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Steven M. Druker
Public Interest Attorney and Author

How the radical settlers have failed a crucial test of the Torah

— and exposed the illegitimacy of their entire agenda

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A Palestinian woman reacts to the destruction of olive trees on her family’s field near Hebron.

 

What path should Israel take regarding the future of Gaza? What path should it take regarding the future of Judea and Samaria (the West Bank)? These are two of the most urgent and crucial decisions that the nation must make. And a large and politically powerful segment of the populace insists that these decisions must be aligned with the Torah. Further, in their interpretation of the Torah and other biblical scriptures, Israel’s boundaries should ultimately encompass the entirety of the West Bank and Gaza, and Jews should be striving to achieve this expansion. Accordingly, many of those Israelis reside in West Bank settlements, and a substantial faction have been engaged in violent efforts to force the Arabs out of the region. Moreover, their allies in the government have not only supported this expansionist agenda for the West Bank, they’re advocating for Israel to permanently reoccupy Gaza, and they’re leveraging their power to thwart any plans that could yield different outcomes.

This situation presents a striking anomaly. Although the extremist settlers claim that they’re advancing a divine plan ­– and that their agenda is attuned with the Torah – in pursuing that agenda they have repeatedly violated one of the Torah’s clearest commandments. And those transgressions invalidate their claim, discredit their agenda, and cast doubt on the judgment of everyone who has been supporting it.

The failings of the settlers and their supporters are especially remarkable considering that the Torah commandment at issue is unambiguous. Deuteronomy 20:19 unequivocally prohibits Israelites from deliberately destroying an enemy’s fruit trees, even when they’re besieging a city and cutting the trees for timber would be helpful in conducting the siege. And the next verse accentuates the protected status of fruit trees. It permits Israelites to cut down trees that don’t bear fruit in order to support a war effort, even though the verse that precedes it forbids them from felling fruit trees for the same purpose. Moreover, the rabbis have held that this commandment applies in all times and places.

Nevertheless, despite this explicit prohibition, a substantial number of settlers have wantonly destroyed olive trees and other fruit trees of Palestinian farmers in an attempt to drive them off their land. The aggregate destruction has been extensive. According to the UN Office for Humanitarian Affairs, between 2009 and 2014 Jewish settlers destroyed approximately 50,000 fruit trees, mostly olives. And an article in The Ecologist reported that between 1975 and 2015, over a million olive trees and hundreds of thousands of other fruit trees were destroyed in Palestinian lands. Even if these figures are exaggerated, and even if (as is likely) a substantial percentage of the trees in the latter report were removed by the IDF for legitimate purposes in the construction of roads and other infrastructure, it’s still apparent that a shamefully large number of Palestinian-owned fruit trees have been maliciously destroyed by Jewish settlers. And the shamefulness is amplified by the fact that the settlers purport to be acting as servants of the Torah while they brazenly violate one of its unequivocal commandments.

From a biblical standpoint (the standpoint from which the radical settlers and their supporters assert their agenda should be judged), there’s no excuse for these protracted transgressions. Indeed, it’s evident from the Bible that the commandment regarding fruit trees was not transgressed during the entire span of history that it records. The statute first appears in the final book of the Torah, and that book does not note any violation of it before the Israelites entered the promised land. Nor is there any mention of such a violation in the Book of Joshua, which describes the Israelites’ conquest of the land in significant detail. Although that book does recount a case in which a different dictate was contravened during the conquest of Jericho (7:1) – and even describes an incident in which one group of Israelites mistakenly accused another group of sinful behavior (22:10-34) – it does not report a single instance in which fruit trees were destroyed. No other book of the Bible records such an infraction either. Hence, because the Bible unstintingly recounts the Israelites’ various sins, the fact that it does not cite any violations of the tree-centered commandment strongly indicates that there weren’t any. And during the centuries between the biblical era and the Zionist immigrations of the modern era, Jews were never in a position in which they could even contemplate violating that commandment.

Therefore, not only have the extremist settlers been transgressing a Torah commandment that’s as valid today as when first issued, it’s clear from the Bible and subsequent Jewish history that the commandment had never before been violated. In the thousands of years since Moses articulated that law, they are the only people who have broken it – and they have broken it repeatedly and callously.

And that is not their only dishonorable distinction. They also embrace a singularly self-contradictory version of Zionism. Religious Zionists believe either (a) that it’s permissible to cede some of the land that belonged to biblical Israel in order to achieve peace or (b) that it’s impermissible because the modern state of Israel must ultimately contain all the land possessed by its ancient predecessor. But many (and perhaps most) of those who hold the latter belief also believe that the process through which the borders are expanded must maintain harmony with the Torah. Only the extremist settlers and those who support their agenda apparently believe that it’s appropriate to advance a divinely ordained project by violating a divinely issued commandment.

Consequently, compared to other religious Zionists, this radical faction also displays a singular lack of trust in God’s power. While it’s one thing to believe that human action is playing an essential role in the accomplishment of a divine plan; it’s quite another to believe that the plan will not be fully accomplished unless some of that action breaches a God-given law. To hold the latter belief is to lack faith in the ability of God to accomplish His plan without the need for numerous Jews to transgress one of His explicit statutes.

Thus, from a Torah perspective, it’s reasonable to think that the statute regarding fruit trees has served as a crucial test. It has exposed that the extremist settlers are spiritually unfit to carry out the mission they purport to be advancing – and that their endeavor to align Israel’s borders ­with the borders of ancient Israel is significantly misaligned with the Torah. What’s more, God would have foreseen that this present-day faction would be the first group to fail the test. He would have known that Joshua and the people he led would honor the commandment but that a group of Israelites would transgress it thousands of years later as part of an ill-conceived effort to emulate Joshua by obtaining as much territory west of the Jordan as he had acquired.

So, the burning question becomes: When will enough Jews wake up to this momentous reality? When will a sufficient number realize that the settlers have failed a crucial Torah-established test, and when will they grasp the profound implications and take requisite action?

Regrettably, it seems that even most rabbis have not yet comprehended the gravity of the situation. And among those that have, very few have spoken out against the transgressions. The lack of rabbinical rebuke is especially notable considering the negative spiritual influence that the settlers’ behavior has almost surely generated. For instance, during the conquest of Jericho, one man violated a prohibition against seizing any of that city’s wealth for personal use. And although the prohibition was a localized edict and is not in the Torah, that single transgression brought a curse upon all the people which crippled their capacity to stand against their enemies. (Joshua 7:11-13) Further, the curse was not lifted until the offender was put to death.

Of course, due to the significant differences between the conditions during Joshua’s conquest and those of today, we can’t assume that the settlers’ transgressions have induced a similarly severe effect. Nonetheless, from a biblical viewpoint, it’s virtually certain that they have weakened the nation and diminished its spiritual health. And although capital punishment is out of the question in this case, it is reasonable to think that, at minimum, the transgressions should be strongly rebuked by both the civil and religious authorities and that measures should be instituted to prevent additional occurrences.

Yet, even Chabad-Lubavitch, an influential religious organization that describes itself as “the most dynamic force in Jewish life today,” has failed to denounce the transgressions, despite the fact it was entreated to do so ­– and despite its recognition that the spiritual state of the people powerfully affects the strength of the nation. Thus, after Hamas’s attack on October 7th, Chabad encouraged Jews to create “a spiritual defense shield” for Israel through prayer and other positive spiritual practices. But it has not raised its voice against the negative practices of the radical settlers that are corroding the shield.

Considering the dangers Israel faces and the necessity to develop sound long-term policies regarding Gaza and the West Bank, the need to formally censure the Torah transgressions and to curtail any future ones is especially urgent. It’s likewise essential to condemn and curtail unprovoked violence against innocent Palestinians in the West Bank. Although many West Bank Arabs pose a significant threat, many do not. And there’s no justification for treating all of them as if they’re intractably hostile Amalekites – or idolatrous Canaanites whose practices could spread spiritual pollution.

It’s equally necessary to free the government from the influence of individuals who share the settlers’ mindset and abet their extreme agenda. Through their acts of support, they have also failed the fruit tree test, which discredits their judgment and shows they should not be playing a significant role in shaping government policy. Yosef Blau, a prominent Orthodox rabbi, has recently asserted that these extremists in government “have to go,” and he presented a powerful argument without citing their failure of the fruit tree test. When that delinquency is also taken into account, the case for rejecting these extremists and nullifying their influence becomes even more compelling.

About the Author
Steven M. Druker is a public interest attorney who resides in the United States. In 2017, he received a Luxembourg Peace Prize for "outstanding achievements" on behalf of the environment. Jane Goodall has called him “a hero.”
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