Psagot, West Bank — It is a typical, even stereotypical, West Bank settlement scene: bearded young men pruning vines while enthusing about the Chosen People’s God-given right to this region. But in this case it is Jesus, and not Jewish identity, that animates these tillers.
For years, Westerners have flocked to the Israeli-occupied West Bank to help Palestinians with their olive harvest, as part of left-wing activist groups like the International Solidarity Movement. Among other things, the activists seek to resist efforts by settlers to disrupt the Palestinians’ reaping.
Now, the settlers have international harvest help of their own. The young Christians working in the Psagot Winery’s vineyards near Ramallah in mid-March were members of HaYovel. Last year, this Tennessee-based evangelical ministry started a large-scale operation to bring volunteers to tend and harvest settler grapes. They attach epic importance to their work.
“When you see prophecy taking place, you have the option to do nothing or become a vessel to it,” said volunteer pruner Blake Smith, a 20-year-old farmer from Virginia.
HaYovel preaches the old-school ideology of Religious Zionist settlers with one innovation: a sacred role for Christians.
The group’s members believe that the establishment of the State of Israel, its subsequent conquering of East Jerusalem and the West Bank, and specifically the flourishing of agriculture in the occupied areas are fulfillments of biblical prophecies. Like many settlers, HaYovel cites a prophecy by Jeremiah that refers to the Samaria region of the West Bank: “Again you shall plant vines on the mountains of Samaria.” And like them, HaYovel believes that the settlement movement will help to bring the Messiah to Jerusalem — the only difference being that the volunteers anticipate a second coming.
But these Christians also focus on a prophecy rarely cited by settlers, who tend to place ideological value on using only avoda ivrit, or “Hebrew labor,” whenever possible. “And strangers shall stand and feed your flocks, and foreigners shall be your plowmen and your vine-dressers,” Isaiah prophesized to the Israelites.
Basing itself on this verse, HaYovel — which takes its name from the Bible’s twice-a-century agricultural jubilee — has made reverence of settlers into a central religious virtue.
“Being here, we just want to serve — and to bless the Jewish people in building up the land,” said Joshua Waller, a HaYovel ministry leader and one of the 11 children of Tommy Waller, the group’s founder and spiritual head. During a lunch break, a settler with yarmulke and sidelocks came to address volunteers. They keenly asked him to explain why the international community is wrong and the West Bank is not really occupied, and seemed prepared to accept what they were told. “We are not here to teach anything, just to learn,” Joshua Waller said shortly before the talk began.
To some of the volunteers, becoming settler laborers is a way of righting a historical Christian wrong. “This is a crazy time,” said Joe Trad Jr., a 23-year-old college dropout from Missouri. Over 2,000 years of contention, he said, “we saw Constantine and the Holocaust. Yet today, in this spot of the world, you have Christians and Jews for the first time with the same goal.”
The volunteers are a mix of people who, like Smith, had a mainstream Christian upbringing and were drawn to HaYovel out of curiosity; people from families that gave up the organized church to develop their own brand of religion, one they see as closer to Judaism, and some people who are emerging from personal crises.
Trad, a former alcoholic and cocaine addict, went through rehab and became a Christian two years ago. He described his volunteering as a way of giving thanks “for what the Lord has done for me in my life by freeing me from these addictions.”
Aaron Hood, a 21-year-old HaYovel staff employee, comes from a Tennessee family of 14 children that gave up on any organized church and started observing the New Testament and the Hebrew Bible according to its own understanding. The family observes Saturday, not Sunday, as a rest day.