No one, including a president of the United States of America, can presume to tell me, a Jew, that I cannot live in the area of my national homeland. That's one of the main reasons my wife and I chose in 1981 to move to Shiloh, a so-called settlement less than 30 miles north of Jerusalem.
After Shiloh was founded in 1978, then-President Carter demanded of Prime Minister Menachem Begin that the village of eight families be removed. Carter, from his first meeting with Begin, pressed him to "freeze" the activity of Jews rebuilding a presence in their historic home. As his former information aide, Shmuel Katz, related, Begin said: "You, Mr. President, have in the United States a number of places with names like Bethlehem, Shiloh and Hebron, and you haven't the right to tell prospective residents in those places that they are forbidden to live there. Just like you, I have no such right in my country. Every Jew is entitled to reside wherever he pleases."
We now fast-forward to President Obama, who declared on June 15 in remarks at a news conference with Italy's prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, that Jewish communities beyond the Green Line "in past agreements have been categorized as illegal."
I believe the president has been misled. There can be nothing illegal about a Jew living where Judaism was born. To suggest that residency be permitted or prohibited based on race, religion or ethnic background is dangerously close to employing racist terminology.
Suppose someone suggested that Palestinian villages and towns in pre-1967 Israel were to be called "settlements" and that, to achieve a true peace, Arabs should be removed from their homes. Of course, separation or transfer of Arabs is intolerable, but why is it quite acceptable to demand that Jews be ethnically cleansed from the area? Do not Jews belong in Judea and Samaria as much as Palestinians who stayed in the state of Israel?
Some have questioned why Jews should be allowed to resettle areas in which they didn't live in the years preceding the 1967 war, areas that were almost empty of Jews before 1948 as well. But why didn't Jews live in the area at that time? Quite simple: They had been the victims of a three-decades-long ethnic cleansing project that started in 1920, when an Arab attack wiped out a small Jewish farm at Tel Hai in Upper Galilee and was followed by attacks in Jerusalem and, in 1921, in Jaffa and Jerusalem.
In 1929, Hebron's centuries-old Jewish population was expelled as a result of an Arab pogrom that killed almost 70 Jews. Jews that year removed themselves from Gaza, Nablus and Jenin. The return of my family to Shiloh -- and of other Jews to more than 150 other communities over the Green Line since 1967 -- is not solely a throwback to claimed biblical rights. Nor is it solely to assert our right to return to areas that were Jewish-populated in the 20th century until Arab violence drove them away. We have returned under a clear fulfillment of international law. There can be no doubt as to the legality of the act of my residency in Shiloh.
I am a revenant -- one who has returned after a long absence to ancestral lands. The Supreme Council of the League of Nations adopted principles following the 1920 San Remo Conference aimed at bringing about the "reconstitution" of a Jewish National Home. Article 6 of those principles reads: "The administration of Palestine ... shall encourage ... close settlement by Jews on the land, including state lands and waste lands." That "land" was originally delineated to include all of what is today Jordan as well as all the territory west of the Jordan River.
In 1923, Britain created a new political entity, Transjordan, and suspended the right of Jews to live east of the Jordan River. But the region in which I now live was intended to be part of the Jewish National Home. Then, in a historical irony, a Saudi Arabian refugee, Abdallah, fleeing the Wahabis, was afforded the opportunity to establish an Arab kingdom where none had existed previously -- only Jews. As a result, in an area where prophets and priests fashioned the most humanist and moral religion and culture on Earth, Jews are now termed "illegals."
Many people insist that settlements are illegal under the Fourth Geneva Convention. But that convention does not apply to Israel's presence in Judea and Samaria and the Gaza district. Its second clause makes it clear that it deals with the occupation of "the territory of a high contracting party." Judea and Samaria and Gaza, which Israel gained control of in 1967, were not territories of a "high contracting party." Jewish historical rights that the mandate had recognized were not canceled, and no new sovereign ever took over in Judea and Samaria or in Gaza.
Obama has made his objections to Israeli settlements known. But other U.S. presidents have disagreed. President Reagan's administration issued a declaration that Israeli settlements were not illegal. Support for that position came from Judge Stephen M. Schwebel, former president of the International Court of Justice, who determined that Israel's presence in Judea and Samaria did not constitute "occupation." It also came from a leading member of Reagan's administration, the former dean of the Yale Law School and former undersecretary of State, Eugene Rostow, who asserted that "Israel has a stronger claim to the West Bank than any other nation or would-be nation [and] the same legal right to settle the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem as it has to settle Haifa or West Jerusalem."
Any suggestions, then, of "freezing" and halting "natural growth" are themselves not only illegal but quite immoral.
This op-ed originally appeared in the LA Times.