Let us posit that violence against innocent people, or damage to the property of other innocent people, is wrong, criminal and worthy of punishment. Such has been inculcated in all decent people since our earliest youth. Much has been made in the last few months of alleged “settler violence” against innocent Arab residents of Judea and Samaria and undoubtedly some of these alleged actions have occurred. Critics and moralists contend that this violence has threatened Israel’s international standing, ruined its good name, undermined the settlement enterprise and reflect the poor education and abandonment of Torah values by these Jewish miscreants.
Less discussed, and seemingly less disturbing to these critics and moralists, have been the incessant attacks on innocent Jews and their property for many years, and something that persists on a daily basis. Hardly a day goes by without the stoning of Jewish vehicles, physical attacks on Jews, the burning of their fields and property and the encroachment on their (and state) land. The lawlessness in Judea and Samaria has extended to the Negev and the Galil, with the government evincing little desire to arrest it and a profound interest in making the problem go away by acquiescing to it. These crimes are documented and available to all, although they only receive media attention if there is a death or serious injury involved. Conversely, Jewish perpetrators of minor crimes are castigated and hunted down, while Arab perpetrators of major crimes are rarely pursued.
In the Shimon Hatzadik neighborhood of Yerushalayim just this week, one Jewish resident’s car was torched for the ninth time. Crimes against Jews and their property usually go unprosecuted and unpunished, as if they were taking place in Manhattan and not Yerushalayim, Israel’s eternal capital. The theft of vehicles in central Israel that are then driven and disappear into Ramallah – a veritable plague – is not even investigated. How do we understand this blatant discrimination – and is all the hand-wringing justified?
One persistent problem is the “soft bigotry of low expectations,” a phrase coined in the United States to reflect the paternalistic attitude on the left that civilized behavior cannot be expected from what they deem to be the lower classes. Where theft, plunder and violence are construed are normal modes of expressing frustration or ways of idling away time on a boring day, then we cannot expect any better or more productive forms of behavior. Few dare to express this openly but it underlies the anger against violent Jews but not against violent Arabs.
Additionally, there remains the prevalent notion on the left that Israel is an occupying nation, which after all prior Israeli governments essentially conceded during the disastrous Oslo Accords. As such, Arab violence tends to be rationalized but is always understood. Jewish crimes, such as they are, are never tolerated, born as they were in the original sin of victory during the Six Day War. Thus the disparity in treatment lingers and distorts our perception.
Nonetheless, there is a more fundamental misconception that needs to be addressed. Jewish settlers are castigated because of their alleged perpetration of crimes. The law bans attacks on people and property, and to the extent that these actions occur, they are violating the law and are subject to punishment. But there is another way of approaching these matters, one that strikes me as essentially true, that puts an entirely different perspective on these events, and one that behooves us to understand well.
Rather than analyze these actions as alleged crimes that should be adjudicated in the criminal justice system, what if we perceived them to be what they really are: belligerent acts that are taking place in the context of an ongoing war? For that is indeed what they are.
There are wars that are fought with armies, aircraft, tanks and infantry, all of whom share the objective of weakening the enemy’s aggressive capabilities and/or seizing the enemy’s territory. A war for territory is effectuated with the advance of one’s forces on to the enemy terrain, seizing it and holding it. The loss of a nation’s land to its adversary signifies it defeat. That is the traditional type of war fought since time immemorial.
There is a war going on today in the land of Israel but it is not being fought with armies, aircraft, tanks and infantry. It is a war (also over territory) that is being fought with bullets, stones, Molotov cocktails and matches. In Judea and Samaria, every Jewish vineyard that is torched and every Jewish field that is laid waste is a victory in battle for the enemy. Every dunam that is illegally seized and farmed – in the Negev and Galil, as well – is territory that is intended to be lost to the Jewish people, and in the short term is lost. Every attack on a Jew in an outpost is an attempt to remove him from our land. Every military destruction and evacuation of an outpost is a victory to the enemy because it is land lost to the Jewish people and state.
It matters not at all whether land is seized by an army – or by farmers and shepherds, by stone throwers and arsonists. It is all land that is lost to the State of Israel. Since the enemy has no viable military option, all that remains in their militant toolbox is the opportunity to disrupt Jewish settlement and to commandeer as much land as they can before the Jews wake up. If they wake up.
The grievous error that is being made is adjudicating the acts of the settlers as crimes that need to be prosecuted rather than defense of the homeland. To be sure, wanton acts of violence against innocent people are unpleasant and unseemly, but war too is unpleasant and unseemly. It was Cicero who said that “In times of war, the law falls silent.” His point does not preclude the existence of conventions that attempt to regulate the conduct of war but rather to assert that conduct in war does not fall under the jurisdiction of the civilian criminal justice system.
The current conflict is not perceived as a war but instead as a series of unfortunate crimes by misguided youth because our government has an interest in the latter assessment and none in the former. If we understood that a war for territory is being fought right now then the government would have to take affirmative steps to protect Jewish land, promote settlement, encourage vigilance, and weaken the enemy. (In fact, the early Zionist settlements over a century ago developed in just such a way.) But neither this government nor the prior one is interested in that, preferring to try to keep a lid on a boiling pot even as land is lost, sovereignty is diminished, and most unfortunately, in the absence of effective governance, people are compelled to defend themselves and engage in a private war on behalf of the nation. That is a long term formula for chaos – but Israeli governments have long been noted for prioritizing short term “stability” (even if it appears feckless) over long term instability.
Prosecutions don’t work, as normal people will always defend their lives and property, and rightly so. No one will show restraint in the face of relentless assaults on people and property. Similarly, appeasement also doesn’t work, as if the problem will wither on its own (or be displaced by newer and worse problems). Paralysis that results from fear of bad press, tendentious UN resolutions or riots is appeasement. Ideally, the government should assert itself and its sovereignty over the land of Israel it is sworn to protect. It is futile to pretend that a struggle over the land of Israel is not occurring before our eyes, one that we can win or lose. Leon Trotsky may have been wrong about many things but about this he wasn’t: “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.”
Israel can fight the war (a low level conflict that is surely preferable to the alternative), deny the war or fight the people who are fighting the war (the current policy). But denying the conflict will not make it disappear nor will it dissuade those constantly assaulted from defending themselves. The downside is that violence often begets more violence in which even more innocents suffer, and uncontrolled violence is simply chaos. The upside is that this is a war that is fought and won not with guns and tanks but with fields and houses, by farmers and shepherds.
Perhaps it is our fate today to be a light onto the nations in the appropriate manner of waging asymmetric wars. But it is surely a “war” that can be preempted if it is “fought” cleverly, with determination, insight, and moral strength. And this will render vigilante justice superfluous and unnecessary, and our light can then illuminate the world in the pursuit of justice, peace and godliness.