Deconstructing the settlements discussion

Two years ago, at a gathering of Jewish college students in Boston, The David Project, an organization dedicated to positively shaping campus opinion on Israel, hosted a  screening of Unsettled, a powerful documentary about Israel’s 2005 disengagement from Gaza and the evacuation of settlements there.

The film depicts the human side of the settlement evacuation from Gaza – the feelings of the soldiers with the unenviable task of forcing fellow Jews to leave their homes, as well as the emotional departure of the settler population, which turned out to be very different and more diverse than the stereotype many people held. One of the key figures in the film was Lior, a secular, guitar-playing, fun-loving lifeguard from Gaza’s Palm Beach forced to leave his home and lifestyle in Gaza.

The student participants had pictured the settlers as ultra-religious, ultra-nationalist Jews on a holy mission to lay claim to every last inch of territory – not laid-back lifeguards relishing the coastal climate. But the more religiously observant settlers interviewed in the documentary were also much more complex and interesting than the students had previously imagined.

It took a powerful documentary to move the discussion on the Gaza settlement evacuation from a simplistic abstraction to a complex human story. That’s exactly the problem with the current discussion of Israeli settlements writ large: it’s become so dumbed-down and politicized both inside and outside of the Jewish community that we can hardly have a thoughtful discussion.

In the wake of the recent Palestinian statehood bid in the UN and the subsequent Israeli decision to consider construction of new settlements in disputed areas, stories about settlements in the press abound, which, as is custom, almost uniformly gloss over the nuances and complexities.

The Jewish community, at the very least, should be able to go beyond the sound bites and stereotypes in order to understand the nature of these communities and the residents, their potential impact on the peace process and what the latest decisions of the Israeli government really mean. Simply stated, we need to deconstruct the settlement discussion.

The David Project developed a Primer that does exactly that. The primer was designed to support students and Jewish educators interested in fostering a meaningful conversation on this highly-politicized topic. Here are a few common misconceptions (addressed in the Primer) worthy of greater discussion:

New settlements are under construction:  A headline in the Washington Post recently warned of a “settlement showdown.” The article detailed how Israeli diplomats are facing rebukes throughout the world over plans for new settlements. A casual reader could infer that construction is already underway. What is really happening in this disputed area known near Jerusalem known as E1?  While the move by the government can be seen as provocative, not an inch of ground has been broken, no homes were constructed and no one was evicted. Rather, the government held “a preliminary planning meeting” to discuss developing the area. Actual construction, the article noted, could be years away, if it ever takes place.

Settlers are religious fanatics: It’s easy to lump all residents of the West Bank into one category of religious fanatics based on news coverage and long-held stereotypes. While radical religious Zionists do comprise part of the population, they are only one segment of a diverse group. Many people living in those communities, especially the larger blocs, are individuals seeking a less expensive (partially due to government subsidies) lifestyle and quieter atmosphere, on land that was central to Jewish history. Though most Israeli residents in the West Bank are right of center politically, their motivations and religious views vary significantly from one community to the next.

All the settlements are the same: Regardless of one’s view of the legal or moral standing of these communities, settlements are not monolithic. Maale Adumim, a town on the outskirts of Jerusalem with more than 30,000 residents, is vastly different than a hilltop community deep in the West Bank populated by a few zealous families. The economics of each are different, their histories are different, and the political implications of each are quite different. For instance,  proposals put forth by American and Israeli leaders in recent years acknowledge that most, if not all, small settlements scattered in the West Bank will not remain under Israeli sovereignty in any peace deal signed with the Palestinian leadership. However, these proposals and policy statements, including the Bush letters of 2004, acknowledge that the major blocs, including Maale Adumim, would remain under Israeli control despite their location beyond the Green Line. Building there, while politically problematic, does not necessarily pose an “obstacle to peace” or undermine a contiguous Palestinian state.

Where, as a community, do we go from here? Absent a peace deal, Jews will continue to discuss the issue on the op-ed pages of Jewish papers and at their dinner tables. The danger lies not in having these challenging conversations, but rather in having them absent nuance, analysis or a willingness to gain a deeper understanding.

As this issue garners global attention, the Jewish community needs  to have its own internal dialogue in a thoughtful,  courageous and honest manner.

Todd Young is Director of Campus & Educational Initiatives at The David Project.


About the Author
Todd Young is Director of Educational Initiatives & Special Projects at The David Project