Eyes Wide Open
The Settlements from a (Different) Jewish Perspective

May 4, 2004
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by Ishay Rosen-Zvi

WHEN I THINK ABOUT Israel’s settlements, two memories come to mind. During a Bnai Akiva (the religious Zionist youth movement) outing to the settlements in the Gaza Strip, I saw a sharp contrast between the overcrowded, miserable neighborhoods of Gaza — set among dozens of roadblocks and army bases — and the blooming lawns and red-roofed houses of the Jewish settlements. But I do not recall any surprise, protest, or even a question from anyone in the youth group (myself included). It was natural for us; we are the masters of the land. It was always thus; we never knew any other reality.

A second memory is from several years later, early 1990s, when I was doing my army service in Samaria, in the context of studying at a Hesder yeshiva. I remember entering Palestinian houses, I remember the Palestinians’ fear, their humiliation, the roadblocks on the highway. One particular image remains etched in my memory: the endless line of Palestinian vehicles, at 5:00 A.M., waiting for the all-powerful Israeli officer to decide who would have the right to use the road, and who would be turned back. Everything they had — their property, their time, their dignity — was under our control. And zooming by in their cars, with no one obstructing their way, were the settlers.

Here were two adjacent populations, yet so very different: one of citizens with full rights and privileges, and another living under occupation, with neither citizenship nor rights, completely at the mercy of the all-mighty soldier, me. Let us not deceive ourselves: to maintain two populations on the same territory, under two totally separate systems of law, requires the use of massive force. It is this force that I encountered, day after day, at the roadblocks in Samaria. But by then the realization had begun to take hold of me that this was not acceptable; that such blatant and open discrimination between people could not be just and I could not be a part of it.

My American (Jewish) experience also began in connection with the settlements. On my very first Shabbat in the United States, I attended a synagogue that was, coincidentally, making an appeal for one of the settlements. When I asked why a synagogue was conducting a political fund-raiser, people answered (quite stunned): we are Jews, which means we support Israel, which means aiding in its fight against terror, which means supporting the settlements. This story is actually but one example of what seems to me a complete failure to distinguish, on the part of many American Jews, between support for Israel and support for a specific policy of its government — the distinction between standing by Israel’s side and supporting the occupation.

The settlements, in this common narrative, are seen, usually, as the front line in the war against terror. In the best scenario, some people recognize, perhaps, that in the context of a peace agreement, some settlements will need to be dismantled in order to reach a favorable accord. But, even in that scenario, the settlements are seen as an integral part of the support of Israel — plain and simple.

Yet the settlements are not a response to terror nor are they a security against it. They were built before the terror attacks began and existed almost as long as the occupation itself. They remain in place to establish us as the sole rulers of the land and to prevent any future accord.

It is necessary, despite the pain and difficulty involved, to say loudly and clearly: the settlements are wrong not only because they waste billions in state money, or because they subject an entire nation to an irreversible process in which it has no interest, or because they make no political sense, or because they preclude any chance of a future accord. They are entirely wrong, first and foremost, because they create an insufferable moral situation of terrible apartheid rule; because in their wake, virtually every Palestinian village is now sealed off and the Palestinian people have no way to travel anywhere in the occupied territories. The roads in the territories are, almost without exception, for Jews only, and many of the villages lie directly in the shadow of tank guns. The vast majority of the roadblocks, which turn the lives of every Palestinian — man and woman, young and old — into a living hell, are located within the territories, not between them and the State of Israel. Total curfews are often imposed, and those violating the curfews are all too often shot at. Many of these decrees are a direct result of the placement of settlements that render the Palestinians not one bit of normality that is uncontrolled by tanks, roadblocks, and curfews. The settlements are today the tip of the sword of this terrible and insufferable apartheid.

No one can question the Israeli right and necessity to fight terror. But let us not deceive ourselves. Long before the terror began and security concerns became the ultimate explanation for any action — no matter how cruel or crazy — the discrimination cried out from every corner. One law for the Jews, and a different — entirely different — law for the Palestinians. So it is in the division of water (five times as much for Jews), lands, roads, building permits, and any other possible area. While these facts are not a secret, the occupation has become so natural that it has blinded us all. It has covered our eyes from seeing the injustices and suffering that we have been causing daily for over a generation.

This is an insufferable situation; not only for the Palestinians but also for the soldiers who are ordered to fight against children, women, and old men. It is an insufferable situation for Israelis to become wardens of a prison of enormous proportions. It is an insufferable situation for us as Jews who aspire to establish a state based on principles of justice, not tyranny.

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Ishay Rosen-Zvi, a Talmud scholar from Tel Aviv University and the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, teaches Talmud at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles. He is a member of the Israeli group “Courage to Refuse,” whose signers serve in the Israeli defense forces but refuse to serve in the occupied territories. He lived for several years in a settlement in the early 1990s.Translated from the Hebrew by Marc Glickman.

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