Israel and the Palestinian Authority are talking to each other again, this time through American mediation. And one of the most contentious issues is still the settlements. When Jewish settlers move into Palestinian parts of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, they are often motivated by religious ideology. But among their political opponents inside Israel, are a minority of Jewish activists who also find inspiration in their faith. The World’s Matthew Bell reports from Jerusalem. (Photo: Matthew Bell)
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MARCO WERMAN: The issue of Jewish settlements is almost certain to come up during tomorrow’s meeting between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu. The Israeli prime minister announced a limited moratorium on new settlements in the West Bank in November. But the freeze does not include Arab East Jerusalem. The most committed settlers there are often motivated by religion. But some of their political opponents also find inspiration in the Jewish faith. The World’s Matthew Bell reports from Jerusalem.
MATTHEW BELL: Arieh King is an Israeli with solid right-wing credentials. He’s an activist helping Jewish families move into Palestinian neighborhoods in East Jerusalem. Like the settlers who defy international scorn and Palestinian anger, King believes he is carrying out his religious duty as an Orthodox Jew. As we start our interview, he reaches into his bag and pulls out a prayer book to make his point.
ARIEH KING: If I’m a Jewish Orthodox and I believe in what I read, because this is what I’m praying, I will just translate one example. We wish that you, God, will be back in your city Jerusalem. And we are waiting for the time that the kingdom of David’s family will be as fast as possible back to your city.
BELL: King says the scriptures couldn’t be more straightforward. The nation of Israel depends on Jews returning to the holiest parts of their historic homeland. For King, and his ideological allies, that means East Jerusalem and the West Bank, which he calls by their Biblical names Judea and Samaria. These are widely held beliefs among Israelis who consider themselves both Orthodox and Zionists. Much smaller in number in this country are those observant Jewish Zionists who take the opposite view. Call them liberal Orthodox Jews. Left-wing demonstrators march through an East Jerusalem neighborhood where 22 Palestinian homes are slated for demolition. Small numbers of Jewish settlers have moved into the area they know as the historic City of David. It’s just outside the Old City walls of Jerusalem, and a short way down the hill from the Al Aksa mosque, one of Islam’s holiest sites. Scattered among the marchers are a few men wearing kippot, skullcaps that suggest they’re observant Jews. Hillel Ben-Sasson is one of them. It’s Friday afternoon, and he tells me he’s ready for the Sabbath. His laundry is done, his house is clean and tonight’s meal is ready. In fact, Ben-Sasson says his religious background is really what motivates him to protest the demolition of Palestinian homes and the expansion of Jewish settlements in parts of East Jerusalem.
HILLEL BEN-SASSON: Sorry, but people live here in these houses. There are other parts of the Bible that have commandments which encourage people to slaughter idolaters. But the Muslims aren’t idolaters. Jerusalem is the holiest place of all for me, too. And that’s why it can’t become a playground for political extremists.
BELL: Like the pro-settler community, Ben-Sasson says he can also quote scripture to back up what he’s doing in the streets. In Ezekiel 33, he says, God warns his people that they will not inherit the land of Israel if they’re not worthy. It’s the kind of passage that also speaks to Rabbi Yehiel Greniman. He’s a long-time peace activist with the group Rabbis for Human Rights. I spoke with him on a drive in the Judean desert.
YEHIEL GRENIMAN: The land is given to the people of Israel on condition and the basic condition is a moral way of life. So, if annexing huge territories means repressing lots of people and doing things that are questionable morally, better to wait for the Messiah and build a more moral and holier society than Israel is, than try and grab more territory.
BELL: One activist told me there’s a “new left” emerging in Israel and he pointed to the weekly demonstrations in East Jerusalem as evidence of that. But others are more sober about relatively small numbers of Orthodox Jews who oppose the occupation. Annie Bin-Hillel is an American-born Israeli who keeps Shabbat, keeps kosher, covers her hair, and attends left-wing demonstrations. She concedes that there aren’t huge numbers of outwardly observant Jews protesting. Still, Bin-Hillel says she and her husband will continue to do so. And they’re borrowing a tactic from the pro-settler side. They bring their young kids to demonstrations.
ANNIE BIN-HILLEL: There is something to be said for letting kids see from an early age the value of activism. My son asked me, “What are we doing here?” And I said, “Well, we’re saying that people should be treated fairly.”
BELL: In that regard, the other side means what it’s saying as well. A spokesman for a settler organization was quoted recently saying that those who protest against the belief that the land of Israel belongs to the Jewish people have removed themselves from the religious community. Besides, he went on to say, their protests usually number about 150 people. Pro-settler marches have attracted upwards of 27,000 demonstrators. For The World, I’m Matthew Bell in Jerusalem.
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