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Jewish World Review Nov. 28, 2000 / 30 Mar-Cheshvan, 5761

Jonathan Tobin

Jonathan Tobin
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Blaming Ourselves

Israel's left-wing idealogues target settlers as they look for a political comeback -- ISRAEL'S POLITICAL LEFT WING is down but not out. The most fervent adherents of the peace process have been reeling since Palestinian Authority leader -- and would-be "peace partner" -- Yasser Arafat spiked Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak's incredibly generous offer at Camp David this past July. Arafat compounded their discomfort by launching a war of attrition in September.

The hurt and humiliation felt by longtime Israeli peace-now advocates at this turn of events is palpable. Leading politicians, activists and writers have all played the spurned lover as Arafat steadfastly continues to refuse to reciprocate their desire for a New Middle East.

But rather than focus its anger on the bloody policies of Arafat or on the consensus within Palestinian society that coexistence with Israel is impossible, the Jewish left has returned to a favorite target: Jewish settlers.

Though the original founders of the Land of Israel movement in the aftermath of the Six-Day War were just as likely to be kibbutzniks as right-wingers, that has changed. The face of the settlement movement is now virtually interchangeable with that of the right-wing, nationalist, Orthodox, knitted-kippah wearers.

In the 1970s and '80s, the settlers were much admired in Israeli society; they were seen as evoking the pioneer spirit and selfless courage of the early Zionists who built Israel. But in the years since Oslo, the settlers have become more and more a target of resentment as their stubborn refusal to give up their belief that the land belongs to the Jewish people was seen as an obstacle to peace.

Though their numbers have grown to more than 200,000 Jews living in communities, large and small, throughout Judea and Samaria, and most of their homes are in strategic blocs adjacent to pre-1967 Israel, the settlers are now an unpopular minority. Considered out of step with the consumerist spirit of Israeli culture, they were seen as relics of a conflict that was soon to be officially over.

But Arafat's new war has placed these people on the front lines of Israel's latest war of survival. The men, women and children of the settlements are now the No. 1 targets of Arafat's legion of gun-toting Tanzim and other armed Palestinian groups who hope to turn a siege of these Israeli towns and villages into the next great triumph of Palestinian nationalism.

That point has been made clearly in the last two weeks with a series of bloody terrorist attacks on the Jews of the settlements. A mother of five was shot down in cold blood in a terrorist ambush while driving to her home in Samaria from Jerusalem. Two Israelis were killed and nine others, including five children, were wounded in a bomb attack against a school bus carrying children, parents and teachers to an elementary school in a settlement in Gaza. Three of the wounded Jewish youngsters (all siblings) had their arms or legs partially amputated.

Ironically, the Palestinian decision to turn their guns on the settlers has also made them the No. 1 political targets for Israel's left. The new tactic adopted by the pro-Oslo forces in Israeli politics is to change the topic from Arafat's betrayal of Israel's hopes for peace to a discussion of the theory that uprooting the settlers would revive the negotiations.

Their hope is to create enough political momentum for this idea to keep Barak from giving up on his plans to evacuate the settlements, a plan of action that has been rendered virtually moot by Arafat's decision for war instead of peace.

This theme was sounded in a New York Times article last week by Deborah Sontag called "Should Israel Sacrifice Its Hopes for Peace for Settlers?" (Oct. 15). That article set a new record for bias in a headline, but it was echoed by a similar piece heard the same week on National Public Radio, whose reporters'antipathy for settlers outdid even that of the Times.

Yet rather than Israel sacrificing its hopes for the settlers, what is happening now is that it is the settlers themselves who are being sacrificed. In fact, sources in Israel have told me that many of these towns are being left without the defensive equipment -- such as night-vision goggles and flak vests -- that their reservist inhabitants need to defend their families.

Instead of waiting for the Israel Defense Forces to give them the equipment, some American Jews are stepping into the breach and privately paying for it. It is true that some of the settlements, especially in Gaza, appear to be militarily indefensible, making them a danger to both to their inhabitants and their IDF protectors. But most are not.

Though some settlements, like the enclave in the middle of Hebron, are hot spots where the Jews are sometimes blamed for violence, the notion of the settlers as the source of violence is just plain wrong. Most of the settlements actually get along with their Arab neighbors.

Yet, even if every Jewish settlement magically disappeared tomorrow, does anyone really believe that would mark the end of Palestinian demands? Remember, Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem, which are home to tens of thousands of ordinary Jews, are also considered "settlements" by the Palestinians.

Israel's "hopes for peace"aren't being sacrificed by the settlers. They have already been destroyed by Arafat.

But that has not prevented a wave of anti-settler propaganda from being unleashed by the Jewish left. That is unfortunate, because even a left-wing pundit like the Jerusalem Report's Hirsch Goodman has admitted that giving up even the Gaza settlements in the face of Arafat's war would be a disaster. It would, Goodman told CBS'"Sixty Minutes"show, only whet Arafat's appetite for further retreats that Israel's people would regret.

As long as Arafat's forces and their allies are targeting Jewish children for death, verbal assaults on the settlers should be off-limits. Even the label "settler"sometimes seems as if it is just a label used by journalists and others to dehumanize the Jews who live there. It's as if saying that a "settler" was killed in a terrorist attack makes it easier to take than saying an Israeli or a Jew was murdered, for we have been trained by the left and much of the media to believe that somehow the "settler"deserved that fate. Indeed, the animus directed towards the settlers seems at times to be a case of Israel internalizing the hatred directed at it by the Arabs.

And even though the settlers'Land of Israel ideology has run out of steam, surely, most Israeli and Diaspora Jews must also still be reluctant to ethnically cleanse Jews from biblical sites like Shilo, where Jewish history began.

For Israel to get through this latest episode, it must be made clear to the Palestinians that the blood of the Jews living in Judea, Samaria and Gaza, as well as Jerusalem, should be considered no less dear to us than our own. Making the settlers into the scapegoats for Oslo's failure is playing right into Arafat's hand. That's a mistake both Israel and American Jewry should avoid at all costs.

JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent. He was the recipient of the American Jewish Press Association's highest awards in two categories: First Place in the Louis Rapoport Award for Excellence in Commentary and Editorial Writing for his column "Israel's China Syndrome -- and Ours" and First Place for Excellence in Arts and Criticism for his column "Jewish Art, Jewish Artists." The awards were given to Mr. Tobin at the AJPA's 2000 Simon Rockower Awards dinner at Washington D.C. on June 22, 2000. Let him know what you think by clicking here.

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