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Media Watch: Settlers Now ‘Part Of Israeli Mainstream’

Media Watch: Settlers Now ‘Part Of Israeli Mainstream’

Outreach to Arabs, leadership in IDF, reverse militant image.

Associate Editor

Someone remarked to Gloria Steinem, on the eve of her 50th birthday, that she looked great for 50.

“This is what 50 looks like,” said Steinem.

Rabbis Shlomo Riskin, Aharon Lichtenstein and Menachem Froman are what West Bank settlers look like. From the settlements clustered in Gush Etzion.

The Jewish community of Gush Etzion was destroyed in the Arab riots of 1929, and again in the riots of 1936-39, and again in 1948 by the Jordan Legion. Many Jews who had been orphaned when their fathers died defending the Gush, returned to the Gush in memory of their lost fathers. Other settlers followed.

Rabbi Froman, 65, was one of the soldiers who liberated the Old City of Jerusalem in 1967. He is now a peace activist, living in the settlement of Tekoa.

Rabbi Lichtenstein, 77, heads Yeshivat Har Etzion (known as “Gush”), established in 1968, after the Six-Day War.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, 70, founding rabbi of Manhattan’s Lincoln Square Synagogue, became chief rabbi of Efrat in 1983 not long after Yitzhak Rabin came to Lincoln Square and encouraged the congregants to not only make aliyah but to move specifically to the West Bank.

By 1987, Rabbi Riskin had raised $100,000 to buy medical equipment designated for a Palestinian clinic near Efrat. In the first intifada, the clinic was torched. In the second intifada, five citizens of Efrat were murdered, two attempts at suicide bombings within Efrat were barely foiled, and Rabbi Riskin delivered a eulogy at the funeral of Tekoa’s Koby Mandell, the boy stoned to death in a cave in 2001.

Such are the things that settlers remember.

With all the horrors in the world, some ethnic leaders (and ethnic arsonists), have made the demand for condemnations or apologies a cynical genre all its own. Certainly, the Middle East has offered no shortage of opportunities.

There were demands and apologies, from presidents and prime ministers, earlier this month when a pair of young Jewish vandals set a West Bank mosque on fire, torching several Korans, and leaving Hebrew graffiti — “revenge” and “price tag” — signature slogans of angry settlers.

Most condemnations and apologies are pro forma. But then came a moment of unusual decency and humanity.

The Jerusalem Post (Oct. 5) reported that several of Gush Etzion’s “most prominent rabbis,” including Rabbis Lichtenstein, Riskin and Froman, “visited the torched mosque in Beit Fajar…. to apologize for the destruction allegedly caused by Jewish vandals, and to deliver new Korans to the local imam…”

With reciprocal decency, the Palestinian media, often rightly criticized for Der Sturmer-like incitement against Jews, stepped up to a respectful, higher ground.

The story of the “settler rabbis” and the “settler-supporters of peace,” was displayed with a photo on the front page of the official Palestinian daily, Al-Hayat Al-Jadida.

Rabbi Lichtenstein was quoted, “We came to apologize and express our shame. … I don’t delude myself that a conflict as sharp as what we have is going to be resolved in a short period of time. However, people feel that some progress might be made; morally it must be done,” he said.

All was not completely idyllic. The rabbis’ gift of the Korans was accepted by the mosque’s religious leader “in the name of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails.”

The Gush rabbis didn’t take the bait.

If anyone was looking for a fight, it was easy to find one in this autumn’s olive harvest, reported by Haaretz to have been the “most violent in years,” with both Israeli and Palestinian farmers among the victims.

At one point, said Haaretz, “a verbal confrontation erupted” between a Jewish farmer, Erez Ben Sa’adon, and Rabbi Arik Ascherman, head of the leftist Rabbis for Human Rights. “Ascherman claimed Ben Sa’adon was harvesting olives that belonged to Palestinians from nearby Karyut. Ben Sa’adon, whose nearby vineyard had been destroyed by unidentified parties the previous night, said he had leased that plot for the past 12 years and the olives were his.”

But even this was resolved with a rare twist. The Palestinian mayor of Karyut, reported Haaretz, declared that the Rabbis for Human Rights were wrong and “the [olive] trees belonged to Ben Sa’adon,” the settler.

In a separate story, but equally unusual, Al-Hayat Al-Jadida, which has often reported complaints about settlers disrupting the olive harvest, featured an idyllic photo of a bearded Israeli settler from Kiryat Arba, a settlement adjacent to Hebron, playing guitar under a tree, providing musical accompaniment to his Palestinian neighbor who was harvesting olives.

That gentle fellow with a guitar is what a settler looks like, was the message in Al-Hayat.

To Israelis, settlers look like their army buddies. Yossi Klein Halevi, in The Wall Street Journal, leads us to Hayovel, a tiny settlement where two houses, built without government permission, face demolition. The houses were built “by two war heroes,” Major Eliraz Peretz, killed on the Gaza border several months ago, after his older brother was killed in Lebanon, and Major Ro’i Klein, killed in Lebanon “after leaping onto a grenade to save his men.”

Fallen soldiers, Halevi explains, “have a sacrosanct status here.” Demolishing the houses that these soldiers built for their families “seems to Israelis, whatever their politics, an unbearable act of ingratitude.” Even Peace Now won’t make a fight of it.

According to Halevi, Hayovel underlines a new truth about the IDF: Israel’s military elite “is coming from West Bank settlements and, more broadly, from within the religious Zionist community that produced the settlement movement and passionately supports it. Perhaps 40 percent of combat officers are now religious Zionists.”

“Once it was kibbutzim,” says Halevi, “that produced the nation’s combat elite. Now it is the religious Zionist community that raises its sons to sacrifice.”

Which is why “if the army is sent to dismantle settlements in the West Bank … there is the very real threat of widespread disobedience and the collapse of entire units.”

The “settler,” writes Halevi, “has assumed a near demonic image around the world, but most Israelis know that only a radical fringe is responsible for uprooting Palestinian olive trees and vandalizing mosques. Most settlers are part of the mainstream. Israelis encounter them in the army, in the workplace, and in the universities….

“The political wisdom of the settlement project is intensely debated here, but only a leftwing fringe denies the historic right of Jews to live in what was the biblical heartland of Israel.”

Without “a credible Palestinian partner able to deliver” a real peace, writes Halevi, the Israeli public “will continue to avoid a traumatic confrontation with settlers that could rupture the military and lead to civil war.”

To others in the media, settlements and settlers are a caricature.

To Israelis, it is not a caricature but a conversation about Riskin, Lichtenstein and Froman, Klein and Peretz.

That’s what settlers look like.

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