The leaders of the Jewish national-religious camp do not adhere to observable reality. They exist in the glorious Jewish past and in the messianic future but not in the reality of today, in which Jewish soldiers give their lives to protect settlements; in which Palestinians live and die at checkpoints; in which Israel is becoming a pariah among the nations; and in which Israel may one day cease to exist as a democratic Jewish state.
There remains a moral gulf between the most zealous settlers and the most extreme of the Palestinian Islamists. Small cells of settlers have shown themselves to be capable to committing atrocious acts of violence, but the main institutions of the settlement movement have not endorsed the sort of violence against Arabs that members of many Palestinian factions commit against Jews.
Still, there are similarities. Like the theologians of Hamas, the ideologues of the settlement movements have stripped their religion of all love but self-love; they have placed themselves at the center of God’s drama on earth; and they interpret their holy scriptures to prove that their enemies are supernaturally evil and undeserving of even small mercies. And, like Hamas, which would build for the Palestinians a death-obsessed Islamic theocracy, the settlers, if they have their way, would build an apartheid state ruled by councils of revanchist rabbis.
Gershom Scholem, the scholar of Jewish mysticism, once warned of the great eschatological temptation posed by a born-again Jewish nation. Can Jewish history manage to reenter concrete reality, Scholem asked, without being destroyed by the messianic claim that reentry is bound to bring up from its depths? The messianism of the settlers, like the messianism of Hamas, is the triumph of expediency: people who believe that God has given them a mission have granted themselves license to commit terrible sins….
The Jewish settlement of Tekoa, on the edge of the Judeaean desert, northeast of Hebron, is built near the site of the ancient Jewish village of the same name. Today, 250 Jewish families, half of them Orthodox, most of modest means, live in Tekoa. It is average in size and appearance for a West Bank settlement. The rabbi of Tekoa is a man named Menachem Froman. He was once a paratrooper; now he is a teacher of the Kabbalah. Froman has formed his own peace camp, in a manner of speaking. He believes that the West Bank should become Palestine, and he has no intention of leaving once it does. He will stay in Tekoa, he said, and may become a citizen of Palestine, under the leadership of Yasir Arafat. Froman has met Arafat, and refers to him as a friend. His meetings with Arafat have caused many of Tekoa’s residents to call him a foot.
“I’m the village idiot,” Froman said, happily. “I’m the primitive rabbi, the primitive Jew. But I’m a realist. I accept reality. I’m not talking about utopia. I accept what I see. There is a Tekoa, and there is a Tuqua” – the Arab village next door. “I don’t want to change reality, I want to work with reality. And the reality is that there is a Jewish village and an Arab village. Here you have men who are attached to the land, and there you have men who are attached to the land.”
He went on, “If one of my children says, ‘This is my father,’ does it mean that I have only one child? Not necessarily. I’m the father of more than one child.” God, too, has more than one child, as does the land between the river and the sea, he said. “The Jews have a right to live in freedom, the Arabs have a right to live in freedom. I have my pride, they have their pride. I have independence, they should have independence. I don’t want to suffer, they don’t want to suffer.”
I asked him how he could stay in Tekoa if it became part of Palestine.
“We’ll have a shtetl in the desert,” he said.
Froman invests too much faith in Yasir Arafat, and he is most likely wrong to believe that Israeli Jews would live, en masse, in a Palestinian state. And Froman is naïve to believe that the Palestinians would accept them. Still, his idealism is bracing. Other rabbis who serve as the theologians of the settlement movement, have blinded themselves to the presence of Arabs in the land. Froman is a reminder that Orthodox Judaism is not merely a Judaism of rock and stone, and that land is not as holy as life.
Sixty years ago, for many Jews, land was life, and Palestine meant salvation. The revisionist Zionist leader Vladimir Jabotinsky, the spiritual father of the Likud, was blunt about the need for Jews to retake their ancient homeland. In 1937, speaking to the British Parliament, he said, referring to the Arabs in Palestine, “I fully understand that any minority would prefer to be a majority. It is quite understandable that the Arabs of Palestine would also prefer Palestine to be Arab state No. 4, No. 5, or No. 6 – that I quite understand. But when the Arab claim is confronted with our Jewish demand to be saved, it is like the claims of appetite versus the claims of starvation.”
Today, the Jews have a national home, a potent Air Force to protect it, and the patronage of the most powerful country on earth. Today, the Jewish claim to the West Bank and Gaza is one of appetite, not of starvation.
-- Jeffrey Goldberg, “Among the Settlers,” The New
Yorker, May 31, 2004