President Barack Obama is making his current trip to Israel in the hope of establishing anew the warm relationship that existed between the United States of America and the Jewish State during the administration of his predecessor, George W. Bush. During the first term of President Obama, relations between America and Israel regressed to their worst point since Jimmy Carter left office in 1981. Both Obama and his then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton attributed this to the continued existence of Israeli “settlements,” defined as those Jewish communities situated in the West Bank beyond the “Green Line,” the Israeli border with Jordan before its victory in the Six Day War of June, 1967.
Mainstream media news networks, with the exception of Fox News, supported the Obama/Clinton argument by portraying the Jewish inhabitants of these settlements as ultranationalist armed fanatics living in Quonset huts or tents. There was no mention made of the fact that Israel conquered the West Bank in 1967 in response to Jordan embarking on a war intended to destroy the Jewish State.
Jordan launched its attack against Israel on June 6, 1967, despite pleas from the Israeli government to stay out of the war which had begun between Israel and Egypt the day before. As the Jordanian offensive began, King Hussein, supposedly an Arab moderate, broadcast the following message to his Jordanian and Palestinian subjects over Amman radio: “Kill the Jews wherever you find them. Kill them with your arms, with your hands, with your nails and teeth.”
I have a much different story to tell about the Israeli “settlements.” Indeed, it is a New Jersey story, and it involves one of my dearest friends in life, Garabed “Chuck” Haytaian.
I had the joy and honor of working on Chuck’s staff while he served as Speaker of the New Jersey Assembly in 1992 through 1993. Our friendship was bound together by something more than a common political philosophy and interests.
A large portion of my extended family residing in Poland was murdered by the Nazis during the Holocaust. Chuck’s uncle Garabed, for whom he was named, had been beheaded in front of his family by Turks during the Armenian genocide of 1915-1917. For Chuck and me, it was a shared familial heritage that resulted in our working together to craft the legislation that mandates the teaching of the Holocaust and other genocides in New Jersey’s public schools.
When Chuck ran for the U.S. Senate in 1994, like virtually every candidate for statewide office in New Jersey, he travelled to Israel with his beloved late wife Joan on a fact-finding and informational mission. Given our relationship, it was natural for him to ask me to accompany him.
Chuck’s mission to Israel in April, 1994 was coordinated by two distinguished leaders of the New Jersey Jewish Federations. When these two gentlemen asked me if I had any special requests for the mission, I stated that I had only one: Chuck and Joan should visit the West Bank “settlement” of Efrat. I wish Barack Obama was visiting Efrat on his current trip to Israel.
Efrat is one of a group of settlements comprising the Etzion bloc (in Hebrew, Gush Etzion), located south of Jerusalem in the region of the Judean hills. In the modern era of Jewish return to the ancient homeland, the Etzion bloc was first settled by Jews in the 1920s. The leading Jewish community of the Etzion bloc was a kibbutz known as Kfar Etzion.
On November 29, 1947, the United Nations General Assembly voted to partition the British mandate of Palestine into Jewish and Arab states, with Jerusalem to exist as an internationalized city. The Jews accepted the partition plan, while the Palestinian Arabs rejected it and started a civil war against the Jews, assisted by the Arab Legion of Transjordan. The civil war began on the day of the partition vote and lasted until May 14, 1948, the date of the Declaration of Independence of the Jewish State of Israel. On that day, the new Israeli state was attacked by all the neighboring Arab states, but the Jews eventually prevailed, culminating in the armistice agreements of early 1949.
During the 1947-1948 civil war, Kfar Etzion and the other Etzion bloc communities were destroyed by the Palestinian Arab guerrillas and the Arab Legion. The Jewish inhabitants of the Etzion bloc were either massacred or expelled.
The Etzion bloc survivors of the 1947-1948 war never gave up their dream of returning to their former lands. After the Israelis regained the area in the June, 1967 war, this dream of return became a reality. Efrat was founded in the Etzion bloc area in 1980 and today has a population of approximately 8,000. The entire Etzion bloc has a population of approximately 50,000.
So on a bright, sunny Friday morning in April, 1994, we members of the Haytaian mission left our hotel in Jerusalem for Efrat. The trip took only 20 minutes.
We entered Efrat through the main guard gate and immediate saw the central community school and plaza and residential areas of tree-lined streets and attractive stone houses with red tiled roofs — not exactly Quonset huts and tents. Throughout the municipality, one always has a magnificent view of the Judean Hills.
This was not what the Haytaians were expecting when I told them we were visiting an Israeli West Bank settlement. When we exited our van, Chuck took me aside and said to me, “I thought you told me we were visiting a settlement. This isn’t a settlement. It’s a suburb!”
Chuck had unwittingly uttered a profound truth regarding the so-called “national consensus settlements,” which are located very close to the Green Line. All these communities are located within suburban driving range of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, or Haifa.
They are called “national consensus settlements” because virtually all Israelis favor their retention, even if a territorial compromise agreement is reached in which Israel relinquishes control of part of the West Bank for the creation of a Palestinian Arab state. The great majority of the Israelis do not want to withdraw all the way to the 1967 Israeli borders, as they are an invitation to the destruction of the Jewish State.
We were most fortunate to have the Chief Rabbi of Efrat Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, as our guide. He is the ultimate rabbinical Renaissance man, a person whose qualities and achievements directly rebut the stereotype of an Israeli rabbi as portrayed by American mainstream liberal media.
Rabbi Riskin is one of the leading Modern Orthodox Jewish rabbis in the world. The term “Modern Orthodox” is used in contrast to “Haredi” fundamentalist Orthodoxy. Modern Orthodoxy emphasizes Zionism, secular learning as well as religious studies, and cooperation on matters of common community concern with all sectors of the Jewish community, not just the Orthodox.
Originally from Brooklyn, Rabbi Riskin graduated as valedictorian of his class at Yeshiva University in Manhattan with a major in Greek, Latin, and English literatures, and later he received a PhD in Near East Languages and Literature from New York University. In 1965, he marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the famous Selma to Montgomery march.
After receiving his rabbinic ordination at Yeshiva University, Rabbi Riskin became the founding rabbi of Lincoln Square Synagogue in Manhattan’s Upper West Side in 1963. Under his leadership, Lincoln Square Synagogue was a magnet for attracting previously non-observant Jews to Orthodox Judaism. It became one of the most successful Orthodox synagogues in Manhattan, with remarkable growth in terms of both membership and activities.
Rabbi Riskin was beloved at Lincoln Square, and he could have remained as rabbi of the synagogue for life. In 1983, however, he left the security of Lincoln Square Synagogue to move to Israel and become the Chief Rabbi of Efrat. He duplicated his Manhattan success in Israel by founding Ohr Torah Stone Institutions, a network of junior high schools, high schools, colleges, and graduate programs educating over 3,000 students.
He could not be more proud of his community of Efrat, in which numerous American Modern Orthodox Jewish families, including New Jerseyans, have established residence as new Israeli citizens. When he first arrived in Efrat, there was no running water. Today, Efrat is a thriving, attractive community.
During his years in Efrat, Rabbi Riskin made extensive efforts to establish friendly relations with the residents of the nearby Arab village of Wadi Nis. On the day of our visit, however, West Bank Jewish-Arab relations constituted a troubling subject for me.
Approximately five weeks earlier, Baruch Goldstein, a Jewish follower of the late Meir Kahane, whose views I found abhorrent, had committed a bloodthirsty act of Jewish terrorism. Goldstein was a physician, formerly from Brooklyn, who resided in the Kiryat Arba settlement near Hebron. On February 24, 1994, Goldstein entered into the Cave of Machpelah in Hebron, a site holy to both Jews and Muslims, and opened fire on unarmed Palestinian Muslim worshippers, killing 29 and wounding 125, before he was attacked and killed by the Arab survivors.
Goldstein’s act of despicable terrorism had occurred on Purim, a joyous Jewish holiday, described in the Biblical book of Esther, commemorating the deliverance of the Jewish people throughout the ancient Persian Empire from a plot by Haman the Agagite to destroy them. To me, the Goldstein massacre was a shameful blot in Jewish history, and it gave unwarranted credibility to those who falsely portrayed West Bank Jewish settlers as extreme right wing violent zealots.
I told Rabbi Riskin that the Goldstein massacre had damaged the effectiveness of us Americans who had been advocates for the settlements in the Etzion Bloc, Efrat in particular. I asked him what had been his reaction to this tragedy, and I will never forget his following response:
“When I received the news of the Goldstein massacre, I contacted nine other Jewish male residents of Efrat. That way, we would have a minyan — the ten men quorum necessary to say Kaddish — the Jewish memorial prayer for the dead. Then, we went to Wadi Nis, gave our condolences to the Arab leaders of the village, and then said the Kaddish for the Arabs who had been killed by Goldstein. Then, I declared that in view of this tragedy, there would be no dancing in Efrat this Purim.”
This is a story about Efrat that you never heard in the American mainstream media in 1994. Down through the ensuing years, I have repeated this story often in speeches I have given before Jewish religious and secular audiences.
Not every West Bank settlement is like Efrat, or like the other communities in the Etzion bloc for that matter. I relate this story, however, to illustrate how false the stereotypes are regarding Jewish settlers on the West Bank. To be sure, there is a small minority of right wing West Bank Jewish settler extremists in some isolated areas. By and large, however, the Jewish settlers in the West Bank national consensus settlements are idealistic pioneering types who do not seek either expulsion of their West Bank Arab neighbors or discrimination against them.
Most Israelis would support a two state solution that would create a Palestinian Arab state in West Bank and Gaza, as long as Israel retained the national consensus settlements. In the northern region of Israel near the Sea of Galilee and within the Green Line, the Palestinian Arabs now actually constitute a majority. Yet neither President Obama, nor former Secretary of State Clinton, nor even Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu ever says that these Palestinian Arabs constitute an “obstacle to peace.” Why, then, did Obama and Clinton contend that the national Jewish consensus settlements impede the peace process?
In fact, when Obama and Clinton made this argument, they were conveniently forgetting recent history. In 2005, the Israeli government of former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon ordered the army to expel 8,000 fellow Israelis from Gush Katif, a block of 17 Israeli settlements within the southern Gaza Strip. This measure was an integral component of Sharon’s unilateral disengagement plan, which was motivated by the hope of reduced tensions with Gaza Palestinian Arabs. Instead of moves towards peace, however, Hamas, which dominates Gaza, stepped up its campaign of rockets launched against the Israeli municipalities of Sderot and Ashkelon.
The real obstacle to peace is not the existence of the Israeli national consensus settlements. Instead, it is the denial by Hamas of Israel’s right to exist at all and the refusal of the Palestinian Authority, which dominates Palestinian Arabs in the West Bank, to recognize Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state. The withdrawal from Gush Katif proved the willingness of Israelis to enter into a territorial compromise, but this cannot take place if the very right of existence of Israel as a Jewish State is denied by its Palestinian Arab neighbors.
As for the Israeli citizens of the Etzion bloc, in 2009 they received a most unexpected visit from Jimmy Carter, who prior to Obama was regarded as the President least supportive of Israel. He met with members of the Gush Etzion Regional Council (which, incidentally, does not include Efrat, in spite of its status as an Etzion bloc settlement). Afterwards, to the astonishment of both the Israeli media and local leaders, Carter made the following statement about the Etzion bloc:
“This particular settlement is not one that I envision ever being abandoned, or changed over into a Palestinian territory. This is part of the close settlements to the 1967 line that I think will be here forever.”
It took a visit to the Etzion bloc for Jimmy Carter to understand the Israeli case for this group of settlements. My fervent hope is that Barack Obama and the new Secretary of State, John F. Kerry will at some point make a similar visit to Efrat and that they will have the same good fortune as Chuck Haytaian and I had in 1994 to have a great man, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, as their guide.
Alan J. Steinberg served as Regional Administrator of Region 2 EPA during the administration of former President George W. Bush. Region 2 EPA consists of the states of New York and New Jersey, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and eight federally recognized Indian nations. Under former New Jersey Governor Christie Whitman, he served as Executive Director of the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission. He currently serves on the political science faculty of Monmouth University.