Why the Israel lobby denouncing settler violence isn’t nearly enough

Jonathan Greenblatt speaks into several microphones

Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League.

Michael Brochstein ZUMA Press

Speaking out against Israeli settler violence, seven mainstream American Jewish organizations expressed concern last week following a recent attack by “Jewish Israeli extremists.”

Nobody really cared. Israeli settlers and the governments that back them – from the region to Europe to North America – have continued with business as usual.

The seven organizations signing the letter were the Anti-Defamation League, Central Conference of American Rabbis, Israel Policy Forum, National Council of Jewish Women, Rabbinical Assembly, Union for Reform Judaism and United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.

The instigators of the violence had set forth from the illegal outpost of Givat Ronen in the occupied West Bank. All Israeli settlements are illegal under international law.

Nobody in a prominent government is seriously perturbed. Those that are perturbed generally only tweet.

Jewish extremist violence rose by 50 percent during the past year according to information conveyed by Shin Bet officials to The Times of Israel in December. The Shin Bet is Israel’s secret police, notorious for their use of torture against Palestinians.

But if you’re a serious person in government you’ll mouth platitudes to allow the Israeli government to carry out its own investigations. When they’re done, nobody will remember in the first place as the misdeeds come as fast as Donald Trump’s.

The seven organizations’ cautious concerns were directed in a letter to Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, foreign minister Yair Lapid and defense minister Benny Gantz. Yet indulging the sensitivities of their Israeli interlocutors, the letter writers chose to refer to “Jewish Israeli extremists in the West Bank” rather than settlers.

Taking a page from the European Union, they “condemn[ed] in the strongest possible terms the ongoing terrorism and political violence committed by Jewish Israeli extremists in the West Bank against Palestinians, Israeli civilians and IDF soldiers.” Of course, condemnation doesn’t mean that action will follow.

The inclusion of the ADL among the signers is particularly striking as it has been widely criticized in recent years for anti-Palestinian racism.

The organization may be reacting to widespread criticism in an effort to improve its image even as it rejects making a broader critique of Israel’s actions.

Nobody is buying that a serious policy shift by the ADL has occurred. In fact, on Sunday the ADL made clear it will continue to defend Israeli apartheid in the face of Amnesty International’s new report on the subject and will not raise larger policy objections.

The ADL claims to want equal rights in the US, but for Israel it is very clear in its support for an exclusivist, and discriminatory, “Jewish state.” The organization is failing in the 21st century – much as was the case in the late 20th century – by lending legitimacy to Israeli practices in a way that mirrors too closely the behavior of many white people and white-led organizations in the Jim Crow South and apartheid South Africa.

Yesha Council’s self-serving spin

The letter’s denunciation came even later than one from the Yesha Council, representing much of the settler leadership, that labeled the attack “aberrant” and said it was “horrified.”

The Yesha Council added that “such grave conduct is against the values of the people of Israel and harms the settlement movement. It is not our path. We call on authorities to investigate the incident and bring the perpetrators to justice.”

Such self-serving comments ignore the fact that the Yesha Council happily moves with the weight of the Israeli government behind it in violently clearing Palestinians from homes and land in the occupied West Bank. When violent settlers are caught on video, the organization makes sure to mouth its preference for legalized violence to the violence meted out by vigilantes which it evidently fears could slow the illegal enterprise and attract unnecessary criticism.

And, of course, settlers work arm in arm with the government. The Associated Press reported last week that settlers’ “strength has also been on display in a wave of attacks against Palestinians and Israeli peace activists in recent months, many in plain view of Israeli soldiers, who appear unable or unwilling to stop them, despite Israeli officials’ promises to maintain law and order.”

The specific attack by settlers on 21 January targeted not just Palestinians, but left-wing Israeli activists such as Daniel Roth, an American-Israeli activist working with Rabbis for Human Rights. The assault was serious enough that at least six people were hospitalized with injuries.

Even former New York state assemblyman Dov Hikind, a supporter of the anti-Palestinian racist Meir Kahane, retweeted the American Jewish Committee’s concerns about the incident before the seven organizations addressed Israeli leaders.
Hikind was likely concerned about violence between Jews rather than the routine violence of settlers against Palestinians. Indeed, the letter writers only roused themselves to write after settlers injured Jewish activists rather than an attack focused on Palestinians as is so frequently the case.

Rabbi Ben Packer, whose racism has been extensively documented by The Electronic Intifada and who regularly travels from Jerusalem to the US to promote the work of Jerusalem Heritage House, is so unconcerned about such incidents that last month he shared video of a scuffle he was involved in with a Palestinian family.

Late last year, Packer falsely ascribed anti-Jewish hatred to Archbishop Desmond Tutu while inveighing against him following his death. “After all the bad news last week, let’s start with something positive this week – Desmond Tutu died. He really hated the Jews and now he is gone forever.”

Another hater of Tutu, Yishai Fleisher, international spokesman of the Jewish community of Hebron, rejected condemning the attack by settlers from Givat Ronen and claimed it was provoked.

This sort of position was also taken by Rabbi Uri Pilichowski, who goes by the Twitter handle of @RationalSettler. He downplayed the attack and hinted at anti-Jewish bigotry being behind it when he tweeted that “A small group of Jewish juvenile delinquents threw rocks and the world goes mad.”
Morton Klein, director of the Zionist Organization of America, saw fit to retweet Pilichowski’s view. The ZOA, for all its racism, remains an organization in good standing with the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

The hardline positions of people such as Klein are to be expected.

The involvement of the seven organizations, however, is almost certainly not the start of a sustained campaign from them against settler violence. And it’s definitely not the beginning of a campaign against the two-tier legal system administered by Israel in the West Bank that discriminates against Palestinians.

Status quo apartheid

President Joe Biden has not shown the least interest in his one year in office in Israel’s practice of apartheid even as three major reports on the subject – from the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem, Human Rights Watch and now from Amnesty International – have been published since he was voted into office.

On 24 January, the day before the letter, State Department spokesperson Ned Price expressed the usual minimal concern about violence from settlers. “We believe it is critical for all parties to refrain from steps that exacerbate tensions and undercut efforts to advance a negotiated two-state solution. This includes violence against civilians and settler violence.”

This followed a late November statement from Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the US ambassador to the United Nations, that made precious little impact because Israeli government officials have long recognized US words are empty and not backed by meaningful US action. At that time, Thomas-Greenfield stated that she had “heard stories about Israeli settlers attacking Palestinians, ransacking homes, and destroying property in the West Bank, and this is an issue that I discussed extensively with Israeli counterparts.”

If settlers avoid taking the law violently into their own hands, the whole charade can merrily continue with Biden content to laud Israel’s coalition as “the most diverse government” in the country’s history. Yet settlers are once again proving to themselves that not only can they get away with violence against Palestinians, but against Jewish activists too – and the US will do nothing.

And Biden has learned he doesn’t even need an empty peace process. Democrats, who can’t pass crucial social and voting legislation with majorities in the House and Senate, certainly aren’t going to want to reckon with Israel’s anti-Palestinian discrimination and violence when so many of their members are active champions of military aid in support of the apartheid state.

Washington, Democrats and Republicans alike, is content simply to wait for the next major crisis because addressing Israeli apartheid is not yet the pressing issue that South African apartheid eventually became through years of activist and student organizing.

Such activism and organizing did happen on 23 January, however, when seven protesters involved in a Palestinian Youth Movement demonstration were arrested outside the Israeli embassy in Washington as they called attention to Israel’s ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from Sheikh Jarrah to the Naqab desert. Similar protests took place across the country over the same weekend.

The US Congress will be the last to change its ways in the face of demonstrators who are challenging an Israeli government that denies equal rights with US financial backing.


Michael F. Brown

Michael F. Brown is an independent journalist. His work and views have appeared in The International Herald Tribune, TheNation.com, The San Diego Union-Tribune, The News & Observer, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The Washington Post and elsewhere.