‘People have been there 50 years. They’re not refugees’

Updated 26 Sep 2018


The West Bank Jewish settlement of Beitar Ilit is seen through a barbed wire fence.— AP/File
The West Bank Jewish settlement of Beitar Ilit is seen through a barbed wire fence.— AP/File

CHAIM Silberstein insists on showing me Jacob’s Stone. It lies in Beit El — “The House of God” — which is the name of the colony of 7,000 Jews just outside Ramallah. Right here was where the ancient Jewish patriarch lay down on his stone, so it is written, and dreamed of the ladder to heaven upon which angels ascended and descended. It was the 25th anniversary of the broken Oslo agreement, a strange day upon which to remember all those winged creatures — rather earlier in history — plodding up and down. But I have to admit that God’s message to Jacob all those thousands of years ago was a bit less prosaic and certainly more long term. “I am the Lord God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and your descendants.”

So much for Oslo, then, and all those withdrawal agreements and the Palestinian State-that-isn’t, although, not far from a 1,000-year-old wormwood tree, Silberstein becomes a little lyrical — ever so cautiously, mind you — about the modern-day descendants of Jacob and the Americans who are trying to make God’s dream come true. It’s odd to hear the name of Trump up here, within the walls of Beit El and guarded by the guns of Israel’s settlers. Silberstein carries a hefty firearm himself, although I suspect his ambitions are a good deal more powerful than bullets.

He’s just been to Brazil to talk to a “mega event” of Christian Evangelicals. “The outpouring of love for Israel that they showed was unmatched,” he says. “I was just blown away. The difference between them and Trump is that they have a very, very deep love for Israel that stems from their faith. I think Trump has faith, but I think it’s a more minor part of his support for Israel. I think he loves Israel for our values and for our acumen and for achievements. But, for example, the difference is that Trump might do a deal which would harm us — and evangelical Christians would never agree to that.”

This sounds a bit like traditional “chutzpah”. Surely Trump is the best American president for the Israeli colonisation of the West Bank — or Judea and Samaria as Silberstein always calls the occupied territories, although “occupied” is a word we shall discuss — since both his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and his ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, support the settlements. “You know, he might come up with a suggestion to divide Jerusalem,” Silberstein says, “or to give away Judea and Samaria or some other deal which would give him the accolade that he’s done a deal in the Middle East which would force us to compromise or to give up on certain things — which he might not think harm us, but which actually would harm us.” Isn’t this a bit much, I ask? Wouldn’t Kushner safeguard Chaim Silberstein’s version of Jacob’s dream?

Silberstein is a 58-year-old Beit El councillor, born into the “very superficial” and “material” society of South Africa and living there for 19 years until he moved here in 1985 — he’s also a canny public speaker who talks in complete sentences with scarcely a pause or a grammatical slip — who fires back, so to speak, from the hip when I talk of Kushner’s protection. “Just because he’s Jewish doesn’t mean he would protect us. I could give you a long, long list of Jews… He is [a supporter of settlers], but so is [Trump’s Middle East envoy Jason] Greenblatt. I met Greenblatt last week in New York. I honestly think he is a great supporter of Israel — and David Friedman, certainly. But there are forces that are out there that are very strong and that might try and push us to make concessions that in the end would not be healthy.”

Chaim Silberstein realises, perhaps, that he’s being a bit harsh on the folk in Washington. “Don’t get me wrong,” he interrupts. “I think that the composition of the Trump team today is fantastic — I’m talking about Greenblatt, Kushner, Friedman, [Trump’s National Security Advisor] John Bolton, [US ambassador to the UN Nikki] Hailey, Trump. I mean, my gosh, it’s a dream for Israel. I didn’t think we could even wish for anything better. I can’t imagine finding greater supporters for Israel… Trump surprised everybody and I’ve got a feeling he’s going to surprise them again when he wins a second term. Madonna announced yesterday that she’s going to vote for him. Not that that’s an indicator, but I think he’s going to surprise everybody — not because of his stance for Israel, I think that’s helpful — but I think he’s done wonders for the American people.”

This is an intriguing little statement by Chaim Silberstein, and it provides an example of the sort of inaccuracies that have become part of the wallpaper of his views. If the Trump dream follows the plans for the Jacob dream, Madonna certainly never did announce her intention to vote for Trump. Nor has it been “announced”, as Silberstein will later claim to me, that Saudi Arabia has bought Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile system; this was a media report which Israel itself later denied.

Silberstein’s references to the 1917 Balfour Declaration — and this is important, because he constantly refers to the “narrative” of Jewish history — are equally misleading. “It [the Declaration] said it will respect the rights of minorities in Israel but it gave national rights only to the Jewish people, that the Jews can reconstitute their ancient homeland in the land of Israel. National rights [under Balfour] accrued only to the Jewish people — and individual rights to the minorities in Israel.” So Silberstein quoted Balfour. But this is not true. Balfour said that it must “be clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.” He never referred to these communities as “minorities” — as Silberstein claimed — because in 1917 Arab Muslims comprised the vast majority of the population of pre-mandate Palestine. Balfour spoke of “a national home” of the Jewish people — not “national rights” — and the declaration quite specifically avoided the use of the word “reconstituted”, a phrase British Zionists wanted included in the document but which the British cabinet overruled.

By arrangement with The Independent

Published in Dawn, September 26th, 2018