Hours before sunset on Rosh Hashanah, I sat in a bulletproof bus pondering the little I knew about my destination.
The Zionist-Orthodox settlement of Gvaot was an outpost built without permission by the Israeli government that nevertheless receives security and economic support from the state, as all recognized settlements do. Previously a Nahal outpost, the village was only reestablished in recent years, but Israel now recognizes it as a neighborhood of Alon Shvut — a settlement of 3,000 residents a few miles away — so that construction wouldn’t constitute creating a new settlement. In the aftermath of the 2014 kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenage settlers and ensuing war in Gaza, 1,000 acres of nearby Palestinian private land were confiscated to expand the young settlement — one of the largest land grabs in decades.
With these facts in mind, I imagined the residents of Gvaot to be as zealous in their beliefs and violent in their disposition as those settlers I encountered in Hebron when I previously lived there for a summer and now traveled to as a journalist.
But when I arrived, all was serene on a breezy afternoon. I found myself in a small, tight-knit community of 30 or so young, religious families with children scurrying around playgrounds and a copious amount of chocolate available. The economic foundation for this settlement was not factories polluting the environment or farms exploiting Palestinians to do their dirty, dangerous work for them, as I’d previously witnessed and reported in the areas of Tulkarem and the Jordan Valley, respectively. It was a school for children with special needs.
My hosts during my stay in Gvaot were Ariel Frumkin and Raaya Mandelbaum, a soft-spoken Orthodox husband and wife who spoiled me with homemade chocolate balls and ice cream. They were content to live a simple life in a tiny caravan. They kept busy caring for a one-year old infant, Yotam, whose primary hobby was throwing on the ground anything handed to him, and three-year old Chen, whose boundless energy was encapsulated in her belief that every day was her birthday (“You should see her when it’s her actual birthday!” quipped Raaya).
Ariel and Raaya both descended from Holocaust survivors. Ariel was raised in Ofra, one of the earliest settlements, and Raaya grew up in another settlement closer to Hebron, where she recalled Palestinians throwing rocks at her school bus and killing three settlers when she was little.
It always made for awkward conversation to discuss these Palestinian neighbors. As Ariel saw it, the rare improprieties by IDF soldiers were the actions taken outside of official orders. “Yes, I think the Palestinians are oppressed a bit by the army,” he told me as we walked along the edge of the settlement. “They live under military law, while we have civil law. But we do what is necessary.”
In front of us were the rolling green hills of Gush Etzion, an epicenter of settlement villages bordering the Green Line. The area, generally regarded among Israelis as likely to remain under Israeli control under any future peace agreement, was the site of several Jewish settlements built on land purchased in the 1920s before residents fled after finding themselves on the wrong side of the 1949 armistice line. “After the Holocaust, where else was there for us to go in the world?” he wondered aloud. “When we won Judea and Samaria in the 1967 war, what were we supposed to do?”
The couple and I sat around a fire one night in their backyard with Raaya’s kooky 18 year-old brother, Amitai. Amitai joined us multiple times for dinner, dodging the pee puddles from the children to help with chores. Everyone chipped in on family duties, and among the community as well; Ariel and Raaya’s next-door neighbors offered me a place to sleep while they were away, and other families hosted me for meals when Ariel and Raaya were unable to.
Amitai and I were talking beside the fire when he noted working with two Palestinians in the back kitchen of a fast food joint. My eyebrows raised. Despite his exposure to Palestinian violence as a child, Amitai said, “I have always recognized that Palestinians are humans.”
Amitai took out his phone. “We have many jokes and laughs together!” he exclaimed. He showed me a picture of his Palestinian co-worker holding him by the neck with a gigantic knife as they smiled.
My jaw dropped. “We have fun!” he said, hysterically laughing.
When his co-worker asked Amitai if he wanted to come to his house in Ramallah, however, Amitai declined. “I know not all Palestinians want to kill me, but if I went there, there would be people that would. So I would never go to Ramallah or somewhere like that,” he said. “I have to be careful with Palestinians.”
A few months later, Amitai began his IDF service.
Sure, there were the differences in language and aesthetic. But the communal pilgrimage to synagogue as the sun set reminded me of the waves of families in suits and dresses making their way (30 minutes late) to Temple Sinai back home. Indeed, we were of the same people. Yet on a lonely hilltop settlement surrounded by a fence, the community congregated under quite a different circumstance. On the first night of Rosh Hashanah, as we entered the synagogue for services, Ariel paused. “Oh, I forgot something,” he muttered. He left and returned a few minutes later — an assault rifle slung around his arm. “The security guy usually here is out of town,” he explained. For the next two days, I prayed in the synagogue with an assault rifle beside me. When Rosh Hashanah ended, Ariel still carried a handgun.
But at the dinner table that night, religious duty secured by a gun served as mere backdrop to conversation like any neighborhood news, nothing more. There were mentions of Arabs nearby, and I asked if there were any problems with them. Ariel explained that sometimes, Palestinians would burn trees in the forests. Why did they do that? I asked.
“Because some of them want to destroy us,” he gravely replied.
I asked if it had anything to do with the land confiscations the previous year. Immediately, the table went silent. Only after a minute’s explanation did one of the guests acknowledge what I was saying. “Oh, yes, you mean last summer when the government declared 1000 acres to be state land? Yes, yes, I know what you are talking about. But that was never Palestinian land.”
I told them how Gvaot’s Wikipedia article — with sources from USA Today and New York Times, as I later checked — said the confiscated land was private Palestinian land.
He responded, “The problem is that B’Tselem” — an Israeli human rights organization — “is an anti-Israel organization, and they probably write the English articles on Wikipedia about settlements in Judea and Samaria.”
I nodded and moved on, but the ease with which they dismissed the issue remained in the back of my mind.
The next day, Ariel and I stood at the edge of the settlement overlooking those rolling verdant hills. I pressed Ariel about Gvaot’s status again. Ariel said this was land Palestinians never really used.
The 1,000 acres that were confiscated belonged to Palestinian families who harvested olive and forest trees there, according to the mayor of the nearby Palestinian town of Surif.
Ariel reasoned, “While there are some cases where maybe some land was farmed by Palestinians that Jews now use, Jews have never settled in Judea and Samaria in areas where Palestinians were removed from their homes. This was always Jewish land, going back to before 1948.”
“The land deeds that Palestinians had, many of them were faked,” added Raaya. “[Palestinians] will do whatever they can to claim land that wasn’t actually theirs.”
As B’Tselem describes, “Israel has used a complex legal and bureaucratic mechanism to take control of more than fifty percent of the land in the West Bank.” Exhaustive efforts have been made to replace Palestinians with Israelis in areas of East Jerusalem, particularly Silwan, as well as in the Old City of Hebron, employing a variety of tactics and reasoning. There are settlements in the Jordan Valley and other areas within Area C where Palestinians lived before being forced out for residing in military zones — even when families lived there prior to 1967 — or without building permits, which are essentially never granted to Palestinians in IDF-controlled Area C.
In most cases, however, confiscated land previously served agricultural purposes — the primary source of income for most Palestinian villages. A recently passed bill in the Knesset seeks to retroactively legalize the settlements built on private Palestinian land.
This phenomenon occurred a short walk away, but inside the settlement bubble, none of it seemed to penetrate the community’s psyche. A year following the land confiscation, the Israeli government’s decision hadn’t affected the people very much. “They called the land taken [as a] part of Gvaot because it is the closest village,” said Ariel. “The only thing that changed was there was now a Hebrew sign south of the village.” Their lives were only affected when the press came, swarming the villagers with questions. “It was weird because we didn’t know anything about it otherwise.”
“It is difficult when thinking of the Palestinians here,” he said, measuring his words carefully. “Because they do live here and this has been their homes for I don’t know how long. But I believe that all of this is Jewish land. We conquered it in 1967, and places like Hebron, Shechem (Nablus), this is the land that Abraham worked and God said would be our land. The Torah never talks about Tel Aviv, but this land here is what the Torah has stories about.”
Though Ariel and Raaya chastised the Orthodox biblical literalists who believe the world is 6,000 years old, they still believe in religious dominion over “Judea and Samaria”, inherited from Abraham. How could I question someone’s political beliefs partly rooted in religious doctrine instilled since birth? And as a guest, no less? I could only suppress my grievances.
Returning to Rosh Hashanah services, I suddenly didn’t feel like we were celebrating quite the same thing anymore. During the Orthodox services wholly performed in Hebrew, I barely followed any of the prayers. Among the few parts I did understand and remember were those prayers for Israel and Jerusalem I heard growing up. But when I heard “Shema Yisrael,” it no longer felt strictly ceremonial or symbolic like in my reform synagogue in America, even if it still was. I didn’t receive these words as simply addressing the “children of Israel,” but the state of Israel. Among this congregation, our presence in this corner of the West Bank was itself a mitzvah with blurred distinction between politics and religion.
Ariel and Raaya’s religious Zionism emphasized this land as Jewish in ancient times, an inheritance through the ages — discounting what came in between. For me, as a secular, cultural Jew, it wasn’t the land or even the memory of these ancient lands, but the experience of remembering that I inherited. Inheriting the memories of centuries-long persecution in the Diaspora developed an ancestral identity unique from what those original ancient memories evoked, a new identity personally accompanied by changes in skin color, language, religious observance, culture, and ideals. My Jewish solidarity would always be with the oppressed — no matter the oppressor.
After several days in Gvaot, I struggled to process these differences in Jewish identity with the kindhearted people who took me in to celebrate Rosh Hashanah with them. Having previously listened to so many Palestinians discuss dispossession and violence at the hands of settlers, it was now obvious that I initially prejudiced these people by their group ideology — failing to consider what kind of human beings they may actually be like. And that was wrong of me.
Rosh Hashanah in Gvaot did not feel like some spectacular wonder of Jewish pride and Zionist perseverance, nor did it feel like a gruesome den of murderous land thieves. Gvaot is Hebrew for “hill.” That’s it. Hill. And on this sleepy hill, it could be easy to forget that we were anywhere but a plain hill — if not for the surrounding fences and preponderance of guns, that is. By the end of my stay, I knew everyone’s face in Gvaot, and I became fond of the people I met. If you grew up as they did, seeing as they did, believing as they did, what might your views be like? Though they carry responsibility for the implications and pain their livelihood causes, it says surprisingly little of their personal character as a whole.
When I consider their character, I think of Ariel and Raaya silently gesturing their feelings to one another, a deep connection beyond words. I will think of little Chen running up to hand me sweets from the fridge. I will think of Raaya using tweezers to pry a splinter from her crying daughter while Ariel sweetly sang a children’s song to soothe her sobbing. My lasting image of Gvaot is of a child holding hands with a mother that was hers not by blood, but by communal creed.
From a political perspective, this small outpost is a symbol of Israeli expansion and disregard for international law, and these people’s religious beliefs intend to justify those actions.
But on a personal level, I will wholeheartedly declare my love for the people of Gvaot, a love only realized in person.
As I departed, Ariel ran out to hand me some sweets for the road.
“I know how you like your bittersweet chocolate,” he said with a smile.
Indeed, my thoughts of Gvaot are bittersweet, but everything bitter about it is conceptual. The bitterness is found in ideas of colonialism and oppression so unapparent in their daily life I simply wish they knew or acknowledged.
But when getting to know these people personally, everything somehow felt so innocent, so sweet, in a world obscured by so much political baggage.
Steven Davidson is an editorial fellow at the Forward. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @sdavidson169