Sunday, November 26, 2006


Yitzchak, my host for Shabbat, shakes my hand.
“Gaveritye Paruski?”
“No,” Alex interjects in Hebrew, “he doesn’t speak Russian, he’s American.”
Yitzchak, shooting me a bemused look, switches to Hebrew, “You live in Israel and don’t speak Russian? How do you get by?”
“He’s only been here three months,” Sasha explains, “Give him time.”
Sasha and Alex are part of the massive wave of aliyah from Russia in the 1990s, when four million Israeli Jews assimilated one million Russian Jews in one decade. To experience the same level of strain on national resources, the United States would have to assimilate 60 million immigrants in one decade. Any other country this small would have cracked. One would especially expect a country as at running the day to day operations of government as Israel to utterly collapse. The Knesset, or parliament, is still bickering over drafting a constitution 58 years after independence, but handling overwhelming crises against impossible odds is Israel’s specialty. The country granted the newcomers immediate citizenship and mobilized to build new housing in most major cities, and in the settlements. One area which took in an infusion of new, Russian blood was the “Hebron block,” consisting of the towns of Kiryat Arba, Harsina, Givat Ha’avot, Ehsmoret Yitzchak, and the Jewish neighborhood in the center of Hebron.
Unlike Elon Moreh, perched on a mountaintop overlooking Shechem but several miles outside of the city itself, the Hebron community lives face to face with its Arab neighbors. In sum total, there are about 7,000 residents between all of the towns, but today, for the pilgrimage on Parshat Chayyei Sarah, the population swells to at least 35,000. Busses continue cruising through the gate in the fence separating us from Hebron’s 120,000 Arab residents. Other visitors pry backpacks and sleeping bags which have been crammed into the trunks of their cars. Some pitch tents in public parks.
Out-Of-Town Visitors. Background: Kiryat Arba
The Streets of Harsina

Walking to shul, the dull red light of the sunset splashes over the Jerusalem stone houses. Friday’s last gasp. The homes, shuls, schools, and yeshivas are huddled together on the hilltop, looking across a valley of vineyards to Kiryat Arba, clinging to the next hilltop a mile or two distant.
“When was this place built?”
“Ten years ago,” Yitzchak tells me. “We started in trailers.”
“You remember the outpost I showed you in Elon Moreh?” Sasha asks. “This is what happens when we stick with it.”
Beneath the last line of houses sit two rows of new trailers. Signs of things to come?
“We wanted to build between Harsina and Kiryat Arba,” Yitzchak tells me, “but the Army won’t allow us. So they set up a base in between our two hilltops, and now nobody can build there.”

Looking from Harsina out to Kiryat Arba

The road connecting our hilltop to theirs lined on either side by a barbed wire fence, making this a cross between a trailer park and a gated community. But the fence feels like window dressing, including none of the fancy electronics, motion sensors, cameras, or trip wires that I’ve seen elsewhere. Scanning the perimeter, I detect several gaps. There are always one or two cars on the road. The flashing blue lights signal army patrols, but other vehicles, civilian, also rumble along. On Shabbat.

Foreground: Harsina trailers

Midground, left: Connecting road

Midground center: Army camp

Background: Kiryat Arba

“Yes,” Yitzchak responds to the unasked question, “We’re a mixed settlement.” Mixed religious-secular. I would later learn that you can even buy pork in Kiryat Arba, something of a rarity out here.
The crowd in shul is a warm relief from the nippy weather, visitors and locals soaking up the excitement of the evening. The rabbi begins his lesson, and I try to focus on the Hebrew. I can understand at first, but soon I miss a word. Then there’s a sentence I can’t understand, and pretty soon my logic train has derailed and my mind starts to wander, my eyes drifting around the room. To the pistol butt protruding from under the rabbi’s belt line. The rabbi’s packing heat. To several oriental faces peeking out from behind their prayer books.
“Benei Menashe,” Yitzchak explains.
After the northern ten tribes of the Kingdom of Israel were defeated by the Assyrians and dragged into exile in 721 BCE, most historians assume they were lost to assimilation. But every now and then a group pops up with peculiarly Jewish customs. In northeast India, explorers discovered a group which observes circumcision, prays wrapped in a shawl, practices levirate marriage, and offers sacrifices on biblical-style altars (the latter two practices no longer existing in contemporary halachic Judaism.) They also have a tradition of being from an ancestor named “Manmaseh,” which sounds suspiciously like the exiled tribe of Menasheh, and are familiar with several biblical stories. Due to the lack of proof surrounding their lineage, many of the Benei Menashe went through conversion according to Halachah (Jewish law,) after which they made aliyah, one of them ending up sitting in the chair next to mine.
“Actually, we have lots of converts,” Yitzchak explains to me on the way home, “I know some from Italy, one from Germany, people from all over. Right here in Harsina.”

Benei Menashe (Taken from their website)

It’s difficult explaining to someone who has never been out there why normal people who live with the same worries about families and businesses as any suburban American would choose to live out here in the territories, armed, locked behind barbed wire in a Jewish ghetto. Often, those who live here are divided into the “Quality of Life,” versus the, “Ideological” types. “Quality of Life” settlers, so it goes, moved to these places for inexpensive housing, the fresh air, and the scenic vistas, whereas “Ideological” settlers are those who came here out of conviction and belief, what some consider “fanaticism.” But to differentiate misses the point, that the quality of life is in many ways dependant on the idealism of the community. Unlike life in the rest of Israel, in the settlements, drug use is extremely rare, and burglary isn’t an issue. Prostitution, extortion, organized crime, and teen pregnancy are unheard of. Per capita income is lower but test scores are higher, and the settlements have the highest birth rate of any group in Israel. A reasonable comparison could be made between the Harsina townspeople and the American military. Many of those who serve in the American military do so to earn money for college, advance their careers, and see the world, while others come for action or to fulfill a patriotic duty. But to say that “Quality of Life” soldiers are not ideological as well is simply untrue. Dedication to a noble cause breeds excellence of character. As for the communities here in Hebron, one can pick instances of fanaticism or instability from the last 40 years of headlines, but it doesn’t characterize anyone I’ve ever met, and it’s certainly not unique to this particular segment of Israeli society.

To be continued…

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