The Strange Alchemy of the Settlements

Daniella Weiss has a soft smile and a round face that is remarkably unwrinkled for a woman of 66 known for most of her adult life as an incendiary activist. A cloth cap covers her hair, in keeping with a strict reading of Orthodox Jewish rules for married women. In her living room in the West Bank settlement of Kedumim, west of Nablus, religious texts fill the bookshelves. Glass cases display a silver crown for a Torah scroll, filigreed spice boxes, and other Jewish ritual objets d'art.

Weiss dates her career on Israeli's religious right to the mid-1970s, when she helped organize the efforts of Gush Emunim -- the Believers Bloc -- to settle in this part of the West Bank in defiance of Yitzhak Rabin's government. Until 2007, she was mayor of Kedumim. Since then, she has been organizing youth of the radical right to establish illegal settlement outposts. She introduces herself as a devoted disciple of Rabbi Moshe Levinger, founder of the Jewish settlement inside Hebron. I visited her recently to find out how she thought settlers should respond to looming West Bank political developments, including the expected bid for U.N. recognition of a Palestinian state.

"A diplomatic tsunami is coming," Weiss told me, adding that "mental stagnation" afflicts settlement leaders. Their focus on construction only inside existing settlements is "poison," because settlers need to spread out in order to strengthen the Jewish hold on the land rather than stay in "ghettoes." Her proposal for "drastic action" to wake settlers up to the looming danger -- an idea she said was "burning in her" but that she needed to run by Levinger -- was that "we must set up settlements on the Sabbath."

For a moment, I was startled. I'm also an Orthodox Jew, and the prohibition against working on the Sabbath is basic to Orthodox Jewish life. It must be ignored when a person's life is in danger. But violating it to build settlements for the political purpose of determining Israel's borders stands traditional Judaism on its head. It's like hearing one's rabbi suggest adultery.

Yet I really had no reason to be surprised. The religious settler movement has made permanent rule over the "Whole Land of Israel" -- including the territories that Israel conquered in 1967 - -into Judaism's cardinal principal, its axis mundi. Theology has swallowed whole the hard-line nationalism of soil, power, and ethnic superiority and taken on its shape. And even within West Bank settlements, residents from the Nablus and Hebron areas have a reputation for radicalism. Driving home toward Jerusalem, I thought over Weiss's comments. They were, I realized, merely a reminder of greater distortions of Judaism that have been cultivated in the settlements ringing Nablus.

A few minutes from Kedumim, I passed the turn to Havat Gilad, a ramshackle settlement outpost where the Sing Unto the Lord Yeshivah, or religious academy, is located. In the surrounding Palestinian villages, as in much of the West Bank, the premier crop is olives, used for making a renowned full-bodied oil. Visiting the outpost once during the autumn olive harvest, I discovered a handbill tacked to the yeshivah bulletin board. Written in the diction of Jewish religious law, it said that the way to show who really had title to the land of Israel was to "bring its good fruit from its temporary occupants" -- meaning Palestinians -- "to its true owners" --- meaning Jews. In places where harvesting olives from Palestinian groves was impractical, the unsigned author continued, the proper alternative was to cut down the trees.

Over the years, the West Bank olive harvest has become an annual low-level battle, with settlers stealing from and ravaging Palestinian groves and with outpost settlers as prime suspects. But finding these ideas printed in a glossy manifesto, starkly presented as religious principles, was more than I'd expected.

The handbill demonstrated the ancient principle that with enough determination, an interpreter of sacred texts can make a sin into an obligation. Theologies that absorb extreme political doctrines are particularly vulnerable to this kind of photo-negative morality (as with Islamic radicals who turn the sin of suicide into martyrdom). The handbill's writer had to explain away the verse in Deuteronomy -- known to every Israeli Jewish schoolchild -- that forbids chopping down fruit trees as a means of waging war. On a more basic ethical level, the writer transformed theft into reclaiming one's own God-given property and wanton destruction into a virtue.

Past Havat Gilad is Yitzhar, one of the early Israeli settlements in the area, a community of comfortable single-family houses and uncomfortable ideas. Yitzhar is home to the Od Yosef Hai Yeshivah. From one of the settlement's veteran residents, I'd acquired a copy of The Law of the King, written by two of the academy's rabbis, Yitzhak Shapira and Yosef Elitzur. The book purports to elucidate Jewish religious law about when it is forbidden or permitted for a Jew to kill a gentile. The book's themes are that a Jew's life is worth more than a gentile's and that for a Jew to kill a gentile is a lesser sin than killing another Jew.

In a war between Jews and non-Jews, Shapira and Elitzur assert, Jews may kill anyone from the opposing side who poses the most indirect threat -- even enemy civilians who show emotional support for their troops. There is no moral problem, the authors state, with causing the death of civilians who live near an army base or weapons plant, because they stand in the way of a legitimate target. Without mentioning the Israel Defense Forces, the book was a broadside against the army's rules on avoiding harm to enemy civilians. Rather than a leaflet rationalizing theft, this was a full volume justifying war crimes, desecrating the faith in whose name it is supposedly written.

This kind of thinking is part of the price of Israel's occupation of the West Bank. It germinated when Israel's unexpected victory in 1967 was explained as divine providence, as evidence of God's plan for Jews to rule the Whole Land. It was inadvertently nurtured by secular politicians who wanted to keep parts or all of the occupied territories and who mistakenly thought they could control the activists of the religious right whom they recruited to create settlements. Afterward, many on the theological right interpreted Israel's agreement with the Palestinians in 1993 and its pullout from Gaza in 2005 as betrayal and persecution, feelings that fertilize extremism.

The price is being paid not only by Israel as a state but by Judaism as a religion. Creating a state is a practical political step. Whether it has religious meaning, and whether that meaning is positive or negative, depends on how the state behaves.

"The thing that is special about the State of Israel is not that it fulfills an ancient promise ... but that it finally offers the opportunity to carry out the social law of Judaism," the towering French Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas wrote in 1951. An authentically religious relation to Israel, Levinas wrote, did not lie in regarding the creation of the state as expressing historical justice. It lay in seeking "to have a state in order to have justice," to create a just society.

Israel was new then, and those words contained a great deal of hope. It is still possible to pursue that hope, but not by building more settlements.

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