Two Great Things to Come Out of Israel and A Knot to Untangle

This is really two posts, but I didn’t want the length of one to bury the other.

Two Great Things to Come Out of Israel

Over the weekend I had a chance to see two things that are new and from Israel.

The first is my nephew. My step-sister and her husband, who live in Netanya, had a baby boy earlier this year. I got to spend the end of Shabbat with them and my step-brother in their home, and meet the new little guy. Isn’t he adorable?

The other great thing I saw was a new Israeli film, הערת שוליים, Footnote. It recently won Best Screenplay at Cannes. The Israeli film industry has really come into its own of late, with films like Beaufort, The Band’s Visit, and Waltz with Bashir, each with Oscar consideration. Footnote is directed by Joseph Cedar, who directed Beaufort, and in my opinion, is Oscar worthy. Unlike those three films, it is not the typical incredibly depressing Israeli film. It’s not a happy film, but fortunately war, armies, subjected people, and death are not part of the story line. It is a brilliant story of a father and son who are Talmud scholars who don’t much like or respect each other…sort of. Keep your eyes out for it.

A Knot to Untangle

After many, many visits to Israel over the past several years, I had a “first time” experience here that I had both been greatly anticipating and felt nervous about. Today we went to Kfar Etzion, a kibbutz in the West Bank settlement of Gush Etzion, the Etzion “Bloc” in English. It was my first time in the West Bank.

Why did we go? First and foremost to visit Yeshivat Mekor Hayim, a residential boys’ religious high school. There, Religious Zionist boys in grades 9-12 study a curriculum that is common to most religious high schools: predominantly study of Talmud, but also General Studies, which consists of math, history, Bible (yes, that’s “General,” non-religious), music, and other topics. Their formal school day starts at 7 am and goes until about 9 or 9:30 pm every day. That time includes davening (worship), breakfast, lunch and dinner, and a break in the afternoon. But the majority of the time, broken into two multi-hour blocks, is spent learning Talmud. They learn some from lessons taught by their teachers, but most of their learning is done in the Beit Midrash (House of Study- think library with talking),where they read and discuss the texts in chevruta, two-person groups, or sometimes larger groups. Why do they learn this way? Because for them, knowledge of Torah and Talmud is essential to understanding one’s self and how we fit in the world around us. After they graduate, almost all of these boys go on to military service, some in the typical three-year commitment, and others in what’s called hesder. In the hesder model, young men alternate between periods of active duty and full-time yeshiva study. This typically is a five-year commitment, and is considered a full commitment to the IDF.

What distinguishes Mekor Hayim from other yeshiva high schools is their approach to learning. For a yeshiva high school, there are many things that make it very open minded. As one of the boys explained, unlike other schools, they truly feel that they could learn or read any work they wanted; other schools might censure or punish students for reading “subversive” texts. Also, as we learned from the Rosh Yeshiva (principal), they are not focused on making boys who practice their Judaism in strict adherence to the faculty’s interpretation. Rather, they are striving to instill within the boys a sense of self-responsibility, of self-awareness, and of recognizing the need to relate to others in their life with respect and open-mindedness. In a morning visit, it is hard to prove whether or not they actually achieve this. But I can offer this observation as a piece of evidence: when we introduced ourselves (4 women and 3 men) as all studying to be rabbis, they didn’t bat an eye. Now, the yeshiva knew who we were when we made the arrangements, and in previous years the fellows also visited Mekor Hayim. But, there are many yeshivot who would refuse to meet with us for ideological reasons; because we are Reform, because there are women in the group, and many others. We also got the sense that the leadership of the yeshiva also wanted the boys to hear from us, to learn from meeting this us. Part of their ideology is a notion that their students are always and constantly learning. When the boys are hanging out in the dorms at night, they know that the conversations they have are just as important as the discussion around the volume of Talmud.

After lunch at a nearby restaurant, we headed to a community center in Kfar Etzion to start our encounter with the greater Gush Etzion community. And for the rest of the day, we had to have our discerning minds in high gear. Gush, as a West Bank settlement, is incredibly controversial. And we were hearing the story of Gush from residents and the “museum,” which is really just an advertisement for that story.

Anyone who has been following the Israeli-Palestinian story recently has heard the phrase “’67 Borders with mutually agreed swaps.” As I wrote a while back, that notion is somewhat flawed, because the “border” was nothing more than an armistice line, the place where the soldiers were standing when Israel and Jordan agreed to stop shooting at each other in 1949 (it wasn’t until 1994 that Israel and Jordan signed a peace agreement). But, the reality is that Gush Etzion and many other settlements are located on the other side of that line. After the Six Day War in 1967, Israel started creating little settlements, towns, and eventually cities in that area. As many in Israeli society, many in the global Jewish community, and the various accords and agreements between the Israelis and Palestinians indicate, eventually, much of the area to the east of the Green Line (the ’49 Armistice Line) will be handed over to the Palestinians to create their State (I’m excluding Gaza not because it has no bearing on that process but because that’s not the part of the process I’m talking about and I don’t want to get into it). But, since 1967, as Israel has exerted military authority in the West Bank, an untenable and morally problematic situation has arisen: millions of Palestinians living in the West Bank under Israeli rule. If the lack of self-governance wasn’t bad enough, in response to threats and acts of terrorism by certain Palestinian groups, Israel has often acted against the Palestinians as a whole, subjected them to a virtual police state, restricted their movement from town to town and to and from Jerusalem and Israel “proper.” Without being to detailed, my own opinion on the matter is that Israel has been wronging the Palestinians for decades. That’s not to say Israel didn’t have its reasons. The security threat from terrorists has proven itself to be real (i.e., the Second Intifada), and Israel has a right to defend itself. And we, the global population, have yet to figure out a way to give Israel the security it requires and the Palestinians the freedom they deserve. To make it more complicated, Israel, almost immediately, started building the settlements, essentially infusing Jews into what was previously an entirely Palestinian (or Jordanian) area. That increased both the demand on the Israeli military to protect those settlements and thus act even more strongly against the Palestinians. Thus, as “everyone” agrees, Israel needs to get out of the West Bank and make room for a Palestinian State.

But it’s not that simple. Some of these settlements are large cities with thousands and tens of thousands of Jewish residents. As Israel learned during the disengagement from Gaza, relocating them into Israel proper is not that easy. Thus the notion of “mutually agreed swaps,” where some of the largest settlements would remain part of Israel in exchange for some land that was on the Israeli side of the Green Line but is mostly Arab/Palestinian in its demography. Sound simple? It’s not, because the areas are so intertwined it would be next to impossible to draw a line that included all of the Jewish areas and none of the Palestinian, and vice versa. Then would come the question of how to divide Jerusalem. And the question of how to guarantee Israel the security it needs.

What bothers me and many others on the left is the reality that it was only because Israel decided to start building the settlements in 1967 that we find ourselves in this position. Many people who hope for peace blame the Arab/Palestinians for rejecting the 1947 UN Partition Plan, which would have created a Palestinian State much bigger than what might happen now, because they wanted to reject the establishment of a Jewish State alongside it. Now, many cast the same blame on Israel for creating this demographic, logistical, political, religious, and other adjectives nightmare by inserting themselves into that area.

But, and this is reflective of what I saw and thought today, it’s not that simple. I used to think that all settlements were the same, that all settlers were ideologues who were concerned more with their own theological beliefs than the future security and morality of Israel. I still believe that there are some settlers and settlements like that. But Gush Etzion isn’t one of them. Gush is only about a 20 minute drive from Jerusalem. Many of its residents work in Jerusalem; its somewhat of a bedroom community. People moved there both for ideological reasons and because it offers the comforts of suburban life: larger homes, lawns, quiet, community. None of which justifies having a settlement that jeopardizes the future of Israel. But the story of Gush is different that most of the other settlements. It is not a place that Jews returned to in the late ’60s or early ’70s for the first time since the Biblical period. In the 1920’s, as Jews were moving to the Land of Israel, which at the time was governed by the British Mandate, the went to the hills south of Jerusalem to create an agricultural community where one did not exist. This, of course, was happening all over the land; in Tel Aviv, in the Negev, in the north. And as was happening all over the area, conflict arose between the Jewish residents of the “Yishuv,” (Settlement) the name for the Jewish community in the Land of Israel before the founding of the state, and the Arabs who lived there. These conflicts escalated over the decades, coming to a head with the war in 1948 after Ben Gurion declared the State of Israel. The community on the land that is now Gush Etzion was destroyed in 1929 and 1937, the result of armed conflict with the Arabs in the area. In 1943, a third attempt at settling that area began. In five years they turned the desolate hillside into a working community. But, as Israel was getting closer and closer to independence, the fighting with the Arabs got fiercer and fiercer. Eventually, all the mothers and children in the area were evacuated to Jerusalem. Supplies were hard to get, as many convoys were attacked on the way from Jerusalem. Finally, on May 13, 1948, the kibbutz was unable to defend itself anymore. It fell to the Arabs. Although those who had stayed and fought to the bitter end surrendered, they were taken captive and all killed. Historians disagree about how many there were, but it was somewhere between 70 and 250 people. Their wives and children were in Jerusalem. The next day, the State of Israel was founded. As a sign in the community center says, “אל תשכח את תש”ה,” “Dont Forget 5708,” the Jewish year coinciding with 1948.

Why do I mention this? If the battle for Gush Etzion had gone differently, if some of those caravans of supplies had been able to get through, if reinforcements had been available, its possible that Gush Etzion would have been part of Israel in 1949, it would have been on the Israeli side of the Green Line. That cannot be said for most of the settlements today. Gush is unique in that respect. In 1967, after the Six Day War, after the wives and children of those who died in ’48 had spent years standing on a hill just a few miles away looking at the Lone Oak Tree that remained standing, they moved back. They rebuilt the ruined community that they had once inhabited and remained uninhabited in the interim. They did it with the permission of the government and the JNF. That it remained uninhabited is important. They did not come in in ’67 and kick out Arab residents. The only reason the land was even livable was because of the work that had been done in the ’20s, ’30s, and ’40s by Jews in the Yishuv. So, although they did move into an area that is generally viewed as not part of Israel, one could make a convincing argument that Gush is an exception to that general view.

To argue that the Jewish presence in that area from the 20’s to the 40’s is not enough to justify Jewish presence now would potentially negate the right of the State of Israel to exist now; Israel proper is the result of the Jewish settlement of that land during that same period. It’s just that Gush was lost during the ’48 war, then reclaimed in the ’67 war. This was not just an ideological move to move into a place that had been Jewish (or perhaps more accurately, Israelite) 2000 years ago. It is a place that just 20 years before had been the physical home of some of the first settlers. True, the Partition Plan of ’47 would have put Gush in Palestine, but Be’er Sheva, the Capital of the Negev, would have as been well.

That does not negate the fact that there were many who assisted in the rebuilding, both on the ground and through governmental support, that chose to settle Gush for ideological reasons, as a way to start a general annexation of the entire West Bank. But what Gush has that many other settlements do not is a modern Israeli story. And its proximity to Jerusalem and the Green Line. As I stood next to the community center in Alon Shevut (the Tree of Return, named for the Lone Tree), another kibbutz in Gush, I could see Jerusalem. On a clear day, from that spot (or perhaps from the rooftops above), one could see both the Mediterranean Sea and the Dead Sea. In the image below, the closer ring of white buildings is Beitar Illit, a Haredi settlement, even closer to the Green Line than Gush. And in the background just below the horizon, is Jerusalem. And in between is an Arab town, Husan.

So, even if we wanted to draw a line that included Gush and Beitar Illit into Israel, which is what many would expect a final peace agreement to do, what about Husan? Draw the line around it? How? The Jewish and Arab communities in the West Bank are knotted together, and may not be able to be pulled apart without some serious sacrifices. Even if both sides wanted to work together to make it happen (which right now they are nowhere close to being), it’s an almost impossible task. The settler movement made that the reality. Maybe Beitar Illit, Husan, and Gush is solvable puzzle. But the rest of the area will be much harder. Yes, Israel should get out of most of the area. Yes, a few major settlements will need to remain. Yes, there ought to be an independent Palestinian State. Yes, the Palestinians have to recognize that Israel is going to exist, and fighting that principle is going to prolong the status quo, which is untenable and unbearable. No, I have no idea how that is going to happen.


About Greg Weisman

Rabbinical Student at the Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles Rabbinic Intern at Congregation Kol Ami Teaching Assistant at the University of Southern California Husband, son, brother, dog owner, sports fan View all posts by Greg Weisman

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