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PERSPECTIVES ON ISRAEL : . . . or a Perversion of Principles? : Raising the specter of civil war, religious zealots poison hearts disposed toward peace and sully the faith.

August 13, 1995|MICHAEL LERNER | Michael Lerner is editor of Tikkun magazine, a bimonthly Jewish journal published in New York, and author of "Jewish Renewal: A Path to Healing and Transformation" (Harper/Collins, 1995)

JERUSALEM — When my son made aliyah and entered the Israeli paratroopers, I worried about Palestinian extremists. Although I have been an American activist supporting the peace movement, I felt that I had to give my permission to him to enter a combat unit--permission he needed since he is an only child--because I want Israel to remain strong against possible attack from external enemies.

But now I have to worry not about Syria and not about Palestinians, but about right-wing rabbis, many of them from America, who lead their followers into confrontation with the Israeli army.

I watched in horror last week as Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, formerly of the Lincoln Square Synagogue in New York, led hundreds of followers, many of them religious immigrants from New York, to grab hills overlooking the West Bank settlement of Efrat, supposedly to increase their security. "Palestinians can have their own state," says Riskin "on their own land." The rub: Riskin defines as Israeli land more than half of the West Bank.

Riskin claims to have learned his tactics from his days in the civil rights movement. Apparently he is unable to apply to Palestinians living under Israeli military rule the central message of that movement: that all human beings have equal rights and that the powerful ought not to trample on the rights of the relatively powerless.

Riskin's fellow settlers make clear that their fundamental goal is to make the peace agreements impossible to implement. They hope to intimidate the government by frightening the Israeli public with the possibility that any territorial compromise will provoke civil war.

Journalist Tzvi Zinger from Yediot Aharanot reports that Riskin, who once portrayed himself as a moderate, has called for the formation of armed militia to take over posts evacuated by the Israeli army in the West Bank. By physically preventing the implementation of the peace accord, the settlers could thus force an armed confrontation with Israeli soldiers whose task it would be to enforce the agreement with Palestinians.

It is this threat of civil war, looking ever more credible as settlers engage in open acts of defiance of the army, that scares Israelis and makes their government fearful to take definitive steps to achieve a lasting peace.

If the settlers weren't so blinded by their own ideology, they would realize that Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin himself has been doing all he can to prevent any serious dismantling of settlements. Hundreds of millions of dollars are being spent this year to build new highways to them.

The settlers have already won far too much--and have forced Rabin to negotiate a plan that is guaranteed to be unsatisfying to many Palestinians. Instead of substantive national self-determination, Rabin offers withdrawal of Israeli troops from geographically noncontiguous Arab cities, in effect creating a series of isolated cantons surrounded by the Israeli army and armed bases of right-wing settlers.

The settlers' provocative behavior is precisely what led many Palestinians to warn that peace would be impossible as long as these people remained. Riskin is now proving to the Israeli people how legitimate the Palestinian point has been all along.

Rabin would be wiser and politically smarter to tell the settlers that they should prepare to live in peace as a minority within a Palestinian state--or start moving back to Israel.

It's incumbent upon those of us who support peace to show a compassionate attitude toward those settlers who feel economically trapped, even as we publicly repudiate those who are willing to use force and violence to thwart Israeli democracy. Perhaps it's time for us to start collecting funds to help resettle those who are willing to move back within the Green Line.

It's hard to stay compassionate, however, if you care about Judaism. Riskin and his followers seem to never have heard the Torah commandment, "Thou shalt love the stranger." These religious zealots are doing more to turn Jews away from Judaism than all the forces of assimilation combined. As a religiously observant Jew, committed to a Jewish renewal in Israel and in America, I watch in horror as Riskin and his followers poison the wells of Jewish spiritual and ethical insight, so that this nourishing living water of our tradition appears to be merely a cover for chauvinistic nationalism and selfishness run wild.

It is no wonder that these days, many Israelis are saying aloud that they wish these kinds of Jews would stay in New York. My son the paratrooper would be a lot safer.

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