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My women’s Torah study group and the peace process

This women's Torah study group believes the world’s salvation depends on a Jewish presence in the promised land

I learned something important at my Women’s Torah study meeting this week: it is imperative that Benjamin Netanyahu continue to explore the possibility that settlers be given the option of remaining in their homes in a Palestinian state. Since he floated the idea in Davos, we haven’t heard much more about it. Not since Jewish Home’s Naftali Bennett threw a tantrum over the proposal (an outburst that even Danny Danon thought was an inappropriate harangue against a sitting prime minister) and not since Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas and his affiliates quickly nixed it.

It is not surprising that this trial balloon is no longer on the radar screen. The Bennett-Netanyahu fracas nearly caused a coalition crisis, averted only by Bennett’s quick, if half-hearted apology, and Netanayhu’s demand that any final deal recognize Israel as a Jewish state has dominated the spotlight, sucking the air out of any other debate. That’s a shame. Because the women in my Torah Study Group think that it is really important to investigate further how a peace agreement can enable Jews to continue to build their lives and raise their families at the most important sacred sites for Judaism in the West Bank.

It is not like we spend all of our time together talking politics. A motley group of about a dozen women ranging in ages from the mid-30s to the mid-80s, I suspect that many of us attend the Torah study sessions to schmooze a bit about the goings-on with our families and in our local community. More than a few of us no doubt see our monthly Sunday meetings as a welcome break from the kids. But we also take our Torah study seriously. We arrive armed with commentaries by Rambam, Rashi, Abravanel, Ibn Ezra, and the heroine of any women’s study group, the esteemed Nehama Leibowitz.

This past week, while delving into the Tezaveh sidra in Exodus (Shemot) with its detailed passages on the functions of the Temple’s priesthood and the priestly clothing, one of my study buddies logged onto the website of the Temple Institute, which offers true-to-life renditions of the holy garments (the real-deal is available for viewing in the Temple Institute’s Jerusalem headquarters, but the website is pretty impressive). A lively discussion ensued about the future role of women as seamstresses and clothiers in the rebuilt Tabernacle. Which, of course, is only possible because the Land of Israel was promised by God to Abraham.

The women of my Torah study group view Judea and Samaria as an integral part of the Jewish people’s homeland. For us, the history of dispossession from these lands was rectified in 1967. Still, I doubt that any of us harbor ill will toward the Palestinians and I think we all hope that Kerry’s soon-to-be unveiled framework will bear fruit, leading to a lasting and just peace. Our only request is that whatever peace deal emerges in the coming months be framed in a way that is at least respectful of our messianic vision, because it is we who cherish this ideology who will pay the ultimate price of a two-state solution’s mandatory evacuations and territorial withdrawals.

Back in 1999, at the tail end of his first stint as prime minister, Netanyahu called the notion of Jews living in a Palestinian state “absurd”. He was wrong. In fact, it is a proposition that I think resonates for many of the women in my Torah study group, and could well be the game changer necessary for peace. A new study released by the International Crisis Group in November suggests that many of the settlers would support a peace agreement provided there were provisions for access to, and the protection of, Jewish holy sites in the West Bank, and residency rights for those who wished to remain.

That Netanyahu has dropped this idea like a hot potato troubles us. We hope it doesn’t signal a shift in the prime minister’s attempt to open up a new dialogue with religious Zionists. For decades successive peacemakers treated us as a nuisance at best, or a ‘cancer’ to be expunged at worst. The secular peace camp saw little need to reach out. Netanyahu has been trying to change this ostracism and marginalization. He is attempting something no other secular leader has bothered to do: bring us in from the cold so that we too can become stakeholders of peace. And that’s why it would be a mistake to shelve creative solutions like the one he floated in Davos.

There’s one more reason that this initiative is worth pursuing. As parents, many of us with children and grandchildren living in Judea and Samaria, we are watching with growing concern how many of our disaffected youth are turning to violence. The botched resettlement of the approximately 8,000 Gush Katif residents in 2005 has left many of our young disillusioned and angry. Ongoing terrorism perpetrated against our community (29 Jews were murdered over the past eight years in Judea and Samaria according to figures provided by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs) has created a hardline fringe among young religious settlers who have perpetrated 399 so-called ‘price tag’ attacks in 2013 alone, up from 115 in 2006.

Make no mistake: in the name of our cause we do not condone the defacement of mosques, the uprooting of trees in Palestinian orchards, or the harassment of Palestinian farmers. But to brand these youngsters (many as young as twelve and thirteen) terrorists, thugs, or hooligans is a convenient way of ignoring the underlying feelings of alienation and estrangement that has given rise to this vigilantism. What these kids need is better parenting, and a sense that peacemaking will not run roughshod over their claim to the land.

Don’t get me wrong: I am not suggesting that the opinions of a few ladies in central New York matter more than the views of Israel’s citizens. What I am saying is that Netanyahu should continue to pursue creative options for Jews who currently live in Judea and Samaria because at least 25 percent of the Israeli electorate, which is roughly the number who self-identify as religious, agree with us that a Jew-free Palestine would interrupt the messianic process of the world’s redemption. In a democracy, government policy cannot ignore the interests of a quarter of its citizens.

Like it or not, a large number of Israelis believe that the world’s salvation at the End of Days depends on a Jewish presence in the land promised by God to the Israelites. A peace plan that guarantees Jewish communities to flourish in the biblical heartland may not be enough to get the backing of religious Israelis for a two-state solution. And the Palestinians may never go for a deal that includes leaving at least some settlements intact. But it is worth exploring the possibility, and Netanyahu is right to try.

About the Author
Miriam F. Elman teaches and writes on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from her hometown in New York. She is a political scientist and security studies specialist at the Maxwell School of Syracuse University.
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