Earlier this week, Israeli prosecutors in Jerusalem District Court recommended sentencing for the so-called Jewish terrorist Yaakov “Jack” Teitel — an American-Israeli, former Floridian, and resident of the West Bank settlement Shvut Rachel — following his conviction on charges of first degree murder, attempted murder, and incitement to violence this January.
Teitel was found guilty in the shootings of an East Jerusalemite taxi driver and Palestinian shepherd in Susiya and bomb attacks against an alleged missionary family in Ariel and Israel Prize laureate Professor Ze’ev Sternhall, as well as numerous other plots. The defendant himself, whose insanity plea was rejected in trial proceedings, did not seem to have an opinion on the prosecutorial plea for a prison term of two life sentences plus an additional seventy years and was said to defer only to “the rulings of the court of heaven.” Yet, is the seemingly unrepentant killer “enteitled” to this well-deserved extended sentence for his heinous crimes, or is he the victim of a legal system that is less interested in deterring settler terrorism as a whole than punishing Jewish-American settlers?
Since the first intifada in the 1980s, American-Israelis in the occupied territories have been engaged in and convicted of high-profile crimes against Palestinians and institutions of the State of Israel. Most notably, Jewish-American immigrants were involved in the Jewish Underground car bombings of four Arab mayors in 1980, the assault on the Islamic College of Hebron in 1983, and the now infamous Tomb of the Patriarchs/Ibrahimi mosque massacre in Hebron, where 29 worshippers were gunned down in cold-blood during prayer and another 125 injured in 1994.
The perpetrator of this last attack, Dr. Baruch Goldstein, an American-Israeli medical doctor originally from Brooklyn who resided in Kiryat Arba, has become virtually synonymous with and the face of the larger constituency of Jewish-American settlers in the occupied territories. In his speech before the Knesset in the days after the tragedy, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was at pains to differentiate Goldstein from the Israeli polity, not only for his terrorist activities but for his non-native status, telling fellow citizens that, “To him and to those like him, we say: You are not part of the community of Israel. You are not part of the national democratic camp to which we in this house all belong, and many of the people despise you. You are not partners in the Zionist enterprise. You are a foreign implant. You are an errant weed. Sensible Judaism spits you out…” Other elements of Israeli society picked up on this theme, as one infuriated Knesset member at the time charged that “American Jewry sends its ‘dreck’[trash]…to Israel” and Maariv castigated Jewish-Americans who “send their lunatic children to Israel.” The popular stereotype of Jewish-American settlers as savage fanatics quickly took root in the Israeli consciousness.
At the same time, the Israeli legal system has mostly turned a blind eye to price-tag operations and acts of settler terrorism, often offering slap-on-the-peyus sentencing to the few perpetrators that are even brought to justice. A much quoted example is the light punishment for Gush Emunim activist Moshe Levinger, who served 92 days for the murder of a Palestinian in the 1980s, although Idith Zertal and Akiva Eldar’s important work Lords of the Land chronicles numerous similar instances for egregious crimes against Palestinians in the occupied territories. Most recently, six hilltop youth who infiltrated the Ephraim Army base in a serious case of “settler espionage” struck a plea bargain, serving either a few months of jail time or 200 hours of community service. For many observers of the “Wild West Bank,” there is simply no law in these parts.
In reviewing long-held attitudes and actions, the harsh sentencing for Teitel seems unprecedented in the legal history of the Israeli settler movement. It is tempting to view this (well-deserved in light of his crimes) punishment as a too-little-too-late attempt to make an example of Teitel in the interest of deterrence in an era of escalating price-tag operations and acts of settler terrorism. But there also seems to be an unusual (if not cruel) desire to penalize the defendant not only for his horrific crimes, but for his dual citizenship and the widely-accepted caricature of Jewish-American settlers. Rather than serving to restrain violent activities (which are most often committed by native Israeli settlers), this sentencing mostly seems to reinforce popular stereotypes about American-Israelis in the occupied territories.
If Israel is to “get tough” on settler terrorism, punishments must be handed down equally — and harshly — against all defendants, regardless of country of origin. From a broader perspective, while some believe that all settlers must be deemed “bad actors” for their participation in the settlement project, if both the Israeli legal system and broader public continue to conflate certain settler constituencies (and even the entire movement as a whole) with a bloodthirsty, violent, fanatical ideology, hell bent on killing as many Palestinians and native Israeli opponents as possible, one misses a profound opportunity to understand the complex nature of this heterogeneous and dynamic movement. Surely Yaakov “Jack” Teitel is entitled to any punishment under the law for his terrible crimes, but the Israeli polity deserves a sentence that demonstrates both a strong commitment to curbing settler terrorism as a whole and a deeper understanding of the multiple ideologies and constituencies within the Israeli settler movement today.