Givat Assaf, Where Middle East Peace Hopes Fade One Settlement At A Time

The settlement of Givat Assaf
The settlement of Givat Assaf
Laurent Zecchini

GIVAT ASSAF – U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry passed right by this town's entrance -- just a few dozen meters away -- while on his way to meet Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas last Thursday. We can only hope that his driver slowed down, and that one of his accompanying local diplomats showed him the gates of the “outpost” or “illegal settlement” of Givat Assaf. For this is one of those urban zones, along with Mitzpeh Lachish, Maales Rehavam and Givat Haroeh, that ignited what the diplomats qualify as a “protest” that Washington issued to Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu.

On May 14, the Israeli government had announced its intention to legalize these four settlements. The State Department was quick to react, declaring that this decision would ruin Kerry’s efforts to rekindle peace talks between Israel and Palestine, using words such as “contrary to Israel’s duty and engagements.”

Washington is understandably dipleased: When Barack Obama came to visit the region in late March, both sides agreed to show some restraint. That meant no more settlements for the Israelis and no further push by Mahmoud Abbas to make Palestine part of the UN.

The legalization of Givat Assaf is not the only sign of Israel’s supposed “restraint”: a week before that, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon had approved the construction of 296 housing units within the Beit El settlement. In order to reach Ramallah, John Kerry’s convoy had to take Highway 60 heading north along the West Bank and then take a left towards Ramallah. The Givat Assaf settlement is located at that intersection, on a rocky hillside.

A “Glorious day”

The American Secretary of State in fact didn’t stop, and therefore missed the opportunity to meet Benny Gal, the spokesperson of this Jewish community of 25 families, all living in rustic barracks. May 14 was “a glorious day, not just for Givat Assaf but for all Israelis,” declares Gal, 32, with a big smile on his face and not a hint of doubt in his words. “We are here because this region is historically and directly linked to the Bible; Jewish people have been living here for thousands of years.”

Givat Assaf was established in May 2001, in memory of Assaf Hershkovitz, a settler from the neighboring settlement of Ofra, killed during the second Intifada. From 2004 to 2011, Israeli governments have been ordering the dismantling of illegal settlements, including Givat Assaf, all the while allowing them to repeatedly postpone the deadlines for the process to begin. The Palestinians claim that this project was established on lands belonging to the inhabitants of the nearby villages of Beitin and Burqa -- something the Israeli government partially acknowledged. Until this decision on May 14.

Benny Gal is unequivocal: “For the past 12 years, no Palestinian has claimed this land as his own, it’s not even arable," he says. "Aerial shots were taken and you could see that no one lived here.”

Givat Assaf is protected by a military outpost perched atop a hill. The settlement also has a yeshiva (religious school) and a playground. Benny Gal hopes Givat Assaft will be granted the same infrastructures and social services as the rest of the country.

Regarding his Palestinian neighbors, he doesn’t quite understand why Israel should negotiate: “What’s the point? Their whole educational system is predicated on the condition that Israel can’t be a state: they want a nation that spreads from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean.”

Therein lies Kerry’s problem, this discourse is relatively the same as the one used by most of Netanyahu’s Ministers, notably two very influential ones such as Yair Lapid from the center party Yesh Atid (“There is a Future”), and Naftali Bennett, from the religious nationalist party HaBayit HaYehudi (“The Jewish Home”).

Netanyahu can therefore say that he cannot move on subjects such as settlements, Palestinian prisoners release, 1967 border negotiations –- Abbas’ conditions to resume the political dialogue - without a majority. When he left Jerusalem on Friday, after several meetings with both head of states, John Kerry urged them to take “difficult measures,” for “in the long run, the status quo is not sustainable.”

It was a way to admit that his fourth visit within a month between the two countries once again bore little fruit, for neither parties are willing to cross their respective red lines. It is believed that the America's top diplomat will present, during the first half of June, a politico-economic initiative to try and find a solution. “I know this region well enough to know there is skepticism," said Kerry. "In some quarters there is cynicism and there are reasons for it.”

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What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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