Most U.S. groups denounce Jewish violence in Hebron

Until late last week, the rising threat of violence by Jewish settlers in Israel was greeted with silence by American Jewish groups.

But the outbreak of violence Dec. 3 at Beit Hashalom, a disputed property occupied by Jews in the heavily Palestinian city of Hebron, prompted a flurry of statements, the bulk of them condemning settlers who forcibly opposed the security forces sent to evacuate them.

Statements from the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Con-gress, and the dovish groups Ameinu and J Street criticized the settler reaction, which included setting fire to olive trees, stoning vehicles and pedestrians, and defacing Muslim graves with the Star of David. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert termed the violence a “pogrom.”

Reports of Jewish assaults on Hebron Arabs and their property are the latest in the a series of incidents that have prompted growing concern, both in Jerusalem and Washington, that right-wing agitation is threatening to spiral out of control.

In September, a prominent left-wing academic, Ze’ev Sternhell, was injured by a pipe bomb that authorities believe Jewish extremists planted outside his Jerusalem home. And Israeli police this month arrested two teenagers they believe participated in the ideologically motivated stabbing of an Israeli Arab near the ultra-Orthodox Mea She’arim neighborhood of Jerusalem.

On Dec. 9 the Zionist Organization of America, which had established a Hebron office in the disputed building, said that it also would be issuing a statement condemning any Jewish violence. But the ZOA’s president, Morton Klein, noted that his organization rejects the Israeli government’s decision out of hand, takes vigorous issue with Olmert’s characterization of the violence and sees the violence as the reaction of a “handful” of young people.

But most American Jewish groups have strongly denounced the attacks, with the ADL offering the most robust condemnation of the settlers who took part in the violence.

“The attacks against Palestinians, their farms, cemeteries and other Muslim property by Jewish extremists are deeply troubling and unacceptable,” the ADL said. “These attacks and those against Israeli soldiers and police, who were there to enforce a Supreme Court order to evacuate a contested building, are a direct assault on the rule of law and only serve to undermine Israel’s democratic institutions.”

The Orthodox Union, which in the past has drawn attention to the plight of evacuated Jewish settlers, chose not to issue a statement regarding the events in Hebron.

But the president of the Orthodox Union, Stephen Savitsky, said that the OU position was more or less the same as that of the ZOA: The government should not have evacuated the house, the ensuing violence was without justification and the Olmert comment was “ridiculous.”

Asked why the OU had not spoken out on the subject of Jewish violence against government forces and Palestinians as it did during its Jerusalem convention in November on the future status of the Israeli capital, Savitsky said, “There are a lot of circumstances here. It’s a complicated situation. It’s not black and white. It’s not cut and dry.

“Jerusalem,” he added, “is as simple as anything.”

Ben Harris

Ben Harris is a JTA correspondent.