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The settlers who beat me didn't care that I am an observant Jew

The settlers of Yitzhar beat me with crowbars and threw a stone at my head that split open the skin. Then they set fire to the olive groves.

By Isaac Johnston

The author seen harvesting olives in the Palestinian village of Burin before he was attacked by settlers from the nearby settlement of Yitzhar. (Isaac Johnston)

The author seen harvesting olives in the Palestinian village of Burin before he was attacked by settlers from the nearby settlement of Yitzhar. (Isaac Johnston)

On October 16 a group of approximately 15 masked Jewish settlers, armed with metal crowbars and rocks, attacked volunteers from Rabbis for Human Rights as they helped the Palestinian residents of Burin harvest their olives. I was one of those volunteers.

The attackers hit me on my back and shin with crowbars, and threw a stone at my head that split open the skin, causing a wound that required four stitches. Even as we yelled that we were leaving and pleaded with them not to harm us, they continued to attack. Then they set fire to the olive grove.

I always wondered what the reaction of my own community would be if something like this happened to me.

As an American Jew who is critical of Israeli government policies, I have experienced verbal attacks. In high school, because I supported J Street, some of my fellow Jews accosted me and spat out verbal epithets; they called me a kapo or a self-hating Jew, comparing me to Hitler or Mussolini.

But I never imagined my fellow Jews attacking me physically — let alone during the holy days of Sukkot.

Before the incident in Burin, I imagined my criticism of Israeli policies might lead to my being held back for extra questioning at Ben Gurion Airport, or to some other type of verbal harassment. I wondered whether the Jewish institutions in which I had been raised, and which influenced my views and life path, would issue a statement if that happened. If the Jewish day schools I attended would comment publicly; or if Hillel, to which I dedicated the last four years of my life, would condemn anything Israel did. I wondered if the Chicago Jewish community would speak up.

Last week’s incident was one of 150 documented violent attacks committed in 2019 by residents of Yitzhar, which is only one of several radical settlements in the West Bank. This attack was meant to terrorize the volunteers and local Palestinians. The perpetrators did not target our heads to kill, but rather our kneecaps and legs to injure. They did this to indicate that they are the lords of the land — even if that title is exacted at the price of beating an 80 year-old rabbi.



Spokespersons from Yitzhar acknowledged the incident had occurred, although they blamed it on left-wing provocation. Nevertheless, trolls and conspiracy theorists accused me and the other volunteers with Rabbis for Human Rights of having invented the incident; they used terms like “Pallywood” to indicate their skepticism. As one friend wrote on Facebook, ” …the presumption of innocence belongs to every person living in Yitzhar, but this young man [referring to me], who I know as a decent and honest young man, is an unreliable source because he is an ‘activist.'”

As an observant Jew, I am struck by the thought that I could walk into Yitzhar tomorrow, put on my tefillin and pray with my attackers or study a page of Talmud with them. We share many of the same religious beliefs, but differ drastically in the way we implement them in our daily lives. We both believe that our actions bring God’s presence into the world, but their committing violence to do so is completely antithetical to my own beliefs and practices. In fact, their views are the opposite of what I believe is the essence of Judaism.

Illustrative photo of a masked Jewish settler with a slingshot in the West Bank settlement of Yitzhar, May 19, 2013. (Mendy Hechtman/Flash90)

Illustrative photo of a masked Jewish settler with a slingshot in the West Bank settlement of Yitzhar, May 19, 2013. (Mendy Hechtman/Flash90)

Some people have suggested that I meet with the people who attacked me and the other volunteers. They seem not to understand that their suggestion is predicated on the knowledge that those youth from Yitzhar will suffer no legal repercussions for having violently attacked peaceful, unarmed people in the presence of many eyewitnesses. I might agree to meet them under one condition — if they were behind bars for assault and battery with a deadly weapon.

Recently Elizabeth Warren suggested withholding U.S. aid to Israel pending an Israeli commitment to freeze expansion of West Bank settlements. On Tuesday Meretz MK Tamar Zandberg called for the evacuation of Yitzhar, which she described as “one of the most fertile hotbeds for Jewish terror, price tag operations and daily delinquency.” Meanwhile, transportation minister Bezalel Smotrich, of the far-right Tkuma party, had the gall to describe violent attacks committed by residents of Yitzhar against Israeli soldiers as “civil disobedience.”

The American Jewish establishment must wake up and prod the Israeli government to confront the Jewish terrorism that flourishes within the settlement enterprise.

I hope the Jewish institutions that educated me, and the people who raised me with the values and convictions that brought me to Burin, will condemn the violent extremists of Yitzhar. As soon as I recover, I will return to the olive harvest. There is work to be done.

Isaac Johnston graduated from the University of Chicago in June and currently studies at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem. He was raised in the Chicago Jewish community and was involved with J Street U and Hillel while in college. He plans on making Aliyah after his year in yeshiva.

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    1. itshak Gordine

      Why does a man of this age visit a politically troubled region? Has he sought the permission of the authorities that govern this region. That would have avoided this unfortunate mishap not to mention that it provoked the intervention of the military police. When a foreigner goes to a place where there is trouble, the least he can do is ask for permission. This is done in all countries of the world.

      Reply to Comment
      • Bruce Gould

        @Itshak: “Why does a man of this age visit a politically troubled region?”

        Because Israel’s treatment of Palestinians is a tumor on the soul of Judaism, and he’s an observant Jew.

        Reply to Comment
        • Itshak Gordine

          An observant Jew is obliged to respect the law of the country where he is. Any rabbi will tell you.

          Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            @Itshak Gordine: See Tommy Goldberg’s reply to you. What country? What law? Israel and the territories it occupies is “a country”? How is that? Or do you mean the law of the :occupier? Does Israel have a law against olive picking? Does it have a law against helping an Arab person pick his olives? Does Israel have a law against setting upon olive pickers or rabbis with crowbars and committing arson? Why are you not remonstrating against the crowbar wielders? Not a peep about those observant Jews wielding crowbars against humans? Why is that? Is a Jew who takes a crowbar to an olive farmer and burns his trees an “observant” Jew? Is that Jew respecting the laws of the country he is in? The questions multiply.

            To recapitulate:

            Were the “observant” Jews who savagely beat people picking olives “respecting the law of the country”? Is it the law of the country that its inhabitants are not allowed to pick olives while Arab? Or are not allowed to be Jewish helping an Arab’? Does that law support vigilante beatings with crowbars and the burning of trees? If not, why are you not demanding that the crowbar wielding “observant” Jews be arrested and punished with severity commensurate to the crime? Instead of talking of “mishaps”?

            Reply to Comment
      • Justin Philips

        When does beating a person with a crow bar become an unfortunate mishap (unlucky accident-oed ). These thugs wore masks and were armed. To call this a mishap is a degredation of language. This was a planned pre meditated beating up.

        Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        Justin Philips you are absolutely right about “the degradation of language here, it is a key point.

        Where to begin with this Itshak Gordine’s misuse of language?

        – “a man of this age” – at what age should youthful idealism begin—age 60?

        – “a politically troubled region” – What place should a young Jewish activist visit? Mary Poppins Land? Go to the beach for a sun tan? Note also the attempt to whitewash and normalize. “It’s not like we are brutally occupying and subjugating another people while we steal their land, no, it’s just, sigh, ‘a politically troubled region’ and one that needs some earnest two-sides-ism to keep the fretful ‘political trouble’ between two equal ‘sides’ in the status quo for fifty more years.”

        – “Has he sought the permission of the authorities that govern this region”? – Note the substitution of “govern” for “occupy and rule militarily while applying two sets of laws and punishments to two groups based on ethnicity (aka apartheid).” Note the thoroughly cynical pretense of “seeking permission” he knows would never ever be granted.

        – “unfortunate mishap” – Note that brutal assault and battery with a deadly weapon, for helping someone pick their olives, and the setting fire to an olive grove, are described as just an “unfortunate mishap.” Note that the military police are described as having been “provoked” by Isaac, not by marauding thugs and arsonists. Note the complete absence of any condemnation of the settlers.

        – “a foreigner” – Note that every one of the settlers, including Itshak Gordine, is in reality an illegal foreigner (see the issue with the verb “govern,” above). Note that the objection is not to Jewish foreigners, but to a certain kind of Jewish foreigner who won’t get with the far right settlement program and has the temerity to help a Palestinian pick olives from his olive trees.

        – “This is done in all countries of the world.” The entity comprising Israel and the territories it occupies is not “a country.” First of all. Secondly, in most actual other countries, and certainly the ones Itshak wants us to think of, nothing of the kind is done. It IS done in China where the brutal, horrifying subjugation and cultural genocide of the Uighur minority inside cruel concentration camps is being systematically carried out as I write. Is this the kind of country Itshak has in mind to emulate?

        Reply to Comment
      • Tommy Goldberg

        “Has he sought the permission of the authorities that govern this region[?]”

        Wait a minute, Itshak! Are you saying that Judea & Samaria is NOT an integral part of Israel!?

        Isaac Johnston was legally admitted to Israel. Of COURSE he is entitled to travel anywhere in Israel, then. Furthermore, Israel — the nation state of the Jews — is HIS country to begin with.


        Reply to Comment
    2. Rivka Koen

      The settlers don’t consider you an observant Jew at all. Why do Conservative Jews continue deluding themselves otherwise? I grew up Conservative and observant and went to a Jewish day school with strict halakhic restrictions. The refusal of Conservative Jews to acknowledge the reality of our status in Medinat Yisrael has been a huge turnoff for me as an adult.

      Reply to Comment
    3. itshak Gordine

      Why constantly use the term “settler”. It is an insult to Jews who seek to defend their heritage. Why not use the phrase “Jewish inhabitants of Judea and Samaria”? It would be so much more respectful and polite.

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        More abuse of language. They are settlers. Persons who have migrated to an area and established a permanent residence there, often to colonize the area, in this case at gunpoint, and displacing longstanding inhabitants, ruthlessly subjugating them using an apartheid system. The argument is that their West Bank-localized, land-worshiping “heritage,” a subjective, think tank- and Zionist movement-crafted internal modern identity, however hallowed, does not entitle the settlers to do that.

        To assert that one feels “insulted” by these facts is to argue that one’s subjective sense of identity is transformative of reality, and trumps all ordinary human rights considerations, and it is something like a White American Southerner claiming that he is very proud of his heritage and this entitles him to regard black persons as foreigners…

        …”foreigners who can stay if they obey our laws and realize we are sovereign, and they have to realize that the lands of the South belong to the White people, it’s Manifest Destiny (God told us this and our great Christian ministers teach us great things about this–it’s in the Bible, about Noah and Ham and all that) and if we declare their farms closed military zones and appropriate them and push them into ever smaller bantustans we only do this for the safety of White people, naturally, because those blacks are terrorists, you see. Oh, and if you don’t live in the South then you don’t know nuthin’ and reading that leftist rag the Atlanta Journal-Constitution is a joke.”

        Besides all that, calling settlers “inhabitants” is a tactic of normalization of the occupation.

        Reply to Comment
    4. Danny

      Hey man, I’m a Jew, former oleh and former Zionist, and I plead with you: don’t make aliyah. I did what I think you think you’ll do: you go out there and change the system. You won’t. Most “left wing” Americans who I had made aliyah with, are all back home. The racist, sick culture that Israel has developed, not helped in anyway by the thousands of rightwing nut olim moving there. Stay home. Be proud to be an American Jew.

      Reply to Comment
      • itshak Gordine

        New immigrants are welcome to Israel and there are tens of thousands (among them Americans) to enjoy. Little leftist givers of moral lessons will feel uncomfortable in Israel.

        Reply to Comment
        • Ben

          “Little leftist givers of moral lessons”

          Translation from the Hardali-Oztma-Yehuditese dialect:

          “Any Jew with an education, a conscience, the ability to think for himself, and independence from the ruthless local tribalistic land-worshiping cult and who therefore does not stake his self-esteem on what Israeli Jews think of them, and knows that the last thing he needs is the patronizing, condescending advice of a Hardali-Otzma-Yehuditese speaker.”

          An American Jew trying to find himself can go to the local Scientology “church” and get brainwashed that way, can disappear down the Israeli settler-land nationalist-religious rabbit hole and get brainwashed that way, or can seek an authentic relationship to reality like Danny has achieved. Danny sounds like a strong person, a proud American Jew who knows who he is and will not be condescended to. The corollary that comes to mind is that it is weak persons these days who need to wrap themselves in one form or another of nativist, supremacist cult-think. And demagogic politicians and rabbis are only too happy to prey on their weakness and sell them that political snake oil.

          Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            If that’s a wall of words to high for you to climb, an “avalanche,” then here’s the short version: You’re obnoxious.

            Reply to Comment
    5. Beentheredonethat

      Sadly, this hatred and extremism will be Netanyahu’s legacy…how many decades will it take to be undone, will Israel survive long enough to do so…

      And anyone who thinks Netanyahu’s cozying up to Trump will protect Israel, take a look at what Trump did and said for his Kurdish allies.

      Reply to Comment
      • john

        netanyahu, like trump, is a symptom rather than the disease. hint: the disease is colonialism.

        Reply to Comment