Settlements: Calamity or Fulfillment?
Benjamin Kerstein has been commended as “one of the finest American-Israeli authors of his generation.” But his recent Algemeiner critique — “Zionism, Messianism and the Question of the Settlements” — is unpersuasive.
Kerstein understands that Israeli settlers are not monolithic: they “represent a diverse and complex society-within-a-society.” They range from ordinary Israelis who, like generations of Zionists before them, have built communities in the Biblical Land of Israel, to “true believers” who are “often terrifyingly sure of themselves.” Their “remarkable success story” might best be understood as the fulfillment of the Zionist dream. Yet he identifies with those “who view the movement with skepticism at best and open hostility at worst.”
Kerstein knows that Judea and Samaria (Jordan’s “West Bank” until the Six-Day War) comprised “the heartland of the ancient Jewish kingdoms; it is integral to the Jewish people’s biblical inheritance … and our presence there is as indigenous as one could possibly imagine.” He recognizes settlers as “people of considerable integrity” who “are willing to put their lives in danger for what they believe in.” That seems like a compelling argument for an embrace of the historic Land of Israel and its bold and courageous Jewish residents.
Yet for Kerstein there are “very legitimate reasons to be skeptical of and even hostile toward the settlement movement.” Least persuasive is his discomfort that “essentially the entire world considers the settlements illegal.” (Who cares?) But “the most troubling aspect of the settlement movement” is its “ferociously messianic passion” of the kind that has sprinkled Jewish history with “horrifically destructive” consequences. Among the “terrible horrors,” he rightly identifies “Baruch Goldstein’s slaughter of 29 innocent Muslims” in the Machpelah shrine (1994), reinforced by “the Kahanist ideologues of Hebron” who “reject Israeli democracy.”
But Kerstein ignores the reality that the overwhelming majority of the nearly 450,000 settlers are normal Israelis who, as Zionists have always done, built communities in the Biblical homeland of the Jewish people. The settlement blocs with the largest number of Israeli residents feature universities, yeshivas, scientific laboratories, high-rise apartments and shopping centers. It is inconceivable that they would be ever be abandoned by their residents or evicted by the Israeli government.
That leaves Kerstein’s primary targets: the “messianic fanatics” of Hebron and neighboring Kiryat Arba (Biblical Hebron) who reject democracy and advocate “a theocratic state.” But Baruch Goldstein’s horrific massacre of Muslims at prayer in Me’arat ha’Machpelah — the ancient burial site of Jewish patriarchs and matriarchs — remains the tragic exception. Hebron Jews, numbering fewer than 1,000, have far more often been the targets of Palestinian terrorism than perpetrators of violence.
While researching the history of Hebron, the repository of Jewish memory rooted in the Biblical narrative, I met with the trilogy of Israelis who were the founding fathers of the restored community following the Six-Day War: Rabbis Moshe Levinger and Eliezer Waldman and lawyer Elyakim Ha’etzni. They were not “messianic fanatics”; they were passionate Zionists determined to restore Jewish life in the holy Jewish city that was the first capital of ancient Israel under King David’s rule. Other Hebron and Kiryat Arba residents, especially my guide David Wilder, were welcoming, generous with their time, and patiently answered my questions.
Kerstein’s “messianic fanatics” turned out to be passionate Israelis who — like secular Zionists — were determined to return to the Biblical homeland of the Jewish people. They neither rejected Israeli democracy, as he writes, nor did they advocate “a theocratic state.” Their “apocalyptic messianism,” in translation, was devotion to the restoration of Jewish national sovereignty — also known as Zionism.
For Kerstein, however, Jewish settlers — not only in Hebron — are an unwelcome intrusion into the “overwhelmingly Arab” West Bank. So, too, were the early waves of Zionist settlers who returned to their promised land. They were vastly outnumbered by Arab residents (not yet self-identified as “Palestinians”) who — often violently — resisted their presence. Arab rioting in 1921 that killed 47 Jewish “settlers” in Tel Aviv hardly would have justified the abandonment of Zionism — in the city where Kerstein lives.
Kerstein is, of course, entitled to be “a strong skeptic of the settlement movement.” But he recognizes that it has “won” its struggle to establish “a permanent presence in the West Bank.”
Settlements, he realizes, “are not going anywhere, and we must make some kind of peace with that.” Perhaps the most appropriate expression of peace would be acceptance of the reality that the settlers’ “permanent presence” represents the fulfillment of Zionism: the restoration of Jewish sovereignty in the Biblical homeland of the Jewish people.
Jerold S. Auerbach is the author of Hebron Jews: Memory and Conflict in the Land of Israel (2009).