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For anyone with historical memory the expulsion of Jews – by the Romans, English, French, Spaniards, Nazis, and Muslims – instantly evokes tragic episodes in Jewish history. Now the state of Israel expels Jews from their homes. Something is amiss in Zion.

The current round of evictions began, not surprisingly, in Hebron. Ever since the Six-Day War Jews have struggled tenaciously to rebuild their ancient community, destroyed during the murderous Arab pogrom in 1929. Against unremitting government resistance they have reclaimed abandoned Jewish property and, whenever possible, purchased buildings from willing Arab sellers.


Rabbi Moshe Levinger, founding father of the restored Hebron community, insisted: “No government has the authority or right to say that a Jew cannot live in all parts of the Land of Israel.” But from Menachem Begin, who was infuriated when Jewish “invaders” moved into Beit Hadassah in 1979, to Benjamin Netanyahu, who signed off on the recent expulsion from Beit HaMachpelah, the Israeli government has repeatedly tried to prevent Jews from living in Hebron.

A week before Passover fifteen Jewish families moved into a house purchased from a willing Arab seller near Me’arat HaMachpelah, site of the burial place of the patriarchs and matriarchs of the Jewish people. But their presence was labeled an intolerable “provocation” by Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who is experienced in the expulsion of Jews from their Hebron homes.

Four years ago a signed purchase and sale agreement, accompanied by a video of the Arab seller receiving and counting his money, provided insufficient proof to Barak of Jewish ownership of Beit HaShalom, strategically located on the main road between Kiryat Arba and Hebron. Resisting what he described as “attempts by small groups of radicals to undermine the authority of the state,” Barak ordered Israeli soldiers and border police to forcibly remove the Jewish families who had lived there for more than a year.

This time, Barak refused to delay the expulsion. Netanyahu, who was willing to permit the new residents to remain in their home until after Passover pending a judicial ruling, quickly capitulated to his defense minister. The new residents of Beit HaMachpelah left peacefully, averting another violent encounter with Israeli soldiers – who might otherwise be expected to protect the right of Jews to live in their own homes. While the Beit HaShalom case still winds its tortuous way through the judicial system, the expelled residents of Beit HaMachpelah have now entered their own Dickensian legal labyrinth.

It is well known that Palestinians who sell property to Jews endanger their own lives. As a Hebron Arab told an Israeli journalist after the purchase of Beit HaShalom: “We will find the seller and chop him up into tiny bits.” When vigilante justice fails, the Palestinian Authority follows Jordanian precedent and imposes capital punishment on the seller. Indeed, the Arab who sold Beit HaMachpelah has now been sentenced to death in a Palestinian court. Under these circumstances, why would any Palestinian seller not claim fraud to save his life?

Ironically, it was Jewish community leaders in Hebron who protested this grotesque display of Palestinian justice. In a letter to the UN, the International Red Cross, Secretary of State Clinton, and Prime Minister Netanyahu, they wrote: “It is appalling to think that property sales should be defined as a ‘capital crime’ punishable by death.” Such a law “points to a barbaric and perverse type of justice, reminiscent of practices during the dark ages.”

But travesties of justice are not a Palestinian monopoly nor are they confined to Hebron. In the town of Beit El, established north of Jerusalem in Samaria in 1977, another housing crisis looms. Once again Defense Minister Barak is at the center of a property dispute involving belated Palestinian claims to land inhabited by Jews.

Thirty Jewish homes in the adjacent Givat Ha’Ulpana neighborhood are scheduled for destruction. According to a Supreme Court ruling, they were built on private land whose Palestinian “owner” only recently decided to reclaim it. Once again Barak cited the necessity to defend the rule of law – invariably at the expense of Jewish settlers, whose legal rights vanish at the whim of the defense minister.

“We are not chess pieces for Ehud Barak to play with,” infuriated residents protested. They insisted that the land was purchased with government mortgages from its Palestinian owner more than a decade ago. They were advised by civil administration officials not to register it lest the seller’s life be endangered. Yoel Tzur, a Beit El resident whose wife and son were killed in a terrorist attack on their way home sixteen years ago, reminded Netanyahu of his promise at the time to build a large community there in their memory.

Several government ministers warned Netanyahu, who relies upon his defense minister for political cover on his left flank, that any further destruction of Jewish communities would risk the dissolution of his governing coalition. Malleable as always under pressure, Netanyahu announced he was committed to “strengthening” settlements in Judea and Samaria. A special ministerial committee quickly decided to finally legalize three outposts that had received government authorization more than a decade ago.


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Jerold S. Auerbach, professor emeritus of history at Wellesley College, is the author of “Print to Fit: The New York Times, Zionism and Israel, 1896-2016."