Thursday, December 28, 2006


I've posted my last four posts on the Hitnatkut in their entirety below:

Pointing over the Shabbat table at the wall mural, Naftali stretches the limits of his Hebrew vocabulary, "Pretty.... picture."
"That's okay," Rabbi Feld, our Shabbat host tells him, "we're American. You can speak English." An American immigrant himself, and one of the founders of the settlement of Kochav Ya'akov, he obviously experienced the same language difficulties himself years ago.
Naftali laughs uncomfortably and stares at the floor. Time to intervene.
"Naftali doesn't like to speak English on Shabbat, only Hebrew," I tell our host. "It's a holy day so he only wants to speak the holy language."
"Oh," Rabbi Feld responds, and continues in Hebrew, "I'm glad you like the picture."
Naftali shuffles his feet.
"You should also know," I tell him, "that he's only been in Israel for three months. He can't speak Hebrew either. He's on such a high spiritual level that he can't keep up with himself."
"Well," Rabbi Feld continues, "it's a portrait of the Beit Hamikdash." The holy temple, as described in the Torah. You can find images of the holy temple in every religious home in Israel. Except...
"Is that the Park Hotel in the background?" I ask.
"Yeah, we asked the artist to plant it in modern Jerusalem. And there," he says, pointing to the next wall mural, "are the settlements of Gush Katif rebuilt."

Children play in Kochav Ya'akov

Over a year has passed since the when the Israeli government destroyed the Jewish settlements of Gush Katif, the Jewish community of Gaza, but the trauma seared on the national consciousness is so raw that it still hurts to the touch. The process had a fancy name, "Hitnatkut," meaning disconnection, or disengagement. It's related to the Hebrew word "Lenatek," to hang up (the phone.) After a decade of interminable negotiations with Muhammed abu-This and Muhammed abu-That for worthless treaties which everyone knew they would violate anyway, it seemed so much simpler to just hang up the phone on them all. No more "windows of opportunity" or "carrots and sticks." They could take their carrot and choke on it.
But when it came time to do the deed, the slick "Hitnatkut" political spin crashed headlong into the messy reality of nuts-and-bolts ethnic cleansing. Minds throughout the country are still indelibly etched with the memory of Jewish policemen and soldiers dragging screaming children and weeping mothers from their homes, army bulldozers reducing modest villas and manicured gardens to rubble, and convoys of now homeless Jewish refugees dumped in the desert. These were scenes associated with Jewish life in previous centuries throughout Europe and Araby, not modern Israel.
Despite the tendency of Israel to constantly tear itself apart with stubborn and conflicting ideologies, the country also has a subconscious sense of just how far it can go before coming apart at the seams, and a desire to avoid charging over that cliff. Today, even among the left, there is a desire to slow the process of Hitnatkut which began with Gush Katif. The rhetoric of the need for further settlement destruction and outrage at Jews living beyond the 1949 armistice line is still heard, but since the Lebanon war, it has remained in the realm of words, not serious political pressure. The economy is strong, the north is recovering from the war with Lebanon, and, if you don't live within rocket range of Gaza, life is relatively quiet, so the attitude is, "Let's just recover from Gush Katif before we open up that can of worms again."

Within the Dati Leumi, or national religious movement, of which I am a part, the fabric of society is still seriously tattered. Unlike other Jewish religious groups who rejected secular Zionism due to the sneering anti-religious attitudes of its early leaders, the Dati Leumi community embraced certain truly Jewish concepts within the Zionist movement, including the mitzvot (Torah commandments) for social harmony and the settling of the land, while leaving the secularism, which they regarded as nonsense, in the garbage. Dati Leumi Jews, who comprise by some estimates around 7% of Israel’s population serve in the army, fill the ranks of the best combat units, and comprise over half of the officer corps. But since the Hitnatkut, attitudes towards the state are changing, as Sasha and Yitzchak tried to explain on my recent visit to Harsina.
"Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu," Sasha says, referring to the former Chief Rabbi of Israel and present spiritual leader of the Dati Leumi community, "instructed religious soldiers that if they followed these orders they would be committing a serious aveirah (violating a commandment.) The army told us that if we disobeyed orders we would be sent to prison. You must understand how conflicted we felt. It's a mitzvah to serve in the army and protect the nation. But the army was now being used to destroy the settlements."
"Well, Rabbi Shlomo Aviner," Yitzchak counters, referring to the respected Head of the Ateret Cohanim Yeshivah in the old city of Jerusalem, "said that we must obey orders, even if we are crying while we do it. It's similar to observing Shabbat (sabbath.) Ideally, the entire Jewish people would keep Shabbat, but we would never force them to. Once the nation made the decision to commit this aveirah, we couldn't force them not to, we could only do everything in our power to convince them of their mistake."
"If I see a Jew who isn't keeping Shabbat," Sasha answers, "I try to convince him of his mistake, but I don't force him. But if the government tells me to violate Shabbat, then I must refuse, no matter what. They were forcing us to violate the commandment to settle the land."
"But," Yitzhak counters, "if we tell them that we refuse to follow orders because we don't agree with them, then suppose a leftist soldier who is opposed to the settlements refuses to protect them? Can soldiers choose their missions? The army would fall apart."
In the end, only a few soldiers disobeyed orders. It's still a source of bitterness between the rabbis who advocated for and against refusal, as well as between the soldiers and their religious leaders.
The most deeply felt sense of betrayal, however, is directed towards greater Israeli society. Sure, the thinking went, there were a few sniveling surrender-monkey elites who got all the media attention, but most of the nation should have been on board. Conservative and religious newspapers predicted massive protests, refusals, strikes, and virtual civil war to prevent the Hitnatkut. When the time came to take to the streets, there certainly were the protests, roadblocks, and piles of burning tires across the country, but they were carried out by the same activists who show up to all the other demonstrations. The strongest stance most Israelis took was to curse at the images on their television screens. The massive cities in the center with idealistic names like “Rishon Letzion” (first in Zion), and “Petach Tikvah” (Opening of Hope,) founded a century ago by small bands of idealistic pioneers just like those in Gaza, had long since extinguished their Zionist flame. The values inculcated in the settlements; raising large families, building the land, and forging a connection to history, values once held by most Israelis, were now outdated. The settlers who thought themselves the locomotive pulling the rest of the Zionist train up the mountain realized that they had disengaged from the train, which was sliding back down the hill.
Many had to rethink the relationship a religious Jew should have to the state. As my neighbor Tzvi put it, "My son trained for years in high school to go into an elite unit as soon as he graduated. Now that he's graduated, he decided to delay enlistment for a year and learn in yeshivah. After all, what's the point of trying to be the best when you're just going to be dragging people out of their homes?"

But in the settlements, there’s still an optimistic sense of forward momentum.
“Do you worry that what happened to Gush Katif will happen to Kochav Ya’akov?” I ask Rabbi Feld.
“I’ve been here through five governments. Each one of them wanted to destroy this place at some point. They’re gone, we’re here.”
It’s a similar sentiment I heard expressed five years ago. Headlines tell us that all of these communities could be uprooted at any time, but the willingness to take the risk of building here required that such logic be set aside. It forces the settlers to focus their eyes on the future only. But then he adds something I haven’t heard before.
“It could happen. But all you can do is pray and build.”

Child dancing on dumpster, the neighboring settlement of Psagot in the background.

The aura of unstoppable destiny is gone, but the goals and the means are still intact. He passes around the table a photograph of a lonely one-room house in sea of dead, rocky fields.
"This is was taken in 1929. It's Rechavia."
I take a second look at what stood, and more noticeably what was absent, in what is now one of Jerusalem's wealthiest established neighborhoods packed with high rise apartment complexes and swanky housing. Eighty years ago, where the Prime Minister's house stands today, was just a tuft of weeds.
"Today, if a thousand Jews move to or from Rechaviah, it won't make a difference. It's permanently Jewish land. But if a thousand Jews moved out here, the land becomes ours. God willing we will bring so many Jews out here that there can never be another Hitnatkut. Imagine if there had been one hundred thousand Jews in Gaza instead of seven thousand. There wouldn't have been any way they could get us out of there."
So the building continues. Standing at the peak of Kochav Yaakov the next morning, the driving wind kicks up a dusty haze in the valleys, but it’s still possible to see the fifteen miles or so to Jordan. The hilltop is sprinkled with trailers, makeshift goat pens, and corrugated tin shacks.
“This is a good place for a couple to make a start,” Rabbi Feld says, “rent for a trailer is only a couple hundred shekels a month. You’d pay at least six or seven hundred dollars for the same sized apartment in Jerusalem. They come out here and live for a few years to save money. Once they’re ready to get started, some move into the city, but some decide to stay in the community and build their homes here. But if you really want to live for nothing, you can go out there,” he says, pointing to the next hilltop about a mile and a half east, to the uniform white trailers gripping the wind worn limestone summit.
Remembering the terminology of Elon Moreh, I ask, “Is that Kochav Yaakov B?”
“It was. Now it’s called Migron. We built it a few years ago. It’s outside of our fence, but inside the settlement’s municipal boundary. Last year, Sharon got it in his head to destroy the place.” Sharon. The bulldozer. Israel’s now incapacitated but then powerful Prime Minister. “It was ridiculous. We had gotten all the proper permits, everything was above board. It was so legitimate that even the banks were loaning out money to start construction. But it was politics.”
“So why is it still there?”
“We called in people from all the surrounding settlements. Thousands and thousands sat on that hilltop and waited. Only a couple hundred police showed up, so there was nothing they could do. They went home to come back another day. Pretty soon everybody forgot about it and moved on.”

To the west stands Tel Tzion, several rows of massive, brand-new, urban-sized apartment blocks, groomed trees, and tight streets, amidst rocky outcroppings and ramshackle goat pens. It’s as if a chunk of Rechavia went wandering off into the desert and sat down here.
“It’s the Haredi [ultra-orthodox] neighborhood,” he explains. “It’s built on a hill of Kochav Yaakov. It’s still technically a neighborhood of ours, but they are eventually going to break off and form their own municipality.”

Foreground: Kochav Ya'akov; Background: Migron

Past Tel Tzion, the spires of Arab northern Jerusalem and Ramallah point skyward. The Arab buildings closest to the settlement, about three quarters of a mile to the west, stand empty.
“They build the same as we do, using Saudi oil money, help from their friends. Nobody lives in those houses, they were built to stake a claim. We used to have good relations with Ramallah; I could drive in there, go grocery shopping, and leave my car door unlocked, but since the peace process it’s become too dangerous. [Late prime minister] Rabin built the bypass road,” he says, pointing to the black strip of asphalt wriggling through the desert east of the settlement, “in order to give away Ramallah, which the main road from Jerusalem passes through to get here. It was a part of the Oslo process, but it was also there to make us feel doomed, like we were next on his list so we had better clear out. But it’s had the opposite effect; the road shortened the commute time because it avoids the city, so now instead of taking forty minutes to get to Jerusalem it takes fifteen. Settlements that had been struggling for years with just a few trailers started growing with families who could now commute to their jobs in Jerusalem. So, we see, a thing of evil can be turned to serve the good.”

Standing on the summit of Kochav Ya'akov, midground: Jaba; Background: Ma'aleh Adumim

Piecing the map together, the strategy in building here becomes clear. In a row, north of us are Beit El and Psagot. To the south is Adom, and my own Jerusalem suburb of Pisgat Ze’ev. To the west of this living wall is Arab Ramallah and North Jerusalem. To the east, save for a couple of small Arab villages, large Jewish hilltop towns and smaller outposts, lies mostly empty desert clear through to Jordan. This axis of settlements was built to hold the line against the eastward expansion of Ramallah.
It’s a tactical move in a larger slow motion struggle not of tanks and troops, but bulldozers, cement mixers, and maternity wards. The timescale is measured not in days or months, but decades. After long experience with broken promises, betrayed international resolutions, and hollow military victories, Israel found that the only way to hold any piece of land was to build there permanently. So the legions of buildings face off against one another, row upon row of identical Jewish apartment blocks lined up as the soldiers of a proper western army standing at attention; the chaotic, organic mass of Arab Ramallah looking eerily like the ununiformed irregulars who attacked Israel from Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Egypt in 1948, 1967, 1973, 1982, and 2006.
Walking along the hilltop, Rabbi Feld tugs my arm to keep me from falling into an ancient, recently excavated olive press. The hill is alive with the evidence of early Jewish habitation. Cisterns, wells, mikvehs, the outlines of ancient homes, terraces, and burial caves carved out of the rock in every direction. Another gust of wind slaps me so hard I have to use my hand to pin my kippah on my head.
“You know,” I think out loud, “you could generate quite a bit of electricity if you were to put a wind turbine up here.”
”I must admit, I’ve thought about it myself. Would it pay to do?”
”You would have to do some research on average wind velocities over the course of a year,” now my brain is churning, “and you would have to anchor it, although this limestone is probably sufficient. You would need an inverter and some batteries to hold you over if there were no wind for a while. Think about it, if you had enough of them, you could generate enough power for the whole town.”Of course my mind is already envisoning vast fields of wind turbines across the open stretches of Samarian desert. “How do you get land here?”
“Look,” he explains, “there’s no way to own land here. Like anywhere in Israel, the government owns everything, so you can only lease it for like 199 years at a time. But we’re happy to let anyone use the land who wants to. See that house out there?” he asks, pointing to a small house and olive orchard off by itself, way, way beyond the fence, under the shadow of the Ramallah suburb of Jaba, “He’s a gardener with ten kids. The olive trees aren’t mature yet, but he’s hoping to retire on them eventually. We had another woman who wanted to build an amusement park on the hillside down there. She had approval and everything, but when the Oslo War…” that’s how settlers refer to the second Initifadah, linking it to the failed Oslo peace negotiations, “…started, she knew that nobody would be coming out there so she had to give it up. But there’s nothing stopping you.”
“How did this whole settlement get started?”
“In the eighties, the army built an antenna on this hilltop. Then, they sent a squad of soldiers to camp out and guard the antenna. At first the soldiers thought it was just a fun camping trip for a few weeks in the field, but then the army sent more soldiers. Later, they replaced the tents with trailers. Afterwards, the first of us civilians moved out here and replaced the soldiers. When I first moved here…” he starts off. I’ve heard this one from the old timers in every town, whether it’s on a Samarian hilltop or a sprawling Tel Aviv suburb. Stories of how there was no running water, no trees, no birds, no grass. It always starts off with nothing, “…there was nothing here. Today, thousands.”

Trailers for absorption center and young couples.

It’s a very different story from isolated Elon Moreh, which was built by settlers and destroyed by the army seven times before the army finally relented. But this settlement is strategic, built not on the basis of faith but the strategy of stopping Ramallah from gobbling up the Judean desert. It’s the sort of project a hard-nosed irreligious general could get behind. But the people moved here didn’t come for strategic reasons, they arrived on faith. Strategic Israel is today in serious retreat, while the Israel of faith continues to advance. Kochav Ya’akov is now beyond the security fence, “out there,” outside the constantly contracting borders of strategic Israel, and therefore considered by many not to be worth the effort. The Hitnatkut was the first direct confrontation of strategic Israel against the Israel of faith, and it ended, at least in the short term, with a defeat for the Israel of faith. This defeat places a serious question mark over the future of Kochav Ya’akov. But it’s a question they’ve had to deal with from day one, and one to which they have an answer: build.

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