A reader writes:
I am Jewish and lived in Israel from 2008-2009, where I worked as a reporter during the elections and the Gaza war. I have been to Hebron and visited the Cave of the Patriarchs. I have also met with local Palestinian residents and what's left of the settler community there. There's no question in my mind that the Hebron settlers are really nuts; I think they represent the furthest fringe of "greater Israel" ideology, which is really just advocacy for ethnic cleansing.
(For more on this, you should take a look at the National Union party platform, which is popular among Hebron settlers. They have no seats in the Knesset right now but had a close shot, and they come very close to being disqualified for racist views. They are run by an American immigrant, which is interesting in its own right.)
All that said, even among Hebron settlers, I couldn't find anyone who would condone Baruch Goldstein's actions, at least in public (I have my own suspicions of their private views, but they are just suspicions. And I certainly don't count Mr. Netanyahu's love of political expediency and kowtowing amongst these ideologues.) This move is ideological only insofar as the Cave is located in Hebron -- its significance in Judaism is beyond dispute, and from that perspective it makes sense that it should be listed as a historical site. (This formulation holds for Rachel's tomb, as well.)
If you wanted to pick a fight on this point, it's worth noting that halachic Judaism (Jewish law) doesn't allow for the enshrining of "holy sites."
Judaism is a portable religion for a people who spent many centuries in perpetual exile. Although there are three "pilgrimage festivals" during which is was traditional for Jews to travel to Jerusalem, I don't know of any laws that would be broken for Jews who do not make the trip. Certainly there is nothing in Jewish law that requires (or even recommends) special worship at places like Rachel's Tomb or the Cave, and I suspect (I'm not a rabbi so I won't go further) that there's probably a lot to discourage such habits, as they smack of idol worship. Having been to the Cave myself (which is ornately decorated due to its long history as a prominent mosque), I feel this last point is especially relevant in discussions with Jews who believe Hebron's heritage is too valuable to give away. One need only point out that Judaism does not enshrine the "holiness" of locations, with the exception of the Temple.
(On the other hand I also don't believe it's fair to attack Jews who do want to go through this enshrining process. Judaism in its religious aspect has only had 60 years to deal with the idea of reencountering holy places that are thousands of years old. It's understandable that there is religious and political confusion on this point, given the deep sentimental connection that Jewish people feel to places like the Cave. In my opinion, it is worth giving away such places to ensure that Jews have a homeland in Israel. But I understand the anxiety that others feel when we talk of giving away the place where the father of our entire people is said to be buried. I think you understand this, too.
As far as Etzion and southern settlements go: I encourage you to take a look at a map of settlement activity from Ir Amim. Ir Amim is a wonderful organization, and a great way for Jews and non-Jews alike to understand Jerusalem (where I lived while I was in Israel.) I think you will find that settlements are too complex to lump entirely into the "bad column". Some settlements are innocuous. Some are heinously awful. Ir Amim has done a great job of determining which is which, and I encourage you to make use of them when you talk about settlement activity. I think it will provide you with more nuance when you approach this debate.
I know this is a long email and you might not read it, but I feel much better having written it. Best to you. Please remember that there are a lot of good Israelis who think as you do, who are waiting for a voice in their government.
I take all my reader's points and am grateful for the volume of email from knowledgeable Jewish and Israeli readers, exploring every facet of this question, without rancor or anger.
(Photo: Israeli settlers carry Torah scrolls past destroyed Palestinian homes to the Cave of the Patriarchs during Purim festivities March 27, 2005 in the West Bank town of Hebron. Hundreds of settlers paraded amidst tight security through the town where they live surrounded by more than 120,000 Palestinians as they brought two new Torah scrolls to the tomb of the biblical Patriarchs while celebrating the deliverance of the Jewish people from destruction planned against them in ancient Persia some 2,500 years ago. By David Silverman/Getty Images)
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