Israeli ‘Settlements’: A New Jersey Story

BY ALAN STEINBERG ew-jersey-story
May 11 2010


During the administration of President Barack Obama, relations between
the United States of America and the State of Israel have regressed
to their worst point since Jimmy Carter left office in 1981. Both
Obama and his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton attribute this to
the continued existence of Israeli "settlements," defined as those
Jewish communities situated in the West Bank beyond the "Green Line,"
the Israeli border with Jordan before its victory in the Six Day War
of June, 1967.

Mainstream media news networks, with the exception of Fox News, support
the Obama/Clinton argument by portraying the Jewish inhabitants of
these settlements as ultranationalist armed fanatics living in Quonset
huts or tents. There is no mention made of the fact that Israel
conquered the West Bank in 1967 in response to Jordan embarking on
a war intended to destroy the Jewish State.

Jordan launched its attack against Israel on June 6, 1967, despite
pleas from the Israeli government to stay out of the war which
had begun between Israel and Egypt the day before. As the Jordanian
offensive began, King Hussein, supposedly an Arab moderate, broadcast
the following message to his Jordanian and Palestinian subjects over
Amman radio: "Kill the Jews wherever you find them. Kill them with
your arms, with your hands, with your nails and teeth."

I have a much different story to tell about the Israeli "settlements."

Indeed, it is a New Jersey story, at it involves one of my dearest
friends in life, Garabed "Chuck" Haytaian.

I had the joy and honor of working on Chuck’s staff while he served as
Speaker of the New Jersey Assembly in 1992 through 1993. Our friendship
was bound together by something more than a common political philosophy
and interests.

A large portion of my extended family residing in Poland was murdered
by the Nazis during the Holocaust. Chuck’s uncle Garabed, for whom he
was named, had been beheaded in front of his family by Turks during
the Armenian genocide of 1915-1917. For Chuck and me, it was a shared
familial heritage that resulted in our working together to craft the
legislation that mandates the teaching of the Holocaust and other
genocides in New Jersey’s public schools.

When Chuck ran for the U.S. Senate in 1994, like virtually every
candidate for statewide office in New Jersey, he travelled to Israel
with his beloved late wife Joan on a fact-finding and informational
mission. Given our relationship, it was natural for him to ask me to
accompany him.

Chuck’s mission to Israel in April, 1994 was coordinated by two
distinguished leaders of the New Jersey Jewish Federations. When these
two gentlemen asked me if I had any special requests for the mission,
I stated that I had only one: Chuck and Joan should visit the West Bank
"settlement" of Efrat.

Efrat is one of a group of settlements comprising the Etzion bloc
(in Hebrew, Gush Etzion), located south of Jerusalem in the region of
the Judean hills. In the modern era of Jewish return to the ancient
homeland, the Etzion bloc was first settled by Jews in the 1920s. The
leading Jewish community of the Etzion bloc was a kibbutz known as
Kfar Etzion.

On November 29, 1947, the United Nations General Assembly voted to
partition the British mandate of Palestine into Jewish and Arab states,
with Jerusalem to exist as an internationalized city. The Jews accepted
the partition plan, while the Palestinian Arabs rejected it and
started a civil war against the Jews, assisted by the Arab Legion of
Transjordan. The civil war began on the day of the partition vote and
lasted until May 14, 1948, the date of the Declaration of Independence
of the Jewish State of Israel. On that day, the new Israeli state was
attacked by all the neighboring Arab states, but the Jews eventually
prevailed, culminating in the armistice agreements of early 1949.

During the 1947-1948 civil war, Kfar Etzion and the other Etzion
bloc communities were destroyed by the Palestinian Arab guerrillas
and the Arab Legion. The Jewish inhabitants of the Etzion bloc were
either massacred or expelled.

The Etzion bloc survivors of the 1947-1948 war never gave up their
dream of returning to their former lands. After the Israelis regained
the area in the June, 1967 war, this dream of return became a reality.

Efrat was founded in the Etzion bloc area in 1980 and today has
a population of approximately 8,000. The entire Etzion bloc has a
population of approximately 50,000.

So on a bright, sunny Friday morning in April, 1994, we members of
the Haytaian mission left our hotel in Jerusalem for Efrat. The trip
took only 20 minutes.

We entered Efrat through the main guard gate and immediate saw
the central community school and plaza and residential areas of
tree-lined streets and attractive stone houses with red tiled roofs
— not exactly Quonset huts and tents. Throughout the municipality,
one always has a magnificent view of the Judean Hills.

This was not what the Haytaians were expecting when I told them we
were visiting an Israeli West Bank settlement. When we exited our van,
Chuck took me aside and said to me, "I thought you told me we were
visiting a settlement. This isn’t a settlement. It’s a suburb!"

Chuck had unwittingly uttered a profound truth regarding the so-called
"national consensus settlements,"which are located very close to the
Green Line. All these communities are located within suburban driving
range of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, or Haifa.

They are called "national consensus settlements" because virtually
all Israelis favor their retention, even if a territorial compromise
agreement is reached in which Israel relinquishes control of part of
the West Bank for the creation of a Palestinian Arab state. The great
majority of the Israelis do not want to withdraw all the way to the
1967 Israeli borders, as they are an invitation to the destruction
of the Jewish State.

We were most fortunate to have the Chief Rabbi of Efrat Rabbi Shlomo
Riskin, as our guide. He is the ultimate rabbinical Renaissance man,
a person whose qualities and achievements directly rebut the stereotype
of an Israeli rabbi as portrayed by American mainstream liberal media.

Rabbi Riskin is one of the leading Modern Orthodox Jewish rabbis in
the world. The term "Modern Orthodox" is used in contrast to "Haredi"
fundamentalist Orthodoxy. Modern Orthodoxy emphasizes Zionism, secular
learning as well as religious studies, and cooperation on matters of
common community concern with all sectors of the Jewish community,
not just the Orthodox.

Originally from Brooklyn, Rabbi Riskin graduated as valedictorian of
his class at Yeshiva University in Manhattan with a major in Greek,
Latin, and English literatures, and later he received a PhD in Near
East Languages and Literature from New York University. In 1965,
he marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the famous Selma to
Montgomery march.

After receiving his rabbinic ordination at Yeshiva University,
Rabbi Riskin became the founding rabbi of Lincoln Square Synagogue
in Manhattan’s Upper West Side in 1963. Under his leadership,
Lincoln Square Synagogue was a magnet for attracting previously
non-observant Jews to Orthodox Judaism. It became one of the most
successful Orthodox synagogues in Manhattan, with remarkable growth
in terms of both membership and activities.

Rabbi Riskin was beloved at Lincoln Square, and he could have remained
as rabbi of the synagogue for life. In 1983, however, he left the
security of Lincoln Square Synagogue to move to Israel and become the
Chief Rabbi of Efrat. He duplicated his Manhattan success in Israel
by founding Ohr Torah Stone Institutions, a network of junior high
schools, high schools, colleges, and graduate programs educating over
3,000 students.

He could not be more proud of his community of Efrat, in which numerous
American Modern Orthodox Jewish families, including New Jerseyans,
have established residence as new Israeli citizens. When he first
arrived in Efrat, there was no running water. Today, Efrat is a
thriving, attractive community.

During his years in Efrat, Rabbi Riskin made extensive efforts to
establish friendly relations with the residents of the nearby Arab
village of Wadi Nis. On the day of our visit, however, West Bank
Jewish-Arab relations constituted a troubling subject for me.

Approximately five weeks earlier, Baruch Goldstein, a Jewish follower
of the late Meir Kahane, whose views I found abhorrent, had committed
a bloodthirsty act of Jewish terrorism. Goldstein was a physician,
formerly from Brooklyn, who resided in the Kiryat Arba settlement
near Hebron. On February 24, 1994, Goldstein entered into the Cave
of Machpelah in Hebron, a site holy to both Jews and Muslims, and
opened fire on unarmed Palestinian Muslim worshippers, killing 29 and
wounding 125, before he was attacked and killed by the Arab survivors.

Goldstein’s act of despicable terrorism had occurred on Purim, a joyous
Jewish holiday, described in the Biblical book of Esther, commemorating
the deliverance of the Jewish people throughout the ancient Persian
Empire from a plot by Haman the Agagite to destroy them. To me,
the Goldstein massacre was a shameful blot in Jewish history, and it
gave unwarranted credibility to those who falsely portrayed West Bank
Jewish settlers as extreme right wing violent zealots.

I told Rabbi Riskin that the Goldstein massacre had damaged
the effectiveness of us Americans who had been advocates for the
settlements in the Etzion Bloc, Efrat in particular. I asked him what
had been his reaction to this tragedy, and I will never forget his
following response:

"When I received the news of the Goldstein massacre, I contacted nine
other Jewish male residents of Efrat. That way, we would have a minyan
— the ten men quorum necessary to say Kaddish — the Jewish memorial
prayer for the dead. Then, we went to Wadi Nis, gave our condolences
to the Arab leaders of the village, and then said the Kaddish for the
Arabs who had been killed by Goldstein. Then, I declared that in view
of this tragedy, there would be no dancing in Efrat this Purim."

This is a story about Efrat that you never heard in the American
mainstream media in 1994. Down through the ensuing years, I have
repeated this story often in speeches I have given before Jewish
religious and secular audiences.

Not every West Bank settlement is like Efrat, or like the other
communities in the Etzion bloc for that matter. I relate this story,
however, to illustrate how false the stereotypes are regarding Jewish
settlers on the West Bank. To be sure, there is a small minority of
right wing West Bank Jewish settler extremists in some isolated areas.

By and large, however, the Jewish settlers in the West Bank national
consensus settlements are idealistic pioneering types who do not seek
either expulsion of their West Bank Arab neighbors or discrimination
against them.

Most Israelis would support a two state solution that would create
a Palestinian Arab state in West Bank and Gaza, as long as Israel
retained the national consensus settlements. In the northern region
of Israel near the Sea of Galilee and within the Green Line, the
Palestinian Arabs now actually constitute a majority. Yet neither
President Obama, nor Secretary of State Clinton, nor even Israeli Prime
Minister Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu ever says that these Palestinian
Arabs constitute an "obstacle to peace." Why, then, do Obama and
Clinton contend that the national Jewish consensus settlements impede
the peace process?

In fact, when Obama and Clinton make this argument, they are
conveniently forgetting recent history. In 2005, the Israeli government
of former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon ordered the army to expel 8,000
fellow Israelis from Gush Katif, a block of 17 Israeli settlements
within the southern Gaza Strip. This measure was an integral component
of Sharon’s unilateral disengagement plan, which was motivated by
the hope of reduced tensions with Gaza Palestinian Arabs. Instead of
moves towards peace, however, Hamas, which dominates Gaza, stepped up
its campaign of rockets launched against the Israeli municipalities
of Sderot and Ashkelon.

The real obstacle to peace is not the existence of the Israeli
national consensus settlements. Instead, it is the denial by Hamas
of Israel’s right to exist at all and the refusal of the Palestinian
Authority, which dominates Palestinian Arabs in the West Bank, to
recognize Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state. The withdrawal
from Gush Katif proved the willingness of Israelis to enter into a
territorial compromise, but this cannot take place if the very right
of existence of Israel as a Jewish State is denied by its Palestinian
Arab neighbors.

As for the Israeli citizens of the Etzion bloc, in 2009 they received
a most unexpected visit from Jimmy Carter, who prior to Obama was
regarded as the President least supportive of Israel. He met with
members of the Gush Etzion Regional Council (which, incidentally,
does not include Efrat, in spite of its status as an Etzion bloc
settlement). Afterwards, to the astonishment of both the Israeli
media and local leaders, Carter made the following statement about
the Etzion bloc:

"This particular settlement is not one that I envision ever being
abandoned, or changed over into a Palestinian territory. This is
part of the close settlements to the 1967 line that I think will be
here forever."

It took a visit to the Etzion bloc for Jimmy Carter to understand the
Israeli case for this group of settlements. My fervent hope is that
Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton will make a similar visit to Efrat
and that they have the same good fortune as Chuck Haytaian and I had
in 1994 to have a great man, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, as their guide.

Alan J. Steinberg served as Regional Administrator of Region 2 EPA
during the administration of former President George W. Bush. Region 2
EPA consists of the states of New York and New Jersey, the Commonwealth
of Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and seven federally recognized
Indian nations. He currently serves as Public Servant in Residence
at Monmouth University.


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