Struggling With the Settlements: A Response

I thank Jerold Auerbach for his response to my criticisms of the settlement movement, but I regret I cannot agree with it.

Mr. Auerbach seems to be entranced with the settlers, particularly their most extreme faction in Hebron. His view of them appears to be one part romance and another part worship, and regrettably alienated from the harsh realities of the settlement movement’s ideology and the means with which it has, as I said in my column, won the battle for land and legitimacy.

First, I must take the strongest issue with Mr. Auerbach’s denial — and I believe it is willful denial ‐‐ of the intense, apocalyptic messianism of the settlement movement and its leaders.

The movement’s ideology, as I imagine Mr. Auerbach knows, is born mainly from the thought of Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook, based in turn on the works of his father Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook. That thought is ferociously messianic, holding that secular Zionists were the unwitting architects of the coming redemption, and after the Six‐Day War, this task must now be taken up by the settlers of the God-given lands of Judea and Samaria.

This, Kook the son held, will hasten the coming of the messiah ‐‐ Third Temple and all. Through his Mercaz HaRav yeshiva, Kook the son nurtured, inspired, and actively supported the vanguard of the settlement movement. Its activists, from Gush Emunim on, have drawn their messianic intensity from his teachings.

To argue against this, Mr. Auerbach offers the “founding fathers” of the Jewish settlements of Hebron.

Mr. Auerbach has written a book on the Jewish history of Hebron and there is no doubt that he is ‐‐ there is no other way to describe it ‐‐ madly in love with the place and its people. This, I regret to say, leads him down a dangerous path, given the personages he cites: Rabbis Moshe Levinger and Eliezer Waldman, and politician Elyakim Haetzni, assuring us that these founding fathers “were not ‘messianic fanatics’; they were passionate Zionists determined to restore Jewish life in the holy Jewish city that was the first capital of ancient Israel under King David’s rule.”

Ironically, Mr. Auerbach could not possibly have produced three less impressive witnesses in his defense.

Levinger, to take the most famous among them, was a student of Kook the son, and once said, “The bulldozer named Theodor Herzl is not enough, we need Rabbi Kook’s bulldozer.” To say that this is not messianic is to say that Levinger rejected his own rabbi and mentor’s teachings in their entirety. Levinger clearly did not, and would have likely found such a claim deeply offensive.

I would also note that Levinger was a distinctly ugly character. He was arrested almost a dozen times over the course of his life, sometimes for gratuitous acts of violence. After being charged with randomly shooting and killing a Palestinian, he protested his innocence by saying, “I did not have the privilege of killing that Arab.” These are quite clearly the words and deeds of a fanatic.

As for Waldman, he was if anything even more openly messianic than Levinger. As early as 1968 he was saying, “I believed then and I believe now that what has been fulfilled before our very eyes has been done according to the divine plan. The impetus to settle in Hebron arose mainly from the desire to be a part of the Holy Name’s deeds and to have the privilege of taking part in the activity of redemption.”

Nor, it appears, did Waldman shrink from violence. Both Levinger and Waldman were allegedly connected to the notorious Jewish Underground terrorist organization in the 1980s, with one of its founders, Menachem Livni, telling police that the two men were aware of and encouraged its violent activities.

Haetzni is a stranger case, since as a secular person it might be posited that he was not a messianist ‐‐ though I believe all Zionists, and I do not except myself, are messianists to some degree. He was, however, unquestionably a fanatic, regularly comparing the Israeli government and the IDF to Nazi Germany whenever it suited him. During the Oslo years, he equated Yitzhak Rabin with the French Nazi collaborator Marshal Petain and pledged that the yet-to-be-assassinated PM would “face justice.” The point, I think, does not require elaboration.

Thankfully, Mr. Auerbach agrees with me that Baruch Goldstein’s slaughter of Arab civilians in Hebron was a “terrible horror,” but quickly says such things are a “tragic exception.” Putting aside the issue that Goldstein’s atrocity was a crime, not a tragedy, Mr. Auerbach is simply in denial. The Hebron settlements have long been noted for their extremism, and the reaction of many of their residents to Goldstein’s crime has been of the most chilling ‐‐ and telling ‐‐ variety.

Suffice it to note that scores of them attended Goldstein’s funeral, and a massive memorial was built in Goldstein’s memory until the Israeli authorities at last tore it down. Even today, Goldstein’s grave remains a shrine, with the tombstone reading, “To the holy Baruch Goldstein, who gave his life for the Jewish people, the Torah, and the nation of Israel.” Goldstein, according to the blasphemous inscription, was “murdered for the sanctification of the name.”

Mr. Auerbach would likely reply that this represents only a small minority of the settlers. I myself stated something similar in my column, noting that most of the settlers are, by and large, not extremists, and those I have known were universally good people.

But the mere fact that a fanatical and violent minority is a minority in no way vitiates the danger it may pose. Fanatical and violent movements are always led by a small minority, and the destruction they are capable of is clearly enormous. I very much doubt that Mr. Auerbach would say, for example, that since most Muslims are not radical Islamists, radical Islam is not a problem.

Moreover, these are not obscure or marginalized extremists, as Mr. Auerbach himself proves in his citation of Levinger, Waldman and Haetzni. These three men are among the settlement movement’s most legendary and influential leaders, who more than anyone else are responsible for the movement’s victory.

Mr. Auerbach is, of course, entitled to his opinion. He is a man in love, and love is blind. In a certain sense, every Zionist is in love with the Land of Israel, in its entirety, and we can be forgiven our indulgences as a result. But as Orwell once said, to see what is under one’s nose requires a constant struggle. Zionism is likely to be healthier, and more successful, if we do not lie to ourselves.

This brings us, I think, to the most important disagreement between Mr. Auerbach and myself. He claims that I view the settlers as an “unwelcome intrusion into the ‘overwhelmingly Arab’ West Bank.” But, he asserts, “So, too, were the early waves of Zionist settlers who returned to their promised land. They were vastly outnumbered by Arab residents (not yet self-identified as ‘Palestinians’) who ‐‐ often violently ‐‐ resisted their presence. Arab rioting in 1921 that killed 47 Jewish ‘settlers’ in Tel Aviv hardly would have justified the abandonment of Zionism ‐‐ in the city where Kerstein lives.”

This argument is, I regret to say, a redolent cliché, and I have heard it over and over again from settlers and their defenders: Kiryat Arba is Tel Aviv, Efrat is Tel Aviv, Maale Adumim is Tel Aviv, etc. etc. In effect, it is claimed, the Arabs view all Jewish presence in the Land as illegitimate, so there is no difference between the settlements and communities in Israel proper.

Ironically, this claim in fact accepts the Palestinians’ argument. The Palestinians constantly say that Tel Aviv and Haifa are as “occupied” as Hebron, and therefore all of Israel is illegitimate. The settlers simply embrace the other side of the coin, with distinctly dangerous implications, since a hostile listener could easily say both the Palestinians and the settlers are right, and therefore Tel Aviv ought to be got rid of too.

But what it really points to is, in some ways, the whole point of my column: the struggle with the settlement movement is a struggle between a messianism of resurrection versus a messianism of apocalypse.

The first seeks a rebirth and revitalization of the Jewish people in the only homeland they have ever known. This was an existential necessity for the Jewish people, and we had the right to use any means necessary to accomplish it. Zionism in this form is what gave birth to Tel Aviv, modern Jerusalem, and innumerable other communities, and it succeeded in resurrecting and reestablishing the Jewish state.

But for the settlers, this is not enough and will never be enough. This is because their messianism is apocalyptic in nature. It cannot be satisfied with anything other than an end of history and the coming of the messianic age. But the tragedy of messianism is that the messiah never arrives. And in trying to hurry his coming, the settlers are willing to see the Jewish state that already exists potentially destroyed in an apocalyptic war or simply swallowed by the demographic weight of its enemies.

Mr. Auerbach believes that this apocalyptic messianism is the “fulfillment of Zionism” through “the restoration of Jewish sovereignty in the Biblical homeland of the Jewish people.” But in this sense, Zionism has already been fulfilled. Jewish sovereignty already exists in our Biblical homeland. That should be enough for us. And we should fear those for whom it will never be enough.

Benjamin Kerstein is a columnist and the Israel Correspondent for the Algemeiner.

Originally published at the Algemeiner.

Photo: yudkey/Wikimedia Commons.

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