Jane Eisner’s special report, Across the Green Line, is running in two parts, starting yesterday and continuing today. Read the first part here.
Days after the bodies of the three Israeli yeshiva students were found, defiant settlers established unauthorized outposts in their names. This is not a new phenomenon. Deep in the West Bank, Esh Kodesh was founded in 1999 in memory of Esh Kodesh Gilmore, a 25-year-old Israeli who was murdered by a Palestinian gunman while working as a security guard in East Jerusalem. His friends drove an old bus to a rocky hilltop not too far from the biblical town of Shiloh and vowed to stay.
The bus, its painted facade dry and cracked, remains at the center of this rural settlement, next to a playground and surrounded by bright-green vineyards fed by rich soil. The grapes are sold to wineries throughout Israel. A.Y. Katsof shows me around. Originally from Los Angeles, he’s lived in Esh Kodesh for four years with his wife and five children and has the swagger of those who take pleasure in challenging the establishment, especially his own establishment.
But he is not technically an outsider to that establishment. Esh Kodesh’s rusty caravans and stone houses receive electricity and water from Israel’s main grid. Its 30 families pay taxes. Katsof says he served 20 days in the military reserve last year. The 100 or so children who live at the outpost go to school in nearby Shiloh. And an Israel Defense Forces soldier stands guard from the tower in the center of the hilltop.
“All we need is a signature from the Ministry of Defense” and the outpost will be authorized, Katsof insists.
I ask him why he’s here, and he scoffs at the question.
“The quality of life!” he answers. “I hear leaves and birds, I hear water dripping on the trees. My kids play outside. There’s always a breeze, a ruach, a good spirit here.”
Obviously there’s something more than a love of nature drawing him here, where hostile neighbors surround him. He tells me how the Arabs disrupt the vineyards and ruin the fields. “You have to understand the Arab mentality,” he says. “By staying here on the mountain, we are keeping the valley safe. You wouldn’t let Al Qaeda sit on a rocky mountain. Soon as we leave here, it turns into Gaza.”
And do you worry about being evacuated? “Not every day,” Katsof says. “You plant trees, you raise children. You have a little fear of what’s going to happen. It’s much worse when it’s your own government stabbing you in the back.”
This is what’s so frustrating about these extreme settlers. They openly and eagerly defy the law, then react bitterly when — or more likely, if — the government actually responds.
Nowhere is that more apparent than in Hebron, the largest Palestinian city in the West Bank and home to a stubborn minority of Jews that feels understandably embattled because they are. “I have access to 3% of Hebron,” David Wilder, spokesman for the Committee of the Jewish Community in Hebron, tells me. “The Arabs can go anywhere. There is almost nothing they don’t have here and almost nothing they can’t do here, including launch terrorist attacks.”
Wilder is dripping with details and resentments. A New Jersey native, he can rattle off all the times Jews were hurt and killed in Hebron through the centuries, all the times they were saved, and why every stone, every tumbled piece of earth, is sacred. He clearly channels the firebrand rabbi Moshe Levinger, who went to Hebron without government permission in 1968 to hold a Passover Seder and refused to leave.
Wilder’s shirt is stained, his beard unkempt, his tzitzit flapping against his baggy trousers, a handgun in the back pocket. If Ruchie Avital is the face of the suburban settler, and A.Y. Katsof the hilltop rebel, Wilder is the unremitting agitator, whose passion I’d find almost admirable if it wasn’t so utterly unreasonable.
Since I have never been to Hebron, I am eager to see the biblical spots that serve as a magnet for some Jews, bolstering their claim that Israel should never forsake the place where it all began. Wilder takes me to the archaeological sites that predate the Temple in Jerusalem. A wall built 4,500 years ago, in the days of Noah. Another wall, built eight centuries later, in the time of Abraham and Sarah. Silos, where grain was stored in King David’s era before he relocated to Jerusalem.
I am surprised by how little this moves me. Perhaps that’s because the ruins sit, uncared for, behind a rusty fence, forlorn and, frankly, unremarkable. A red plastic bag has landed on top of the stone path that Abraham supposedly walked. A little boy scampers across the ruins. A few sagging signs provide little illumination.
This is it?
We go to Ma’arat HaMachpelah, the Tomb of the Patriarchs, regarded as the second-holiest site in Judaism, where Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebecca and Jacob are buried. Since a mosque was built on top of the caves 700 years ago, Jewish access is restricted, but we can still go through the wide, empty plaza, past the guards and into what looks to me like an ultra-Orthodox synagogue.
A few men dressed in heavy Haredi black clothes are studying and praying. The few women I see are off in a dark corner, clutching prayer books. It is musty, almost suffocating. Honestly, I can’t wait to leave.
Outside, the streets are quiet, storefronts shuttered because of the security situation. As we walk through another compressed Jewish neighborhood — there are four such enclaves tucked into the city — we see a few boys defying the afternoon heat and playing outside. Most of the Jews have to use nearby Kiryat Arba as a source of food, work and provisions, since their lives are so circumscribed in Hebron.
Why do you stay here, I ask Wilder.
“It’s a privilege to live here!” he replies, as if I had asked him the most ridiculous thing. “How many people can say they live where they started?”
So that frames the answer to President Johnson’s question. What kind of Israel do you want? David Wilder and the other settlers — who embody only kinder, gentler versions of his wildcat approach — want an Israel tied inextricably to its past. Damn the consequences. I contrast that with my experience a few days earlier, when a friend took me to Sarona, yet another new and instantly popular redeveloped area of Tel Aviv, bursting with restaurants and shops, its playgrounds and grassy spaces filled with children, casually sophisticated and brimming with energy.
Looking forward or looking back. Wedded to place, or hitched to the future.
Rockets are flying as I write this, a frightening escalation. The looming existential question Israel faces is, understandably, overshadowed by the challenge of mere existence, of ensuring that citizens are safe and that it has the right to defend itself.
Eventually the violence will subside and Israel will again be faced with the decision of what it wants to be. Ever since a cease-fire ended the 1967 war, there have been calls for Israel to annex some or all of the lands it captured. Those calls are growing louder and more insistent now, championed by Naftali Bennett, who is minister of Economics, Religious Services, and Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs and, as head of the Jewish Home party, a member of the ruling coalition.
But he opposes a key principle of the Netanyahu government — a stated belief, however tenuous and far off, in an independent Palestinian state.
“A Palestinian state would be the equivalent of suicide,” he tells me in a rare interview in Jerusalem. “I’m not going to commit suicide because the world will applaud. That’s not a good enough reason to give up your homeland.
“If you want to survive in the toughest region of the world, you need land, strength and deterrence. In the Middle East, land matters.”
Bennett is pushing a plan he’s talked about for years: annexation of Area C, the large swaths of the West Bank already controlled by Israel, where Jews far outnumber Palestinians. Those Palestinians would be offered full citizenship, and their brethren in Areas A and B would live under some sort of occupation for the foreseeable future.
I was surprised by how many of the settlers I interviewed agreed with this plan. Many of them were former Likudniks who voted for Bennett’s party in the 2013 election. If anything, they don’t like to say “annex,” since that implies that the land wasn’t Israel’s to start with; they prefer saying “apply sovereignty to Area C.”
Dani Dayan, chief foreign envoy for the Yesha Council, which represents “the Jewish communities of Judea, Samaria and Gaza,” is gaining notoriety for his version of a plan that would also maintain Israeli sovereignty indefinitely.
“Whoever thinks you can draw an arbitrary line that will be stronger than our yearning for Hebron and their yearning for Jaffa doesn’t understand the conflict,” he tells me as we lunch at the tourist center in Shiloh. “This is a conflict between two genuine beliefs. It is irreconcilable.”
Dayan is a charming man, a gregarious marketer of his beliefs no matter how dire they sound, absolutely convinced that he represents the future even more than the vibrant life I saw bubbling in Tel Aviv. For him, too, the land is everything.
“People call us sometimes messianic, driven by fantasies,” he says of the ideological settlers he represents. “We are not carried away by messianic fantasy. We are the group in the Middle East with our feet most solidly on the ground of reality.”
This is not the kind of Israel I want, an Israel in constant conflict, morally stained by its own power. But in the absence of a government able to make bold and just decisions, surrounded by enemies in a hostile and volatile region, I fear this is the Israel we will have.
Jane Eisner, a pioneer in journalism, is writer-at-large at the Forward and the 2019 Koeppel Fellow in Journalism at Wesleyan University. For more than a decade, she was editor-in-chief of the Forward, the first woman to hold the position at the influential Jewish national news organization. Under her leadership, the Forward’s digital readership grew significantly, and won numerous regional and national awards for its original journalism, in print and online.