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Settler rabbi fights rightist attacks with neighborly solidarity

Rabbi Menachem Froman, self-styled “settler rabbi for peace,” visits the vandalized Qusra mosque with a message of “love thy neighbor.” But with settlers opposed to him, and fast-spreading extremism, will his gospel of solidarity be enough?

By Harvey Stein & Brad Rothschild

The gulf (some might call it an abyss) between Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing government and the Palestinian Authority has led to what Uri Avnery summed up recently as “a war to decide whether the West Bank belongs to the Palestinians or the settlers.” Zeev Sternhell is even more pessimistic, asserting that the “hilltop gangs” of the settlers “are in control, in cooperation with the police and the army and with the general consensus of silence. They hold all the cards; threatening the possibility of a violent uprising against any government that does not serve their interests.”

In any case, the “incidents” from both sides are getting more frequent: since Abbas’ push for a UN vote on Palestinian statehood began, there has been increased stone-throwing at settler cars. And in the past year, there have been almost countless instances of Palestinians being harrassed or attacked by right-wing settlers, their olive groves burned or trees cut, and most dramatically, at least three mosques vandalized.

Many of the settler actions are “price tag” operations: vengeance – almost always against Palestinians in the West Bank – that follow actions such as the Israeli army demolishing illegal settlement structures.

Rabbi Menachem Froman, the “settler rabbi for peace,” from the Tekoa settlement, sometimes comes to the rescue after these price tag operations, especially ones aimed against religious symbols, like mosques. Froman has been going against the grain for over 20 years: he had a long-term friendship with Yassir Arafat, and visited the wheelchair-bound spiritual founder of Hamas, Sheikh Yassin, in Gaza (before Yassin was terminated by an Israeli Air Force missile in 2004). More recently, he has organized contingents of settlers, armed with new Korans, to visit the villages inflamed by their mosques being burned or defaced.

Froman would probably say he is just being a good Jew. He summed it up to us, “The essence of my religion is to love my neighbor – the Palestinians are my neighbors.” But not everyone would agree – many settlers regard him like they would a Peace Now activist.

On September 6, we went with Froman to the village of Qusra, south of the city of Nablus. It was about 36 hours after one of Qusra’s mosques had had its windows broken, burning tires rolled into it, and graffiti sprayed on its walls: “Mohammed is a pig,” as well as “Migron,” the illegal settlement that had three homes demolished by the Israeli military the day before. The rabbi addressed the crowd, opening and closing his speech with “Allahu Akbar!” (“God is great”), the phrase that from a Western perspective often brings to mind a suicide bomber’s declaration before he sets off his explosives. On a slightly less cynical level, Froman’s use of the phrase might remind Israeli Jews and Palestinian Muslims that we share the same God in addition to the same piece of land.

Upon seeing this video, one friend criticized Froman for painting things in terms of “good and bad.” But to us the advantages of Froman making a strong connection with the villagers by speaking their moral language, showing them a rare settler/Israeli face that empathizes with their feelings of being violated, definitely outweighs a bit of simplifying he may be doing.

The price tag movement seems to be gaining momentum. Since the Qusra mosque was vandalized, for the first time, a mosque inside the Green Line was burned – in a Bedouin Palestinian village in the northern Galilee. This time, “Palmer” was scrawled on the wall (Palmer is the name of a settler who died the week before when his front windshield was smashed by a stone thrown by Palestinian teenagers.) The Price Taggers are branching out too: in the last month, there have also been acts of vandalism against pro-peace Israelis and, recently, even against a West Bank IDF base.

More recently, on Yom Kippur eve, Muslim and Christian cemeteries in Jaffa had gravestones broken, and were defaced with the words “Kill Arabs” and “price tag.” But, when the holiest day of the Jewish calendar ended, hundreds of Jews and Palestinians marched together in protest of these attacks.

As the price tag increasingly becomes the weapon of choice of extremist settlers and their fellow travelers, the tension and anger on the ground becomes more acute. Can the courageous efforts of Froman and other like-minded Israelis and Palestinians have any real impact? Many think that time is rapidly running out for a negotiated two state solution, and with it the hopes to avoid a further rise in violence in “the Wild West Bank” and maybe in Israel proper as well.

Harvey Stein and Brad Rothschild are producing the film “A Third Way – Settlers and Palestinians as Neighbors” (Stein is also the film’s director), a documentary about Rabbi Froman and others. For more information, and to see other clips, please go here.

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    1. AYLA

      +972–you heard my fantasy! Just yesterday, I was thinking: they should cover Rabbi Froman’s movement! R. Froman and others also gave new Korans to the mosque to replace (if that is possible) those that were–so shamefully and incomprehensibly–burned. Thank you, thank you, thank you, for covering the good news. Of course, within the good is a lot of evil–so this way, what needs to change is still being covered–but from an angle that reveals the true reasons we have for feeling hopeful. You know, optimistic ;). You know who I want to feel like? @Aziz Abu Sarah. Of course, I don’t really know how he feels, but when he’s doing his peace work, from what I can observe, he has a lot of joy, and that’s because he’s out there, *doing*, engaged not only in the fight from a place of being against what is wrong (which is very important, obviously), but he’s out there engaged in his vision for how it can be better, starting from the difficult work it takes to do that within yourself. He’s also engaged with others who are doing that very deep, difficult work, and I can only imagine that he witnesses, and catalyzes, many transcendent moments in others, which in turn feeds him. Thank you, +972, for covering the good, equally challenging news. Thank you for the inspiration. The only thing that would make me feel more optimistic would be getting off this computer and getting out there myself.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Richard Witty

      I thought Froman’s statements in your last snippet were excessive.

      They reminded me of the John Reed speeches in Islamic parts of Russia, in the movie Reds.

      I don’t think that they would be followed in Israel, which is where questions need to be raised.

      Israel doesn’t need another Neturai Karta poster child. It needs a credible, followable, modelable proponent of mutual humanization that can go viral.

      Reply to Comment
    3. annie

      thanks for this, important.

      Reply to Comment
    4. It makes no difference what I say or do. The only thing that can matter right now is what those living this say and do, say and do without listening to so many voices in commentary saying what they must be, and what must happen. If that sentence makes any sense.
      The greatest weapon of nonviolence is surprise which changes others, which refuses the well rehearsed definitions. If we allow ourselves to notice.
      I suspect the greatest fear of the usual commentators is that people will start to think for themselves.
      +972, you have changed my view of Israel’s possibility. Thank you.

      Reply to Comment