By Rabbi Steven Pruzansky
The Hilltop Youth are the targets de jour, a small group of teenage boys and girls, who have spent the past several years illegally settling various hilltops in Judea and Samaria in order to promote Jewish settlement throughout the land of Israel for both religious and political reasons. And, if one believes the media and politico’s reports, they or like-minded young people have been responsible for spontaneous and unprovoked attacks on random Arabs, wanton damage to their property, all culminating in the horrific arson-murder in the village of Duma.
That there is little to no evidence of any of this has not stopped the recriminations, the administrative detentions without charge, and the assaults on their character, if not also their bodies. I have never met even one of them, which qualifies me as much as anyone else to address their situation.
The rise of these youth, assuming for a moment that at least some of the aforementioned allegations are true, is said to reflect a failure of Religious Zionism who have produced such “unruly weeds,” as they have been called. But nothing could be further from the truth. Are any of these young people “Religious Zionists?” Are they disciples of Rav Avraham Kook or his son Rav Zvi Yehuda Kook, zt”l? Are they followers of Rav Reines, zt”l? Do they believe in the integration of Torah and the modern state? Are they great Torah scholars? What makes them “Religious Zionists?”
Religious Zionism has been accused for decades by its detractors of an undue focus on Jewish settlement in the heartland of Israel to the exclusion of all other interests of the movement, especially the infusion of Torah values into all aspects of Jewish statehood. I have never found that to be true, but do concede that, but for Religious Zionists, there would be little settlement in Judea and Samaria, and those areas would have likely already been surrendered to Arabs and strengthened their terror state.
It is ironic that accusers of the Hilltop Youth have attached them to Religious Zionism because of only one indicator: they live in the settlements. It is as if the detractors have reduced Religious Zionism to that one dimension – which they in any event despise – and concluded that, ipso facto, they are now exemplars of Religious Zionism. I would urge Religious Zionists to reject the indictment and the label, and certainly to lose the guilt.
Again, assuming the truth of some of the accusations, what would possess youth raised to observe Mitzvot and to love the land of Israel, to commit crimes and oppose the State? (I must confess that the allegations of the authorities that there are groups of young people who are actively planning to overthrow the government and install a monarchy are bizarre, farfetched, unworthy of serious consideration and the type of youthful exuberance that can be found, in analogous context, on American college campuses for the last fifty years.)
Nothing justifies attacks on any innocent person or his property, but we should for a moment consider the world in which these young people were raised. If they are older teens, they grew up during the years of Oslo, with the Arab terror movement growing in strength and confidence. They have not known even a day in which they could ride their highways without fear of stones, Molotov cocktails, or bullets being sent their way. They have been raised with the sad reality that if their parents wish to add a room to the family home, they will be denounced for their efforts by the US State Department and the United Nations, and prevented by their government. If they wish to build a block away, they might provoke a war. They see Arabs building all around them, living without any fear, and they have been made to feel like heroes to many Jews, but like villains and criminals to too many Jews, including officials in the government and those malevolent NGO’s who are funded by European governments and monitor every building block and every field.
They have attended too many funerals of their peers, and heard too many pious, politician speeches praising them, promising more building and more security (always around election time) and seeing none of it. They have witnessed the Arab terrorists who have killed and maimed their families and friends arrested and incarcerated – and then released to commit more acts of terror. They have grown up in an atmosphere of lawlessness – where often he who takes the initiative is rewarded and he who hesitates is lost or dead. They have seen Israeli courts order evictions of their neighbors from land purchased from Arabs with good money, only to have their ownership reversed on the most specious grounds with the money, of course, not returned.
They have seen people on the left take the law into their own hands when it suits them (the original Oslo negotiators were in violation of Israeli law) and they have seen people on the right take the law into their own hands when it suits them. In 1995, no less a personage than Ariel Sharon called on the youth of Judea and Samaria to “take the hilltops,” settle them so that the government cannot surrender that territory to the Arabs (bitterly ironic, in light of what Sharon himself would later do). This wasn’t hidden – Sharon said this in Israel, but I heard it from his own mouth in a lecture he gave in our shul. “Take the hilltops!” And we wonder why there are “Hilltop Youth”?
They have seen their government evict Jews from Gush Katif, and they have seen their government brutally evict their neighbors from Amona and elsewhere. They have been taught how the pre-State underground was lauded and lionized, and how even the Underground from the 1980’s (granted, there is a difference) found support in Israel, even its government and judicial system, and brought a halt of several years to Arab terror. They have seen Arabs burn their fields, steal their crops, and rustle their cattle – with little or no response from their government who fear international condemnation if they arrest Arabs for these “petty crimes.”
They have literally grown up under the gun in an abnormal environment wherein death and mayhem are constant companions, where hundreds have awakened one day as small children to learn that their beloved third or fifth grade teacher was shot and killed overnight by Arab terrorists. And the tears and protestations of their government notwithstanding, the measures that could diminish or end the conflict are not taken. All they hear are words and more words, praised by some for their courage, perseverance and self-sacrifice, as some politicians prefer to kick the can down the road even as others just use their government positions to enrich themselves. And they know there is no hope in sight of anything changing – just more terror, more death, more funerals, more victims, more wounded, more maimed, and more criticism and prattle from their hapless political elders. They have seen their government impotent, for the most part, in the wake of the most recent wave of Arab terror.
Hillel’s astute aphorism is timely: “Do not judge a person until you are in his place” (Avot 2:5).
Being reared in such an unpleasant environment has to take a toll, on both sanity and respect for the law. Frankly, I am surprised that anyone can endure such persistent trauma and remain normal, and gratified beyond words that the “Hilltop Youth” are such a marginal phenomenon. That more than 99% of settler youth are devoted, law-abiding Jews, filled with love of Torah, mitzvot, the land and people of Israel, and permeated with a spirit of self-sacrifice that inspires an entire nation (whether or not that nation realizes or appreciates it) is a tribute to, yes, their parents, teachers, Rabbanim, communities and the true Religious Zionist ethos.
Given all of the above, and lest the reader think that it serves to rationalize alleged bad behavior, it is important to note why the “Hilltop Youth” are wrong if they are committing any crimes at all.
Firstly, assaulting the innocent is a sin, a violation of the Torah which we all cherish. Damaging the property of innocent people is a sin, a violation of the Torah. Anyone who takes the Torah seriously will eschew any sin – and to live in Israel and not take the Torah seriously is a weird contradiction, albeit not an uncommon one. It is easy to observe the laws of the Torah when they do not challenge us; it is much harder when they do challenge us, but that is when the greatness and faith of the Jew is revealed. That is when our free choice comes into play.
Just because the enemy delights in attacking our innocent does not justify violating the Torah and attacking their innocent. We are obligated to punish the guilty – but not the innocent. We are mandated to follow the Torah at all times.
Secondly, attacks on the innocent are immoral. Justice demands that a human being can only be judged for his crimes and his crimes alone. While I do not subscribe to the pap that 99% of the Arabs of Israel are good, decent, law-abiding people (according to an Arab poll publicized by the ZOA, 67% of “Palestinians” support stabbing and murdering Jews!), no person is a legitimate target simply because he/she belongs to an ethnic group. To treat people accordingly is criminal, reprehensible and immoral, and those crimes should be prosecuted in accordance with the law (the law; that means with witnesses and evidence presented in court).
Thirdly, random attacks on Arabs, such as they occur and if they occur, are counterproductive to the cause of Jewish settlement, the justice of our claims to the land of Israel, and even the viability of the State of Israel. The Torah teaches us that the land of Israel is so holy that it cannot tolerate the shedding of innocent blood. We have to maintain a level of morality – even in wartime, and as the Torah prescribes – in order to be worthy of the land of Israel. To attack the innocent like the Cossacks attacked us, if indeed such takes place, undermines our moral right to the land of Israel. Self-control is always needed, and people who lack self-control will often respond viscerally and violently to any provocation. That is neither moral nor wise.
There is lawlessness in the land of Israel, like there is anywhere in the world and at any time in history. The youth can occasionally act lawlessly as the authorities can occasionally act lawlessly. Those who lump together all “Hilltop Youth” as worthy of condemnation, prosecution, or, as one wag put it, “cauterization,” are also responding viscerally and recklessly. That too is wrong. Those who are more outraged by young people singing an idiotic, repugnant song than they are about Arabs stabbing Jews to death should check their values. A little perspective is in order.
Don’t condemn entire groups for the alleged acts of the few. That principle should apply to Jews as well as to Arabs.