Your Tax Dollars at Work—in West Bank Settlements
Why is the U.S. Treasury Department subsidizing zealots who oppose our foreign-policy objectives?
Has President Barack Obama ever looked more ineffectual than he did last week, sitting almost wordlessly next to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, while the latter, on what seems like his 10th trip to Washington this year, lectured us all yet again on the importance of leaving Israel unmolested and even uncriticized? Even as the press conference dragged on, with the words "peace process" coming to sound more hollow and mocking by the moment, bulldozers and settlers were continuing their apparently uninterruptable creation of facts on the ground, all designed to forestall or pre-empt the availability of a geographic space in which even a vestigial Palestinian state could be created. Barely reported was the blatantly expressed view of Netanyahu's thuggish foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman —a man so hostile to diplomacy that he barely travels—that no such state could be expected from the current negotiations in any case. Apparently forgotten is the humiliation of Vice President Joe Biden, whose visit to Jerusalem last March was made laughable when the Israeli housing ministry—currently under the control of the religious Orthodox Shas Party —insisted on pressing ahead with new construction in a hotly disputed neighborhood.
I am not one of those who believes—as Obama is said to believe—that a solution to the Palestinian statehood question would bring an end to Muslim resentment against the United States. (Incidentally, if he really does believe this, his lethargy and impotence in the face of Netanyahu's consistent double-dealing is even more culpable.) The Islamist fanatics have their own agenda, and, as in the case of Hamas and its Iranian backers, they have already demonstrated that nothing but the destruction of Israel and the removal of American influence from the region will possibly satisfy them. No, it is more the case that justice—and a homeland for the Palestinians—is a good and necessary cause in its own right. It is also a special legal and moral responsibility of the United States, which has several times declared a dual-statehood outcome to be its objective.
No serious person doubts that any such outcome is radically incompatible with the continuing annexation of Palestinian land and property; annexation that even Israeli courts have often found to be unlawful. Thus the immense significance of the long report in the New York Times that was printed just as Netanyahu was arriving for his latest attempt to run out the clock. The headline—"Tax-Exempt Funds Aiding Settlements in West Bank"—was somewhat outdone by the eloquence of the subhead, which boldly stated, "U.S. Gives Tax Breaks for Donations That Help To Sustain Efforts It Opposes." This, too, proved to be an understatement. Over the last decade, the report established, at least 40 American organizations have collected "more than $200 million in tax-deductible gifts for Jewish settlement in the West Bank and East Jerusalem."
The impressive documentation assembled by the Times revealed some familiar and ugly contours. Many of the U.S.-based pro-settlement forces are connected to extreme Israeli nationalist groups with proven records of violence (including the heirs of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane) or to the wilder pulpits of Christian extremism, such as the one occupied by the hysterical Rev. John Hagee, or to essentially racketeering outfits, such as the one operated until recently by the disgraced "lobbyist" Jack Abramoff. It comes as no surprise to find that much of the material provided by these "charitable" fronts consists of sniper equipment, night-vision binoculars, bulletproof vehicles, and guard dogs.
So here you have it in plain words: The U.S. Treasury Department passively allows tax breaks to vicious and fanatical groups whose activity, if conducted by Israelis, would be illegal under Israeli law! (It's more than a decade since Israel banned tax deductions for groups that devote themselves to the creation of unrecognized "outposts" on the West Bank.) This, in effect, constitutes an official American subsidy to outlaw zealot groups whose aim is to destroy any chance of accomplishing what is this country's declared foreign-policy objective.
Nor is that the most objectionable part of the sordid story. Take a glance at the rhetoric of the groups that are flouting local and international law. According to a Tennessee-based charity named HaYovel, which aims to fuse the efforts of Christian and Jewish fundamentalists in a settlement on disputed land in Samaria, the aim of its tax-exempt donations is to prepare for "the soon coming jubilee in Yeshua, messiah." I don't know about you, but I would prefer them to be using their own money, not mine, if they insist on rehearsing for the apocalypse on other people's property. Or try a few lines from the Rev. Hagee's brimstone rhetoric, claiming that "Israel exists because of a covenant God made with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob 3,500 years ago—and that covenant still stands."
Now, Hagee and his friends are quite free to believe this, even if it negates the largely secular constitution of the Israeli state and even if it infuriates Israeli officials who have to hear militant settlers call for armed resistance to Israeli troops. But the Treasury Department is not free to allow our tax dollars to be expended in underwriting such incendiary nonsense. The U.S. Constitution is icily hard and clear on the point: There can be no "establishment of religion" by our government. And these nasty little settlements are quite unambiguously aimed at the promulgation of a sectarian faith—and in its most literal and fundamentalist and exclusive form at that.
So here we have found a means of a) alienating even the most flexible and patient Palestinians; while b) frustrating the efforts of the more principled and compromising Israelis; while c) empowering and financing some of the creepiest forces in American and Israeli society; and d) heaping ordure on our own secular founding documents. When will the Justice Department and the Congress and the Supreme Court become aware of this huge and rank offense, which is designed to bring us ever nearer to holy war?
Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) was a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author, most recently, of Arguably, a collection of essays.
Photograph of Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Barack Obama by Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images.