Head of prestigious yeshiva: Settler riots a moral stain on us all, contravene Torah

Rabbi Mosheh Lichtenstein of Har Etzion in West Bank: Violence in Palestinian villages ‘driven by dark forces in people’s souls,’ ‘pulls rug out from under our claim to morality’

Rabbi Moshe Lichtenstein, head of the Har Etzion yeshiva, speaks during a protest of right-wing demonstrators against the Israeli government's planned judicial overhaul, in Jerusalem, on March 11, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
File: Rabbi Moshe Lichtenstein , head of the Har Etzion yeshiva, speaks during a protest of right-wing demonstrators against the Israeli government's planned judicial overhaul, in Jerusalem, on March 11, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

A rabbi at the top of a prominent settlement yeshiva issued a vehement condemnation Friday of recent settler attacks on Palestinian villages, calling their actions “a moral stain that taints us all.”

Rabbi Mosheh Lichtenstein, the co-head of the prestigious Har Etzion religious seminary in the Alon Shvut settlement in the West Bank, spoke in a Facebook post of “a double pain,” both for the deaths of innocent Israelis “who were murdered in cold blood” in recent terror attacks in the West Bank, as well as “pain for the acts of revenge by lost and misbegotten souls.”

Lichtenstein said he was disappointed that clear and sharp condemnations had not so far been issued by key leaders in the communities from which Jewish assailants had come, and thus “I will allow myself to sound the cry.”

He said the entire public “is responsible for creating the atmosphere that allowed these acts to take place” and thus must conduct serious soul-searching.

While stressing that security forces should act aggressively against terror, he underlined that “harm to those who have not committed a crime is a moral and religious wrong that stands in opposition to all values of the Torah” and is “also a desecration of God.”

Lichtenstein noted that “the central problem with sowing destruction in Palestinian villages is not ‘the loss of governance’ or ‘the harm to the settlement community’ but rather the moral wrong” of the act.

Cars burned by settlers during riots in Hawara, in the West Bank, near Nablus, February 27, 2023. (Erik Marmor/Flash90)

Such acts were “driven by the dark forces in people’s souls” and “pull the rug out from under our claim to morality in the face of those who harm us.”

The rabbi warned that “the understanding and lack of decisiveness shown by educators, rabbis, the public and our leaders toward previous acts of violence against Palestinians has led to the expansion of the phenomenon.”

He said one could not “ignore the historic associative connection to pogroms in Jewish villages across the generations, and our responsibility in light of [this past] toward villages we control.”

Finally, he said the violence was tied to violence in Israeli society as a whole, “including violence on the roads, in the family, etc. Tackling it comprehensively and thoroughly is tied to tackling violence in society at large.”

Earlier this week Rabbi Yaakov Medan, a leading figure in the religious-Zionist community and a dean at Har Etzion Yeshiva, condemned the riots as well.

Medan told The Times of Israel such attacks were “not our language or values” and condemned in particular the destruction of books, said to be copies of the Quran, which took place in the Palestinian village of Urif several days ago.

Rabbi Yaakov Medan speaks during a protest in front of the Knesset against the planned eviction of the illegal outpost of Amona, January 30, 2017. (Hadas Parush/FLASH90)

The rabbi added that the Jewish riots also divert attention and resources from dealing with Palestinian terrorism and should therefore come to an immediate end.

Jewish extremists have in recent weeks attacked several Palestinian villages in the northern West Bank, setting fire to homes, vehicles and agricultural fields and in some instances shooting at residents with assault rifles, including in Turmus Ayya, Urif and Umm Safa.

These incidents followed the terror attack outside the settlement of Eli in which four Israelis were killed when two Palestinian gunmen opened fire on people eating at a restaurant next to a gas station.

The riots have been condemned by politicians, including some from the right-wing coalition, but there has been little clear-cut condemnation from settlement leaders or religious figures.

Har Etzion Yeshiva has been seen as a relatively moderate institution, politically and religiously, owing to the outlook of its founders, although Medan himself has strong right-wing views, opposed the Oslo Accords and has backed right-wing parties.

“We must do everything, but everything, in order to stop these riots,” Medan said.

A screenshot from video of settlers firing at the West Bank village of Umm Safa on June 24, 2023. (Twitter video screenshot: Used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

“We do not harm people who have a presumption of innocence. We attack only murderers and those who help them, and that is done by the State of Israel and the security forces, and not every person in a private manner,” he said. “Entering into Arab villages, burning homes, cars, fields must be totally denounced.”

On Wednesday Defense Minister Yoav Gallant signed administrative detention orders to hold four Jewish extremists involved in recent attacks without charges, in line with recommendations from the Shin Bet security service.

The four are currently imprisoned, the Defense Ministry confirmed. Administrative detention enables them to be held in custody without charges for renewable six-month periods, practically indefinitely.

The measure, which is rarely used against Jewish Israelis, comes amid mounting pressure on Israel to curb the spate of vigilante attacks.

A senior defense official said that “the four detainees have been involved for years in violent incidents, both open and secret.”

“In the past, they were detained and restraining orders were issued, but despite this, they have continued with their actions,” the official said, alleging that the four were behind the torching of several Palestinian homes and vehicles last week.

Administrative detention can be employed when the military or Shin Bet can provide evidence of suspects posing an immediate danger, but detainees are not granted access to the often-classified evidence against them. While it is rarely used against Jewish suspects, nearly 1,000 Palestinians are currently held in custody under the practice.

Palestinians inspect the damage to a Palestinian house after it was set on fire by extremist Jewish settlers in the West Bank town of Turmus Ayya on June 21, 2023 (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed)

The controversial practice is one of the few tools available to the defense minister to combat Jewish extremism in the West Bank. As Israel has extended much of its laws over Israeli citizens within the territory, criminal matters largely fall under the purview of the police and the civilian judicial system.

Palestinians, by contrast, are subject to martial law.

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir of the far-right Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) party slammed the administrative detentions as disproportionate, saying that while the police and Shin Bet have not cracked down on crime in the Arab community, “boys suspected of setting fire to property — a crime worthy of condemnation and strict police treatment — immediately get the Shin Bet and administrative detentions.”

Head of the Otzma Yehudit party National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir leads a faction meeting at the Knesset, June 12, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, who leads the far-right Religious Zionism party and is also an independent minister in the Defense Ministry, said that “the use of administrative detentions against settlers is democratically and morally wrong.”

Smotrich implied that Gallant signed the orders in order to exact revenge, tweeting that: “When its purpose is not to prevent future risk but to settle accounts with the detainees due to past acts attributed to them, it is also completely illegal.”

He insisted that “lawbreakers must be dealt with through criminal law,” and appeared to attack the police, saying that “if only the systems were more professional and less lazy, they would be more than enough.”

Gallant has held several closed-door meetings with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Ben Gvir, and the military chief of staff since riots, vandalism and violence by Jewish Israelis against West Bank Palestinians restarted last week, on the heels of the Palestinian shooting attack outside the settlement of Eli.

Gallant was said to express his intention during those meetings to take action against settler-led violence.

Ben Gvir, a far-right settlement advocate who ran a network of extremist activists before joining politics, reportedly blocked the coalition from condemning settler actions after a Tuesday meeting with Netanyahu and Gallant. Instead, he called for a harsher crackdown on Palestinians.

Ben Gvir also reportedly accused the other participants of blowing the issue out of proportion, calling settler vigilantes “sweet kids” who are turned into adults by being put in administrative detention.

“I got my [detention] order at 18. You’re turning snot-nosed kids into heroes,” he was quoted as saying by the Kan public broadcaster.

The violence has received international condemnation and reignited a nationwide conversation on Jewish extremism and the proper role of police and security establishment in its countering.

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