Real Housewives of the West Bank
Mommy blogs are nothing new. The blogosphere is full of sites written by self-proclaimed happy mommies, designer mommies, vodka-drinking mommies, redneck mommies, “scary,” sarcastic mommies and even “stark raving mad” mommies.
Now there’s a new kind of mommy blogger joining their ranks: the Israeli settler mommy.
Mitnachalot Bareshet (Set on the Net), a new blog co-written by a group of five native Israeli women living in the West Bank, deals with the daily concerns of working mothers living somewhere that is unfamiliar to most people (even to most Israelis), except for what they read or hear about it in the media.
This is exactly why Tamar Asraf, a mother of five from the Eli settlement north of Jerusalem and Ramallah, started the blog in October 2012. Eli was recently in the headlines, as Israel’s Civil Administration in the West Bank announced a plan to legitimize hundreds of illegal structures built in the settlement over the years on Palestinian land — both private land, and areas that have been declared state land.
“I felt it was time for Israelis to speak with us settlers, rather than about us,” said Asraf, a spokeswoman for the Binyamin Regional Council, an Israeli government body that oversees 42 settlements. “There is a huge gap between what people think life is like in Judea and Samaria and what the reality is,” she continued, using the biblical terms for the Occupied Territories.
Mitnachalot Bareshet is a public relations campaign — and in fact received early funding from the Binyamin Regional Council — but it’s one the women take very personally. Their blog is essentially a mommy blog, but with a unique twist. The women, who blog as volunteers, want to share with readers the challenges and rewards of the settler existence. They aim to show that family life on their side of the Green Line is the same as on the other side — but also different in some ways.
Much of what the women write about is recognizable to all Israeli mothers and, in fact, mothers everywhere. There are lighthearted posts about keeping the kids busy during the long summer break, deciding when it’s time to buy a larger home, and handling addictions to smart phones and GPS devices. There are more serious ones on subjects like privacy and women’s reproductive health, the death of a child and cancer.
Scattered among the posts, however, are ones that make it very clear that these moms don’t live in Tel Aviv. One woman writes about overcoming her fear of driving, especially at night, having had her car stoned by Palestinians. Another expresses her anguish over the court order to demolish the illegal Amona settlement. Still another argues against “occupation” — not the phenomenon itself, but rather use of the term, which she claims is corrupt. The settlements are considered illegal under international law, but the bloggers are adamant that the biblical land of Israel belongs to the Jewish people.
I sat down with Asraf, who is in her early 40s, and the rest of the Mitnachalot Bareshet team at a cafe in downtown Jerusalem in early July. Like Asraf, her co-bloggers, Meira Dolev, Miri Maoz-Ovadia and Racheli Siegel, wore headscarves and long sleeves despite the summer heat. The fifth woman, Hila Luxenburg, had an uncovered head and had a tiny diamond stud in her nose. She wore a sleeveless blouse and a short skirt.
Luxenburg, a 28-year-old divorcee and mother of a young girl, believes the secular perspective she brings to the blog is important. “I’m not religious, so I live a different life from the other bloggers,” she said. “This brings another sort of reader, a more secular one, to the blog.”
She is quick to point out that contrary to popular perception, a full one-third of the 350,000 Israeli residents of the West Bank (including the larger settlements adjacent to Jerusalem) are secular. Luxenburg, who guides Israeli opinion shapers on tours through Judea and Samaria for the Yesha Council, an umbrella group of municipal councils in the West Bank, was raised in a religious family in the Gush Etzion settlement of Efrat. But she moved away from religious observance as a teenager and served in the army. In recent years, she has discovered a new way to connect to her Jewish identity, with Judea and Samaria playing a key role in this connection.
“My attachment to my Jewish identity is growing and growing, the more my attachment to the land grows,” she said. She considers herself proof that you can be both secular and right wing: “I’m the token settler when I get together with my secular friends.”
Siegel, the editor of the local Binyamin region newspaper, reports that each of the blog’s posts is racking up thousands of views. Readers are also commenting on what the women write — and not all of it is positive. For instance, one reader commented: “The whole settlement enterprise has been sentenced to end. It was sentenced to end from the beginning, and everyone knows how things will turn out. Enough stealing of land, enough of enslaving another nation, enough of spending public money [on the settlers] that would be better spent on the elderly, education and health care.”
“Some of the responses are disturbing, but it opens up the conversation,” Siegel said. “I expect people to learn about my life, not necessarily to change their political view.”
According to 32-year-old Siegel, who lived for six years in a “caravan” (a trailer home) in Talmon with her husband and two children before recently moving into an actual house, the public’s biggest misconception is that settlers don’t live normal lives.
“I wake up in the morning thinking about baby sitters, deadlines and buying teacher gifts — not destroying the Arabs’ olive trees,” she said. “Most settlers are against violence committed against Arabs. We’re normal people, and we’re not trying to destroy the peace process,” she said. Even so, Siegel believes that a two-state solution is unrealistic. She wants Israel to retain control of the territories, and she said she would never willingly leave her home in the West Bank.
Asraf is very passionate about the use of the personal to overcome political differences. It’s no coincidence that she brought together her female colleagues to write a blog targeted primarily at female readers. “Women have the ability to be much more open, to create change,” she said.
Siegel points to how the blog’s graphic design is deliberately soft and pleasing. The blog’s delicate visuals are punctuated by pinks and purples. Its logo, seen at the top of each page, is reminiscent of the iconic chalutza, or female pioneer.
“That was deliberate. We view ourselves as modern-day pioneers,” she explained. There’s also a play-on-words embedded in the logo. The woman is carrying a spade, or et, whose Hebrew homophone means “pen.” “The original pioneers worked the land. We are doing our part by writing,” Siegel said.
Until now, Mitnachalot Bareshet has been aimed only at a Hebrew-speaking Israeli audience. With the blog’s growing success and the attention it is beginning to gain outside Israel, the women are planning to add some English-language bloggers to the mix.
They are also working with marketing and communications experts on developing a social media strategy to extend their reach. In an electronic world without borders, the bloggers want to blur the Green Line, as Luxenburg puts it: “The Green Line can divide land, but it shouldn’t divide people.”
Renee Ghert-Zand reported this piece from Israel and is a regular contributor to the Forward.
Visit Mitnachalot Bareshet at http://mitnachlot.co.il