Israeli Settlements, Jewish Boycotts, and 'The Tent'

Should Jewish groups that boycott settlements be included within the tent of American Jewish organizations that join together to -- among other communal objectives -- defend Israel against assaults on her legitimacy and right to exist?

An answer was offered recently by Martin Raffel, senior vice president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the national umbrella organization of local Jewish Community Relations Councils across the country. Raffel also wears another hat. Last fall, the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America created the Israel Action Network and charged it with "stand[ing] up against anti-Israel initiatives... and actively promot[ing] a fair and balanced picture of the Middle East among key constituencies." Raffel serves as the IAN's project director. A few weeks ago, Raffel opined:

...[W]hat to think about Zionists on the political left who have demonstrated consistent concern for Israel's security, support Israel's inalienable right to exist as a Jewish democratic state, and consider Israel to be the eternal home of the Jewish people -- but have decided to express their opposition to specific policies of the Israeli government by refraining from participating in events taking place in the West Bank or purchasing goods produced there? I vigorously would argue that such actions are counter-productive in advancing the cause of peace based on two states that they espouse, a goal that we share. But this is not sufficient cause to place them outside the tent.

Raffel's formulation is a bit disingenuous in that the groups in question do not merely "refrain from participating" in events in the West Bank or from purchasing goods produced there. Rather, they actively exhort the public to join their boycott. If this were not so, few would be aware of their stance, and the question of letting them in or keeping them outside the tent would not arise.

In addition, while Raffel characterizes those he has in mind as having "demonstrated consistent concern for Israel's security," how is he measuring this? The statement assumes that boycotting West Bank communities can be congruent with defending Israel's long-term well-being.

It is clear why some would like to believe this without examining the question too closely.

Israel is under siege by people calling for her dissolution. This goes beyond the genocidal agenda promoted in the media, mosques and schools of much of the Arab world, including those of Hamas and the Palestinian Authority. It extends to delegitimization of the Jewish state, and a propaganda assault aimed at her demise, in major media, on university campuses, and elsewhere across Europe and, to a lesser but still troubling extent, in the United States as well. At the same time, many others, including leaders of European governments and our own President, declare their dedication to Israel's well-being but -- against overwhelming evidence to the contrary -- insist that the settlements are the major obstacle to peace, and that if only Israel would abandon the settlement project and retreat essentially to the pre-1967 armistice lines the door to peace would open.

Under these circumstances, some in the Jewish community are inexorably drawn to embrace the position of the latter camp without looking too closely at its dangerous anti-Israel distortions. One reason is the allure of wishful thinking that this camp's stance entails: the false promise that peace can be had if Israel would only make sufficient concessions. Another reason is that those who are open-eyed and honest about Israel's predicament, who recognize and publicly declare it is Arab refusal to reconcile to Israel's existence, and not the settlements, that is the crux of the conflict, are widely smeared and reviled for their candor. The prospect of espousing that candor and being subject to such attack is too disconcerting for many Jews.  In addition, some convince themselves that by signing on to the "settlements are the key" camp they are not only joining a more popular, and therefore more comfortable, constituency but are also strengthening a stance that is a viable counterweight to the exterminationist camp -- to those dedicated to Israel's destruction.

Throughout Jewish history, under whatever conditions of assault, there have inevitably been some Jews who embrace elements of their adversary's indictments, however bigoted and divorced from reality, in the hope that by doing so and pushing accommodating reforms they will mollify enough of the attackers and win relief.

But to assess properly whether vocal opposition to and boycott of settlements are indeed consistent with support of Israel, community leaders, and community members more generally who are truly dedicated to the Jewish state's well-being and survival, must look beyond what is comfortable -- what is popular opinion in various media and political circles in Europe and America -- and consider the reality on the ground. One must consider the origins of the settlements and their current significance in the context of Israel's well-being and in the search for a genuine, sustainable peace.

The cornerstone of the quest for Arab-Israeli peace is UN Security Council Resolution 242, unanimously adopted a few months after the 1967 war. The resolution calls for negotiations between Israel and its Arab neighbors and for "secure and recognized boundaries" to be agreed upon through such negotiations. The resolution does not call for Israel to return to the pre-war armistice lines, and the resolution's authors stated that this omission was intentional, that those lines were an invitation to further aggression against Israel and the future borders ought to be elsewhere.  Lord Caradon, Britain's ambassador to the UN at the time and the person who introduced Resolution 242 in the Security Council, told a Lebanese newspaper in 1974:

It would have been wrong to demand that Israel return to its positions of June 4, 1967, because those positions were undesirable and artificial. After all, they were just the places where the soldiers of each side happened to be on the day the fighting stopped in 1948. They were just armistice lines. That's why we didn't demand that the Israelis return to them, and I think we were right not to...

Lyndon Johnson, then President, stated that Israel's retreat to its former lines would be "not a prescription for peace but for renewed hostilities"; and he advocated new "recognized boundaries" that would provide "security against terror, destruction, and war."

The Israeli government at the time informally defined areas of the captured territory that it believed were vital for the country to retain in order to diminish the nation's earlier strategic vulnerability. These included the sparsely populated Jordan Valley, the main invasion route for hostile forces coming from the east; the heights dominating the valley as well as the heights overlooking the coastal plain, home to the great majority of Israel's population; and an enlarged Jerusalem together with its environs, in order to render the city more defensible.

The stance of the Labor Party, which led Israel for the decade following the 1967 war, was to push for an agreement that would have Israel keep these vital strategic areas while returning the balance of the West Bank, including areas home to the vast majority of the territory's Arab population, to Arab control.

The Labor government also embarked on construction of settlements in those areas it believed crucial for Israel to retain, in order to establish facts on the ground to reinforce Israel's claim to those areas. In a few instances, it also allowed reestablishment of a Jewish presence in locations of historic, religious importance to Jews. For example, it permitted the rebirth of a Jewish community in Hebron, which had been Judenrein since the Arab massacre of many of the town's Jews in 1929. Some political leaders who endorsed Labor's views on division of the territory nevertheless supported several such communities outside the boundaries of what they regarded as essential for defensible borders. They did so because they believed that, just as Arabs constituted what was then close to 20% of Israel's population, some Jews should be allowed to live in areas that would revert to Arab sovereignty, particularly areas of historic and religious significance to Jews.

The right-of-center Likud won control of the government in 1977 and for the next fifteen years either led the government or was equal or senior partner in governments of national unity.  Likud party policy towards the West Bank eventually evolved into a plan for Arab autonomy under Israeli sovereignty, and Likud sponsored expansion of the settlement project both within and beyond the areas construed by Labor as necessary for defensible borders.  But even during the years of Likud ascendancy, the great majority of Israelis, including much -- evidence suggests a majority -- of Likud's constituency, supported a division of the territory along the lines advocated by Labor.

In the 1992 election campaign, Labor, and its leader, Yitzhak Rabin, ran on a traditional party platform that emphasized the necessity of Israel retaining key strategic areas in the territories. At times, Rabin distinguished between security settlements and "ideological" settlements, suggesting the latter -- largely established under Likud -- were in areas not vital to the defense of the nation.  But he repeatedly returned to the importance of Israel's retaining the former in the context of maintaining defensible borders.  In his last speech in the Knesset, shortly before his assassination in November, 1995, Rabin declared:

The borders of the State of Israel, during the permanent solution, will be beyond the lines which existed before the Six Day War. We will not return to the 4 June 1967 lines.

And these are the main changes, not all of them, which we envision and want in the permanent solution:

A. First and foremost, united Jerusalem, which will include both Ma'ale Adumim and Givat Ze'ev -- as the capital of Israel, under Israeli sovereignty, while preserving the rights of the members of the other faiths, Christianity and Islam, to freedom of access and freedom of worship in their holy places, according to the customs of their faiths.

B. The security border of the State of Israel will be located in the Jordan Valley, in the broadest meaning of that term.

C. Changes which will include the addition of Gush Etzion, Efrat, Beitar and other communities, most of which are in the area east of what was the ‘Green Line,' prior to the Six Day War.

D. The establishment of blocs of settlements in Judea and Samaria...

If a significant number of Israelis were, during the Oslo years, less convinced of the need for defensible borders, those numbers have dramatically shrunk during the last decade, as Israel has been painfully reminded of the strategic realities of its predicament. The terror war launched by Arafat, after his rejection of concessions made by Ehud Barak at Camp David and further concessions proposed by President Clinton -- a war that cost Israel about a thousand dead and thousands more maimed -- woke many from their delusional slumber. Of those that continued deluded, more were finally forced to reconsider their wishful thinking in the wake of the 2005 withdrawal from Gaza and the aggression that has been the fruit of that territorial concession.

In any case, what grounds are there for considering Israel's strategic predicament, and its need for defensible borders, to be significantly different from what they were when Security Council Resolution 242 was written and unanimously adopted?  Has the topography of the region changed? Does Hamas's call, in its charter and in its mosques and media and schools, for the murder of all Jews, reflect a more benign political environment?  Or does Mahmoud Abbas's Palestinian Authority -- with its similar use of media, mosques and schools to denigrate all Israelis and Jews, to deny Jewish historic connection to any part of what was Mandate Palestine, to characterize Jews as usurpers whose presence must be expunged, and to glorify terrorist killers of Jews as models whom Palestinians should strive to emulate to rid the land of the Jewish state -- reflect some hopeful change that makes the need for defensible borders less vital? And what of the current upheaval in the Arab world, the turmoil in Egypt, the challenges to Jordan's government, the strengthening of Hezbollah in Lebanon? Is any of this to be construed as diminishing the importance of defensible borders?

Given the obvious threats, does anyone genuinely concerned with Israel's well-being believe there is any substitute for Israel's continued control of strategically vital areas? A UN presence? We've seen the fecklessness of UN troops around the world, not least on Israel's borders with its neighbors -- from the UN's abandonment of its peacekeeping role along the Egyptian-Israeli border during the lead-up to the 1967 war, to the failure of the UN's force in Lebanon to fulfill its mission of preventing the rearming of Hezb'allah in Lebanon and reestablishment of Hezb'allah's strongholds in Lebanon's south. Precedent likewise weighs strongly against any other foreign presence being more promising and not, rather, presenting its own dangers to Israel's well-being and survival.

In view of all this, what does it mean to condemn and boycott settlements? In essence, those who do so support forcing Israel back to the pre-1967 cease-fire lines while offering no realistic plan for how the nation could defend itself within those lines. In fact, they do not even acknowledge the strategic threat.

Consider, for example, J Street, its stance on settlements, and its moral bankruptcy regarding the threats confronting Israel.  While asserting it "will not participate in targeted boycott or divestment initiatives," the organization also "note[s] positively that some promoting BDS tactics are trying to narrow the scope of boycotts or divestment initiatives to oppose simply the occupation and not Israel itself."  In addition, "We oppose the occupation of the West Bank and the expansion and entrenchment of settlements there. We also oppose encroachment on Palestinian areas of East Jerusalem which must be part of a future Palestinian capital if a two-state outcome is to be achieved." Clearly, J Street's agenda is to promote Israel's withdrawal virtually to the pre-1967 lines.

And on the issue of how Israel is to defend itself within those lines? J Street essentially denies there is a threat. It recently opposed a Congressional letter calling on President Obama to take stern steps against Palestinian incitement to violence in the wake of the Itamar massacre.  J Street complained that the letter was too one-sided as it failed, for example, to address Israeli incitement.  But, of course, there is nothing comparable on the Israeli side to the Palestinian Authority's rejection -- in its media, mosques and schools -- of Israel's right to exist and its indoctrination of Palestinians to the cause of killing Israelis and destroying their state.  The J Street call for evenhandedness is simply an effort to trivialize and dismiss the problem of Palestinian incitement.

J Street similarly seeks to trivialize and dismiss the physical threats to Israel presented by its enemies and, in addition, to indict those who take the threats seriously. Such people are ridiculed as paranoiacs mentally scarred by past assaults on the Jews and simply projecting that past onto a relatively benign present.  J Street has opposed stronger sanctions against Iran, and the organization's leader, Jeremy Ben-Ami, has characterized as irrational anyone who would construe the threat presented by Hamas or Hezb'allah or Iran so great as to justify a military response.  Ben-Ami went on to observe, in a New York Times interview, "... there's their grandmother's voice in their ear; it's the emotional side and the communal history..."

Israel faces genocidal enemies, nations and groups openly dedicated to its annihilation.  The country has a right to defend itself and to retain the capacity to do so.  Yet there are Jews and Jewish organizations demanding concessions from Israel that would compromise its defense. They call for pressures to force it to accept such concessions, condemn the nation for resisting, and do so without addressing the threats faced by the nation.  There are Jewish individuals and groups that ignore the threats, and the long and continuing history of assaults upon Israel by her neighbors, and cast Israel's insistence upon defensible borders as land grabs, as rejection of peace, as colonial expansionism. Such people are defaming the Jewish state and making common cause with those who would destroy her.

For organizations genuinely dedicated to Israel's well-being to welcome such individuals and groups - caricatures and travesties of pro-Israel efforts - within the tent of Israel's supporters, to lend them that legitimacy, is a betrayal of the cause of the Jewish state's survival and security.

Kenneth Levin is a psychiatrist and historian and author of The Oslo Syndrome: Delusions of a People under Siege (Smith and Kraus Global, 2005; paperback 2006).
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