Thursday, January 20th | 19 Shevat 5782

September 3, 2020 4:23 am

My Reply to Benjamin Kerstein on the Settlements

avatar by Jerold Auerbach


The Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

I find your critique of all settlers — but especially in Hebron and Kiryat Arba — oblivious to Jewish and Zionist history in the Land of Israel.

I begin with the obvious: settlement in the Land of Israel defines Zionism. (I assume, since you are an American settler in Tel Aviv, that you agree.) All Zionists, returning to their ancient homeland, were “settlers” and so defined themselves. There was no distinction between “good” and “bad” settlers — there only were “bad” Zionists, in your judgment, once the Six Day War enabled Jews to return to Biblical Judea and Samaria – especially to Hebron. Yet, as you surely know, settlement in the Land of Israel had defined Zionism from its beginnings.

Hebron has been at the core of Jewish history, beginning with the Biblical narrative, ever since Abraham purchased the Machpelah cave for Sarah’s burial place. Millennia before there was a Jewish nation, Jews “settled” in Judea and Samaria and King David ruled from Hebron — surely not a random choice — before relocating his throne to Jerusalem.

Hebron became embedded in Jewish memory. The massive stone enclosure (Me’arat Ha’Machpelah) built by King Herod over the burial tombs of the patriarchs and matriarchs became the holiest Jewish site, preceding the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. As a Jew and a historian I take the Biblical story seriously as a foundation narrative, however it may have been interpretively embellished over time. So too do the Jewish settlers whom you despise.

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Indeed the first waves of secular Zionists also considered themselves to be “settlers.” Do you also despise them? It was hardly random that the first ancient city to which Israelis returned after the Six Day War, once Jerusalem was secured, was Hebron. Nor that Jews — call them “fanatics” if you must — had lived in Hebron for millennia until their centuries-old community was ravaged and destroyed by violent Arab rioters in 1929. Were those dozens of murdered Jews also to be disparaged because they had chosen to inhabit Hebron?

A confession: on my first visit to Hebron (in 1972, with a group of “disaffected Jewish academics”), I had no clue as to its importance in Jewish history. But I began to learn. Two years later, as Fulbright Professor at Tel Aviv University, I revisited it. I met Rabbi Eliezer Waldman, who had grown up in Brooklyn, not far from my boyhood home in Queens. His passionately defended fusion of Zionism and Orthodoxy, challenging my synthesis of Zionism and liberalism, fascinated me. I was, after all, a scholar (an American historian by trade) eager to learn.

So I returned to Hebron on a group trip for Shabbat Chaye Sarah. Walking downhill from Kiryat Arba to Hebron with scores of Israelis, and soldiers lining both sides of our path (Palestinian terrorist attacks were not uncommon), we entered Machpelah’s magnificent Isaac Hall for Shabbat davening and the Torah reading of Chaye Sarah. It was an extraordinary experience, which I subsequently repeated with my son. You should try it some time.

On a return visit, after I decided to write about Hebron Jews, I met with Elyakim Haetzni, who had left his Tel Aviv law practice after the Six Day War. Books in Hebrew, German, and French lined the walls of the living room in his Kiryat Arba apartment. He was interested in my interest in Hebron, kindly answering even the most uninformed questions. He was thoughtful and knowledgeable — anything but the “fanatic” of your article — a “settler” and lawyer who represented both Palestinians and Israelis.

Fascinating conversations with Rabbi Waldman followed. He was strongly opinionated, especially about settlements, but I expected no less. Over time I was generously hosted and guided through the Jewish Quarter, and to the ancient cemetery, by Hebron spokesman David Wilder, once a New Jerseyite who lived in Beit Hadassah, the former Jewish hospital until the Arab conquest.

I wanted to learn; they were my best teachers. I also met and chatted briefly with Rabbi Moshe Levinger in Machpelah and learned about the ”awakening of tempestuous spirits” that inspired his return to Hebron in 1967. I might detest his violent attacks on Palestinians, although I understood why their attacks on Jews provoked his retaliation.

Yes, Baruch Goldstein, driven by sorrow and fury at the unremitting Palestinian terrorist attacks against Jews in Hebron, a number of whose victims he had desperately tried as a doctor to save, did the unforgivable by murdering Moslems in prayer at Machpelah. But he was one man, not the chosen representative of Kiryat Arba-Hebron.

To claim that I am “in love” with settlers, which makes me “blind,” is absurd. Yes, I admire and respect their determination to restore Jewish life in the Biblical homeland of the Jewish people. Isn’t settlement in the Land of Israel what Zionism means? And what about Gush Etzion (where my grandson studies) — a cluster of settlements destroyed by rampaging Arabs on the eve of the Independence War? Also a despised settlement?

I assume that your choice to make aliyah was not the decision of a “fanatic.” And I understand why the comforts and pleasures of Tel Aviv might appeal to a secular American for whom even Jerusalem is too holy to imagine living there (which I did for two years). What I don’t understand is your dark fantasy that settlers are willing to see Israel “potentially destroyed in an apocalyptic war or simply swallowed by the demographic weight of its enemies.”

The fury of your response to my article suggests that I must have touched a nerve. But settlers, like Tel Avivians, live in the Biblical homeland of the Jewish people — only more so. What is wrong with that?

Jerold S. Auerbach is the author of Hebron Jews: Memory and Conflict in the Land of Israel (2009).

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