Kids preparing barricades in Ulpana.
Kids preparing barricades in Ulpana. Photo by Moti Milrod
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Seth Mandel, responding in the Commentary blog to my article in Haaretz on settlements, does what settlement defenders almost always do: He changes the subject.

My article discussed the impact of settlement on American Jewry; talked about why settlement is in fact a major obstacle to peace; and endorsed changes in settlement policy – such as those proposed by Dan Meridor and Alan Dershowitz – that would be good for peace, for Israel, and for strengthening ties with American Jews.

How does Mandel respond to this? While rejecting the first point he ignores the next two, and chooses to make his case for settlement by comparing violence on the left (from social protests in Tel Aviv on Saturday) with peaceful, law-abiding conduct on the right (from settlers being evacuated from Ulpana). In the process, he attacks the New York Times for its nefarious reporting of the evacuation.

In the first place, I would like to be clear on the “law and order” issue. I am sympathetic to the social protestors, but I condemn the violence, unequivocally. In the same vein, I do not believe that the willingness of the Ulpana residents to evacuate their homes peacefully is deserving of any special accolades. Israel is a proud democracy and a country of laws. The Supreme Court had ruled; the law was clear. Shouldn’t we all expect settlers—and all citizens of Israel on the right and the left—to obey the law as a matter of course?

One of the things that troubles me so much about the settlement movement is that adherence to Israel’s laws is not a given. Every time that an evacuation of any size is contemplated we read of the debates in settler ranks as to whether or not it should be violently resisted. And then, of course, we look at the 'price tag' movement, the 'hill-top youth' of a few years back, the mosque burnings, etc. Indeed, this past Sunday, Danny Dayan, the chairman of the Yesha Council, harshly criticized his fellow settlers who are ignoring violence and the “price tag” incidents. “Our hands are not clean,” he said.

There is no equivalence here. There is, in fact, far more violence on the right than on the left. But I would hope that Mr. Mandel and I can agree that such violence is unacceptable wherever it comes from, and that I am obligated to condemn it on the left just as he is obligated to condemn it on the right.

But the second and more important point is that Mr. Mandel chooses not to address the central issue raised in my article, which is that settlements are a serious obstacle to peace. (It is pointless to focus on whether they are “the main obstacle to peace” or simply “a major obstacle to peace.”) What concerns me and many, many American Jews is that, as I wrote, the settler population outside the major settlement blocs has grown from 35,000 in the mid-1990s to over 80,000 today. It is becoming more and more difficult, if not impossible, to imagine a scenario that would involve an evacuation of most of those settlers, and this means that a two-state solution – supported by the Government of the United States and its two major political parties, not to mention by the State of Israel – becomes less and less likely.

This is the issue. This is what disturbs American Jews. This, I suspect, is why Dan Meridor and Alan Dershowitz have made the sensible proposals that they have put forward on settlements. And none of this, as I made clear, is meant to exempt the Palestinians from responsibility for their colossal failures or to diminish the severity of the threat that Israel faces from Iran; indeed, Jews of the United States care about these matters very much.

But my message to Mr. Mandel is simply this: No matter how pressing the other issues that Israel faces, the settlement issue is exceedingly important, and American Jews—and all who care about Israel’s future and well-being—understand that it is not going away and must be dealt with.

Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie served as President of the Union for Reform Judaism from 1996 to 2012. He is now a writer, lecturer, and teacher, and lives with his family in Westfield, New Jersey.