The Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement, a global campaign that advocates economic mechanisms as a means to pressure Israel to comply with international law and to respect basic Palestinian human rights, is growing. The stocks of the carbonated drink company Sodastream, whose principal manufacturing facility is situated in an illegal Israeli settlement in the occupied West Bank, are plummeting. A burgeoning European boycott is already taking its toll, and the Israeli Justice Minister has noted that the movement is growing “exponentially,” warning his fellow denizens that an oblivious Israel is living in a “bubble, … disconnected from the international reality.”
In the BDS movement, radars tend to be focused on companies directly invested in Israeli settlements built illegally in occupied territories, in violation of the Geneva Convention. What often tends to get looked over, however, are the corporations, or rather the corporation that is responsible for selling the very land on which these settlements are built.
Enter RE/MAX. RE/MAX is an international real estate, rental, and leasing corporation. Its headquarters are based in the United States (Denver, Colorado). Since its founding in 1973, the company has expanded into over 90 countries, with more than 7,000 offices and 100,000 agents. On its website, RE/MAX shows off its “economic power,” claiming “the largest business volume in the world.” And it’s growing: Every day, around the world, RE/MAX sells 1.6 new franchises.
RE/MAX Israel began operating in 1995. At the time of its founding, RE/MAX Israel was the first RE/MAX franchise in the Middle East. Branches have since opened in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. RE/MAX holds the largest network of real estate agencies in Israel, and even goes so far as to refer to itself as “the number one company in Israel.” It boasts 100 branches and over 900 real estate agents in the small country (roughly the size of New Jersey) alone.
The Israeli branch of RE/MAX sell homes in illegal, Jewish-only settlements in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem. In other words, it directly profits off of and instigates further colonization of Palestinian land, selling Palestinian properties that were illegally seized by the Israeli government.
Bernard Raskin, RE/MAX Israel CEO
Bernard Raskin sits at the head of what is now essentially RE/MAX Israel’s empire. Raskin has been lauded by none other than Haaretz as “something of a magnate.” The publication, Israel’s most-read, published a 700-word panegyric to the profiteer in 2004. At the time, Raskin had owned the Israeli real estate franchise all to himself, and he refused to disclose the company’s profit margin. Not one to show signs of humility, he told Haaretz “I no longer feel the need to apologize” for success.
In a somewhat strange twist, Raskin, the man behind the burgeoning RE/MAX Israel enterprise, is a Zimbabwean-born former academic from South Africa, who did doctoral work in, of all things, criminology at the University of Pennsylvania. This doctor of criminology takes no issue with openly speaking of racist hiring practices. In his feature in Haaretz, Raskin said that he was “looking to recruit more agents, specifically in the Anglo community, because he’s convinced that customer service and professionalism come naturally to native English speakers.” According to Dr. Raskin, Anglo agents “are disproportionately successful.”
In response to an email inquiring about RE/MAX Israel’s illegal activities, a RE/MAX executive who knows Raskin personally claimed the Israeli CEO “has been a peace activist for many many years, organizing … peace initiatives between Palestinians and non Palestinians and Jews by flying joint balloons and kites across the walls in the effected [sic] areas.” I have been unable to find any documentation of Raskin’s alleged peace activism. The RE/MAX broker of record nevertheless insisted that Raskin “is a good, sensible man who wants peace – however the offices in the occupied territories are not evident of that and must be taken into account.”
Selling Properties in Illegal Settlements
RE/MAX Vision, a franchise that describes itself as “the #1 RE/MAX office in Jerusalem,” has homes for sale in the French Hill, Armon HaNatziv, and Pisgat Ze’ev, illegal Israeli settlements in occupied East Jerusalem. The RE/MAX Atid franchise is located in and sells properties in Ma’ale Adumim, an illegal Israeli settlement in the occupied West Bank. In the past, RE/MAX Israel had offices in the French Hill and Pisgat Ze’ev, as well as in Oranit, an illegal settlement in the West Bank, and Ramot, an illegal settlement in East Jerusalem.
On its website, one can clearly see that RE/MAX Israel sells many homes far beyond the Green Line. Kokhav Ya’akov, an illegal settlement in the occupied West Bank in which RE/MAX sells homes, is at least 15km beyond the Green Line. Alfei Menashe, another illegal settlement in the occupied West Bank in which RE/MAX sells homes, is much farther north. In the past, RE/MAX Israel has also sold houses in Beit Arye, Beit El, Geva Binyamin, Giva’at Ze’ev, Salit, Sha’arei Tikva, and Zufim, in the occupied West Bank, and Gilo and Har Homa, in occupied East Jerusalem.
RE/MAX is not the only real estate company selling illegal properties. Israeli companies Haya Real Estate and Remon also sell homes well beyond the Green Line. RE/MAX Israel, however, is by far the largest real estate company in the country.
On its website, RE/MAX Israel also discusses its real estate school, one that teaches over 700 students per year. “The real estate school of RE/MAX Israel offers you the country’s leading training track for a profitable career in real estate,” it declares. In its preparatory course for the real estate agent exam, the RE/MAX Israel real estate school claims it “touches on all the laws relevant to the agents exam.” It appears as though international law—the same law that says that Israel’s settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem are illegal—does not fit into students’ curriculum.
In 2004, Raskin estimated his company would, within two years, expand to “maximum capacity,” with 90 offices and approximately 1,000 agents. This capacity has indeed since been reached. In fact, RE/MAX Israel’s business is better than ever. In the February 2013 Stars Convention, in Sun City, South Africa (another country in which RE/MAX is taking off), Raskin revealed that the Great Recession of 2007-9 did little to impede his further profiting off of apartheid and privation.
Raskin’s customers, the Israeli middle class, are looking primarily for “three to four-bedroom apartments close to economic hubs,” between US $250,000 and US $300,000. Over one-third of the market consists of first-time buyers, so a new generation of young Israelis is looking for homes, and they are looking outside of more expensive city centers. The life of these young upwardly-mobile professionals, in search for their first suburban home, stands in stark contrast to the abject poverty of the Palestinians Israel increasingly dispossess. Approximately 80% of those living in the occupied Area C of the West Bank don’t have enough food and roughly 90% of Gazans live in poverty.
Yet, while Palestinians slip even deeper into poverty, Israel’s real estate industry is booming. While the Israeli economy as a whole was on the decline, the real estate maestro said he expected to see his company grow five percent in 2014 alone. One needn’t search long on RE/MAX Israel’s website to find luxurious houses in illegal settlements being sold for well over U.S. $1,000,000. Adding insult to injury, in one of the most peculiar ironies of all, RE/MAX Israel advertises some of the multimillion-dollar homes it sells, in illegal, Jewish-only settlements on land that was forcibly taken from indigenous Palestinians, as “beautiful old Arab houses.”
Business is doing so well, RE/MAX Israel is even looking to expand beyond what it previously considered its “maximum capacity.” In a 2012 video encouraging viewers to invest in a new RE/MAX franchise, Raskin declared “It’s always a good time to get into our business.” “The investment is relatively very low for something that can give you such a high return,” he coaxed, concluding with text reading “Everybody wins.” The Palestinians, whose homes are demolished by bulldozers, and whose property is confiscated by Israel and then sold by RE/MAX, are presumably excluded from this “everybody.”
Raskin has, however, noted a salient problem with business. At the 2013 Stars Convention, he lamented the limited supply of land in his small country, and explained the demand for property currently exceeds supply. This demand for is met by further expansion of illegal Israeli settlements. In early November 2014, Israel approved hundreds of more settler homes over the Green Line. These illegal properties will be sold in the neighborhood of Ramot, where RE/MAX Israel has already been operating. The U.S. has called this illegal expansion “unfortunate,” yet refuses to take any actions to back up its rhetoric, thereby allowing Israel to continue its process of colonization—and allowing RE/MAX to continue profiting off of this colonization.
On 5 June—just a week before three Israeli settler teens outside of the illegal Gush Etzion settlement in the West Bank were kidnapped, and before Israel’s ensuing illegal acts of collective punishment in Operations Brother’s Keeper and Protective Edge that claimed almost 2,200 Palestinian lives—Israel announced it would be building 3,300 new settler homes in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem. It claimed the decision to construct new settlements was a way to punish the Palestinians for their new Fatah-Hamas unity government. Israeli Housing Minister Uri Ariel dubbed it a “proper Zionist response to the establishment of the Palestinian terror cabinet.”
U.N.: RE/MAX LLC Is Complicit
In light of the overwhelming evidence that RE/MAX Israel is overtly violating international law in its colonization of what is legally Palestinian land, RE/MAX LLC has tried to to shirk responsibility for the crimes its franchise commits under the aegis of its renowned logo. Such is a common strategy of international franchise corporations. It is true that RE/MAX franchises are independent from one another. RE/MAX LLC collects dues from its agents around the world, yet these agents act essentially as independent contractors. Legally, RE/MAX LLC has tried to distance itself from the crimes of its Israeli franchises. That RE/MAX gives the stamp of approval and lends its name to these over 100 franchises to work in the occupied Palestinian territories, nonetheless, is problematic, to say the least.
McDonald’s recently entered the spotlight for these exact reasons. Myriad cases had been reported of franchises firing workers for exercising their legal right to organize, stealing employees’ wages, rejecting workers their breaks, and more. McDonald’s International claimed it cold not be held accountable for its franchises’ wrongdoings. The National Labor Relations Board’s general counsel disagreed, ruling that McDonald’s has joint responsibility.
The implications of this decision are enormous, yet one need not extrapolate solely from the case of McDonald’s. The United Nations itself has insisted that RE/MAX LLC must be held accountable for RE/MAX Israel’s offenses. In the 10 September 2013 Report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967, the U.N. stated
By providing international brand name affiliation and recognition, start-up training, ongoing training, technological resources, and advertising and marketing, as well as by profiting from such sales, Re/Max LLC has constant interaction and influence over its franchises.
Although it noted that “there is a wide range of businesses operating in the settlements,” the U.N. chose two particular case studies on which to focus its attention: the Dexia Group (for “banking institutions involved in financial transactions, such as loans to construct or purchase Israeli settlements”), and RE/MAX (for “real estate companies that advertise and sell properties in settlements”). That RE/MAX is one of the two primary subjects of attention should attest to its significance in the violation of human rights in the Palestinian territories. The two “highlighted are illustrative examples” of the “international crimes associated with transferring the citizens of the Occupying Power to the occupied territory”—crimes articulated in the Geneva Convention.
“Can RE/MAX International be held accountable for settlement properties sold by RE/MAX Israel?” the report asks. The U.N. answers, in no uncertain terms,
real estate agents may be held accountable for their involvement with settlements in occupied Palestine. Pressure by the international community to uphold international law is no longer limited to States as the primary duty-bearers. Companies, individuals and groups can be implicated for behaviour that contributes to wrongful acts.
The answer is clear; RE/MAX LLC “may be held accountable” for RE/MAX Israel’s operation in the occupied Palestinian territories. By garnering fees per associate and one percent of the revenue of its franchise’s sales, RE/MAX LLC is directly profiting off of Israel’s explicit violations of international law.
RE/MAX LLC’s Official Response
I contacted RE/MAX LLC, requesting a statement on their complicity in violating international law. After enduring many minutes of phone tag and evasive comments from numerous representatives, Senior Public Relations Specialist Hilary Nixon asked for my name and phone number and said someone “more informed” on the matter would call me back. I waited weeks, yet never got a response.
On 13 November 2014, I broke the story about RE/MAX Israel’s illegal economic activity. In it, I reported that Orly Raz, a RE/MAX agent for East Jerusalem, insisted that “You don’t have to worry about” the legality of the properties being sold, and that “All our properties legally belong to Jewish owners. They didn’t take them from anyone.” At the same time, Raz said “Of course, if you are worried about the ’67 border line, this is not a good area to buy property.” Anything beyond the 1967 border line is explicitly illegal under international law.
Raz also confessed that that many of these apartments are not for sale to non-Jewish people, but that this is not mentioned on RE/MAX’s website. I spoke with the Government Affairs Director of one of the U.S.’s leading realtor associations, who asked to remain anonymous. He explained that this behavior is probably illegal. “Realtors have a strict code of ethics that is unequivocal about religious discrimination,” he insisted. RE/MAX “can face pretty serious business consequences if they’re participating in that sort of thing.”
Immediately the next day, 14 November, RE/MAX LLC emailed me an official statement on franchise operations in the West Bank. It revealed that, in 1995, it “sold the franchise rights for Europe, which included Israel. RE/MAX Europe then sold the rights to use the RE/MAX brand to the current owner of RE/MAX Israel. As a result, RE/MAX LLC has no contractual agreement with RE/MAX Israel.”
In its official statement, RE/MAX LLC disclosed that it has indeed taken disciplinary action against RE/MAX Israel franchises in the past. A “few years ago it came to our attention that four offices using the RE/MAX brand were located in the West Bank,” RE/MAX LLC wrote. “One was found to be illegally using the protected RE/MAX marks, and legal action was taken against that office. Another office has been closed, and one was moved from the West Bank to another location elsewhere in Jerusalem.” As noted above, the remaining office, RE/MAX Atid, still sells properties in the illegal Ma’ale Adumim settlement.
RE/MAX LLC also revealed that it has “considered placing the West Bank within the master franchise for the country of Jordan, and for several months has been actively searching for investors to purchase that combined region.” What exactly RE/MAX LLC means by this is unclear. To whom would Jordan be selling the homes? Whether or not the franchise is located in Israel, in Europe, or anywhere, if it is still selling homes in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem to settlers, it is violating international law.
Regardless of its past actions, Israeli franchises using the RE/MAX name are still selling illegal properties in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, are still openly discriminating in hiring practices, and are still refusing to sell at least some homes to non-Jews. By using the RE/MAX logo, RE/MAX Israel is benefiting from the esteemed reputation of the global, transnational organization, and must therefore in some way be paying RE/MAX for its use. Until RE/MAX takes further action against these franchises, it is tacitly granting consent, and, in the words of the United Nations, “may be held accountable for [its] involvement with settlements in occupied Palestine.”