To the casual observer of news from the Middle East, it would appear that the biggest story coming out of Israel lately is what some outlets are describing as a surge in settler violence against Palestinians. According to B’Tselem, an anti-settler group that is nonetheless treated as if it is an impartial and objective source by Western publications, the number of attacks by Jews living in West Bank settlements on neighboring Arabs is allegedly up by nearly 50 percent in the previous year. In this telling, radical Jews—motivated by nationalism-inspired hatred for Arabs—are guilty of numerous instances of stone-throwing and even shootings, along with so-called “price tag” attacks in which Palestinian property is vandalized.
The question we should be asking about the hyping of the threat of settler violence is not whether it’s true that a small percentage of residents in Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria have engaged in confrontations with Palestinians or that some have broken the law by committing violence. It’s whether the decision on the part of activist groups and some in the media to treat these incidents as emblematic of why it is wrong for Jews to live in the territories is justified, as well as why the focus on settler violence is almost always bereft of the broader context of what is going on in the West Bank on a far more frequent basis: daily attacks on Jews by Arabs, including murder.
While Arab violence doesn’t justify gratuitous Jewish responses or reprisals, there is something wrong if a few Jews throwing stones is considered far more important than the fact that attacks on Jews in the same areas is more or less the national sport of Palestinians.
The double standard is what is outrageous. All of the several hundred thousand Israelis who live in what the international community considers to be “occupied territory” and, by extension, the entire Jewish population of the country are held somehow responsible for the crimes of a few. Yet at the same time exponentially greater volumes of Palestinian violence is considered either unremarkable or somehow justified. If so, then it’s clear that the subject here is not so much the conduct of the settlers as it is the delegitimization of Jews.
The picture painted of incidents of Jewish violence in the various accounts that have been circulated by groups like B’Tselem, J Street and anti-Zionist publications like The Intercept and +972 Magazine, and then recycled in mainstream media outlets like The New York Times, is an ugly one.
Most of the perpetrators are “hilltop youth”—unruly young people who are inhabitants of settlements not authorized by the Israeli government. Others are profiled as disturbed young people who have slipped through the cracks of social-service agencies and are now acting out their personal issues in ways that exacerbate and further embitter the century-long conflict over Zionism. The accounts depict them as swooping down on innocent Palestinian farmers’ attempt to harvest olives, merely going about their daily lives while being subjected to brutal assaults.
As such, the settler violence problem isn’t merely deplored as criminal or shameful; it is held up as the embodiment of everything that liberal Jews and critics of Zionism think is wrong with contemporary Israel. The allegedly thuggish settler population illustrates notions about how nationalism and intolerance for Arabs is subverting, if not altogether obliterating, Jewish values and ethics.
Seen from this perspective, it’s not surprising that the problem was recently denounced by leading members of the Israeli government such as Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and Security Minister Omar Bar-Lev. And those who denounce Jewish attacks on innocent Palestinian victims are right to say that it is wrong and, like any other instance of illegal behavior, should be denounced and punished.
But why is it that relatively rare incidents of Jewish misbehavior—which number, if one includes vandalism and treats as credible every single report made by Palestinians or anti-settler groups, a few hundred over the course of a year—are considered more newsworthy or shocking than Palestinian attacks of all kinds on settlers, which are a daily occurrence and likely number more than a few hundred every month. That’s especially true when the toll of terrorist attacks—the latest one having happened on Thursday, when a car full of yeshivah students was fired at by Palestinians, killing one of the Jews in the car and wounding two others—are rarely considered all that newsworthy even when they result in murder.
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s response to the statements from members of his cabinet was derided by some as an attempt to appease those who voted for his Yamina Party and who believe that he betrayed them by forming a coalition with left-wingers. But he spoke the truth when he tweeted that “the settlers in Judea and Samaria have been suffering from violence and terrorism every day for decades,” and that it was wrong to engage in generalizations about settlers because of the behavior of a few people.
One of the reasons for the obsessive focus on settler violence is that it is partly understandable that the Jewish world would be more interested in what some Jews do than in the conduct of others. Still, that introspection—which in many cases becomes not so much a case of soul-searching as it is a desire to denigrate and denounce those whom the Jewish left despises because of their politics—is far from being the complete answer.
It’s also a function of the lower standard by which Palestinian Arabs are always judged. Though those who are angered by attacks on them claim the moral high ground, the pass they give the Arabs for their far more frequent practice of terrorism speaks to a kind of racist condescension, rather than respect or concern for their well-being.
Also absent from this discussion is any context regarding some of the incidents involving alleged Jewish violence. Many of them occur in fracases over disputed property when Palestinians seek to cultivate land to which they have no legal title, often adjacent to Jewish communities. The assumption in many accounts of settler behavior that the Jews are always in the wrong in these disturbances is unjustified.
It’s also true that—in contrast to the left-wing groups and the Israeli intelligence services and military whose job it is to monitor settler violence because of the security implications—statistics from Israeli Police tell a slightly different story. As The Times of Israel reported in a story in which the police’s account is buried underneath that of the settlers’ accusers:
“The Israel Police says the number of incidents is decreasing by the year even as indictments go up. According to official police figures, from 2019 to 2021 there has been a 61.1% drop in so-called ‘price tag’ attacks, in which extremist settlers assault Palestinians or vandalize their property in response to Israeli authorities taking action against them. They also say that the number of indictments of Jewish extremists has doubled from 16 to 32 over the past year.”
If so, then not only is the problem not growing, but contrary to those who accuse Israeli authorities of turning a blind eye to settler violence if not condoning it, the government has been cracking down, as they should, on offenders.
Illegal behavior can’t be justified even if it comes after so many attacks on Jews. But the public breast-beating about the settlers and the so-called moral toll of the “occupation” is not merely disproportionate. It is also part of a narrative intended to whitewash, rationalize and even justify violence against Jews for having the temerity to live in parts of the Jewish homeland where Arabs don’t want them. Those who treat this as one more reason to demonize the settlers or Zionism aren’t merely exaggerating the problem; they are inflating it in order to support a cause whose aim isn’t adjusting Israel’s borders but to destroy the Jewish state.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.