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Making Way for the Messiah

All but one of the underground, whose twenty-seven members include some of the most prominent leaders of the West Bank settlement movement, were arrested after two of its members were caught attaching time bombs to five Arab buses in East Jerusalem. Underground member Ira Rappaport was in New York at the time of the arrests, working for the Eretz Yisrael Movement, an arm of Gush Emunim that recruits potential settlers from the diaspora. He returned to Israel in 1986 and received a short prison term for his role in the car bombing of Nablus’s mayor.

Israeli police subsequently arrested Levinger and questioned him for ten days about his alleged connections with the underground. Levinger had been implicated by Menachem Livni, the underground’s leader, and, before his arrest, the head of the Association for the Renewal of the Jewish Quarter in Old Hebron. Livni, an engineer and an assistant battalion commander in the IDF’s combat engineering corps, states in his twenty-seven-page signed confession that Levinger had authorized mass terrorist attacks against Palestinian civilians to discourage them from attacking Jews. Levinger denied Livni’s claim and was never formally charged.

Several months ago, however, Levinger pleaded guilty to criminal negligence in the 1988 shooting death of an Arab shopkeeper in Hebron. According to court testimony, Levinger walked into the street firing his pistol indiscriminately after a group of young Palestinians had stoned his car. As he was closing his shoe store the victim was shot in the stomach, and later died. According to The Jerusalem Post, the Israeli army company commander who witnessed the shooting testified at Levinger’s trial that after the rabbi fired his weapon, he walked “down the road screaming: ‘You’re dogs,’ at [Arab] vendors, and overturned and kicked vegetable crates and flower containers…. [The officer] said he grabbed Levinger’s hand, which was trembling, and told him not to move, but that Levinger shouted back to him: ‘Leftist, Arab lover!’ ” For killing the Arab shopkeeper, Levinger was sentenced to five months in prison, but was released after three months for good behavior. On the day that Levinger was to begin serving his sentence, he was carried through the alleyways of Hebron’s cramped Casbah on the shoulders of hundreds of his supporters, many brandishing assault rifles and singing the anthem of the West Bank settlement movement, “Am Israel Chai” (“The Jewish People Live”).

Rabbi Levinger and his wife, Miriam, were to be the guests of honor at the Hebron Fund dinner at the Sheraton Meadowland Hotel in East Rutherford, though the rabbi, still in jail, was unable to attend. The special guest speaker was former assistant secretary of defense Richard Perle. The dinner took place on the same day a young Israeli apparently went beserk and massacred seven Palestinian laborers from Gaza. Not a word was said about the slaughter by any of the speakers, who condemned PLO terrorism, the American press, and James Baker, who had called on Shamir to give up his dream of “Greater Israel.”

Dov Hikind, the New York State assemblyman from the 48th District, which includes Borough Park, a mostly Orthodox Jewish neighborhood, briefly introduced me to Rabbi Leiter during the cocktail hour that preceded the dinner ceremonies. Young, cheerful, and energetic, Leiter was greeting supporters and posing for photographers. Marc Belzberg, one of Ateret Cohanim’s major financial contributors and the group’s master of ceremonies at this year’s dinner, came by, as did Sam Rappaport, a Philadelphia real estate developer and the largest Israel Bond holder in America, along with several members of the extremely rich Reichmann family of Canada. The three Reichmann brothers, owners of Olympia and York Developments Ltd., one of the largest privately held real estate companies in the world, with properties that include the World Financial Center in Manhattan, have a net worth of more than $9 billion, according to Forbes Magazine. “I want you to see that people, even with our views, are dignified, civilized people,” Hikind said.

The five hundred or so guests then assembled in the main ballroom of the Sheraton Meadowlands for dinner and speeches. I was seated at a table with Matthew Feldman, a New Jersey state senator, and Samuel Bisgay, a member of the central committee of the Republican Party of Orange County, California, who coproduced the thirty-minute documentary film “In the Gardens of Abraham: the Story of Hebron,” videocassettes of which were later distributed at the dinner. The film is used by the Hebron Fund to solicit donations. “I was looking for a cause,” said Bisgay, who is also on the executive board of Americans for a Safe Israel.

Hatikva” and the National Anthem were piped over the public address system, and then a Torah scroll, a gift to Hebron’s settlers, was carried into the hall by several dozen men who then danced around it. “Remember the pogroms, the massacres, the Holocaust,” Senator Feldman whispered in my ear as I watched the men dancing around the Torah. “Land for peace won’t work.”

Nathan Miller, of Fairlawn, New Jersey, dedicated the Torah from the rostrum:

We must return and restore the holy Jewish city of our Patriarchs. We must rebuild Hebron and return to our roots—every Jew must be a partner in this mitzvah. We thank Hashem [God] and pray this is the beginning of redemption. May the Torah unite all of Eretz Yisrael and remind us of our sacred paths and goals. May we witness the Messiah in our time.

Then a rabbi in a dark business suit and a yarmulke blessed the Torah, declaring, “May it be used to redeem all of Hebron into Jewish hands.”

Following the rabbi’s invocation, the master of ceremonies, a radio talk-show host in New Jersey, compared Hebron’s settlers to the chalutzim (pioneers) who built Israel “out of rock and sand. We are here tonight,” he said, “to stand side by side with our people of Hebron to swear our support to them in every way possible.”

Then it was Miriam Levinger’s turn to speak. When I had tried to interview her in Israel several years ago, she had acidly replied that she wasn’t in the mood to talk to a Jew from “the galut,” a derisive term for the diaspora. But she was now clearly eager to talk to this well-heeled diaspora audience. “I’m sure my husband is very sorry he couldn’t be with you tonight,” she said, prompting hearty laughter. “He couldn’t come. We had a parting of the ways…. He has his religious books and I’m sure he will be occupied for the next five months. I spoke to my mother-in-law and I think she’s a bit pleased because she told me now he’s going to eat regularly and go to sleep on time,” she said as the crowd erupted in laughter and applause.

After describing what a moving experience it is to walk through the same hills where King David wrote the Psalms, she continued: “I grew up in the East Bronx and I was a very frightened Jewish child. I remember running away. And I see my children—the way they walk around Hebron, forty or fifty families in a city of 70,000 Arabs, and not so very friendly Arabs at that—and they walk around as if they own the market…. They are not afraid and they have no traumas and if they are asked, ‘What are you doing here?’ they say, ‘We are reclaiming Hebron. And God promised us that one day we would do this!’ ”

When Mrs. Levinger finished speaking, the master of ceremonies read a telegram of greetings from Ariel Sharon, who apologized for not being able to come, although he had been advertised as the featured speaker. It was imperative, he said, that he stay in Israel and help the prime minister form a new government:

We have been successful in preventing the Labor Party from forming a coalition which would have been supported by members of the Knesset who follow the directives of Yasir Arafat. We will be able to form a strong Jewish government which will be able to withstand the pressures that were leading us down the road to suicidal policies…. I congratulate Rabbi and Mrs. Levinger, my dear personal friends, true heroes of our generation.

Several weeks later, during a phone conversation, I asked Richard Perle why he had been willing to speak at the Hebron Fund dinner, for during the Reagan administration he had been a strong advocate of a policy of combating “international terrorism.” It seemed ironic that in a speech to a group that hails Rabbi Levinger as a national hero, he advocated breaking off talks with the PLO until it gives up terrorism.2

Perle told me that he doesn’t support Rabbi Levinger, nor, for that matter, had he ever heard of the Hebron Fund before he was invited to address its fund-raising dinner. “They presented themselves as representatives of the Jewish community of Hebron,” he said. Although he was aware of the controversy over Levinger, Perle said that he didn’t know that some of the principal Jewish leaders of the Hebron settlement had been members of the Gush Emunim terrorist underground. I told him that one of Hebron’s former Jewish mayors, Menachem Livni, had received a life sentence for taking part in the underground (although only three of its members, convicted of murder, are still being held, and they are in a yeshiva halfway house in Afula). Perle replied:

There is something to be said for a country that puts its terrorists in jail and gives them life rather than turning them into national heroes. Whatever one thinks of the settlements from its foreign policy aspects, Israel does not countenance acts of terrorism by its own citizens. Whatever the irony of my speaking [at the Hebron Fund dinner], there is a fundamental distinction between states that support terrorism and states that fight it.

Perle admitted that the anti-Arab hostility he sensed from some of the people at the dinner had made him “uncomfortable”; and he worried that because of the passions unleashed by the intifada, this might not be an auspicious time to expand the Jewish enclave in Hebron. “My hope is that in the course of an eventual settlement some understanding will be reached by which Jews will be permitted to live in places that are particularly sacred and holy to them just as Arabs will be permitted to live in such places.”

If Rabbi Leiter were granted his wish, however, there wouldn’t be an Arab left in Hebron. It is not that Leiter, a JDL activist in his youth, wants to forcibly expel them, as does his former leader, Rabbi Meir Kahane. Leiter believes that Jews can eventually buy all the Arabs out. “There is a natural migration of Arabs out of the center of town,” he told me. “The PLO is pumping in money to stop it.” Leiter contends that if the army did its job and uprooted PLO terror cells from their bases in the territories, Palestinians wouldn’t be afraid to sell their homes to Jews—and with the high purchase price they would receive, they could move to Europe or America.

Ateret Cohanim also advocates getting rid of Arabs by buying them out. “We pay [the Arabs] well above market value,” Louis Bloom once told me. “They are very glad to leave the Old City [of Jerusalem], and with the money they can go to Europe and open up a little business. You can get more out of Arabs by being nice. If there were another way to get them out we would use it, but we think Kahane’s way is a disaster.”

4.

The struggle over real estate is at the heart of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. Much of pre-1967 Israel was not conquered, but was purchased from local Arabs and absentee landlords between the late nineteenth century and 1948. Yet it’s hard to imagine a more effective way to incite Palestinian terrorism and violence than to increase the Jewish presence in the Muslim and Christian quarters of Jerusalem’s Old City, not to mention downtown Hebron, and elsewhere in the Gaza Strip and West Bank, while shutting off talks between the US and the PLO. Palestinians also fear that the changes in the occupied territories, where more than 50 percent of the land is now in Israeli hands, will rapidly accelerate as a great many Jews from the Soviet Union settle in Israel. While the Israeli government has not directed the new arrivals to the territories, their presence has squeezed the housing market, inflating rents and impelling many native Israelis to consider moving to West Bank settlements with their generous, government-subsidized mortgages. As world attention is fixed on the Gulf, settlement leaders believe Israel will be able to quietly “thicken” existing settlements, unimpeded by American pressure.

For many religious Jews associated with Ateret Cohanim and the Hebron Fund, the impending arrival of hundreds of thousands of Soviet Jews is only the latest sign that the divine plan is on schedule—although, ironically, donations to them have dropped as the Israeli government and world Jewry direct their resources to settle the new immigrants. Still, both groups welcome the Soviet Jews because their arrival strengthens the hold of the Jewish people on the land of Israel, hastening the coming of the Messiah, the rebuilding of the Temple, and redemption.

Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, the French-born spiritual leader of the Ateret Cohanim Yeshiva in Jerusalem, put it this way. “We must settle the whole Land of Israel, and over all of it establish our rule,” he wrote in the fundamentalist journal Artzi (“My Land”) in 1982. “In the words of [Nachmanides]: ‘Do not abandon the land to any other nation.’ If that is possible by peaceful means, wonderful, and if not, we are commanded to make war to accomplish it.”

  1. 2

    On June 20, President Bush suspended talks with the PLO for failing to condemn forcefully the aborted May 30 terrorist attack on Israel by Iraqi-backed sea-borne Palestinian commandos.

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