At 2 a.m. one day last week, a group of Israeli settlers, protected by riot police, moved into 25 apartments in seven Palestinian-owned buildings in the Silwan neighborhood of East Jerusalem. Some of these apartments were vacant or recently constructed. In other cases, residents were away from home for the night. In one case, a young man had purchased an apartment to move into with his bride following their wedding. Instead, the couple is now enmeshed in a legal struggle with the settlers who have set up residence in their marital home.
The biggest surprise of all? You may have helped fund this takeover.
Elad, the settler group that organized this incursion, raises $6 million a year in the United States through the Friends of Ir David Foundation. As a nonprofit, donations to FIDF are tax deductible; funders can write off their gifts, which means that all of us who pay U.S. taxes helped subsidize the new settlement. That’s in direct opposition to official U.S. policy, which seeks a two-state solution and prohibits American aid to settlements over the Green Line.
Even more directly, if you’ve traveled to Israel (as nearly half of American Jews, and a staggering number of American Christians, have), you may have visited the Ir David archaeological site, which includes Hezekiah’s tunnel and other finds from Biblical Jerusalem. A huge percentage of its 500,000 annual visitors are American, and it’s a hallowed stop on tours organized by synagogues, churches and schools.* That $15 admission fee paid by all those people? Money for settlers. Even the excavation of Ir David has damaged or destroyed Palestinian homes, while infuriating archaeologists who complain that Elad prioritizes politics over responsible archaeology.
Elad has a long history of working to transform Silwan from a Palestinian neighborhood into a Jewish one. The idea is to make “facts on the ground,” in the parlance of the conflict, that will obstruct the possibility of any two-state solution that includes a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem. Elad evicts Palestinians from their homes by exploiting legal loopholes or incomplete property records, it builds entirely new settler compounds, it uses archaeological sites to establish Jewish claims to certain strategic parcels of land, and it even erected a new visitors’ center on a contested piece of real estate.
Some, like Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, wonder why Israeli Jews and Palestinians can’t live side by side in Silwan. But anyone who has visited the neighborhood recently knows that what is happening there is not about, say, diversifying the neighborhood. It’s a hostile takeover. New fortified buildings topped by Israeli flags tower over the homes of longtime residents. Settlers walk through the neighborhood carrying guns, accompanied by armed guards. Meanwhile, the municipality virtually always denies Palestinians permits to build new homes or to renovate their old ones. Those Palestinians who dare to build anyway have their homes demolished, and—to add insult to injury—receive bills for the demolition and the cleanup of rubble.
In this case, Elad claims to have purchased the apartments legally, via a U.S.-based shadow company. The Palestinians dispute these claims. While it will take some time to sort out the legal issues, we can say this: A person who has legally purchased a new home does not generally move in under cover of night, flanked by riot police.
There is a special category in Jewish law for this kind of action. In the Talmud, the students of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai ask why the Torah deals more severely with a burglar than with a mugger. Their teacher’s response: A mugger, who robs face-to-face, fears neither human beings nor God. But a burglar, who sneaks in when no one is looking, is afraid of human beings but shows no fear of God. In its use of subterfuge, shadow companies, and dead-of-night incursions, Elad represents the worst kind of thief.
And Americans, Elad donors and pilgrims to Israel, are, in some indirect but important way, complicit. Jewish law strongly forbids aiding or abetting a thief. In one of the most important guides to Jewish law, Moses Maimonides rules that “It is forbidden to purchase stolen goods from the thief. . . for anyone who does such things or similar ones strengthens the hands of sinners. . . it is [also] forbidden to derive any benefit from a stolen object.” Those of us who donate to Elad, or pay admission to the Ir David archaeological site, aid and abet those who steal homes and land in order to prevent peace. As we ooh and aah over the excavations, we derive pleasure from these thefts.
The good news is that we have the power to prevent these settlers from blocking a lasting peace agreement. This past spring, an Israeli court granted Elad control of Robinson’s Arch—the section of the Western Wall where men and women may pray together—as well as adjoining archaeological sites. T’ruah, the organization I direct, mobilized more than 1,000 rabbis and American Jews to oppose this transfer. The Reform and Conservative Movements of Judaism lodged their own complaints. The Prime Minister’s office responded with a promise to prevent the site from falling into the hands of Elad, and just last month, a judge overturned the earlier decision. Our voices matter.
With its insistence on shoehorning Jewish settlements into longstanding Palestinian neighborhoods, Elad prioritizes its short-sighted political agenda over the long-term security of the State of Israel, alongside a viable State of Palestine. Imagine if instead, U.S. donors invested money in a lasting peace solution that grants both Jews and Palestinians a safe place in Jerusalem; allows Jews, Christians and Muslims to access their holy sites; and ends the decades-old conflict that has already claimed too many lives.
*CLARIFICATION: This sentence, about visitors to Ir David, has been rewritten to reflect the lack of data about the number of American pilgrims.