Yaakov Teitel and the Allure of Lawlessness

The glossy flier was posted on a bulletin border in a small, illegal outpost of Israeli settlers near Nablus in the West Bank when I visited last week. The black print appeared over a soft green picture of olive trees. The West Bank is famed for its olive oil, and autumn is harvest season. For years, it's also been the season when settlers from the most extreme outposts and settlements clash with Palestinian farmers and vandalize orchards.

Citing religious sources, the flier urged Jews to "harvest" the Palestinians' olives if they could, and uproot the trees if they couldn't. Since Judaism forbids not only theft but also the destruction of fruit trees even in warfare, the writer had to use considerable casuistry to make his case. It was, in religious terms, akin to preaching the "obligation" of adultery.

The fact that the flier was anonymous indicates that whoever stands behind it prefers not to be known to Israeli law-enforcement agencies. It was condemned a few days later in a popular right-leaning newsletter, published in a settlement and given away in synagogues. The moderate right is disturbed by such tactics -- and the flier was distributed widely enough to become an issue. The flier's text is testimony to the violence and lawlessness that are part of the ideological atmosphere at the settlement movement's radical edge. The mayhem isn't just the work of a few crazed individuals.

Use that as context for understanding the arrest of Yaakov Teitel, announced last Sunday by Israeli police. The list of Teitel's alleged offenses reads like a brief guide to hate crime: attacks on random members of another nationality, on people he saw as promoting apostasy, on a prominent left-wing intellectual, on police whom he saw as protecting "sodomites."

At first glance, Teitel might look like the angry man for whom the fury comes first, and the objects of the fury only afterward. He was reportedly seen as a loner on the small West Bank settlement where he lived; he kept a small arsenal in his house; he learned to make bombs from the Internet.

But that's framing the picture much too narrowly. Even if Teitel is a man driven by his own particular furies, he chose to live in an environment where acting on fury is sometimes treated as acceptable, even as a virtue. Ideological violence is basic to settlement history. Arguably, it is inherent to a project that asserts one ethnic group's ownership of territory while negating another group's rights.

Teitel, 37, was born in Florida. In recent years he has lived at Shvut Rahel, a community identified with the intensely nationalist religious movement that has spearheaded West Bank settlement. He was arrested a month ago in Jerusalem while putting up signs praising the August attack on a Tel Aviv gay-youth center in which two people were killed. A gag order kept the case out of the news while police and the Shin Bet security service investigated his involvement in a string of terrorist attacks.

A partial list of the allegations: murdering two randomly chosen Palestinians in 1997 as revenge for suicide attacks against Israelis. Putting a bomb outside a settlement police station in 2006 in protest against police protection of a gay-pride march in Jerusalem. Placing the bomb last year that nearly killed a 15-year-old boy who belongs to a community of Jews who believe in Jesus. Attempting -- also last year -- to kill Prof. Zeev Sternhell, a renowned political scientist and prominent critic of the occupation.

Predictably, prominent settlers argue Teitel is an aberration. Avi Roeh, head of the regional government for settlements north of Jerusalem, said Teitel doesn't represent Shvut Rahel's "moral, law-abiding citizens." Emily Amrusi, a settler pundit, wrote that "other settlers have no connection … to Yaakov Teitel’s spree of lunacy." Amrusi's article refers to the "300,000 people living today in Judea and Samaria," meaning the West Bank. That's the number of Israeli settlers, not counting those in annexed East Jerusalem. For Amrusi, apparently, the Palestinians either are invisible or are something other than people.

Put aside that gaffe. It's true that stereotypes should be avoided, that settlers are not a monolithic group. More Israelis have moved to settlements in search of the suburban dream than for the sake of ideology. Even among ideological settlers, there's a wide spectrum of attitudes. I assume that many felt a helpless revulsion when they heard of the Teitel case: Again, someone from their community had shed blood and besmirched their name.

But as I said, there is a historical context of settlers treating violence, not to mention casual disregard of the law, as trivial or even heroic. The head of Amana, the main organization involved in settlement-building, is Zeev Hever, who was convicted of membership in a Jewish terrorist group in the 1980s. In Kiryat Arba, among the first of the ideological settlements, there's a park dedicated to the memory of racist politician Meir Kahane; in it is the grave of Baruch Goldstein, who murdered 29 Palestinians and whose tombstone describes him as having “clean hands and a pure heart.”

The "law-abiding citizens" of Shvut Rahel live in a community established in violation of Israeli law, according to the government-commissioned Sasson Report. The report listed over 100 such "unauthorized outposts." Another Shvut Rahel settler, Asher Weisgan, murdered four Palestinians in 2005 in the hope of stopping the evacuation of Israeli settlements in Gaza. (Weisgan later committed suicide in prison.) These are a few examples from a long list.

Teitel's Hebrew is poor, reportedly one reason that he had few friends on his settlement. If the allegations against him are proven in court, settlers will have an easy time dismissing him as an American outsider. If they do so, they will ignore the question of why he chose to live among them.

There may be one more illusion in Teitel's arrest. At first glance, it's proof that Israeli law enforcement devoted a great deal of effort to finding him. Dozens of police reportedly took part in his capture. Yet this wasn't his first arrest here. In 1997, he was taken into custody, questioned about the murder of a Palestinian, and released. The case was later closed for lack of evidence.

That fits a pattern: The Israeli human-rights group Yesh Din reported last year that few Palestinian complaints of settler violence result in indictments. The same conclusion has been reached by previous studies dating back to the early 1980s. The failure to enforce the law against settlers is one reason that the violence has continued. The open question now is whether Teitel was caught because his repeated attacks created more evidence for investigators, or because he'd begun attacking Israelis, or a combination of both.

Teitel will stand trial by himself. The occupation will not be listed as co-defendant or co-conspirator. But if he did do what the investigators claim, his hatred not only fits a context. It fits a context he chose, drawn by the allure of lawlessness.

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