The liberal Zionist crisis — white nationalists are villains, but settlers are ‘complex’

A Palestinian man inspects a house after it was torched, in Duma, near the West Bank city of Nablus, July 31, 2015. (Photo: AP)

Last week I wrote about the liberal Zionists’ contradiction. They are eloquent critics of the racism that Trump is fostering in the US; but they can’t find that voice when it comes to Jim Crow and apartheid fostered by Jewish nationalism in Israel. And the contradiction is plain for all to see.

Here’s another example. I make it a point to hear Yehuda Kurtzer speak at J Street and other Jewish spaces. He is a very smart guy and very positive. While he’s too Jewish-communitarian for my taste (the touchstones of his judgments are Jewish referents rather than universalist ones), he’s an idealist who addresses Israel’s crisis.

Yehuda Kurtzer, photo from AIPAC website

So I was disturbed to discover on his Facebook page from June a promotion of a visit to rightwing “hilltop” settlements in the Occupied West Bank to get to know those folks better, sponsored by the Shalom Hartman Institute, of which Kurtzer is an executive. Kurtzer wrote then that the tour was available to 200 visiting North American Jewish lay leaders as a way of “engaging with the complexities of modern Israel:”

Around a quarter of [Shalom Hartman participants today] are on the trip to Shiloh and its environs, trying to understand the roots and legacies of the Gush Emunim movement. They are doing this not because the settler movement accords with their politics and values, though for some that is probably the case; they are out doing this because they understand that to be in relationship, in serious and committed relationship, with the State of Israel requires a real reckoning with its complexities, its history and its values even when – especially when – those values conflict with their own. They do this because they know, as does much of American Jewish leadership, that sustaining a relationship with the State of Israel in spite of geographical difference, diverging ideological trends, and a growing chasm of world views, requires of them a deep commitment to understanding Israeli society and the humility involved in trying to stay in relationship to it.

Shalom Hartman Institute tour of Shiloh and hilltop settlements, June 2017, photo from Yehuda Kurtzer’s Facebook page.

All those settlements are illegal under international law; and an obstacle the Israeli government created to Palestinian sovereignty. They are home to people who terrorize Palestinians. One hilltop on the “dialogue” tour Kurtzer promotes is featured in this excellent documentary that shows the residents to be crazed and intolerant religious zealots. Another of these outposts is associated with “pricetag” attacks on Palestinians, cutting down their olive trees. Another was featured in the Daily Beast coverage of the massacre of a Palestinian family in a nearby village by settler youth in 2015.

As the Times of Israel noted last week: these are segregationist communities [my emphasis]:

Bat Ayin is home to a staunchly nationalistic community that, as a policy, does not allow Arabs through its gates. Residents have been involved in a number of attacks on Palestinians and their property in the past.

I am not convinced that “humility” and a “deep commitment” to Israeli society and “sustaining a relationship” to Israel entails lunching with these people and getting to know them and recognizing the “complexities” of their lives.

Now compare Kurtzer’s laissez-faire attitude about Israeli settlers to his sense of the emergency represented by Charlottesville. He wrote this on August 13, about the “sick morning” following the neo-Nazi rally:

“Never Forget” may be periodically trivialized by its overuse, but it is absolutely and scandalously undermined by its *underuse* – specifically, when we fail to map its warnings against the real and present dangers of its being rendered into a lie….

[W]hether it comes to devaluing our own victimhood, or denying the parts we play in allowing our societies to be villainous towards others, this central slogan sourced violently from the modern Jewish experience is now tested by our willingness to take it seriously in our politics, our activism, and our moral and political vigilance. Let’s hope it is a real thing.

Wouldn’t speaking out against against the role “we play in allowing our societies to be villainous towards others” mean condemning and exposing the settler movement, not seeking to understand it? Peter Beinart has been a leader on this score, inside the Jewish community.

Compare Kurtzer’s reaching out to the settlers to what longtime peace activist Bob Loeb said on first visiting Israel in the late 60’s (in an interview with Aliza Becker of the American Jewish Peace Archive):

I found the attitudes toward Palestinians in direct contradiction to everything that I had been struggling for in the States in terms of civil rights. It just didn’t make any sense.

That’s not hard to understand. And it’s more true than ever 50 years later.

Correction: This post originally called Kurtzer a rabbi.