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June 10, 2022 11:32 am

Despised Settlers

avatar by Jerold Auerbach


A general view of homes in the Mitzpe Kramim settlement outpost, in the West Bank, June 18, 2020. Photo: Reuters / Ronen Zvulun / File.

According to the Biblical narrative Abraham’s purchase of the Machpelah cave in Hebron as the burial site for Sarah (Genesis 23) marks the first property owned by the Jewish people in their promised land. In time, King David ruled from Hebron before relocating his throne to Jerusalem. Small numbers of Jews lived there until 1929, when a raging Arab pogrom decimated the community.

After a failed attempt to restore it no Jews lived in Hebron until Israel’s stunning victory in the Six-Day War enabled their return. Following the path of Zionists who had always been determined to restore ancient communities (and build new ones) in the Land of Israel, they became known – and despised ever since by Israelis on the left and assimilated Jews elsewhere – as evil “settlers.”

For three decades, in book after book, there has been a steady stream of criticism of these Zionist pioneers. Ehud Sprinzak’s The Ascendance of Israel’s Radical Right (1991) led the way. Settlers, he wrote, comprise a “vigilante” movement, launching a “religious raid into the heart of secular Israel.” Their return to Hebron constituted “Jewish aggrandizement” and their “encroachments” were “insulting” to Muslims.

The following year Robert I. Friedman’s Zealots for Zion, based on talks with “hundreds of settlers,” focused on their “appropriation of vast tracts of Palestinian land.” He admitted that he “abhors” settlers, whose “moral blind spot” accounted for “the extreme brutality of the occupation” that has damaged Israel’s “image as a democracy.” Friedman was oblivious to his own blind spot.

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The laceration of settlers intensified over time. In Lords of the Land (2005) Idith Zertal and Akiva Eldar described Israel as “an occupying state.” The “ideological fanaticism” of settlers transformed them into “devotees of a crazed cult,” while the “malignancy of occupation” brought Israeli democracy to “the brink of an abyss.” Other Israeli leftists have lacerated

settlements as a “colonial” project, illegally intruding into Palestinian land. They were oblivious to the reality that settlers were returning to Jewish land: Biblical Judea and Samaria.

A less hostile analysis appeared in Gershom Gorenberg’s The Accidental Empire (2006). He recognized that Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War spawned “a new nationalist religion” whose believers claimed that the “liberated” West Bank territory is Israel’s by “historical or theological right.” But settlements, inhabited by “religious radicals” who were “convinced that they were fulfilling God’s plan,” “frayed” Israel and threatened its democracy.

For Hebrew University professor Gadi Taub, author of The Settlers (2010), they exemplify “messianic Zionism.” Their “occupation” of the West Bank is Israel’s “most glaring violation of democratic rights and liberal values.” Guilty of “extralegal and illegal” activity that ignores “moral-human considerations,” they are responsible for “subverting the sovereignty of the Jewish state.”

The most persistently hectoring criticism of settlements has  appeared in The New York Times (owned by Jews since 1896). Convinced that religious-nationalist “fanatics” were leading Israel toward becoming “an undemocratic apartheid state,” it accused settlers of “colonizing” someone else’s land.

For years Thomas Friedman has been an unrelenting, and lacerating, settlement critic – first as Times Jerusalem Bureau Chief and as a columnist since. For Friedman “colonial Israeli occupation” by “fanatical” settlers has created an “apartheid-like, democracy-sapping” occupation. He even – and absurdly – blamed “crazy” settlers for assassinating Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, murdered by a resident of the Tel Aviv suburb of Herzliya.

Times editors have repeatedly – and erroneously – claimed that “settlements on occupied territory violate international law.” To the contrary. Following World War I a League of Nations Mandate granted Jews the right of “close settlement” throughout “Palestine” – geographically defined as the land east and west of the Jordan River. But British Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill removed the land east of the river as a gift to Hashemite Sheik Abdullah to establish the kingdom of Trans-Jordan. Jewish settlement west of the river was unimpaired.

After the Six-Day War U.N. Resolution 242 provided that following “a just and lasting peace between Israel and its neighbors” Israel would be required to withdraw military forces from “territories” – not from “the territories” or “all the territories” – west of the Jordan River. The right of Jews to “close settlement” west of the River (in Biblical Judea and Samaria) has never been rescinded.

Israeli leftists, Palestinians and The New York Times will likely remain unsettled by Jewish settlers. But for the Yesha Council that has represented Jewish settlements for more than forty years, “the Jewish people are not an occupier in their own land.” Settlement in the Land of Israel, after all, defines Zionism. It preserves the Biblical homeland of the Jewish people, not only for Israelis but for Jews everywhere.

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

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