The Israeli Pogrom: Settler Violence in the West Bank
By Lawrence Davidson *
February 3, 2022
On 21 January 2022, an organized gang of over a dozen masked Zionist “settlers” from the Givat Ronen outpost on the Occupied West Bank attacked Palestinians planting trees near the village of Burin. There were seven Israeli Jewish supporters with the Palestinians. The “settlers” attacked them as well.
I place the term “settler” in quotation marks because what we are really talking about are not settlers but squatters. I will use the term squatter except where settler appears in a quotation.
As is normal in cases of Israeli squatter violence, the Israeli authorities were slow to arrive at the scene of the attack and, subsequently, made no arrests. The Public Security Minister Omer Bar-Lev explained that “until the army gets there it takes time. Until the [Israeli] police were sent it took time and therefore … the moment the [Israeli] police arrive at the site, the terrorists are no longer there.” The Palestinian police, for their part, could not respond because they are “forbidden from reacting to acts of violence by Israeli settlers.” One can just imagine the army and the police rate of response if it was the Palestinians attacking the squatters. The double standard is obvious.
However, there was something novel in Bar-Lev’s statement. He said that “in my view” the attackers constituted “a terror group.” This designation apparently had nothing to do with the attack on Palestinians, but rather was warranted because the attackers had “targeted and harmed Israeli citizens.”
This might well be something like a “false flag” statement on the part of the public security minister. It was meant to reassure the Europeans and Americans who are concerned by the violence of the Israeli squatter movement. The minister subsequently told a U.S. official that the Israeli government takes the problem seriously and “is taking steps to tackle the phenomenon.” This is almost certainly a lie. Prime Minister Bennett has called squatter violence “insignificant,” and several of Bar-Lev’s fellow ministers criticized him for promoting a “distorted narrative.”
Squatter violence goes back at least into the 1980s. In 1983, an 11-year-old girl from Nablus was murdered by Jewish squatters. “In their defense, the chief rabbi of the Sephardic community reportedly cited a Talmudic text justifying killing an enemy on occasions when one may see from a child’s perspective that he or she will grow up to become your enemy.” One can imagine that a similar logic could justify, in the eyes of some Palestinians, the killing of every Israeli Jewish child.
Subsequently, “in the 21st century, there has been a steady increase in violence and terror perpetrated by Jewish settlers against Palestinians.” In 2008, the Israeli army command in the West Bank acknowledged that “a hard core of a few hundred activists were involved in violence against the Palestinians.” Though the army said it planned to address the situation, the problem persisted and grew worse. In 2011, the Israeli government again acknowledged “a growing problem with extremists.” Again, little was done about it. The United Nations and organizations such as Human Rights Watch have repeatedly voiced concern that the number of attacks were growing. The latter noted that “In many cases, settlers abuse Palestinians in front of Israeli soldiers or police with little interference from the authorities.”
Here is suggested a reason for the lack of any crackdown on squatter violence. It goes on with the tacit consent of the government. To quote B’Tselem, Israel’s main human rights organization, “Israel has been using settler violence as a major informal tool to drive Palestinians from farming and pasture lands in the occupied West Bank.”
What is the appropriate historical term for “informal,” supposedly “unofficial,” violence nonetheless carried out with the tacit approval of a government? How about pogrom? In this case, we can also call it an obscene embarrassment for all Jews who value human rights.
Pogrom is originally a Russian word which means “to wreak havoc.” Traditionally, it was and continues to be a weapon of intergroup discord, where one group seeks to harm or evict an opposing group of different ethnic or religious makeup. The term came to characterize a government-approved tactic of czarist Russia of the 19th and early 20th centuries. In that case, the traditional victims were Jews.
It would seem that successive Israeli governments have used the same tactic to encourage squatter violence against the Palestinians on the West Bank. The endgame here is not difficult to understand. As B’Tselem explains it, the aim of the Israeli government is to clear Judea and Samaria (the biblical names for the West Bank) of non-Jews. The Israeli army has already confiscated around 42% of this territory, and over time, an informal acceptance at all government levels was reached to allow Israeli squatter violence to help force the Palestinians off of the remaining land. The dismissive reaction of Bar-Lev’s government colleagues to the attack described above is the latest example of this consent.
A Reversal of Roles
It is painful for progressive Jews to delve into and try to explain why other Jews actively or passively support such tactics. The Zionists have spent a lot of time and energy trying to convince the world that, despite the fact that Israel is ranked the eighth most powerful country in the world, they are the innocent victims of, and also mortally threatened by, Palestinian anti-Semitic violence and hatred. To the extent that they, and the rest of the world, accept this narrative, Israeli tactics can be accepted as both defensive and warranted. But this narrative does not ring true. In fact, there has been a reversal of roles.
Most Zionists see the Palestinians as clones of those who persecuted Jews over the past several hundred years. The Palestinians also stand in the way of the territorial ambitions of the “Jewish state”—territorial ambitions which, once fulfilled, will supposedly provide a secure sanctuary for all the world’s Jews. Anyone standing in the way of this goal becomes, ipso facto, an anti-Semite and, as such, they can be seen as enemies of the Jews. In the case of the Palestinians, they may appear as replicas of the East European and Russian anti-Semites who carried out pogroms—kept contained only by Israeli control.
The suggestion that the Israelis are reversing roles here is sacrilege for the Zionists. Yet the evidence bears this out. Starting in 1917, it was mostly East European Jews who, with British assistance, invaded Arab Palestine and took control of ever increasing amounts of that territory. It is Israeli Jews who now seek to purge the land of non-Jews. Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, harassed in their towns and villages, now play the role the Jews of Europe used to play—victims of pogroms. Some well-placed Israelis recognize the problem. In 2016, Yair Golan, deputy chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, told a public gathering in Israel, “If there is one thing that frightens me about the memory of the Holocaust, it is identifying the revolting trends that occurred in Europe as a whole 70 to 80 years ago … and finding evidence of those trends here, among us, in 2016.” Israeli Jews brave enough to recognize and speak of this reversal of roles have always been rare, and they are getting rarer still: progressive Israelis are emigrating and rightwing governments have become the norm.
It must be over twenty years since I spoke to this issue at a public presentation at Franklin and Marshall College in Pennsylvania. I had been invited to do so by a young untenured history professor. I had told him that it was a dangerous move, but for him, it was a matter of academic freedom and integrity. For me, it was part of a need to tell the truth about the Palestinian plight.
It was a full house, certainly over one hundred people. I gave a defense of Palestinian rights within a fact-based historical context. The real trouble came when someone in the audience suggested a comparison between Israeli behavior and that of the Nazis. I said that the comparison was false. The Israelis had neither set up concentration camps nor organized a technologically based slaughter of their enemies. However, what they had done was pushed Palestinians into ghettos and allowed for periodic pogroms. The shocked gasps of the Zionists in the audience were audible. They walked out en masse and my host never got tenure. Yet the pogroms have become more frequent and more dangerous, at once making life more miserable for the Palestinians and perverting the ethical standards Jews have endorsed particularly since the Holocaust. Learning bad habits from their past, the Zionists have made the tactic of pogrom their own.
* Lawrence Davidson is professor of history at West Chester University in West Chester, PA.