Hebron settlers: “We are not extremists”

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By Khaled Diab

The Hebron settlers feel demonised by the mainstream media, and say reports of settler violence are exaggerated and some are even “black flag” ops.

Tuesday 4 January 2012

Khaled Diab: You just mentioned the media. How do you regard the mainstream Israeli view, especially the liberal view, of your community?

David Wilder: How do I view their view of me? You need a double mirror for that. Look, the media is very left wing, as a rule. There are always exceptions to the rule. You have journalists, you know, and politicians who take a different path. But as a rule the media is extremely leftwing. And, as such, they look at us as rightwing extremists who are, you know, a bone in the throat of peace. To put it very generally.

And they express that. You know, we work with them. We work with the media and try to influence however we can. Sometimes successfully, sometimes less successfully. But it’s very obvious that the media is generally, not just here, but the world media also is. In the United States, the big media, whether it be the New York Times or the Washington Post or CNN. Perhaps one of the exceptions is Fox, which is a little bit more moderate. But they’re usually, generally, very liberal, very leftwing.

So would you say you get a more sympathetic hearing within Israel or in the United States?

The difference between the United States and Israel in terms of media is that in the United States you have much larger media. First of all, in Israel, if you look at television, you’re talking about government-licensed media. There’s very little private media, and the private media that was on our side, you know, shut down. Ariel Sharon shut it down.

In the United States, you have much larger, much freer media. Anybody who is able to – I don’t know what the criteria are – can get a licence. Anyone who has the money can open a radio station, or a newspaper, or a television station, or go on cable, or whatever. And so, in terms of sympathy, as such, among the more rightwing media in the United States there’s much more sympathy. If you go down to the Bible Belt and here some of the talk shows, they’re very conservative.

Do you feel things have shifted in the past few years, with, like, Netanyahu and his government? Do you feel they’ve become more sympathetic in the media to you?

No, the media hasn’t become more sympathetic to us. There are people every once in a while who, you know, stop and do a little bit of introspection; they sort of look and try to examine where they are and where they are coming from. And every once in a while you can get somebody in the media or even a politician.

The head of the Labour party today, Shelly Yachimovich, who used to be on the radio. She wasn’t a very good friend of ours when she was on the radio. Today, she states that she opposes… she disagrees with our ideology, but she also comes out and says that people that are settlers are good Israelis just like everyone else. She doesn’t try to demonise us just because we live here. She can say I disagree with them; I want to throw them out, but they’re not bad people.

But have things change in the media as a result of Netanyahu’s government?

No, because he’s also considered to be rightwing, despite the fact that he also has Barak in his government. He’s considered to have a rightwing coalition, so the media, they don’t like him anymore than they like us. He’s not going to be a cause of them moving in our direction – to the contrary.

Newspapers like Ma’ariv and so on, you don’t find they’re sympathetic?


Ok, you say that the Israeli media often labels you as “extremists”, what do you think of that label?

It’s not just the Israeli media. Years ago, I don’t know if you remember, there was a… When I started working here, almost 18 years ago, the New York Times correspondent, the head of the New York Times, he was a guy called Serge Schmemann. I don’t know where he is today; I see his name every once in a while, but he’s not here, thank God. But he didn’t like us. He was very leftwing and he was very anti people like me in Hebron. And when he used to write in the Times about Hebron, he always prefaced the word Hebron with extremists. It was almost like one word.

He was here once with one of his editors and I asked him, in front of his editor, why he always wrote that. He didn’t like that. He said, well, you’re zealots and you’re doing this and that. I said but you never write that. You always write we’re extremists. He said, yeah, well, everybody knows what I mean.

I mean, you know, we don’t think about it. You know different words have different connotations. And in the media, when you say something enough… When you write something enough times, then people start to believe it. Because, you know, he writes it again and again and again, so it must be true.

When I think about extremism, I think about the Red Brigade, you know, Hizbullah, organisations that go out and kill people. You know extremism, that’s how I read extremism.

So how would you describe your community? What words would you use?

I think… What I’ve used in the past is to say that we are ideological, that is, we live an ideal, ok? You can agree with my ideal or you can disagree with my ideal. That’s legitimate. I don’t have any problems with that. People can think different things, and whatever.

It’s also like when the Israeli media talks about religion, religious people, so you have… they can talk about Orthodox religious, then they talk about Ultra-Orthodox. So what’s an Ultra-Orthodox? What makes somebody more Orthodox than somebody else? We all do the same thing: we keep kosher; we keep the Sabbath; we do this and we don’t do that. So why is that Ultra and this not? Usually, it’s the way people dress. If he’s got a hat and a long black coat, then he’s Ultra. If he just has a knitted kippa like mine, then… But there’s no real difference between them.

The same thing is true with extremism. The fact that I believe that people should live in Hebron. We have over half a million people that visit here every year, so they’re all extremists. The people that come to visit Hebron from the United States, whether they be Jewish or Christian, or whoever they are, Israelis or whatever they are, are they extremists because they come to visit or because they support us, ok, give us money? So what makes me extreme? Because I live a particular ideal that somebody else disagrees with?

How about if your ideal, the majority of people disagree with it, would that make you extreme or not, do you think?

No, why, I mean the ideal of democracy is that you can have a majority and a minority. The fact that you’re… Take the… I mean, I don’t know how it works in England, but take the American Supreme Court, and its nine justices. You have a case which is decided eight-to-one, is the justice whose one vote is against that of the majority extremist because he disagrees with them, even though there are eight against one? No.

Look, it’s semantics which is used as a tool to create an impression on others. That’s what media does.

All right, you mentioned, connecting violence to extremism. That’s, in your mind, the defining factor. How about the violence that’s perpetrated by settlers, like, the “price tag” campaign, and so on. Do you think of that as extremism?

Errr, yes. Yes, it certainly is. I think that extremism can be also measured… if you have a norm, what that norm, not just ideologically, but also… and you can have ideological extremism also. But I think that that is considered by your normative Israeli, on whatever side of the fence he is, as very extremist.

And do you think that it’s a manageable, containable problem, or do you think it’s spinning out of control?

I think the “spinning out of control” is a media spin. I think, again, what we’re seeing today is use of what a few people are doing as a tool to try to blow it up. In Israel, as in most other places, I suppose, but I see it here, you have all sorts of different types of violence. There’s leftwing anarchist violence, which has been going on for a few years, down, every Friday, in Bilin. You have all sorts of different places where you have violence against Israeli soldiers which is perpetrated by Israelis and foreigners and all sorts of people, and every once in a while it makes the news when somebody gets hit by a rock. But, as a rule, they ignore it because it’s leftwing violence against Israel.

What’s the difference between leftwing violence against Israeli soldiers and rightwing violence against Israeli soldiers? They’re both violent; they’re both against the same body. This one is taken and turned into major headlines for a few days and the other one is ignored. You know, they’re both wrong, ok. But one is used for the purpose of delegitimising us and the other one is ignored because part of the media agree with what they’re doing, so, you know, let’s just leave it alone.

You don’t regard what happens in Bilin as non-violent protest?

It is violent. What I’m saying is that the same kind of violence. You can have two different groups that are perpetrating the same kind of violence, and one of them is turned into a major media event, and the other one is ignored.

You have a small group of people today, which is very frustrated.

Are they young or old?

They’re young. People, once they get to my age, they don’t have the energy to suffer like that anymore.

And what frustrates them, would you say?

Policies which they believe, not only are they wrong but destructive, and they see people being thrown out of their homes. They saw what happened in Gush Katif. They see the results of what happened since then. They see it happening again, starting on a small scale and moving up, possibly, to a very large scale. And they see all the warnings that are used to try to prevent that from happening, I don’t know if it’s falling on deaf ears or just not being listened to. They don’t know how better to express themselves to try to get something done.

It doesn’t necessarily justify the violence, but I don’t think… I think what we’re seeing today is still… Let’s put it this way, you don’t need a large group of people… you don’t need a whole lot of people to break into a mosque and write something on the wall. You need one or two people. And there are people who are doing it. Eventually, they’ll stop. I don’t know how or when.

It’s reaching a stage, though, where it’s turning off a lot of people that might sympathise with their belief and the ideal, or the opinion behind it, but once you start to express it, as what happened yesterday in the Israeli army base, people start to say, you’re starting to cross red lines. But, again, I don’t think it’s the… you’re not reaching a stage today where it is out of hand.

Israel’s security forces, whether they be police or army or intelligence, is very large, it wouldn’t surprise me, for example, I don’t know that it is, I don’t have any factual evidence on our table here, but we have seen in the past, provocations, when Israeli intelligence has used people as provocateurs to do things like that, in order to be able to reach a particular goal.

So you think some of this violence is self-inflicted by the…

I think. I don’t know that it is, but it could be. We’ve seen it before.

How about the contrary allegations, that the security forces have been increasingly infiltrated by religious elements and they’ve risen up the ranks, and so on?

I sort of don’t really agree with the word of “infiltration”. You understand the intrinsic contradiction in that, you know, not yourself, coming from where you’re coming from, but you hear this obviously on Israeli radio from Israelis. So I understand where you’re getting it from. But the built-in contradiction is that when religious Israelis didn’t go to the army, they were put down as not caring about the state of Israel and not willing to defend the state of Israel and they’re not willing to put their lives on the line just like everybody else.

So when religious Israelis do go into the army and they are willing to work very hard, and they’re willing to go to officer school, and they are willing to do what everybody else does, it’s said that they’re infiltrating the army and rising in the ranks. If you go into the army, if you send intelligent people into the army, and they’re motivated, then, you know, they can rise in the ranks just like everybody else.

So, on the one hand, they’re saying that the religious people are taking over the army. On the other hand, if we don’t go into the army, they say, ahh, they’re not going into the army, they’re not really part of the state of Israel.

I think that people who receive proper education and they understand, ideologically, the importance of the state of Israel, and they also understand the issues that we have to deal with today, you know, the security issues that we have to deal with, I understand that we need an army and people should understand that, if there’s equal service, or something equivalent to equal service, then you go to the army. Everybody does it – you go in for a year and a half, three years, you can go for five years. And it’s very widely accepted and it’s done.

So, you know, when religious people don’t do it, they’re accused of not caring and not taking on community service the way they should, and when they do go into the army, they say, ooh, they’re infiltrating.

So you feel that your community is damned if it does and damned if it doesn’t?

Well, we’re not talking about Hebron specifically, but on that particularly issue, yeah, that’s an apt description.

Part I – The art of peace

Part II –  From secular America to religious Hebron

Part IV – “I don’t like Tel Aviv, does that mean we should tear Tel Aviv down”

Part V – Palestinian people do not exist, are “PR bluff”

Part VI – Living with Palestinian “dhimmis”

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