Amid Settler Crackdown, Hilltop Town And Its Yeshiva Still Defiant


Yitzhar, West Bank — “Revenge junction,” reads the graffiti scrawled on a road sign marking the turnoff to this mountaintop Jewish settlement. It is perhaps a telling welcome to a town and local yeshiva considered by Israel’s government as a nest of young, radical right-wing vigilantes.

In the week since an Israeli military base was attacked and Palestinians were stoned by dozens of settlement sympathizers, Israelis have been up in arms amid allegations of growing lawlessness among hard-line Jewish settlements and the smaller outposts.

Allegations that the attackers — believed to be a hardened circle of “hilltop youth” from the settlement outposts near the West Bank city of Nablus — have been handled with kid gloves prompted a tidal wave of soul searching and a shift in outlook among Israelis. Those attacks, carried out by the fringe group of settlers, peaked last week in a sustained campaign of marauding through Palestinian villages, and mosque burnings.

As Israeli officials began using the words “Jewish terror” to describe the new round of violence, government ministers decided to allow the army to enforce legal measures against the extremist settlers akin to the ones used against Palestinians, such as “administrative detention”; the move allows the government to keep suspects locked up for eight days before appearing in front of a judge.

Government officials reason that such medicine is necessary to rein in future attacks on security forces and Palestinians, a two-year campaign of vigilantism called “price tag” — a reference to a quid pro quo for Palestinian terror strikes and violent actions against settlements.

But defense commentators from Israeli newspapers were skeptical if the crackdown would go into effect or be effective. Moreover, B’Tselem, a human rights group that normally criticizes the settlers in defense of the Palestinians, denounced the measure.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, the view from Yitzhar is a mirror image of the public criticism. Residents here say that the government, far from being too lax toward the settlers, is targeting them with settlement evacuations and summary crackdowns, said Avraham Binyamin, a Yitzhar spokesperson.

“There is no other group of citizens in Israel that suffers from such treatment, only those who live in Judea and Samaria,” Binyamin said, adding that settlers are victims of the government’s knee-jerk reaction. “The government and police shoot the arrow, and then they look for a target.”

Yitzhar has been in the crosshairs of the government since long before last week’s string of attacks. Every several months, the police make arrests here of residents suspected of activity in far-right groups. In the most recent arrest operation in June, Binyamin himself was taken into custody as part of a raid on the offices of the Jewish Voice, a news website that serves as a mouthpiece of the radical setters.

In August, the Shin Bet secret service ordered special restraining orders against about a dozen Yitzhar residents suspected of vigilantism, out of fear that attacks on Palestinians could spark a new uprising.

And on the same night as the attack on the IDF base, Yitzhar’s leaders called on IDF soldiers to disobey orders to evacuate settlements. In an interview with The Jewish Week, Binyamin explained it as a democratic act of civil disobedience.

He admitted that there have been vigilante attacks from Yitzhar outposts against nearby Arab villages as retaliation for arson attacks against Yitzhar. Three years ago, a Palestinian infiltrated a Yitzhar outpost and attacked a child, he said. “It happens that the retaliation comes from Yitzhar,” he said. “There is a feeling that the army doesn’t give enough of a response, and there is a clear feeling that the police is making provocation against us.”

In what may be the government’s toughest move against Yitzhar, less than two months ago Israel’s Education Ministry took the unprecedented step of cutting ties and funding to the Od Yosef Chai yeshiva.

Accusing yeshiva rabbis of inciting students to acts of violence against Arabs and against the government, the Education Ministry not only ended the yeshiva’s 2 million shekel a year ($500,000) funding but also revoked the licensing for its subsidiary high school. The ministry focused a good deal of its criticism on yeshiva rabbis Yitzhak Shapira and Yosef Elitzur for co-authoring a 2009 book, “The King’s Torah (Torat Hamelech): Laws of Life and Death Between Israel and the Nations,” which discusses exceptions to the prohibition against killing non-Jews.

In a recent interview with The Jewish Week, Od Yosef Chai’s executive director, Itamar Posen, defended the yeshiva and denied the government’s accusations that rabbis at the seminary incite youths who have taken part in price-tag attacks.

He denied any link between the yeshiva students and the price-tag campaign, including attacks committed last week. He refused to comment on the new government measures, asserting that they have no connection to the yeshiva.

“The kids here only know how to study Torah. They are very disciplined,” he said.

That wasn’t the conclusion of the government. In an Oct. 27 letter announcing the funding cut, the Education Ministry argued, with the help of classified evidence, that the yeshiva’s students had been involved in numerous violent activities against Palestinians and Israeli security forces, and that rabbis encouraged the vigilantism by inciting students and themselves joining in the violence.

In an August summons to a hearing, the ministry said that “The King’s Torah” approves the harming of innocents, and that the yeshiva featured content from the book on its website and fliers.

The activity at the yeshiva was inconsistent with the values of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, and endangers the public peace and security, the Education Ministry wrote.

Palestinian neighbors and human rights activists say that settlers from Yitzhar and other radical settlements have been engaged in a campaign to terrorize and intimidate locals to scare them off their land.

Groups like B’tselem have footage of soldiers standing by while settlers from Yitzhar throw rocks at a neighboring Palestinian village. In one clip, Rabbi Shapira is allegedly seen walking among the rock throwers.

“It’s a failure of law enforcement at every level. Authorities are not doing their jobs,” said B’Tselem spokeswoman Sarit Michaeli.

Despite the public’s shock from the attacks, the next day two Palestinian cars were set ablaze while graffiti was found in a Jerusalem mosque. Human rights monitors from the United Nations and Oxfam report that vigilante attacks have more than doubled in two years.

Even mainstream settler groups oppose the actions of the hilltop youth. Pinchas Wallerstein said of the price-tag strategy, “Every struggle against the IDF, as well as Arab innocent bystanders, should be punished with all severity, and if [those perpetrators] aren’t punished, it will lead to the demise of the state of Israel.” Wallerstein added that “it is the job of the rabbis and the leadership to denounce it.”

About “The King’s Torah,” he said, he is “against it.” But he opposed the Education Ministry’s defunding of Od Yosef Chai as long as there were no similar steps being taken against left-wing academics.

Yossi Klein Halevi, of the Shalom Hartman Institute, said that the vigilante movement presents religious Zionists and the settlers with a dilemma at a time they are rising in mainstream institutions such as the army.

“For religious Zionists this is a historic achievement, but the violence of a powerful fringe is threatening to undermine the mainstream status of religious Zionism in general and the settlers in particular,” Halevi continued. “And the settler leaders don’t know how to cope.”

The Od Yosef Chai yeshiva sits on a barren hilltop just below Yitzhar’s residential neighborhoods, with a commanding view of nearby Palestinian villages.

Even the yeshiva building itself is contested: while Posen says that it is located within land designated for the expansion of Yitzhar, he acknowledges that it was built before getting the proper authorization and is considered illegal.

During recess, one student wore a shirt reading “Kahane was right,” referring to the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, whose Kach party was outlawed for incitement against Arabs. Another wore a shirt that read, “Jews, let’s win.”

Wary of the media, Yitzhar residents and yeshiva students are reluctant to speak and referred a reporter to spokesman Binyamin.

To raise money for the cash-strapped yeshiva, Od Yosef Chai held a fundraiser on Dec. 15 attended by Rabbi Shapira, Knesset member Michael Ben Ari of the far-right National Union Party and Rabbi Eliezer Melamed, who was accused by the army of preaching to students to refuse orders to evacuate settlements.

Amid rounds of dancing and singing by the guests, who numbered in the hundreds, the night’s featured speaker was Rabbi Yitzhak Ginzburg, the seminary’s top rabbinic authority. During his lecture, he addressed the government crackdown, likening the administrative detentions announced by the government to the actions of Israelite King Saul in the waning years of his rule.

Mordechai Inbari, a professor of religion at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke, who has studied the theology of “Torat Hamelech” and Rabbi Ginzburg, said the rabbis see the state as going against the divine will.

“The radical rabbis argue that there is a setback in the messianic process, and their mission is to fix it. And the way to fix it is to stop identifying with the state,” he said. “The state is portrayed as evil … It is too left wing, too secular. Their mission is too put the state back on track through political activism.”

The controversial “Torat Hamelech” has drawn fire from rabbis as well. The chief rabbi of Ramat Gan, Yaakov Ariel, endorsed a 145-page halachic response to the book written a year ago by Ariel Finkelshtain, a graduate of the Netivot chesder yeshiva. By focusing on situations in which the killing of non-Jews is permissible, the book presents a “problematic” view of non-Jews that implies their inferiority, an attitude that isn’t supported in the Torah, Finkelshtain said. While the book has no explicit orders to kill non-Jews, “It’s like lighting a match. It can inflame things,” Finkelstain continued. “It broadcasts to a lot of extremists in the field to get up and do something.”

Posen said that “The King’s Torah” merely represents a dry scholarly discussion of halacha not meant for the general readership. Still, he said, the book’s relevance goes beyond the theoretical, providing ideas about what the Torah says about the ways to fight enemies.

“This book calls for leadership,” Posen said. “Its authors pray for a day that the leadership of Israel will act according to the Torah, so hopefully they will take this book and learn,” he said.