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The Settlements Explained, Partially

What follows is Friday evening’s sermon, although slightly corrected and updated. In the delivered version I had for example exaggerated the number of settlers and underestimated the West Bank Palestinian population. My apologies. I have also added a few additional facts.

This week’s Torah portion begins with the word vayigash. And Judah drew near to Joseph. He drew near to plead for his brother Benjamin. And so I wish to draw near to a topic that is fraught with controversy and one that has been in the news these past weeks: settlements. I would like to think that I too speak in behalf of my brethren, but that will be for you to decide. Nonetheless I will likewise draw near.

Let me begin by stating my bias. President Obama is both right and he is wrong. He is wrong that the United Nations is an honest broker. He is wrong that this institution offers an address to rectify the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. With the exception of the UN Partition vote of 1947, that I might add Israel accepted and the Arab world rejected, I can think of few if any UN votes that have been even handed in their approach to this conflict. The recent UNESCO statement that in effect denied the historical Jewish connection to the city of Jerusalem in general and the Western Wall in particular is yet another recent case in point. While the Security Council resolution was more balanced than most, the United States’ abstention might in fact serve to strengthen Israel’s enemies and weaken its negotiating position. Let me be blunt. The UN long ago abandoned the moral high ground.

Nonetheless the attacks on Obama and the accusations that he has abandoned Israel or that he is the worst president ever in regards to Israel are simply false. There is plenty to disagree with regarding his policies—the fall of Aleppo and the abandonment of millions of human beings in the face of their slaughter by Assad on one side and ISIS and the other represents his greatest policy and moral failure—still the shrill language directed against the president is unhelpful. Moreover, it is inaccurate. He recently signed a $38 billion military aid package for Israel. His administration vetoed every other UN Security Council resolution critical of Israel. He rushed emergency aid for more Iron Dome batteries during the Gaza War. Some Israeli military leaders in fact, and contrary to my own opinion, praise the Iran nuclear deal. They argue that the deal has delayed, if not forestalled, an Iran bomb. The vitriol is demeaning of the accusers who throw it. Like his predecessors President Obama’s record is somewhat uneven. President George H.W. Bush also fought with Israel over the settlement enterprise. He held up $10 billion in loan guarantees as long as Israel continued expanding settlements in the West Bank and Gaza. The fact is that US policy has always been opposed to the settlement enterprise. Sometimes presidents have pushed this to the forefront. Other times, they have not.

People see what they want to see. They hear what they want to hear. If you long ago decided that Obama is an enemy of the Jewish state then that is what you will hear and see in every one of his actions. I continue to believe, however, that every US administration going back to Harry Truman is a friend of Israel. Some are better friends than others of course, but let’s be crystal clear about one important fact. Friendship does not mean agreement. In fact the rabbis teach: “Any love not accompanied by criticism is not love at all.” (Bereshit Rabbah) It is instead infatuation. When are American Jews, and most especially their leaders and organizations, going to move away from infatuation to real love? You can love Israel and criticize Israel. Criticism does not mean you love Israel any less. It may mean that you love something more because you believe it can be better; it can be improved. Sure too often criticism of Israel comes from our enemies and even takes the form of antisemitism, but that’s not what’s coming from the US government or our current president or Secretary Kerry.

I take them at their word. I think they believe that the settlement enterprise endangers Israel’s democratic character. To be honest, that is my opinion as well. But of course it is not as simple as that. What the world, and the UN, calls settlements is not what I call settlements. Let me explain.

In the Six Day War Israel captured a great deal of territory from enemy states. It captured the Sinai and Gaza from Egypt. The Sinai was traded for a peace deal with Egypt. Israel unilaterally withdrew from Gaza and evacuated 9,000 settlers. The hope was that the Palestinian Authority would begin to fashion the semblance of a state there, but as you know Hamas soon took over (in democratic elections by the way insisted upon by George W. Bush). Now some 1.5 million Palestinians live in horrible conditions and Hamas continues to build tunnels and fire rockets at Israeli towns. The Golan was captured from Syria. Given the present civil war in Syria that territory will remain in Israel’s hands, it must remain in Israel’s hands, if for no other reason than as a necessary buffer against the chaos in the north. And finally Israel captured the West Bank and East Jerusalem from Jordan. It should be noted that it was not captured from the Palestinians. In the peace agreement with Jordan, Jordan relinquished any claim to these territories.

Soon after the 1967 War, Israel annexed East Jerusalem and built neighborhoods there such as Gilo, Har Homa, French Hill and Pisgat Zeev. These neighborhoods are part of the Jerusalem municipality. I don’t know of any Israeli who considers these occupied. Of the perhaps 580,000-settler figure you might read about in the newspapers this includes 200,000 in what was once the Jordanian territory in Jerusalem. So take these areas out of the equation, because Israel is not going to withdraw from these Jerusalem neighborhoods. That would be like New York abandoning the Bronx. (It should be noted that there is a new developing phenomenon. Israeli Jews are now moving into Arab East Jerusalem and taking over apartments there. Many imagine that this area will serve as the capital for a Palestinian state, which is why this is troublesome.)

Then there are the large settlement blocs that are outside of Jerusalem’s municipal limits, such as Maale Adumim, Gush Etzion, Modiin Illit and Givat Zeev. In the North there is also Ariel. These large settlement blocs have another 290,000 Israelis.  Most recognize that in any peace agreement these areas would have to be incorporated within Israel’s borders. They are just too big and have too many people to be dealt with in any other way. In addition it’s important to understand that many people living there are not ideological settlers who believe that this territory is their God given inheritance. They moved there because they get some tax breaks and they could get a bigger house and a bigger lawn. From Ariel, for example, it’s an easy commute to Tel Aviv.

What is so unfortunate in these public discussions of the settlements is that no such distinctions are made. My liberal relatives who live in Pisgat Zeev are lumped together with 500 radical settlers living in Hebron, a city of some 120,000 Arabs. I met with one such settler, who argued that democracy is a means to an end. And what is the end that he hopes for? He wants the establishment of a Jewish state, not a Jewish-democratic state, in which the third Temple will be built. He wants a theocracy! There are throughout the West Bank small settlements. In Kiryat Arba, outside of Hebron, for example, some 7,000 settlers live. There are approximately 90,000 settlers living in these settlements. There are by the way some 230 settlements. They are not all as ideologically driven as the Hebron settlers, but many are. Such settlements represent a worry for Israel’s democracy. They also undermine any hope that Palestinians might achieve a contiguous state in a large portion of the West Bank. Roads are built that connect Jewish settlements and divide Palestinian areas. Checkpoints are maintained. Yes terrorism remains a grave threat. And Palestinian intransigence is a significant stumbling block toward making peace. The continued Palestinian refusal to accept the Jewish state within the Arab Middle East remains the greatest hurdle to overcome.  In addition, Palestinian leaders’ praise of murderous terrorists is not only immoral but confounds any attempt to make meaningful progress.

Still you need to know this. The settlement enterprise is undermining Palestinian hope and endangering Israeli democracy. Secretary Kerry is right. Prime Minister Netanyahu speaks about two states for two peoples but his government continues to expand these isolated settlements. Shekels spent on settlement expansion are buried in various other budgets, such as defense and transportation. These settlements are what I would call isolated. They are often isolated geographically. They are sometimes built on confiscated land. They are often built without the government’s permission by the so-called hilltop youth and then retroactively recognized. Today there are some 100 settlements that are not recognized as legal—and that is by the State of Israel. These must be isolated ideologically. They are antithetical to Israel’s democratic principles. It is these democratic values that unites America and Israel and binds most American Jews, especially young American Jews, to Israel. Netanyahu has failed to isolate these settlements. In fact they have expanded. And that is a problem. It is a profound worry.

Protecting these settlements forces Israeli soldiers to act against the loftiest visions for the Jewish state. Here it is in a nutshell. You cannot protect 90,000 settlers living among approximately 2.5 million Palestinians and most importantly grant citizenship to the 90,000 and not the 2.5 million and forever call yourself a democracy.

President elect Trump’s pick for ambassador David Friedman is the president of American Friends of Beit El, a settlement in the West Bank. That aligns him to the right of Bibi Netanyahu in the Israeli political spectrum; the rabbi of Beit El is rightly labeled as militant. He is not devoted to democracy as a value. He once argued that Jews should never rent homes to Arabs and that soldiers should resist orders to evacuate settlements. I have little doubt what Friedman’s judgment might be about this sermon. He apparently labels such dissenting opinions as treason. As much as I love God I also believe that too much God intoxication is especially dangerous in government. I want God to be kept at a distance when it comes to country. I think that is much safer.

You should know this as well. My worries are shared by many Israelis. I have often found it curious that there is more rigorous debate about Israel’s policies in Israel than is allowed here among American Jews. My views are represented in the Israeli Knesset—by Jewish MK’s. Everyone rightly worries about who Israel’s partner for peace might be. Who might be able to guarantee Israelis safety and security? But I can tell you this. I was in Israel the summer that 9,000 Israelis were evacuated from Gaza and you thought at times there might be a civil war, that the country was being ripped apart from within. Now there are some 90,000 settlers scattered throughout the West Bank, living outside of the security fence constructed in response to the second intifada’s murderous violence. Unless Israel’s pushes out the ideology that feeds these settlements, namely that this is Jewish land and no one else’s we are going to endanger Israel’s democratic character. Israel was founded to be both Jewish and democratic. The creative tension between these two values is what makes it so extraordinary.

Here is what Israel should do. It should invest in the neighborhoods of Jerusalem and the large settlement blocs while halting expansion of these isolated settlements. That would suggest that Israel’s government’s recognizes what the contours of the Palestinian state it publicly affirms will look like. Unfortunately it does not do this. It avoids the debate. It delays these necessary discussions. Netanyahu states that he believes in a two state solution, but his actions suggest otherwise. Let’s have the debate. More importantly let’s be open to criticism from our friends. They may be wrong. They may be right. But this is certain. A friend who demonstrates his support time and again deserves to be listened to and not dismissed as an enemy simply because we don’t like his words.

One final note of Torah. The word vayigash is used in another context. It is used when soldiers draw near to a town to make war. That is my greatest fear. I am tired of war. I wish for Israel to live in peace. But peace will not one day miraculously appear. It requires hard work. It requires difficult conversations and painful compromises. It is to our detriment to ignore criticism. We only become better by opening our hearts to critique, especially when it comes from avowed friends.