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
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.
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.