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COLUMN ONE : Americans Answer Israel's Call : Once the capital of Judaism, Shiloh is now home to settlers from U.S. who say they have chosen a harder but richer life. They are determined to cling to a claim they insist goes back 3,000 years.

March 08, 1994|SCOTT KRAFT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SHILOH, Israeli-Occupied West Bank — On a rocky hilltop in the Holy Land, a slight, bearded American Jew named Joe Bazer has found a place where his family can live a religious life--and make a political statement that reverberates across the Middle East.

"This is one of our most important spots," said Bazer, wearing a 9-millimeter pistol on his belt and gazing dreamily from his neighborhood of modern, red-roofed homes onto the ruins of ancient Shiloh.

Shiloh was the capital of Judaism for 369 years, until Philistines destroyed it three millennia ago, stole the Ark of the Covenant and drove the Jewish people 25 miles south to Jerusalem.

Now Joe, his wife, Daphne, and their three children are part of a 150-family community of fervent settlers, led by another American. They court the ire of Palestinians and even other Israelis by clinging to what they contend is a 3,000-year-old claim.

Although Americans like the Bazers constitute only about 2% of Israel's population, they make up 10% to 15% of the 130,000 people who populate the 140 controversial Jewish settlements in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. Many of those Americans live in the most committed and immovable communities of that juggernaut, which has provoked Palestinian anger and severely complicated Mideast peace talks.

Some are part of the militant far right, which experts say includes several hundred extremists such as settler Baruch Goldstein, the Brooklyn-born physician who killed more than 40 Palestinians, then was himself killed, in a mosque last month. Goldstein and others like him were inspired by Meir Kahane, the radical rabbi who founded the Jewish Defense League in the United States and was assassinated in New York four years ago. An Israeli offshoot of the JDL known as Kach, of which Goldstein was a member, receives 70% of its funding from supporters in the United States.

But many other Americans in the settlements, such as the Bazers, also burn with nationalist and religious fervor. They came to Israel not only to practice their religion among the faithful but also to make a statement by moving onto what they call the "biblical lands of Israel" that lie outside the nation's internationally recognized borders. Those territories, where 2 million Palestinians live, were captured by Israel in 1967 in the Six-Day War.

Americans in the occupied territory play an important and largely unheralded role in the Jewish settlements, and they are frequently the most outspoken leaders in their settler communities.

Although few of them advocate violence against their Palestinian neighbors, nearly all are prepared to defend their land with deadly force, if necessary. And they are vowing to strongly resist any attempt by the Israeli government to move them as part of current peace talks with the Palestine Liberation Organization.

These Americans don't condone the massacre carried out by another American in Hebron. But they don't condemn it either.

In Shiloh, some Americans say they can understand how a man like Goldstein, who had seen Jews injured and killed by Palestinian terrorists, could have been driven to the act he committed. And a few of them suggested recently that Goldstein's victims were probably armed with axes that they intended to use on Jewish settlers. (There is no evidence to support that contention, though the Hebron region is a flash point for Palestinian as well as Jewish radicals.)

"I feel bad, sure, to some extent" about what Goldstein did, Bazer said. "But I feel more bad for things that have happened to Jews."

Daphne Bazer, 33, added as she cradled their 2-month-old daughter: "I'm sorry, but I can't feel sorry for them (the Palestinians). Let them move to another country. Give them money and tell them to go there."

Ever since the state of Israel was created in 1948, American Jews have been coming, helping to swell the country's population to 5.3 million.

During the 1960s, many American immigrants were liberal, anti-war activists who are now an important part of the left in Israel's broad political spectrum. But in the mid-1970s, Israel attracted many modern Orthodox Jews who were seeking an opportunity to live the "Torah life" that was sometimes difficult in the United States.

Out of that last group emerged the intensely nationalistic people who created Shiloh and other settler communities in the West Bank and Gaza as a way of staking a claim on biblical landmarks and cities outside Israel's sovereign territory.

Era Rapaport, born in Brooklyn, N.Y., was one of the first settlers in Shiloh. For more than two years, Rapaport and his Israeli-born wife, Orit, lived without telephones, paved streets or electricity.

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