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Brit Tzedek v'Shalom
Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace
The Jewish Exponent
New Group Issues a Pressing Call: 'Bring the Settlers Home'
As Palestinian violence against Israel escalated during the past three years, members of the Israeli political left and like-minded Jews here in America seemed to lose much of their voice.
The last round of Israeli parliamentary elections proved as much; Ariel Sharon's hawkish, right-wing Likud Party easily regained control while Meretz, the dovish opposition party, received a mere 5 percent of the vote and saw its number of Knesset seats fall from 10 to six.
But with the Palestinians and Israelis now discussing a road map peace plan put forth by the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations, leftists are no longer "desperate" or "paralyzed," said Steve Masters, a Philadelphia attorney and board member of Meretz USA.
In fact, members of the peace movement are in a position "to regain our sense of power that we can make an impact," according to Masters, who leads a new Jewish group that is advocating for the evacuation of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Masters explained why the group - Brit Tzedek v'Shalom/Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace - is issuing its "call to bring the settlers home to Israel" during a July 24 parlor meeting at Congregation Beth Ahavah in Philadelphia's Olde City neighborhood.
Speaking before a small crowd of 15 people, Masters said that closing Israeli settlements would increase the country's security, remove the settlers from danger, and enhance the moral and democratic character of Israel.
"The thought was originally that settlers would increase security" for Israel, he explained, by acting as a buffer between Israeli cities and Palestinian raiders. But the opposite has proved to be the case.
"In every war, settlers are evacuated on the first day. They are civilians, not soldiers," said Masters. And because it's impossible to fortify residential neighborhoods, the settlers "are sitting ducks, being shot at all the time."
Masters was quick to stress that his group is "not demonizing settlers." He expressed sympathy for these Israelis who, for the most part, he said, were drawn to the disputed territories for lack of affordable housing within Israel's regular borders.
For proof, Masters cited a July 2002 Hopp Research study of Israeli settlers that found that approximately 80 percent of the 200,000 Israelis who relocated to the West Bank and Gaza Strip after 1967 did so for economic, not religious or political, reasons.
"There were a series of financial inducements - tax breaks, mortgage breaks," said Masters. "Up to 95 percent of their housing costs were paid by the Israeli government, and the offer was hard to resist."
Now, in the wake of the Palestinian intifada, many Israeli settlers "are desperate to leave," Masters continued.
But they can't, he added, as there are no other Israelis looking to buy their homes: "No one wants to put their kids in bulletproof vests or on armored buses."
In theory, the Israeli government could offer the settlers financial compensation to evacuate, but that hasn't happened. After all, said Masters, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon "is the architect of settlements. He created these 'facts on the ground' to prevent a Palestinian state from emerging."
Make them an offer
Now this Jewish group, founded a little more than a year ago in Chicago, wants to pressure Sharon to change his mind.
Although strictly opposed to the forcible evacuation of settlers, Brit Tzedek v'Shalom wants the Israeli government to offer settlers alternative housing within Israel - to the tune of some $3 billion.
Some 6,000 American Jews have signed the group's petition during the past three months, said Masters, including playwright Tony Kushner, author Michael Chabon and cartoonist Art Spiegelman.
Several local religious leaders have also added their names to the call, including Rabbi Ethan Franzel from Main Line Reform Temple, Beth Elohim in Wynnewood; Rabbi David A. Teutsch, past president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote; and Cantor George Mordecai of Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel in Center City.
Temple University classics professor Hanoch Guy, an Israeli native, signed the petition because he believes "settlements defy the vision of the State of Israel, morally and financially."
Indeed, "the call enjoys overwhelming support" from American Jews, stressed Masters.
But Philadelphia attorney and Zionist Organization of America member Darrell Zaslow isn't so certain of that. From where he sat in the back row of Beth Ahavah's sanctuary, Zaslow expressed relief that fewer than 20 people showed up on Thursday night.
He also called members of Brit Tzedek v'Shalom "sadly mistaken."
Said Zaslow: "Jews should be able to live in Judea. I can live in Shanghai, but not in Judea? Does that make sense?"