The problem of ideologically heterodox settlers

Before this week, I had what I think is a pretty standard liberal Zionist perspective on West Bank settlements: that, essentially, they’re the root of all evil and the core obstacle to a just resolution to the conflict here. I had a preconception of what settlers were: Orthodox to ultra-Orthodox Jews, many not even native Israeli, who, out of a toxic blend of Jewish fundamentalism and modern white supremacism, have hijacked the Israeli state into pursuing the suicidal path of indefinitely maintaining an apartheid-like military occupation of the West Bank. The only question about how to deal with them, in my mind, was the very practical question of how they could be expelled back to pre-1967 Israel without causing a civil war. As you can probably tell from the way I phrased this paragraph, I’m not sure I feel this way anymore.

What was the change? Over the past week, I’ve met several settlers who could probably be called ideologically heterodox. While they’re Orthodox Jews who reside in the West Bank largely because they feel religiously obligated to do so, I think they’d probably consider themselves left-wing, and they speak in terms that make leftists feel comfortable. Some would probably even use a term that seems oxymoronic to say the least: “anti-occupation settler!” Most, to some degree, are either consciously or subconsciously disciples of a very interesting figure-Rabbi Menachem Froman.

 Rabbi Froman, who served as the rabbi of the settlement of Tekoa until his death a few years ago, came out of the institutions of the mainstream of the settlement movement and was certainly a subscriber to the core tenet of the settlement movement, which is that Jews have the right and obligation to live in the whole land of Israel promised to the Jews by God in the Torah. However, Rabbi Froman broke from the mainstream settlement movement on one key issue: while most of those who adhere to settlement ideology believe that Jews should both live in the whole land of Israel and control the whole land of Israel politically, Froman argued that only the first is required. Under his conception, Jews are required to live in the West Bank if they can, but that the particular legal regime under which they live in the West Bank is irrelevant: even living as a minority under a Palestinian state is OK (Froman liked to say that God would ultimately choose who would control the West Bank).

Based on this belief, Froman and his followers pursued relationships with Palestinians across the political spectrum. Froman even had what was by all accounts a positive relationship with leaders of Hamas, as they were able to bond over their shared religiosity and mistrust of secular national liberation movements. At one point, Froman used his Hamas connections to negotiate a cease-fire during one of the Gaza wars, but was unable to convince the Israeli government to accept the offer! So yes, a very interesting figure, and one who doesn’t fit into preconceived notions about settler ideology.

This blog post contains links to some great articles about Froman.

Many of these sorts of “left-wing settlers” are affiliated with an organization called Roots that brings settlers and West Bank Palestinians together to build community under the premise of mutual recognition of each other’s legitimate claims to the land. We met with the two of the three co-directors of the organization, a settler named Shaul Judelman and a Palestinian man named Ali Abu Awwad, who spent several years in prison for stone-throwing before turning to non-violence. They run weekly meetings between settlers and Palestinians to discuss issues in the area, summer programs, pre-army training for Israeli youth, and other compelling programs that attempt to change the dynamic between settlers and Palestinians in the West Bank. I even spoke with settlers who reported attempting to intercede on behalf of Palestinians denied building permits in their villages by the Israeli military government. It’s an impressive initiative, and not one that I ever expected could exist in the West Bank.

This encounter was incredibly polarizing within our group. I heard the phrase “full of shit” thrown around a few times-that they’re insincere and that they’re just doing a little activist work to absolve themselves of feelings of guilt related to the occupation, or that they’re just whitewashing the occupation to leftists. And that’s a fair reaction; while they may profess to be advocates for freedom and justice for all people, the act of living in the West Bank as a settler raises some difficult questions whether their actions are compatible with those beliefs. These settlers, regardless of how left-wing or anti-occupation they may be, are still taking advantage of a legal regime in which they’re citizens of a democracy and the neighbors with whom they’re supposedly forming relationships live under a military dictatorship. Is it moral to put yourself in a position like this when there’s an alternative? I don’t know, but it’s a hard question that they should have to answer.

Additionally, by participating in the settlement project, they’re putting themselves in a very difficult position politically. Do they align themselves with the political parties that do, in fact, want more freedom and justice for the people between the Jordan and the Mediterranean, even though it means they may lose their homes? Or do they align themselves politically with the political parties that support their interests as settlers, even though the racism and Jewish supremacy of those parties is incompatible with their stated beliefs? I don’t know-maybe I should have asked. A similar, but not identical issue, is that simply by virtue of living in the West Bank, they’re taking advantage of how the settlement project distorts Israeli policy. Settlers receive something like 10 times more money from the government in the form of various subsidies than people living in pre-1967 Israel. Is it ethical to take this money, when God knows there are so many people living in poverty within pre-1967 Israel who could use it? Again, I don’t know, but this is a hard question they should have to answer.

So these are the arguments that left-wing settlers are just bullshitting everyone. What about the arguments in favor? Well, to respond to the threshold issue: I don’t think they’re full of shit, or just whitewashing the settlement movement to leftists. They seemed to be sincerely trying to balance their religious commitment to living in the whole land of Israel with their ethical (religious?) commitment to promoting justice for all people. I’m sure that if you’re a settler, it’s not easy to explain to your neighbors why you’re reaching out to Palestinians in the context of the violence against settlers that occurs in the West Bank. For instance, the three Israeli boys that were kidnapped and murdered in summer 2014 attended school on the settlement where one of the people we met lives. I’m sure that this man had to make some very real sacrifices in his interpersonal relationships to do this work. That, I think, is worthy of respect.

But what about the other issues? How can you ethically put yourself in the position of the superior within an (let’s just say it bluntly, the way a critic of these people would) apartheid-like system? The response was interesting. The people (both settlers and their Palestinian colleagues) we met argued that the distinction drawn by liberal Zionists (in both Israel and the diaspora) between the legitimacy of living in pre-1967 Israel and the illegitimacy of living in the territories is a false dichotomy. “You can live in Tel Aviv and criticize the immorality of occupation and dispossession in the territories,” they argued (I’m paraphrasing), “but the only difference between what happened in the territories in 1967 and what happened in Tel Aviv in 1948 is 19 years.” It’s not like the creation of the state of Israel didn’t involve the expulsion of a lot of people from their land, land theft, the creation of perpetual refugees, a regime of first-class citizenship for Jews and second-class citizenship for Palestinians: it just did so 19 years earlier. A two-state solution as espoused by liberal Zionists would improve the situation of Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza, but it would do little or nothing for the millions of Palestinians living stateless in Lebanon and Syria, the Palestinian citizens of Israel living with institutionalized discrimination within pre-1967 Israel, or the people who lost their land and property in 1948 and have a right to compensation for that loss. It’s certainly possible to object to components of this argument, but I found it compelling.

So what do they propose as a solution? Well, relationship building, for sure; as they saw it, both communities tend to deny the other’s right to exist as a people on the land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan, and they see communication as a way to address this fundamental conflict. From a political perspective, some spoke favorably about the Two States, One Homeland initiative (no English website, but you can read a BBC article about it here). Under this initiative, two democratic states would be formed on the pre-1967 borders. The states would then form a confederation, with some shared institutions and open borders. Jews and Palestinian citizens of Israel would be allowed to live and vote within pre-1967 Israel and live, but not vote, within the area currently defined as the territories (they could presumably vote as absentees for the government of pre-1967 Israel). Palestinian residents of the territories would be allowed to live and vote in a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza and live, but not vote, within pre-1967 Israel. Israel would continue to offer the right of return to Jews, and the new Palestinian state would offer the right of return to overseas Palestinians. Jerusalem would be shared. I found this initiative compelling, as it circumvents two of the most difficult “final status” issues: settlements and the right of Palestinian return to pre-1967 Israel. You could probably point out a million obstacles, but there are a million obstacles to any peace proposal, including the traditional two-state solution.

So what’s my conclusion on this? None, really. I’m stating the obvious, but you can spend a lifetime thinking about this problem, even if your understanding of it hasn’t been complicated by people like left-wing settlers. I do, however, have significantly more ambiguous feelings about settlers and the settlement movement than I did prior to this encounter. Perhaps that’s good, or perhaps that’s bad. Perhaps I’m fooling myself and settlements are still the root of the problem. Nevertheless, these people are real, they seem to be acting in good faith, they have some thoughtful ideas, and they should be taken seriously.