Last month's arrest of a Florida-born West Bank resident by Israeli security forces is the most potent example yet of the threat posed by the Jewish Settler movement to Israel's democratic soul. Yet the bloody paper trail left by admitted murderer Jacob Teitel is not just a wake-up call to progressive-minded Israelis -- but to Jewish America's own liberal masses, as well. Firmly planted on the Left, they can rightfully claim a noble history of supporting the most sacred
struggles for American egalitarianism -- from the battles for worker's rights and women's suffrage in the first half of the 20th Century to Civil Rights, Gay Rights and Pro-Choice movements in the second.
Yet over the past year, American Jewry has been prodded by the Israeli political establishment to abandon this righteous legacy in favor of a far-flung religious Right. Led by an alarmist Benjamin Netanyahu, backed by his extremist Beltway proxies and gussied-up under the guise of "sovereignty", the Jewish State is asking its American brethren to sacrifice a century of good works for the sake of terrorist-settlers like Teitel.
The arrival of Barack Obama in Washington and the return of Prime Minister Netanyahu to Jerusalem launched this new era of discord between American and Israeli Jews. Considering the secular majorities of both groups, the Settlements -- and most crucially, their settlers -- have proven an unanticipated flash point. Yet since Obama's June speech in Cairo calling for an end to Settlement construction, American Jewry has been inveighed upon to support the Settlement enterprise as if Israel's very survival depends on it. As for those Settlers, they've been conveniently repackaged as virtuous victims -- simple family folk merely searching for adequate housing to accommodate their "natural growth".
Much like Baruch Goldstein -- another ex-American and mass-murderer settler -- Jacob Teitel confirms that Jewish West Bank hard-liners are anything but happy homesteaders. They are, however, disproportionately American -- up to 100,000 Yanks barricaded amid 2.5 million Palestinians on an embattled slice of kidney-shaped soil. It's a diaspora that forms much of the right-wing Settler leadership -- Orthodox, extremist and as committed to defending their land from surrounding Arabs as they are from the hand of Israeli law. These are not suburban "neighborhood watch" types. But rather heavily-armed, shoot-to-kill, civil disobedients -- often with military training and Waco-esque delusions of messianic grandeur.
There are nearly 450,000 Jewish settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem and many would return across the Green Line if adequately compensated. As for the rest, their continued presence in Judea and Samaria -- and the military apparatus needed to protect them -- may be acceptable elements of everyday Israeli Jewish life, but why must they be so in America? Our democracy is rooted in progressivism and pluralism, and Jews have been benchmarks of these principles since Colonial times. Perhaps this is why folks like Goldstein and Teitel fled across the Atlantic in the first place. Well aware their extremism and isolationism had no place in this democracy, they found solace within a military occupation that could nurture their nationalistic xenophobia.
Just as mainstream American Jewry cried foul during the darkest days of Israel's 1982 Lebanon war, they must begin to do so once again. Today, much like then, Jerusalem is involved in a unilateral, expansionist, misguided mission which has regional and global ramifications well beyond its control. Without doubt the threats posed against Israel by Hizbollah in the north, Hamas in the south and Iran to the east are urgent, incontestable and potentially existential. But building a foreign policy solely around the Settlements does nothing to increase Israel's fundamental security or strengthen its democratic core.
As this nation's ultimate critical thinkers, American Jewry must not be duped by Netanyau's Settler smoke-screen nor bullied by the belief that the only acceptable criticism of Israel is no criticism at all. Much like Sabra and Shatila 25 year ago, rogue settlements such as Kfar Tapuach and Havot Yair are stains on Israel's real sovereignty -- and their settler ideology completely inconsistent with an enlightened Jewish America. Pres. Obama's Middle Eastern policy may be unconventional and confrontational, but by demanding a better Israel from Israel, he's actually invoking an earlier era of Zionism untainted by post-Green Line greed. It's a Zionism of Herzl and Weizmann, Golda and Ben Gurion -- progressive, pioneering and still very-much Jewish. It's also a Zionism rooted in the core ideals of Jewish America -- tolerance, justice and compassion.
Recent weeks have seen the White House soften its Settlement stance and this must not be viewed as a victory for either side. For if it is victory, Israel's secured a pyrrhic one at that -- portending an era not of continued White House resistance, but potentially of ongoing indifference. Much like an Iraq-distracted Bush, Obama may eventually sacrifice the Levant for the sake of America's own immediate interests -- such as health care, job creation and immigration reform. Saddled with a recalcitrant Netanyahu, this would be both understandable and perhaps beneficial. But it would be disingenuous at best, destructive at worst. Don't forget, under Bush's blind eye, Israel embarked on its ineffective Gaza withdrawal, an inconclusive second war in Lebanon and entered an era of unprecedented economic inequality despite a booming GDP.
While it may have emerged relatively unscathed from the global economic crisis, Israel can hardly afford another decade of similar debacles. Particularly not to save men like Jacob Teitel and his Settler cohorts. Faced with the choice of continued conflict or the (remote) possibility of peace, American Jewry must look inward, draw form its instinctive integrity and implore the Oval Office to try again. Most crucially, it must not forget that siding with the Settlers sullies the memories of real Jewish American heroes -- from Emma Goldman to Andrew Goldman, Louis Brandeis to Harvey Milk.
Pres. Obama's foreign policy may at times seem muddled, his end-game unclear, but after eight years of battle-hungry Bush, this new age of reason must not be wasted. True, Obama's world view may feel foreign to folks like Teitel, but it still resonates strongly with the America that elected him and he must remain a key protagonist in finally opening those Settlement gates. Obama may think what many fear to say, but silence has only resulted in stalemate -- politeness and protocol a waste of political capital. So enough with the sotto voce Mr. President, it's time again to speak up -- and speak loud! Because when it comes to the Middle East, a mind -- and voice -- like Barack Obama's would truly be a terrible thing to waste.