JAFFA—Thanks a lot, Brooklyn. You sure have contributed more than your share to this debacle. We are going to need billions of dollars to extricate ourselves from this mess with the settlements and we expect you to cough up a hefty chunk of it.
I knew where to put the blame after perusing a few of the myriad “Crisis in the Middle East” chat sites. The picture was clear. People around the world think Israelis should be held to a higher moral standard than Palestinians. That’s OK. Israel, as a democracy, wouldn’t want to be judged by the same criteria as people who support terrorism.
But it means that all our past sins keep popping up to bite us in the butt. And you would be surprised at how many of the sinners came from Brooklyn.
The guy who really put us on the human rights blacklist was an Orthodox rabbi named Meir Kahane. He was a real sweetie. You probably remember him. Back in 1968 he organized Jewish kids in Brooklyn into a vigilante group called the Jewish Defense League (JDL) to protect little old Jewish ladies from muggers.
Publicity about the JDL gave Kahane delusions of grandeur, and guess where he moved a few years later . . . to Israel. He promptly went into politics and regularly lambasted the government for being soft on the Arabs.
Kahane preached that it was impossible for a real Jewish state to be democratic because Arab inhabitants shouldn’t be considered citizens or allowed to vote. In fact, Kahane wanted the Arabs expelled from all of biblical Israel. God gave the entire Land of Israel to the Jews, he said, and if the Arabs and rest of the world don’t like it, too bad.
Kahane’s map showed a helluva lot bigger Israel than any map you ever saw. In fact, it resembled the map Arafat now uses when he tells school kids about his vision of the Palestinian state.
So, Kahane founded the Kach (“Only Thus”) Party, organized protests against the government, and encouraged the violent harassment of Palestinians in the West Bank.
By 1994 the government was so fed up it branded Kach a terrorist organization and barred its members from running for office. The last straw was Kach’s statements in support of Dr. Baruch Goldstein’s attack on the mosque in the Cave of the Patriarchs in February 1994.
Now you have to remember Baruch Goldstein. He was the Israeli settler, closely affiliated with Kach, who horrified the world when he slaughtered 29 Palestinians and wounded more than 60 as they prayed.
Guess what Goldstein called “the old country”? That’s right. He grew up in Brooklyn and was considered an outstanding student at Yeshiva University and Albert Einstein Medical College.
Those are just the top two of the Brooklynites featured in the more sordid chapters of our recent past. There are plenty of others. So many, in fact, that rational Israelis consider the kooks from Brooklyn “America’s worst export to Israel.”
“Every time the extremists speak, I hear a very strong Brooklyn accent,” said my friend Yedidia.
Kahane was assassinated in New York in 1990. But his extremist views did not die with him, and Israel has seen a dramatic growth of Jewish fundamentalism in recent years. This fundamentalism not only manifests itself in rancorous opposition to the peace process, it also inspired a follower of a Kach offshoot to assassinate Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in November 1995.
It is most visible, however, in the always acrimonious debate over the 145 Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza.
In the mid 1970s, a group of Orthodox Israelis founded a movement called Gush Emunim, the “Bloc of the Faithful.” They believed that it was a religious obligation for Jews to own and settle the entire Land of Israel, which the Torah defines as including the West Bank.
Although the government severely limited such Jewish settlements, the movement was encouraged by General Ariel Sharon (our old friend), and they began establishing small communities.
The First Intifada, which began in 1987, gave new impetus to Israeli rightists, and the settlers became more radical. Two-trailer settlements began springing up on hilltops throughout the area the religious still call “Judaea and Samaria.”
The Gush Emunim settlers were quite popular among Israelis as long as the Arabs refused to talk peace and the return of the territories was only a remote possibility. They were considered idealists, they volunteered for the most dangerous army combat units, they were nice people who had good relations with their Arab neighbors.
However, when peace agreements with Egypt in 1977 and the Palestinians in 1993 made the return of occupied lands a not-so-distant possibility, the movement became rabidly anti-government and lost much of its popular support.
Most Israelis considered the lust to re-conquer biblical Israel by topping expropriated hills with camper trailers and red-roofed villas as much an obstacle to peace as the continuing Palestinian terrorism.
Who are these settlers, anyway?
“They are a pain in the ass,” said my friend Tali, “both from a budgetary and a security point of view. We are being held hostage to them. You put two caravans on a hill and it costs us a fortune to keep soldiers there to protect them.
“They are sitting in a place that doesn’t belong to them—looking for trouble,” she said. “If it weren’t for the settlers we could have made a border, a separation, since there is no way to make peace with the Palestinians.”
There are 220,000 settlers, including an estimated 10,000 Americans, in the West Bank and Gaza settlements. Many Israelis believe that 70 to 80 percent of them are simply there for economic reasons—the cheap housing and the government benefits.
But, in recent months, the quality of life in the settlements has deteriorated to the point where it is dangerous to stick your nose out of the house. This gives the pragmatists hope that these “economic settlers” would leave tomorrow if the price were right. And the right price is astronomical. The figure being tossed around by the right wing is $200 billion, so it is probably more like $20 billion.
“It’s still the cheapest way,” said Naomi Chazan, a member of the Knesset from the opposition Meretz Party. “Anything that only costs money is cheap in this business because it is much less costly than war and ongoing conflict.”
Ezra Rosenfeld, who came to Israel 32 years ago from Far Rockaway, doesn’t agree.
“Some settlers may have come to find cheaper housing, but today most of the people are seriously, ideologically committed to living in the historic Land of Israel,” said Ezra, who works at the Yesha Council, which inherited Gush Emunim’s ideological hat. “The stories of the Bible took place in Judaea and Samaria, not in Tel Aviv or other places on the coastal plain.
“The vast majority will not take any cash settlement,” he said.
No matter who is right, there are sure to be hardcore settlers who would refuse to obey any government order to evacuate. They may not have political or military power, but they have an incredibly big stick—the threat of civil conflict. If only we could send them back to Brooklyn.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on May 21, 2002