The Existential Dilemma Facing Israel's Settlers

Too many rabbis and settler activists are convinced that senior state officials are their emissaries – and if not, they are traitors. This is a spiral from which there is no partial way out.

A group of settlers protesting against the demolition of a synagogue in the settlement of Givat Ze'ev, November 2015.
Olivier Fitoussi

What a missed opportunity for the extreme right. The outcry about “torture in the basements of the Shin Bet security service” managed to stir, briefly, the hearts of human rights activists on the left. But then along came Wednesday’s video footage of Jewish extremists’ shocking behavior at a wedding celebration, turning everything upside down. The parade of condemnation began immediately, but only some of it has value – if any.

Rabbi Chaim Navon of Modi’in, the religious-Zionist journalist Elyashiv Reichner and Tamar Asraf, spokeswoman for the Binyamin Regional Council, stood out for their pained and courageous criticism, which came about a week ago. Their remarks, for which they endured insults, highlight the dilemma tearing their community apart: How to become more deeply involved in the leadership of the country without losing the state along the way.

This fascinating dilemma becomes even worse in the areas close to the Jewish extremists, where the argument has recently been heard that the biblical expression “We are verily guilty concerning our brother” (Genesis 42:21) has a double meaning under the present circumstances: Listening to the cry of the tortured Jewish detainees and responsibility for the settler education that led to the terror.

Moreover, there is clearly concern that the terror will spoil the achievement of having religiously observant people in high places – Roni Alsheich as the new police commissioner; Yoram Cohen at the Shin Bet; Yossi Cohen as the new Mossad chief; and Avichai Mendelblit as potentially the next attorney general – and delay the “faith revolution.”

Motti Karpel is a founder of the extreme right-wing Jewish Leadership wing in Likud and the Chai Vekayam movement (together with Yehuda Etzion); he refused to do reserve duty during the period of the Oslo Accords and now lives in the Bat Ayin settlement. Last week, though, he used his blog to come out against supporting the perpetrators of last summer’s arson in Duma, which killed three members of a Palestinian family. “Terrorism has no boundaries, because its roots are in chaos,” he wrote. His most momentous statement was that society and the state has “not only the right but the obligation to fight, by means of its security services, any attempt to impose any ideal that it is not ready for, even if it is the redemption.”

According to Karpel, the dilemma, therefore, is not how to protect the state, but how not to obstruct the establishment of a state based on Jewish religious law. The most convincing answer to this conundrum was given by Yitzhak Antman, from the settlement of Yitzhar, who protested last weekend in front of Yoram Cohen’s house. According to Antman, the Shin Bet chief’s fellow synagogue worshippers empathize with Jewish extremists, while Cohen himself may be ideologically torn but should remain loyal to his brothers.

This demand will only grow. A thick layer of rabbis and activists from the settlement bloc are convinced that senior officials are their emissaries – and if not, they are traitors. This is a spiral from which there is no partial way out: the Duma murders are just one thread in the complex network of ideological, community and cultural connections and obligations, which cannot be pulled apart without unraveling the ethnocentric concept of “faith.” But what is happening now is the exact opposite.

Last month, Rabbi Elyakim Levanon of Elon Moreh told the Orthodox newspaper Makor Rishon that if it turns out the Duma murderer is Jewish, “a tribunal should be empaneled that will execute him.” These words, taken from a horrific internal discussion of Jewish law, are typical of the first phase of the response to Jewish terror: denial. When the facts began to emerge, the rabbis moved on to talking about wild weeds. Now, when it seems clear the suspects are from good families, the phase of casting blame has begun.

And who do they blame? The state, which shows too much lenience toward the Palestinians and abandons the Jews, who are forced to kill with their own hands. The Shin Bet, which abuses innocent children. And, OK, “the children” are a little bit guilty – but only a tiny bit. And that’s only because they hunger for redemption.