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Monday, February 23, 2004

Why We Support Israeli Settlements

by Daniel Kaganovich & Michael Butler, in the Stanford Review
An old joke tells of two men sitting together, complaining about the many problems in the world. Unable to contain the frustration any longer, one of them bursts out "It's all the fault of the Jews and the plumbers!" The other one looks at him, bewildered, and asks "Why the plumbers??"
So too today, the most striking aspect of the discourse on Israel and the Middle East is not the irrationality and malice of the accusations routinely leveled against the Jewish people, but the extent to which an absurd double standard towards Jews is so thoroughly taken for granted that accusing the Jews is seen as the normal course of things. Consider the astonishing asymmetry that dominates the debate of Jewish versus Arab rights in the Middle East. The right of Arabs to worship at the Muslim Holy site in Jerusalem, the Noble Sanctuary, is considered sacred (and perhaps rightly so). Yet an affirmation of the equally valid religious desire of a Jew to pray at the same site which also happens to be important to the Jewish faith is looked down upon as an outdated, almost infantile expression of religious backwardness. An Arab walking on the Temple Mount is religious freedom personified. A Jew walking on the Temple Mount is considered a dangerous provocation.

Nowhere is this asymmetry more profound than in the discourse on Israeli "settlements" in Judea and Samaria (the West Bank of the Jordan River). The word "settlement" itself has acquired negative connotations and when used in the familiar formula "Israeli settlements on Arab land" automatically concedes the superiority of the Arab claim to the West Bank. We do not concede this claim; neither does the State of Israel. Thus, we would like to engage in the Middle Eastern debate by attempting to tackle one of its most contentious and serious aspects  the issue of settlements.

The claim of the Jewish people to the entire land of Israel, including the West Bank, is certainly as strong, and arguably much stronger, than the corresponding Arab claim.That some Israeli governments have deemed it politically expedient to propose relinquishing the West Bank and Gaza does not change this. The Jews have a historic claim to the land as there have been Jewish communities in much of Israel (including Hebron, Zfat, Jerusalem, and Shehem) for the past 3,300 years. The land of Israel is also central to the Jewish religion - for the past two thousand years Jews face Jerusalem during prayer, and every year at Passover say: "next year in Jerusalem." The Jews have a military claim as well to land they won in defensive war - the single most common justification of possession by any people of any land.

Yet, whereas Arab settlement in the West Bank is considered perfectly legitimate, Jewish communities there are slandered as a "threat to peace," "provocation to violence," "occupation," and many things worse. Often these accusations are constructed with a deliberately evasive or passive reference to the "violence" that the settlements "provoke," in order to deflect attention from the actual perpetrators of the violence. Most Jewish communities in the West Bank are there to do nothing more than cultivate and reclaim the ancient land of the Jewish people. Why is this an affront to Arab dignity? Why is it permissible to advocate the removal of Jews living in the Judea and Samaria settlements? Would it be equally acceptable to call for the eviction of all Arabs living in areas of Jewish majority in Israel for solely ethnic reason? Let us examine for a moment why "the settlements" are such a threat to peace and to their Arab neighbors.

Surely the fact that Arabs lay claim to a particular piece of land is not reason enough to evict every non-Arab (the fact that many Middle Eastern Arabs and most of their leaders claim the entire world for Islam makes this approach difficult if not impossible). Furthermore, given that Arabs have 22 countries on 99.8% of the land in the Middle East while Jews only claim one very small slice of land, any Arab demands for land in Israel, even if they were legitimate, must necessarily be viewed in the context of this significant asymmetry.

Continue reading this, the appearance of which is so encouraging.
Kudos to the Daniel Kaganovich dkagan@stanford.edu, a doctoral student in Biological Sciences, and Michael Butler uniho@stanford.edu, a senior in Anthropological Sciences.