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The lost Jews of Umm Zuka

A little-known branch of Judaism touts violent Jewish supremacism; it is the true face of Israeli state policy over the green line

In beautiful far flung corners of the West Bank, like Umm Zuka – an enchanted region of stony brown and green hills in the North of the Jordan Valley – flourishes a Judaism of violent Jewish supremacism. It is the true face of Israeli state policy over the green line.

It’s a few weeks ago and I am standing on the edge of the “Umm Zuka Nature Reserve” with human rights defender Guy Hirschfeld at the turnoff for an illegal outpost. We’re accompanying Palestinian shepherds who are being expelled from the area. We seek to resist, or at least bear witness, to the injustice.

The illegal outpost in Umm Zuka that the soldiers call “Uri’s Farm”.

We arrived at the crossroads a short time before the shepherds. A few minutes later appeared IDF soldiers who expelled them. The soldiers claimed that the shepherds were in a “firing zone”. For the same reason, they detained us, declaring the legendary Ta’ayush jeep “confiscated.” In fact, we were not in the firing zone, as I could clearly see on my cell phone using the maps supplied by the IDF. And so the soldiers, later reinforced by police, had no choice but to release us a few hours later. But at the time, the officer in charge didn’t want to talk about maps. He had been told to expel the Palestinians and detain the Israelis, and so he did.

The jeep of the soldiers who detained us at the turnoff from the illegal outpost (to the right). A beautiful view in every direction.

In the actual firing zone, right next to where we stood, is an actually illegal outpost of Jews. But they are true luftmenschen — people who float in the air — because somehow they hover over the firing zone without breaking the law.

As we stood at the crossroads, a resident or friend of the outpost drove past on his motorcycle. He stopped to say hello. The IDF officer commanded him to move on but was ignored. Had he been Palestinian, our rider would have been arrested immediately. But radical settlers often ignore IDF orders with impunity. Pointing at an older activist also accompanying Hirschfeld, who was resting on a boulder with canes in each hand, he said, “I’m not worried about that one, he’ll be dead soon.” “But you,” he said to Hirschfeld, “you’re a problem.”

The settler went on to explain that God gave the chosen people this holy land and therefore the Arabs should get the hell off it. In clear concise statements, he laid out Meir Kahana’s Jewish version of KKK style violent racist supremacism. “Am Yisrael Chai!” — “the People Israel is alive!” — exclaimed our teacher on his motorcycle, and with satisfaction for a job almost done, he informed us that he, his friends and his God would drive the Arabs, and traitors like us, from Eretz Yisrael.

There was nothing remarkable about his speech. I’ve heard it dozens of times from settlers who make good on their threats through violent attacks on Palestinians. Of all the lost Jews in this blog, these radical settler Jews are the most lost. They’ve followed the wrong paths in Jewish intertextuality and have fallen between the cracks of the Judaism we live into racist poisons preserved in the historical meanings of some of our sacred texts. Alongside its vast beauty and deep profundity, Judaism – like many ancient traditions – also contains an ugly supremacist shadow. We alive today are the living link in the long chain of Jewish tradition, and we have educationally failed the lost Jews of Umm Zuka. They were raised at our knees but we did not prevent their Torah from becoming sam hamavet – a deadly poison, both for us and the Palestinians.

The hilltop youth are a radical fringe but the IDF is their servant. Or perhaps better to say that both they and the IDF soldiers are tools — additional victims of the system — we use to systematically oppress the Palestinians. Some 100 illegal outposts flourish across the West Bank. They are often provided with electricity, roads and water, in addition to IDF protection. The outpost in Umm Zuka received its water from the local army base until discovered by Machsom Watch. And when settlers demand that the areas around their illegal outposts be sterilized of Palestinians, our children in uniform are sent to do their bidding. These soldiers, too, are lost Jews; taught to risk their lives to defend their people, we send them to perpetrate crimes against innocents whose sin is that they were not fortunate enough to be born members of the chosen ethnicity.

Soldiers detaining and expelling Palestinians based on the false claim that they are in a firing zone. Often an area will be declared a closed military zone just to drive Palestinians from places where they are legally allowed to pasture their flock. I blurred the faces of the soldiers to make them unidentifiable; They are also victims of the system.

It’s hard not to notice that most of the soldiers sent to do the dirty work in the IDF and Border Police seem to be Ethiopians, Druze and other populations that face discrimination. It seems that we as a society choose to send those we treat most unfairly to face the harsh day-to-day reality of systematically violating the human rights of the Palestinian population.

I learned from Dror Etkes, whose NGO Kerem Navot provides crucial documentation of Israel’s West Bank policies, that the lands of Umm Zuka were state lands under the Jordanians. That means that when Israel inherited control over these lands in 1967, they were already legally consecrated to be used for the benefit of the public. But in contradiction to international law, Israeli law and any healthy moral sense, these lands are not being used to benefit the Palestinian public but rather to import Israeli Jews to dominate them. Just as in the settlement project as a whole, Israeli government bodies – in which local Palestinians have no representation – determine that the “public good” is best served by dispossessing Palestinians and settling Jews. Sometimes it’s official, as in the settlements. Sometimes its unofficial, like in the outposts. But the policy is the same.

I made aliyah 30 years ago this year because I fell in love with the People, Torah and Land of Israel. I served in the IDF as a soldier and officer as an expression of that love. To this day, I often feel the sacred grandeur of Jewish life in Eretz Yisrael by just stepping outside my home in Jerusalem. But a deadly poison is spreading through our collective veins. Just like Americans or Germans, we must not allow the ugly shadow of supremacism to take control of the state. We are losing the battle and grave injustice and suffering has already been caused. Real patriotism is tough love when it counts. Now is the time we must resist Israel’s West Bank regime.

About the Author
Shaiya Rothberg lives in Jerusalem and teaches Jewish Thought and Kabbalah at the Conservative Yeshiva. He's also a human rights activist focused on resisting the abuses of Israel's discriminatory West Bank regime. Shaiya holds a PhD from Hebrew University in Jewish Thought and a B.A. in Jewish Philosophy and Talmud from Bar-Ilan. He made aliyah in 1988 and served as a soldier and officer in the I.D.F. from 1990-1993 in the military government of the Gaza strip. The opinions in his blog are his own and do not represent any institution.
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