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Jewish World Review March 3, 2003 / 29 Adar I, 5763

Jonathan Tobin

Jonathan Tobin
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Stereotypes and settlements

Delegitimizing half a million Jews won't bring peace any closer | Some American Jewish "leaders" and organizations just can't help themselves. Faced with the collapse of the Oslo peace process that so many of them supported and a Palestinian terror war against Israel that has lasted for 29-months, the hard-core liberal Jewish establishment in this country simply will not give up.

Events and Palestinian-Arab intransigence have conclusively proven that peaceful resolution of the conflict between Israel and the Arabs cannot be manufactured by Israeli concessions. But that hasn't stopped many people from continuing to obsess about settlements.

In the last year, the Reform movement has published a series of studies bashing the existence of Jewish communities in the West Bank and Gaza, and even promoted a nationwide program of discussion about the topic at their synagogues. And this week they proposed a controversial resolution at the annual gathering of the Jewish Council of Public Affairs urging Israel to adopt the same sort of "freeze" on settlement that the Jewish state has previously resisted.

The members and institutions of Reform have responded to the crisis of the last 29 months with the same empathy, and emotional and financial support for Israel's people as the rest of American Jewry. Yet, by seeking to get American Jewry on the record as supporting a settlement freeze and a Palestinian state, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the head of Reform's Union of American Hebrew Congregations, seemed to be sending a message to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his newly elected government not to count on them when push comes to shove in future negotiations.

The resolution was defeated, but, by seizing on the settlement issue, Yoffie and company attacked the now triumphant forces of Israel's center-right governing coalition at its most vulnerable point.


Yoffie and many others, here and in Israel, believe the creation of a Palestinian state is a prerequisite for peace. They also think Israel's future safety depends on such a Palestinian state because the maintenance of a status quo that incorporates millions of hostile Arabs inside Israel's borders threatens Israeli democracy and security. If we assume, as we should, that expulsion of the Arabs in the territories is neither moral nor a viable solution, what do you with them?

Few Jewish leaders will argue that Jews have no right to live or build in the territories. Settlements are neither illegal nor immoral. But in this formulation, the existence of the settlements and their expansion merely makes a future accord with the Palestinians more difficult.

Since even Sharon now says he can envisage a peace with a Palestinian state, albeit one that is both democratic and that has truly renounced violence against Israel, a freeze can be made to sound reasonable.

But the problem with this analysis is that we are not arguing in a vacuum. The last three years have shown us that the Palestinians never were inte rested in a "land for peace" deal. Arab rejectionism is the "obstacle" to peace, not the settlements. The Palestinian Authority's promotion of Jew-hatred has created a situation where it may well be that the best Israel can hope for is to actively defend itself against the infrastructure of terror while waiting for circumstances to change. A two-state solution seems to be no more a guarantee of peace than the status quo.

Sharon is smart to talk of accepting a state under highly specific circumstances, but the odds of anything like a peaceful, democratic Palestinian state coming into existence are highly improbable.

But will a settlement freeze advance the chances of it happening? It is far more likely that it would have, like previous Israeli concessions, just the opposite effect.

By renouncing even the most precarious of settlements, such as those in Gaza, Israel will be repeating the mistake it made during Ehud Barak's skedaddle from Lebanon in the spring of 2000. Under present circumstances, Israel's mili tary believes such a gesture would only embolden the Palestinians to step up their attacks, not to lessen them.

Nor would a surrender of the equally precarious hot spot of Hebron help things. By giving up the place where Jewish history began, Israel will again be sending an unintended signal to Palestinians that the Jews will renounce their patrimony and have lost their will to resist. The result would undoubtedly be more bloodshed, not less.

And freezing settlement really would not affect these controversial settlements. The only "expansion" that has gone on in the territories are in those places that the overwhelming majority of Israelis have no intention of giving up, such as in the town of Efrat in the Gush Etzion bloc (where kibbutzim were destroyed by Arab invaders in 1948). Effectively, calling for a freeze is saying that the Jews of Efrat and other heavily populated communities near the 1949 armistice lines would be on the chopping bloc.


Settlement freeze advocates also need to understand another key fact.

Stigmatizing the more than 200,000 Jews who live in the territories as an unnecessary burden on the Jewish people and an obstacle to peace feeds into the propaganda by which some Arabs falsely claim that attacks on these Jews are not terrorism but self-defense.

The portrayal of these Jews as lunatics who are all itching to kill Arabs is by now a common stereotype held by many Americans. And though a tiny extremist minority of supporters of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane might fit this description, the overwhelming majority do not.

Though many American Jews act as if rhetoric that delegitimizes settlements has no cost, this is not true. The Jews in the territories, whether they are young or old, religious or secular, hard-line or moderate, have all been marked for death by the Palestinian Authority and its Islamic allies.

And since most of the world sees no distinction between the more than 200,000 Jews who live in those parts of Jerusalem that were occupied by Jordan from 1949 to 1967, what we are really talking about is the idea that nearly half a million Jews are considered fair game for murder even by Arab "moderates" and many of their European supporters. Any action or statement by American Jews which reinforces this mindset is an unforgivable blunder.

By raising the idea of a settlement freeze now, Yoffie is showing more than bad timing. It is a sign that, should the pressure for Israeli concessions resume after the conclusion of a war against Iraq, a major portion of American Jewry may not support the democratically elected government of Israel in its efforts to avoid steps which will endanger Jewish lives.

Most Jews, including many Reform Jews, understand a point that Yoffie apparently does not. At the moment, no one in either Israel or the United States has a formula in their pocket that will bring peace. Under these circumstances, a little more humility on the part of Jewish leaders is called for. Sniping at Israel and seeking to impose conditions on it while it is at war, and while it lacks a peace partner, is not the action of a friend or ally. While Palestinian terror continues with little letup, this is not the time for American Jews to play such games.

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JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent. Let him know what you think by clicking here.

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