion whose upkeep is largely funded by Englewood residents without any sensitivity to the religious makeup of the community, he will confirm in the minds of many that his public acts of contrition toward the West have been self-serving. If he’s changed, let him show it. If not, then Englewood has far more deserving people to welcome.”