Legitimate Criticism

The pro-Israel community must not refrain from criticizing Israel over outposts.

Pro-Israel protestors 311 (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons, Reuters)
Pro-Israel protestors 311
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons, Reuters)
Whenever the Israeli government announces plans, as it did in mid-December, to build new homes in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, many of my mainline Christian colleagues are perplexed and frustrated by the lack of response from the American Jewish community. For example, after reading about this latest construction plan in our local newspaper, a Presbyterian pastor called me to ask, “Why is there no outcry from your community in reaction to Israel’s continued expansion of Jewish settlements?”
It’s the sort of question I hear often from liberal Christian leaders with whom I work closely on economic justice and civil rights issues but with whom I typically disagree on the reasons for the absence of any real progress in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. From their perspective, the Jewish community, with few exceptions, serves as an apologist for Israel.
They believe that the Jewish community stubbornly refrains from criticizing settlement construction out of “blind” support for Israel “right or wrong” even as the Jewish state pursues actions that are antithetical to peace.
Of course, in reality, the issue of the settlements is much more complex than a stark choice between support for the Jewish communities beyond the 1967 lines and support for peace. After all, Jewish groups in the US overwhelmingly backed the Israeli disengagement from Gaza, during which 21 Jewish settlements, home to 8,500 Israelis, were dismantled. Yet, did Israel achieve peace in return? Far from it.
Moreover, not all “settlements” are the same. For example, whereas new construction in Ramat Shlomo, Gilo or Har Homa may prompt a sharp rebuke from the administration of President Barack Obama, the pro-Israel community on the whole views these not as settlements but as permanent neighborhoods in the Jewish part of Jerusalem. In a similar vein, Maale Adumim and the Etzion Bloc, both just outside Jerusalem and comprising a sizable proportion of the total settler population, were to become a part of Israel under the finalstatus parameters proposed by president Bill Clinton at the end of his second term over a decade ago.
The existence of dozens of unauthorized outposts in the West Bank, on the other hand, is a different matter altogether. And it’s specifically in regard to this escalating problem that the American pro-Israel establishment’s reluctance to say anything critical about Israeli settlement policy has been shortsighted.
The unauthorized outposts are home to the “hilltop youth,” extremist right-wing settlers whose violent “price tag” attacks against Palestinian civilians and private property, mosques and, more recently, IDF troops are a stain on Israel’s character.
These makeshift sites serve as a breeding ground for a radical ideology that is foreign to Judaism.
In January, Israeli security forces belatedly demolished three of the outposts – one near Kiryat Arba and two near Shilo – and evacuated the residents. But such evacuations have been the exception. By and large, the Israeli government has failed to crack down on the extremists and, fearing an escalation of violence, has dragged its feet on its obligation to dismantle their outposts.
In November, the defense establishment asked the Supreme Court for permission to postpone a series of court-ordered evacuations and, on occasion, the government has even negotiated agreements with settler leaders to retroactively authorize some of the sites. Although Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may be trying to avoid internecine strife until a permanent withdrawal is required under a peace agreement (a point he has raised with the Obama Administration), putting off these evacuations only emboldens the extremists and reinforces their belief that violence pays.
Still, whatever one may think of the government’s handling of the problem, isn’t it for Israel alone to resolve? While I generally concur with the notion that American Jews shouldn’t
meddle in Israel’s internal affairs, especially where there could be repercussions for the country’s security, this issue has implications well beyond Israel’s borders.
At a time when Israel’s detractors are increasingly portraying the Jewish state as undemocratic, morally bankrupt and racist, the radicals occupying remote West Bank hilltops seem determined to provide them with all the ammunition they need.
Every stone thrown at a Palestinian vehicle, every anti-Islamic slur spray-painted on a mosque, every olive tree uprooted is like throwing red meat to the delegitimizers who seek to challenge Israel’s moral and legal standing.
Meanwhile, Israel’s feeble response to the outposts is viewed by much of the world as ambivalence toward the radicals, or worse, complicity. The American pro- Israel establishment, therefore, should no longer stand passively on the sidelines. It’s important that not only Jewish groups on the Left (which are already critical of Israeli settlement policy), but also the more prominent and centrist national organizations call on the Israeli government to end its procrastination, to act decisively and with a sense of urgency.
More than ever, Israel needs sustained support from American Jews to combat the global assault on its legitimacy. It’s difficult, however, to make the case for Israel as an enlightened democracy that aspires to peace with its neighbors while, at the same time, the illegal outposts and their radical residents are being allowed to undermine Israel’s democratic values. It’s even more difficult to mobilize broad segments of the Jewish community to come to Israel’s defense if Israel is perceived as not enforcing a zero-tolerance policy toward the reprehensible behavior of its extremist fringe.
To be sure, Israel is regularly subjected to unfair criticism, the victim of double standards and half-truths that deliberately disregard the context for Israeli actions.
But unlike the Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem and major settlement blocs widely expected to be annexed by Israel under a future peace agreement, the issue of the unauthorized outposts is straightforward.
There are no shades of gray, no mitigating circumstances, no justification for prolonging their unlawful existence.
Israel has thus left itself open to legitimate criticism for its failure to move in earnest against the outposts. And if the pro-Israel community refrains from calling on Israel to take appropriate action, then frankly, we deserve to be criticized, too.
The writer is community relations director at the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland, Oregon.