Finally, Israel’s Settlements Policy, turn toward Extremism making Impact on Jewish Opinion

The collapse of the Middle East peace process, Israel’s persistence in building illegal settlements upon land which, if a two-state solution were to emerge, would constitute a Palestinian state, and the turn toward extremism within Israel have had an impact on Jewish opinion both in the U.S. and throughout the world.

In November, a leader in the British Jewish community publicly criticized Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu for the waning peace talks and insisted that Anglo-Zionists begin to voice their opinions on the matter.

Mick Davis, chairman of the London-based United Jewish Israel Appeal (UJIA) and executive of the Jewish Leadership Council, warned in front of more than 160 people at the London Jewish Cultural Center that unless there was a two-state solution with the Palestinians, Israel could become an apartheid state, "because we then have the majority going to be governed by the minority." He went on to declare that Netanyahu lacked the courage and the strategy to take the steps to lead to peace in the Middle East.

As the Israeli newspaper Haaretz noted in its Nov. 24, 2010 edition, "For years the Jewish community not in Israel has avoided expressing moral reservations regarding the Israeli government’s decisions and policies. Davis said that the British leaders felt they could not voice their opinions for fear of their ideas being used by Israel’s enemies."

According to the International Jerusalem Post of Dec. 17-23, 2010, "many prominent Jews in public positions defended his [Davis’] remarks, noting that it was high time ‘that honest and open discussions’ about Israel took place in the public arena….A growing desire to openly criticize Israel is moving from the fringes of the Jewish community into the mainstream."

In the U.S., President Barack Obama’s attempt to bribe Israel with a $3 billion security assistance package, diplomatic cover and advanced F-35 fighter aircraft if Netanyahu would simply agree to a 90-day settlements freeze to resume talks with the Palestinians, not only was rejected by Israel but was harshly criticized even by some of Israel’s long-time friends in Washington.

In an op-ed in the Nov. 21, 2010 Washington Post, Daniel Kurtzer, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel who now teaches at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, and an Orthodox Jew, declared that the idea of the U.S. rewarding "Israel’s bad deed" was a bad one: "And while Washington will almost certainly come to regret bribing Israel, Israel may regret receiving such a bribe even more. Previously, U.S. opposition to settlements resulted in penalties, not rewards, for continued construction. Washington deducted from its loan guarantees to Israel an amount equivalent, dollar for dollar, to the money that Israel spent in the occupied territories. While it’s true that the U.S. has turned a blind eye to indirect U.S. subsidies for Israeli activities in the territories–such as tax deductions for American organizations that fund settlements–the deal now being offered to Israel is of a totally different magnitude. If it goes forward, it will be the first direct benefit that the U.S. has provided Israel for settlement activities that we have opposed for more than 40 years."

TIME Magazine’s Sept. 13, 2010 cover story was devoted to the proposition: "Why Israel Doesn’t Care About Peace." Author Karl Vick quoted a number of prominent Israelis who say that peace with the Palestinians is hardly a priority. Hadas Ragolsky, executive producer of Israel’s Channel 2, said, "The rise in real estate prices is more interesting to the public than future talks…" According to political scientist Tamar Hermann, who has measured the Israeli public’s appetite for a negotiated settlement every month since 1994, "There is no sense of urgency. They watch less and less news. They read political sections of the news less. They say, ‘It spoils my day, so I don’t want to see it.’"

Israel’s thriving economy and the feeling that it can maintain control of the West Bank with little cost has, in Vick’s view, "combined to make the Palestinian question distant from the minds of many Israelis…The concrete wall Israel erected on its eastern side during the second intifada sealed out not only suicide bombers but almost all Palestinians. An Israeli Jew can easily pass an entire lifetime without meeting one. ‘The wall,’ marvels a former Israeli negotiator, ‘put the Palestinians on the moon.’"

While some Jewish observers were harshly critical of the TIME story, others were not. Andrew Silow-Carroll, editor of the New Jersey Jewish News, provided a different assessment: "The Anti-Defamation League…oddly claimed that the article implied that Israelis ‘care more about money than a future of peace and security.’ The ADL demanded that TIME apologize for ‘calling up age-old anti-Semitic stereotypes about Jews and money.’ But if it is anti-Semitic to celebrate the prosperity of Israel and its ‘restless culture of innovation’…as Vick does….then this pro-Israel newspaper and dozens like it are anti-Semitic."

An Unprecedented Concession

Writing in the Oct. 18, 2010 issue of The Nation, Henry Siegman, director of the U.S./Middle East Project and a former leader of the American Jewish Congress, pointed out that "Netanyahu has never offered to concede even one inch of Israeli territory to the Palestinians–not even from Palestinian territories acquired in 1948 during its War of Independence which the 1947 U.N. Partition Plan had assigned to Palestine’s Arab population…Netanyahu’s Likud Party has popularized a slogan that Palestinians only ‘take and take’ while Israel’s many ‘concessions’ go unacknowledged. It is a lie that has become deeply ingrained in Israel’s national narrative. For Palestinians have made a concession to Israel that is unprecedented: in 1988 the PLO agreed formally to recognize the legitimacy of Israeli sovereignty within the 1967 armistice border, an area that includes fully half the territory that…had been recognized as the legitimate patrimony of Palestinian Arabs in the U.N. Partition Plan. This reduced the Palestinians’ territory from 43 to 22 percent of Palestine while enlarging Israel’s territory from 56 to 78 percent."

If more and more Jewish voices are being raised in criticism of Israel’s policy on settlements, the outcry over growing extremism in Israel is even greater.

Some 53 percent of Israel’s Jewish population believes that the state can encourage Arabs to leave the country, a new poll found. The Israel Democracy Institute’s 2010 survey released in November also found that 86 percent of Israeli Jews, constituting 76 percent of the total public, believes that critical decisions for the state should be made by the Jewish majority. The poll also found that 46 percent of the Jewish public is bothered by Arabs, 39 percent by foreign workers, 23 percent byharedi Orthodox Jews and 10 percent by non-observers of the Sabbath.

A statement, made public on Dec. 7, 2010 which cites the halachic (Orthodox religious law) stance against renting or selling a house or a plot of land to a non-Jew in Israel was signed by 47 state-employed rabbis: "In response to many people’s questions, we hereby reply that it is prohibited by the Torah to sell a house or a field in the Land of Israel to a Gentile."

This follows a similar ruling issued by Safed’s chief rabbi, Shmuel Eliahu, nine months earlier. The latest statement seemed to be an attempt to gather broad rabbinic support for Eliahu. It also sought to prove that his edict was based on halachic and not racial grounds, and thus substantiate his right as a rabbi to issue it. Signatories included the national religious and ultra-Orthodox rabbis heading the rabbinates of Metulla, Karmiel, Rishon Lezion, Ashdod, Ashkelon, Hod Hasharon, Herzliya, Ta’anana, Ma’aleh, Adumim, Rehovot and Eilat.

In its Dec. 24, 2010 issue, The Forward reported on the opposition to such a decree under the headline, "U.S. Rabbis Offer Rare Rebuke Of An Israeli Edict." Statements by the American Modern Orthodox and Conservative rabbinic associations, and by the spokesman for an American ultra-Orthodox umbrella group, all denounced the Israeli rabbis’ directive. So, too, does an online petition signed by more than 900 rabbis, most of them affiliated with non-Orthodox denominations.

According to the American Jewish weekly, "Controversial proclamations by Israeli rabbis are not unheard of, but this sort of broad American rabbinic response is rare. Now, it appears that the collective response has reached a tipping point, at which so many American rabbis have spoken out against the edict that others may feel compelled to concur."

An online petition for rabbis posted by the New Israel Fund (NIF) on Dec. 10 had received 914 signatures by Dec. 15. "Statements like these do great damage to our efforts to encourage people to love and support Israel," the NIF statement read. "They communicate to our congregants that Israel does not share their values, and they promote feelings of alienation and distancing."

Signatories of the NIF petition included Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, and Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

Though mainstream American rabbinical associations appear to oppose the Israeli rabbis’ letter, at least one prominent Orthodox rabbi was sympathetic. "I think it’s part of a concern–and I believe a rightful one–that there’s a war going on and we’re trying to maintain normalcy," said Rabbi Moshe Tendler, a dean of the rabbinical school at Yeshiva University.

In Safed, whose rabbis issued the religious ruling forbidding residents to rent or sell apartments to Israeli Arab students attending the local community college, there is fear of intermarriage and, Rabbi Eliahu declared, "fighting assimilation in the holy city of Safed."

"Ugly Currents of Racism"

As Washington Post correspondent Joel Greenberg reported on Nov. 14, 2010, "To civil rights advocates and other critics, the unsettling developments in this normally quiet community of 32,000 are a window into ugly currents of racism in Israeli society…Hagai El-Ad, executive director of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, said that public attitudes have been legitimized by proposals in parliament that send a message of exclusion to Israeli Arabs. One bill authorizes rural Jewish communities to review applications for residence on the basis of social and cultural compatibility, language that critics say is code for keeping out Arabs."

In October, Greenberg reported, "A group of young Jewish men attacked apartments of Arab students near the old city of Safed…The mob gathered outside a building housing Arab students, shouted ‘Death To Arabs’ and ‘Stinking Muslims’ and hurled stones and bottles, smashing a window…Eliahu Zvieli, an 89-year-old resident of the old city who rents a room to three Arab students, said he had received numerous phone calls and visits, including from Rabbi Eliahu, urging him to remove his tenants. One caller threatened to burn down Zvieli’s house, he said. A sign was posted on the gate calling the Arabs’ presence ‘a shameful disgrace.’ Zvieli, a Holocaust survivor from Hungary who endured forced-labor and prisoner-of-war camps, said he was not fazed. ‘I’ve been through a few things, and I’m handling it,’ he said. ‘You can’t surrender to terror.’"

So extreme is the attitude toward non-Jews that Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, founder of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, which raises money for Israel among Christian supporters in North America, said that Interior Minister Eli Yishai refused to accept donations from pro-Israel Christians, thus denying the underfunded Fire and Rescue Service a shipment of brand new fire trucks that would have helped quell the fires that raged in December on Mount Carmel, killing 42 people and turning thousands of acres into wasteland.

In the face of both its refusal to move toward a peace agreement with the Palestinians and the growth of extremism internally, some Jewish establishment figures still maintain an "Israel, right ot wrong" posture. Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, writing in the Spring 2010 issue of the journalReform Judaism, declared: "What Israel needs from us now is unconditional support. It needs our visits, our dollars and our engagement. It needs our political activism."

Sadly, for many American Jews in recent years, support for Israel–whatever its policies–has become a substitute for religion. Prof. Eric Alterman, writing in the Nov.-Dec. 2010 Moment, reported that without a real religious faith, "Many have turned to the defense of Israel as a kind of religious precept and the result, too often, is a repetition of political talking points as if they were the Amidah (the central prayer of the Jewish liturgy, meaning "18 Benedictions"). They are not and will not sustain generation after generation with what is, after all, vicarious experience, and one that is based less on a genuine attachment to Israel than to a mythic version of it."

Increasingly, however, Rabbi Yoffie’s formula of "unconditional support" is meeting growing opposition. To use support for Israel as a substitute religion is not helpful to American Jews–or to Israel. It corrupts Judaism and encourages Israel’s own most extreme individuals and groups.

As more diverse Jewish voices are heard–applying genuine Jewish values to Israel and developments in that country–everyone will be better off, including Israelis, Palestinians, and Jews in other countries. Finally, Israel’s turn to extremism seems to have evoked a long-needed response.