Settler Judaism Undermines Israel’s Future

Michael Lerner is editor of Tikkun magazine and author of "Jewish Renewal: A Path to Healing and Transformation." He is rabbi of Beyt Tikkun in San Francisco

The agreement between Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to continue round-the-clock negotiations back in their own part of the world is actually an acknowledgment that nothing was accomplished by the Washington summit. While both sides covered their differences to protect President Clinton from having to acknowledge that his summit accomplished nothing, they were unable to make any significant advance toward implementing the previously negotiated Oslo peace accords.

This is not surprising, given that Netanyahu’s main goal is to perpetuate the Israeli occupation of the West Bank as long as possible and to expand existing Israeli settlements. Moreover, Netanyahu made clear that his insistence on keeping open the disputed tunnel is important precisely because it gives the message to Palestinians of “who is in charge.” The spirit and letter of the Oslo accords were exactly the opposite: to reduce Israeli control and expand Palestinian rule in the West Bank. Netanyahu’s goal, then, is to reject the substance of the accords, but to do so in a way that continues to retain American support. From his standpoint, the perfect solution is to reopen negotiations, thus appearing to be reasonable and open, while simultaneously implementing his expansion of Jewish control on the ground in the West Bank.

Netanyahu learned his strategy from Yitzhak Shamir, the last Likud party prime minister whose strategy was to keep the Madrid peace negotiations alive and going for 10 years, and during that time to try to extend Israeli hold over the West Bank. Netanyahu is following this same route.


The fact is that Israel and the Palestinians already reached an agreement and the problem is that the new Israeli government doesn’t want to honor its part (by withdrawing from Hebron and by freezing the growth of existing Israeli West Bank settlements). Netanyahu’s negotiations, like the goodwill gestures he offered, are a substitute for living up to the agreements already reached.

For those of us who believe that Israeli security interests would best be served by a peaceful disengagement from the West Bank, the Netanyahu strategy is a disaster. Quite apart from the way that it disrespects and infuriates Palestinians, it is not in Israel’s interests either. Many American Jews are demanding that the current Israeli government honor the wise direction taken by Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, rather than revert to the policies that produced the Palestinian armed rebellion in the 1980s and which may soon produce Intifada II. Israel would be far more secure with a Palestinian state filled with people who felt that they had finally received their due. The dream of a Jewish state will never be fully realized if it depends on repressing Palestinian desires for national autonomy and self-determination.

Yet Netanyahu’s policies are the inevitable outgrowth of “settler Judaism,” the approach to Judaism that sees settlement of the Biblical land of Israel as the highest religious obligation, outweighing the many Torah injunctions that warned Jews to not oppress the stranger and to “remember that you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” From the standpoint of their particular reading of Jewish tradition, all the Torah’s calls for humane treatment of the stranger and for loving one’s neighbors are of far less importance than territorial acquisition.

Ironically, it is this vision of Judaism that is likely to further erode American Jewish loyalty to Israel. While the generation of Jews who went through the Holocaust will never turn their back on the Jewish state, increasing numbers of younger Jews feel embarrassed to be identified with a Jewish state that violates their own moral vision. Israel’s actions are not only bad for the Palestinian people, but are undermining the future of the Jewish people.

Some American Jewish liberals fantasize that after the election President Clinton will begin to exert serious pressure on Israel to live up to the Oslo accords and that will eventually produce an Israeli withdrawal. They are mistaken. Clinton is unwilling to stand up for any principles that might bring him into conflict with a significant part of his own constituency. Moreover, the Oslo accords were ambiguous about the nature of a final status agreement, and did not commit Israel to recognizing Palestinians with the same national self-determination that Israelis claim for themselves.

Americans and Israelis who oppose the current policies must give up hope that some outside force is going to magically make things OK. It is only when we demand an end to the occupation, and do so in ways that cannot be ignored by our own government or by Israel, that Netanyahu may be forced to reconsider the wisdom of his policies.