Jews in America and Israel Reacting Differently to the US Stance Legalizing Settlements

Even though the big headlines of the past week in Israel has been the political fate of Prime Minister Netanyahu, another significant event occurred last week when the US administration asserted that the establishment of Israeli civilian settlements in the West Bank is not per se inconsistent with international law.  Legal scholars opined on the legality of this declaration.  One of the major points of contention is whether Israel violates Article 49 of the Geneva Convention of 1949 which states: “The Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.”  Do Israelis moving into Judea and Samaria qualify as a transfer of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies or does “deport or transfer” only mean forcible deportation and transfer and not Israelis voluntary settling in these lands.  Furthermore, Israel argues that the West Bank is not occupied territory because there has been no internationally recognized legal sovereign in the West Bank before the Six Day War, so this land cannot be considered to have become occupied territory when control passed into the hand of Israel.  The international community that disagrees with Israel argues that the beneficiary of these rules is the population of the occupied territory and would apply even if there was no prior internationally recognized legal sovereign.

However, there is a significant political debate that underlies this discussion.  Those who support the stance of the US administration argue that this move, together with shifting the US embassy to Jerusalem and recognizing that the Golan Heights is part of Israel, is a positive step for peace in the region, as it embraces realities that Jerusalem is the real and functioning capital of Israel, that the Golan Heights is a vital strategic, cultural and economic part of the country that the Israelis will never give up and that Israel will not simply abandon all of its settlement blocs in Judea and Samaria.  They argue that false hopes fuel terror and specifically false hopes that Israelis will eventually pack up and leave Jerusalem, the Golan and all the settlements in Judea and Samaria are not conducive to a peaceful agreement between Palestinians and Israelis.  Only once the Palestinians understand and accept this can meaningful dialogue develop between Israelis and Palestinians.

Those who oppose the stance of the US administration argue that these moves are unnecessary and this last move, in particular, will provide Israelis with the green light to build in Judea and Samaria without any restraint, even in areas beyond the current Israeli settlement blocs in Judea and Samaria which will make an ultimate resolution of the West Bank’s status far more difficult.

What I find interesting is that it seems that all but the far-left in Israel praised the US decision.  For example, Benny Gantz, who represents the left but not the far-left of the country, praised the US decision.  In America, many of those on the left, but not the far-left, opposed the decision.  Yehuda Kurtzer, President of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, was strongly critical.  The Israeli Policy Forum, which was founded in 1993 to build support in the American Jewish community in Washington for the diplomatic vision of the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, was critical, as well.  The Union for Reform Judaism President Rabbi Rick Jacobs urged the Trump Administration to reverse its position.

It seems to me that non-Orthodox Israelis on the left are far more supportive of the legality of Israeli settlement in Judea and Samaria than non-Orthodox American Jews.  (The Orthodox, for example, the Orthodox Union, generally applauded the move.) Perhaps the difference is that Israelis don’t want foreigners to tell them what to do. As such, left-leaning Israelis are more apt to reject international involvement in their affairs. In contrast, American Jews feel that international law should legitimately apply to all countries across the globe including Israel, but they might feel differently if the international community tried to assert its legal jurisdiction over the United States.

But maybe it’s something else.  Maybe at the end of the day, religion plays a unique role in this debate. America is becoming more and more secularized. Religion is under attack in the public square. The percentage of Americans who are religiously unaffiliated continues to rise.  Many American Jews may be less connected to our unique Jewish values, our unique Jewish country and our profoundly deep Biblical ancestral connection to the Israel.  They may view the Israeli Palestinian debate predominantly in legal terms or political terms.

However, Israel is witnessing a resurgence of religion.  One of the most popular singers in Israel is Yishai Ribo, who sings about Torah and Jewish values to a secular audience in Israel.  Even secular Israelis study Tanach and by living on the land about which they study, they feel deeply connected.  It is no wonder that secular Israelis are far more supportive of the US administration’s decision than non-Orthodox American Jews.  It’s more than just politics or legalities.  It’s whether we truly feel in the depths of our hearts that the entirety of Eretz Yisrael, even Judea and Samaria, is part of our biblical homeland.

About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.
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