Freeze on natural growth impractical, discriminatory

At first glance, former Sen. George Mitchell's report on the violence in the Middle East seems eminently reasonable and pragmatic. Its primary recommendations amount to what appear to be a few simple steps: First, the Palestinians halt their terror campaign, followed by an Israeli freeze on settlement construction, and then the two sides work out a way of returning to the negotiating table.

Leaving aside the rather obvious fact that the outbreak of the current violence had nothing to do with Jewish settlements and everything to do with Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat's intransigence, there are two critical problems with the report's solution: It is both impractical and discriminatory.

When he presented the findings at a press conference on Monday, Mitchell emphasized that Israel should halt the expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, including what he referred to as their "natural growth." The obvious question that arises is: What exactly does he mean by "natural growth"?

In the simplest of terms, demographers define natural population growth as the number of births minus the number of deaths, plus the net inflow resulting from migration. Other than adopting Chinese communist-style restrictions on childbirth or Soviet-era limitations on freedom of movement, there is little a government can do to halt the "natural growth" of any community.

Indeed, the most natural type of growth results from reproductive activity. Taken to its logical and rather absurd conclusion, then, perhaps Mitchell means to suggest that Jewish settlers in the West Bank and Gaza no longer engage in marital relations, for the result might be a sweet, little bundle of "natural growth," diapers and all.

Of course, the policy implications of such a recommendation would be breathtaking. Should the United States consider airlifting contraceptive devices to Jewish communities in the West Bank and Gaza in exchange for an end to Palestinian mortar attacks? Will the CIA begin monitoring all forms of nocturnal activity in Jewish settlements, lest it result in some "natural growth"?

What the Mitchell report fails to appreciate is that Jewish settlements, like communities anywhere, are dynamic, living organisms. People come and go, children are born, families grow and expand. Clearly, then, Mitchell's call for a freeze on the "natural growth" of the settlements is simply impractical.

The other troubling aspect of the report's recommendations is that it lends credence to the discriminatory notion that certain places should be off-limits to Jews simply because of who they are.

Mitchell himself hails from the state of Maine, whose capital, Augusta, lies just 50 miles east of a little-known town with a famous name, Hebron. Were the senator to suggest that the right of Jews to live in Hebron, Maine, be restricted in any way, he would immediately be denounced as a racist and an anti-Semite. Yet when he suggests a freeze on the right of Jews to move to Hebron, in the West Bank, because they are Jews, it is described as a "confidence-building measure."

Call it what you will, the insistence on a settlement freeze is little more than an outdated, archaic form of bigotry and racial segregation. To suggest that Jews, or blacks, or any other ethnic group, should not be allowed to live and build freely in a certain area because of who they are went out of fashion in the United States nearly four decades ago. There is no reason to begin applying it to the Middle East today.

Just as Jews have the inalienable right to purchase homes in Tekoa, Wash., or Shilo, Ark., and to engage in "natural growth," so, too, do the Jews living in the original Tekoa and Shilo. Civil rights for Jews, like any universal human right, cannot be restricted in time or place. They must be applicable regardless of where a person chooses to live.

According to the Bible, the first Jewish settler in history was the patriarch Abraham who, upon ascending to the Land of Israel, went to Shechem (Nablus) and then Beit El, ultimately settling in Hebron. The Jewish people, following in their ancestor's footsteps, have now returned to reclaim their national patrimony. Neither Palestinian mortar rounds nor the Mitchell report's recommendations can stop this historic process from unfolding. The growth of the Jewish people, "natural" or otherwise, can and will continue.