How one hilltop became an incubator for Israeli settler violence

The Israeli government has done little to stop the religious settlers of Yitzhar, whose extremist doctrine is instigating waves of violence against Palestinians in the West Bank.

On Oct. 16, 2019, masked settlers from Yitzhar and its surrounding outposts assaulted Israeli and American-Jewish activists who were assisting Palestinians with their olive harvest, among them an 80-year-old rabbi. Three days later, settlers in the same area attacked Palestinians farming their land. For the following two days, Yitzhar residents also attacked Israeli Border Police troops, part of a running series of altercations after the military arrested a settler suspected of setting fire to a plot of Palestinian-owned land.

This spasm of violence — which took place during the Jewish holiday of Sukkot — was one of many that occurred throughout the occupied West Bank in the last few months of 2019. Assaults on Palestinians and Israeli security forces, and vandalism of Palestinian property, including arson, were reported in Gush Etzion, Hebron, Bat Ayin, Hizma, and beyond. Although there has been, according to the Israeli Defense Ministry, an overall drop in the number of hate crimes by settlers this year compared to 2018, their scale and level of violence is increasing.

Yitzhar is located in the northern West Bank (generally referred to in Israel as “Samaria”), where settlers tend to cluster in hilltop outposts dotted around Palestinian population centers. This part of the occupied territories is particularly prone to settler violence, yet it is no accident that Yitzhar has been at the heart of the latest extended bout of settler aggression.

Yitzhar was founded in 1983 as a military outpost on a hilltop near the Palestinian city of Nablus and turned into a civilian settlement via a government directive the following year. The original settlement was established on agricultural land belonging to several Palestinian villages, including Burin and Huwara, which have borne the brunt of settler violence in the area over the years. Starting in the late 1990s, numerous illegal outposts sprung up on neighboring hilltops.

Since 2000, Yitzhar has been home to the Od Yosef Chai (“Joseph Still Lives”) yeshiva, which has long been notorious for schooling its students on the permissibility — and even necessity — of violence against non-Jews. Founded in 1982, with its umbrella charitable organization incorporated in 1983, the yeshiva stood at the site of Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus for nearly 20 years, until transferring to Yitzhar when the IDF dismantled its military outpost at the tomb during the Second Intifada. The yeshiva and the encampment at Joseph’s Tomb were a frequent flashpoint during their lifetime, and the tomb itself continues to serve as a pilgrimage site for radical settlers, whose monthly night-time expeditions often provoke violence.

How one hilltop became an incubator for Israeli settler violence
View of the “Komi Ori” outpost in the settlement of Yitzhar in the West Bank, on December 1, 2019. (Sraya Diamant/Flash90)

The spiritual figurehead of the yeshiva and the settlement is Od Yosef Chai President Yitzchak Ginsburgh, a Missouri-born ultra-Orthodox rabbi who has amassed a dedicated and extensive following over the course of his career. His students and acolytes have been at the forefront of promoting and carrying out violence against Palestinians over the past decade. And despite the condemnations made from the top ranks of government when another assault or inciteful publication is traced back to Ginsburgh’s yeshiva, it continues to operate — all while receiving a modest yearly sum from the local regional council.

It is largely thanks to the teachings of Ginsburgh and his deputies, and the violence they have encouraged, that Yitzhar has become known as one of the most extreme of the radical settlements. But while reports of its residents’ physical aggression often makes the news, the ideology underlying it — and the state’s unwillingness to seriously address it — receive far less attention.

Non-Jews as ‘subhuman’

“All who knew Baruch [Goldstein] felt he acted out of his Jewish character… This was not the reaction of an ignorant Jew — which should also be blessed — but of a learned and model man.”

This was Ginsburgh’s reaction to the massacre at Hebron’s Ibrahimi Mosque/Cave of the Patriarchs in February 1994, in which the Brooklyn-born Baruch Goldstein gunned down 29 Muslim worshipers before being beaten to death after his rifle jammed. Ginsburgh penned his assessment in “Baruch HaGever” (‘Baruch the Man/Blessed is the Man’), a collection of essays and eulogies published the year after the attack.

Like many of the book’s contributors, Ginsburgh presents Goldstein’s terrorism as a testament to his value as a human being, inseparable from his career as a doctor, and as an example of righteous violence with deep theological rationale and justification. Drawing on an array of Jewish scripture, Ginsburgh framed the mass-murder as at once an act of Jewish preservation; a strike against “evil” (in which Palestinians are rendered as the current incarnation of Amalek, the biblical enemies of the Israelites); and an effort to safeguard the Land of Israel for the Jewish people.

How one hilltop became an incubator for Israeli settler violence
American-born Israeli rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh, president of the Od Yosef Chai Yeshiva in the settlement of Yitzhar, speaks at a Chabad conference in Tel Aviv, on December 02, 2015. (Tomer Neuberg / FLASH90)

At the heart of Ginsburgh’s ideology is the acceptability and morality of Jewish violence against non-Jews. Underpinning this, as the Israeli professor of religion Motti Inbari has written, is his conception of non-Jews as effectively “subhuman” — meaning that the commandment “You shall not kill,” which relates to humans, applies only to Jews.

This interpretation of the Ten Commandments informed another notorious publication to emerge from Yitzhar, this time by Ginsburgh followers Yosef Elitzur and Yitzhak Shapira — the latter of whom heads the Od Yosef Chai yeshiva. Their 2009 volume, “Torat Hamelech” (“The King’s Torah”), similarly argued that the sin of murder only applied to Jewish-on-Jewish violence, and explicitly permitted the killing of non-Jewish children and babies if, they wrote, “it is clear they will grow to harm us.” That book, like “Baruch HaGever,” earned its authors indictments for incitement to racism and violence, but no prosecution resulted.

In a separate incident several years later, Elitzur earned a further indictment for incitement to violence after publishing an article on the far-right news site HaKol HaYehudi run out of Yitzhar. The article set out guidelines that would develop into what came to be known as  “price tag” attacks, a term given to hate crimes and violence carried out by Israeli extremists against anyone deemed to be jeopardizing the settlement project, including Palestinians and left-wing Israeli activists. The editors of HaKol HaYehudi have also been hauled up on similar charges.

Perhaps the most well-known of the latest generation of Ginsburgh’s mentees is Meir Ettinger, a hilltop youth leader who is suspected of involvement in numerous violent crimes against Palestinians. Ettinger, a former student of Ginsburgh, is a regular blogger on HaKol HaYehudi; he recently called Ginsburgh “the most genuine Jew in the world,” and mused, “When I imagine a Jewish leader, when I imagine King David — he looks like [Ginsburgh].”

Seedbed for settler violence

The belief in morally defensible and at times mandatory violence is hardly uncommon on the Israeli far right. The Brooklyn-born rabbi Meir Kahane, who had a storied career of spectacular violence in both his native and adopted countries, once told an American television interviewer that “violence is a mitzvah (Jewish spiritual commandment)” when it’s undertaken in order to protect Jews. The election manifesto of the Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) party, made up of the late Kahane’s disciples, explicitly links Jewish religious law and “total war” against “Israel’s enemies.”

Baruch Goldstein, a follower of Kahane who had also been a city council member in Kiryat Arba on behalf of his Kach party, may have taken that doctrine to the extreme, but it still informs wide swathes of the religious right — including those who defended, and continue to defend, Goldstein’s rampage in Hebron. Rabbi Dov Lior, the former Chief Rabbi of Hebron and Kiryat Arba, openly endorsed “Torat Hamelech.”

Moreover, Ginsburgh is hardly the only influential rabbi to indoctrinate generations of students in religious schools with a scriptural rationale for inter-ethnic and inter-religious violence. Indeed, the system of religious pre-military preparatory academies throughout Israel — the first of which appeared in the settlement of Eli in 1988 — arguably follows a similar logic, even if they are less explicit in their programming than yeshivas such as Od Yosef Chai.

How one hilltop became an incubator for Israeli settler violence
Masked Israeli settlers watch after Palestinian fields were set on fire in the village of Asira al-Qiblyia in the northern West Bank on June 2, 2010. According to Palestinian villagers, Jewish settlers from the nearby Yitzhar settlement set ablaze their olive and wheat fields. (Wagdi Ashtiyeh/Flash90)

For example, Rabbi Eli Sadan, the head of the Eli academy, compared the 2014 Gaza war to the biblical narrative of Samson’s battles with the Philistines, which ended with Samson pulling a temple in Gaza down onto his and his Philistine oppressors’ heads, killing them all. Countless religious-Zionist rabbis have also cited Palestinians as present-day biblical enemies, with the implication that their ultimate fate should be, and will be, annihilation.

Yet Yitzhar and its yeshiva are a case apart, not only in terms of the frequency with which its inhabitants are involved in or linked to settler violence, but also in terms of their ideological profile. The residents are predominantly ultra-Orthodox nationalists — known in Hebrew as hardalim (a compound word of haredi, ultra-Orthodox, and leumi, nationalist). In this sense, Yitzhar represents something of a generational transfer of the seedbed for extremist settler action against both Palestinians and the state.

From the 1970s to the 1990s, Jewish terrorism mostly stemmed from religious-Zionist groups and movements such as Gush Emunim and the Kach party, and had its stronghold in Kiryat Arba. Kahane himself is memorialized in Kiryat Arba by a park bearing his name, which is also home to Baruch Goldstein’s grave. The 2000s and 2010s, however, have seen an even more radical movement emerge — one which almost entirely rejects the authority of the state and which has been behind some of the most brutal attacks on Palestinians in the past decade. The face of this new far right is the hilltop youth, for whom Ginsburgh is a spiritual mentor.

Ettinger himself is emblematic of this generational, ideological, and geographical transfer of the vanguard of Israeli right-wing extremism. Just as Ginsburgh has been touted as the spiritual successor to Kahane, so Ettinger — Kahane’s grandson — has followed the teachings of his ultra-Orthodox mentor, rather than of his relative. (In 2016, during Ettinger’s administrative detention in the wake of the Duma arson attack that killed three members of a Palestinian family, Libby Kahane — Kahane’s widow — expressed her disappointment that her grandson had, in her eyes, failed to follow in her late husband’s footsteps.)

Not an aberration

The Israeli government has made sporadic attempts to address Yitzhar’s role in fomenting violence across the West Bank. But beyond a handful of abandoned prosecutions of the settlement’s leaders, the Israeli authorities have made no serious attempts to curb this violence. Israeli soldiers, although a repeated target of the settlers, have even been filmed standing by as residents of Yitzhar attacked Palestinians living in the villages below the settlement.

How one hilltop became an incubator for Israeli settler violence
Jewish children look at a forest fire raging in Yitzhar, in the West Bank, on August 15, 2019. (Sraya Diamant/Flash90)

The state has, on occasion, temporarily shuttered the settlement’s institutions. In late 2011, for example, Yitzhar’s high school Dorshei Yehudcha was ordered closed after a number of its students were linked to attacks against Palestinians in the West Bank. However, the school — whose head of education is Yosef Elitzur, and whose president is Yitzchak Ginsburgh — quietly reopened and continues to operate to this day.

In 2014, Israeli security forces took over Od Yosef Chai, stationing themselves at the yeshiva for a year and forcing it to cease operations. After the army left, however, the yeshiva opened its doors once more.

Following repeated episodes of Yitzhar-led settler violence, the government in 2013 cut off hundreds of thousands of shekels it had been providing to the yeshiva every year through the Education Ministry. Yet Od Yosef Chai continues to receive tens of thousands of shekels a year from the Samaria Regional Council and has been able to maintain its non-profit status, making it eligible for tax-free donations in Israel. It also receives tax-free donations from the U.S., although the yeshiva’s official website is coy about the source of these funds (as are many right-wing settler institutions).

The real matter, however, is not just about a single settlement in the northern West Bank. The increased social marginalization of the hilltop youth has made it easier for the Israeli political mainstream to point to present-day settler violence — including that from Yitzhar — as an aberration, driven by an ideology that political leaders insist has no place in the country. But the charade of well-worn condemnations that air in the wake of the more egregious acts of settler terrorism mask the extent to which the state enables such violence.

Whether it is the socially ostracized hilltop youth or the more well-connected settler elite, the underlying ideology of biblically-mandated land conquest, ethnic purity, and theocratic law has persisted throughout the generations, and throughout the state’s institutions. The hilltop youth certainly have a more explicitly anti-governmental dimension to their worldview. But the fact remains that their ideology is deeply rooted in a society that is still, after more than 70 years, unable to even approach — let alone embrace and enshrine in law — the concept of equality, or recognize Palestinians as a native people with human rights. As long as that remains the case, the Israeli government will be unable — and arguably, unwilling — to make more than perfunctory gestures at stopping settler extremism.

Details on the ideology of Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh and his followers, and on the history of Yitzhar, were taken from the following books: Religious Zionism and the Settlement Project: Ideology, Politics, and Civil Disobedience, by Moshe Hellinger, Isaac Hershkowitz, and Bernard Susser (2018); Jewish Fundamentalism and the Temple Mount: Who Will Build the Third Temple? by Motti Inbari (2009); Baruch Hagever: Memorial Book for the Holy Dr. Baruch Goldstein, edited by Michael Ben Horin et al (1995); and How Long Will Israel Survive? The Threat From Within, by Gregg Carlstrom (2017).