We Can’t End the Desecration of Judaism Without Ending the Occupation

Mainstream Israelis far from the West Bank hilltops watching the "hate wedding" clip celebrating of the Dewabsheh family’s murder shouldn’t be sitting comfortably. Secular Israel and its representatives funded and produced that video.

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Israeli settlers stand on the roof of a synagogue in the West Bank settlement of Givat Zeev, north of Jerusalem on November 4, 2015.
Israeli settlers stand on the roof of a synagogue in the West Bank settlement of Givat Zeev, north of Jerusalem on November 4, 2015.Credit: AFP
Gershom Gorenberg
Gershom Gorenberg

Seen from inside Israel, they look very far away, those young men dancing with rifles at a wedding or with their faces pixelated in pictures of terror suspects. Their thick peyot make them look members of a distant tribe. They are not us, think mainstream Israelis looking at the clip of the "hate wedding" on their phablets in secular Tel Aviv. 

The distance is an illusion. Physically, it's little more than an hour's drive from Tel Aviv to some of the most radical outposts on the West Bank’s mountain ridge. In terms of responsibility, the distance is even smaller. Mainstream Israel created the settlement project and the endless occupation. And the nightmare spectacle we see now exists because of occupation and settlement.

Let's take a very brief tour of history: The plans for large-scale settlement in the occupied territories were first sketched out in the summer of 1967 by the leaders of what became the Labor Party. Labor Affairs Minister Yigal Allon wrote his proposal for keeping and settling large parts of the West Bank barely a month after the Six-Day War. Defense Minister Moshe Dayan wanted permanent rule of the whole West Bank, and proposed major settlements along the mountain ridge. 

One of Prime Minister Levi Eshkol's first concerns was to rebuild kibbutzim that had fallen in 1948, such as Kfar Etzion. Hanan Porat, mislabeled "the first settler" in popular history, believed till his last day that he'd pushed Eshkol into reestablishing Kfar Etzion in September 1967. Porat was mistaken. Eshkol did just what he himself wanted.

Labor leaders held the actual levers of government, and liked to work quietly. The young religious activists who took the "credit" became the unruly clients of the real settlement builders and were always a minority among settlers in occupied territory. When the Likud came to power, they played the same role for Menachem Begin and his settlement czar, Ariel Sharon: undisciplined proxies, straining at limits but dependent on their patrons.

It's true that Porat and Co., many of them students of Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook, were driven largely by a theology that placed the state and the 1967 victory into God's supposed plan for redemption. Their patrons - from Eshkol to Benjamin Netanyahu - weren't religious or messianic. They built settlements out of various kinds of old-fashioned irredentism, and were practical about getting it done.

No one knows what would have happened to the theological nationalism of Kook's followers without the government's settlement-building effort. But in history as it happened, the state provided the conditions for a marginal religious stream to grow, and for part of it to become dangerously radical.

One practical means that the government adopted to recruit settlers was to fund religious educational institutions in settlements, thereby providing jobs. Another was to give salary benefits to teachers who lived in settlements. A third, from the Begin era on, was to encourage the spread of small, members-only settlements that were particularly attractive to people for whom controlling territory had become the center of Judaism. The closed communities cooked the ideology to a higher concentration. Teachers who lived there took the brew to religious schools inside the Green Line. Without bothering to notice, governments led by the major parties spread Judaism-as-nationalism.

Living in constant conflict with the Palestinian population amplified a tendency to sanctify weapons and force. At its extreme, this translated into terror. Thus was born the Jewish terror underground of the early 1980s. The state showed its disapproval with prison sentences that were slashed until murderers spent less than 7 years behind bars.

The outpost enterprise was another government project. As attorney Talia Sasson's 2005 report detailed, the hundred or so outposts established over the previous decade were supported by a variety of ministries. Extremely credible reports identified Ariel Sharon - as cabinet member, then as prime minister - as the man who regularly set the locations for the outposts. Again, foot soldiers were needed, and some of them created the violence-worshipping pseudo-Judaism of the hilltops. They may want to overthrow the state, but they're products of its policies.

One implication of this history is that the occupation has not only corrupted the State of Israel, it has corrupted Judaism. It has become a constant defamation of God's good name. Those of us who believe in a different Judaism, rooted in the overwhelming recognition of the divine image in every human being, must denounce, yet again, violence committed in the name of religion. But that's not enough. We cannot hope to end the desecration without ending the occupation.

The other implication is that secular Israel is much more closely connected to figures in the film clip and the suspects in the Duma attack than it admits to itself. Secular Israel is the financial backer and producer of that film. Every government since 1967, led by Labor, Likud or Kadima, has built settlements. No prime minister has declared that settlement as such, every last settlement, was a mistake and that instead of building another house, the government will being financing the immigration of settlers to Israel.

You can't live in Tel Aviv and claim you've got nothing to do with it. Your name is in the credits for that film clip, and if it nauseates you, remember that this is what you get till we end the occupation.

Gershom Gorenberg is the author of "The Unmaking of Israel" and "The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements, 1967-1977." Follow him on Twitter: @GershomG

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