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Steven M. Druker
Public Interest Attorney and Author

Many Jewish settlers have been violating an explicit Torah commandment

Moreover, many rabbis have tacitly condoned it

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

Although the faction of Jewish settlers in Judea and Samaria who have been mounting unprovoked violence against Palestinians believe that they’re acting as agents of the Torah in expanding the boundaries of Israel, a key tactic of their agenda violates an explicit Torah commandment. Equally ironic, although this blatant breaching of the Torah has persisted for many years, the Orthodox religious authorities have not issued rebukes — and by failing to condemn the behavior, have tacitly condoned it.

These serious failures have serious implications. Through their actions, the settlers have demonstrated that (as currently conducted) their project to enlarge Israel’s borders ­— and ultimately align them with the borders of ancient Israel —­ is significantly misaligned with the Torah; and through their inaction, the rabbis have demonstrated that (while bound by their current mindset) they are not dependable sources of guidance for government policy.

The failings of these two groups are even more 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 are 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 do not 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 effort 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 we acknowledge that these figures might be significantly exaggerated, and even if we also recognize that 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 clearest commandments.

There is no excuse for the infractions or the complacency of the rabbinical authorities

From the standpoint of Jewish law, there is no way to excuse these infractions, nor is there an excuse for the continued complacency of the rabbinical authorities in the face of such a protracted transgression of the Torah, especially by Jews who profess to be implementing a divine plan. While these rabbis have been quick to condemn women whom they deem to be immodestly dressed — and also quick to condemn violations of other minor rules that they themselves have created — they have failed to raise their voices against a blatant and ongoing violation of the Torah that they and Jewish tradition regard as given by God. Their failure is more deplorable considering that the Torah imposes a duty on Jews to rebuke fellow Jews who commit wrongs. (Leviticus 19:17) And if they had not shirked their duty and had instead spoken out, they could have curtailed the wrongful behavior. Although one or another Orthodox rabbi may have raised an objection, it’s obvious that the Orthodox establishment has failed to, because if they had forcefully condemned the settlers’ wrongful actions, those actions would have stopped.

Moreover, one highly influential Orthodox organization has not been merely reluctant to speak out but has refused to, even when entreated to take a stand. That organization is Chabad-Lubavitch, which describes itself as “the most dynamic force in Jewish life today.” I recently sent an email via their website’s “Ask the Rabbi” portal expressing my concern about the wanton destruction of fruit trees in violation of Torah law. I then asked: “Have the religious authorities in Israel condemned such violations of the Torah? If not, what is their excuse?” A rabbi replied that “there is no need for the rabbis to get involved” because the civil authorities are the ones who should deal with such crimes, just as they deal with robberies in Tel Aviv, which also violate the Torah. I responded that this case clearly differs from a Tel Aviv robbery because the Jewish thief knows that his thievery is forbidden by the Torah and does not try to justify his actions by reference to it, whereas the settlers apparently believe that their actions are biblically justified. I pointed out that the civil authorities have been incapable of curtailing these crimes and that the perpetrators need to be set straight by religious authorities they respect.

I then stated: “I think that Chabad should be speaking out on this too. If not, they give the appearance of being complacent with the situation.” The rabbi’s only reply was: “Thank you for sharing your opinion with us” ­— thereby confirming Chabad’s complacency.

Consider this striking contrast. I grew up in a Reform Jewish household in Iowa, and although I now take the Torah much more seriously than in my earlier years, I have not embraced Orthodox Judaism and do not intend to. Yet, as soon as I learned that settlers were willfully destroying Palestinians’ fruit trees, I realized that they were transgressing the Torah, and I tried to motivate one of the most powerful Orthodox organizations to speak out and curtail the wrongs. But I was told there was no need for any rabbis to get involved, and this slack attitude is evidently shared by all the other Orthodox authorities. Consequently, I decided to write this opinion piece to spur the Orthodox establishment to at long last condemn the ongoing transgressions that it should have curtailed many years ago.

However, even if the rabbis finally do take action, and even if the settlers finally refrain from destroying more fruit trees, both groups have already demonstrated that their mindsets are significantly flawed when it comes to shaping policy regarding Judea and Samaria. Indeed, although it appears that many settlers have also been inflicting other types of wrongs on neighboring Palestinians, the fact that they have been breaching a concrete commandment of the Torah is itself sufficient to call the other aspects of their agenda into question. And because the rabbis have for years allowed the settlers to believe that their agenda has received the rabbinate’s implicit blessings — even when a significant part of it transgresses the Torah — there’s good reason to doubt that these rabbis can provide sound guidance for Israel’s government as it tries to chart the best course forward during these traumatic times.

At minimum, one point should be clear to Jews everywhere: Even if a policy of the Israeli government receives the blessings of the rabbinical establishment, if it in a key respect violates the written Torah, it’s foolish to think that the policy will also receive the blessings of Heaven.

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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