Israeli settlers in Hebron enjoyed the company of a special visitor this year for the 90th anniversary of the 1929 Hebron massacre: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who used the occasion to boast his pro-settlement credentials.
In so doing, the controversy over the move was yet again framed in a way that casts those who honor Jewish history as those who support the settlement enterprise.
Navigating the emotional minefield to speak out about the Hebron settlement can be a particularly sensitive endeavor, especially with the 1929 massacre thrown into the mix. The massacre, involving the murder of 67 Jews in Hebron by their Palestinian Arab neighbors during a wave of anti-Zionist riots, dealt an all but fatal blow to the community of Judaism’s second holiest site, which ceased to exist by 1947 when the last of the families left.
Yet this is precisely what those peddling the settlement agenda are banking on. If they are given a wide berth on Hebron, they will be able to use the same tactics to discourage dissent against the settlement enterprise in general. We must call out the settlement in Hebron and the settlers’ appropriation of the 1929 massacre for their own narrow ideological agenda.
In order to effectively counter the agenda for the Hebron settlement and settlements writ large, one must first recognize the arguments that do not by themselves hold water. International law mandates that an occupying power only build in an occupied territory if it is for security or for the benefit of the occupied population. Yet if one does not believe Israel is occupying the West Bank then the point is mute. An immense security burden is placed on the Israeli military to protect the settlements and Hebron in particular, yet if one believes a cause to be just then the security burden can be justified. Recall the national guard being called in to enforce racial integration in Alabama schools.
Finally, the mantra that the settlements prevent a two-state solution seems straightforward, but for the many who are either skeptical about this solution or outright reject it, this point may sound like a superfluous imposition on Israel.
The underlying deficiency in all of the above points is that they do not in of themselves explain why Israeli Jews should not be allowed to live in a land where they have authentic spiritual, cultural and historical connections—especially in properties still owned by Jews, as in Hebron.
To deflect these points, settlement apologists employ a combination of logomachy and pettifoggery to flatten the issue through broad generalizations. Settlers setting up shop under military cover in a territory outside of the State of Israel are instead simply characterized as “Jewish communities coming back to live on their land.” And of course, “occupied” territories are rebranded as “disputed,” thus erasing the defining feature of the situation on the ground whereby one side’s military effectively controls a territory and a population without citizenship.
There is only one recourse to overcome this rhetorical sleight of hand and to address the central question of why Jewish settlement in the West Bank is so problematic: to articulate what the occupation is and what settlements do to Palestinians.
The Hebron settlement, like all settlements, is ethically inadmissible because it involves the moving of people beyond Israel’s borders into an area where their own military exercises effective control over a local population and keeps it from acquiring full rights. Settlements are instruments for a sovereignty claim, not merely a collection of people living amid a foreign population. Exploiting one’s military to serve as cover to grab land, while preventing the local population there from acquiring citizenship or a state to call their own, is unequivocally immoral.
Choosing to rule indefinitely and undemocratically over another population for ideological reasons is so indefensible that it demands that we oppose Jewish settlement even in a place so rich with significance to the Jewish people as Hebron.
The 1929 massacre is a reminder of why the Jews needed a state. When we are a minority, we are vulnerable to the whims of an all-too-often hostile majority. But we now have that state. To use that majority to suppress the rights of a minority would be the epitome of hypocrisy.
The loss of the Jewish community in Hebron was also a loss for humanity. It is only natural that we Jews, out of our strong attachment to the land and a sense of justice, wish to see the Jewish community in that holy city restored. But if doing so means suppressing millions of people, it is simply not worth it.
Brian Reeves is the Director of External Relations at Peace Now