Photo: Irit Nahmani
For weeks now, our prime minister, government, judicial system and press have been spending an inordinate amount of time discussing the future of six buildings, called Ulpana Hill, in Beit El. The Supreme Court, after years of the issue moving through the courts, ruled that they must be removed, for they were built on privately owned property, a fact that violates both international law and Israel’s own policy regarding settlements in Judea and Samaria, a policy which views settlements only on public land as legal.
Prime Minister Netanyahu, as he has done consistently since entering office, and with the support of a number of ministers, has refused to give into populist politics and pressure, standing behind the Supreme Court and the rule of law, has instructed that the houses be removed and that any legislative process attempting to circumvent the Court’s decision should be defeated.
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Regardless of the outcome, one thing is clear: The settler movement, its leaders, and its supporters have won today’s battle. The question is whether they have also won the war. One of the brilliant strategies incorporated regularly within Jewish law is the principle of muktsa, literally to set apart, a principle which trains an individual to avoid even touching that which they ought not to use. This principle is part of a larger halachic strategy to build fences around the Torah to ensure that no one approaches the possibility of violating it.
Fences around fences around fences is a behaviorist policy which molds practice on a subconscious level, making certain actions or violations incomprehensible. Building on this Jewish strategy, which guides many aspects of their own religious lives and upbringing, settler leaders are slowly and surely training Israeli politicians and society that settlement evacuation is muktsa. If six houses consume the political life and process for weeks, one cannot even imagine what would happen when on the table lies the evacuation of all settlements that are not in one of the settlement blocs of Gush Etzion, Jerusalem, Maaleh Adumim and Ariel.
But that is the point. The settler leaders want to train us to not even imagine it. They are ingraining in our consciousness the sense that it will be impossible.
Settlements have consequences
Prime Minister Netanyahu, in deciding to dismantle the six houses and cut and paste them to an adjacent hill and to build 10 buildings for every one that is moved, has fallen into the muktsa trap set for him both by the settler leaders and, to be fair, by aspects of an ideology that is broadly shared within Israeli society. The real problem is not the six houses within Beit El, but Beit El itself and similar settlements that are outside of the blocs.
As a society, we are continuing to function like political ostriches whose heads are stuck firmly in the ground and who have come to believe that the view from there is reality. Granted, a political solution with the Palestinian people is not yet on the horizon and as a result there is little pressing need to expend political capital to argue today about the future of specific settlements.
As a people, however, who have always prided themselves with having foresight, wisdom and aspirations, we need to stop deluding ourselves into thinking that maximalist definitions of the borders of Eretz Israel and of the rights of Jews to settle therein are sustainable in the long run. A day God willingly will come when a significant peace proposal will be placed on the table, and the question will be whether we see it as muktsa or as an opportunity to fulfill our deepest Jewish values.
To prepare for that day we do not need to dismantle settlements now. We do need, however, to start taking down the fences around the fences around the fences. We need decisive action whenever an Israeli self-defined illegal settlement or outpost needs to be removed. We need to start treating this as imaginable, as a tikkun, a repairing of decades of neglect on the part of Israeli society, which deluded itself into believing that there would be no consequences to our settlement policies.
We need to start a behavioral intervention which aims to help settlers outside of the settlement blocs adjust to the precariousness of their future with the confidence that Israeli society as a whole will be there to look after their legitimate interests when their relocation will become a necessary reality.
One of the dangers of erecting a fence around a fence around a fence is that not only can’t you get anywhere, you don’t know where you are, let alone where you want to go. The aim of the muktsa policy of the settler leadership was to achieve precisely such anesthetization. As a society, we need to reclaim our place, and more importantly our direction.
Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartman is president of the Shalom Hartman Institute