Monday, January 22, 2007

Atzmona Forever

The people of Atzmona, taken from their homes in Gush Katif (Jewish Gaza) over a year ago, finally have a place they can call home. After being dumped in the desert of Netivot with nothing, they first built a small tent city.

“We were in dry trailers at first,” their spokesman tells me. “They had no running water, and solid roofs, so we couldn’t take a shower, but at least we stayed dry.” After a few months, they graduated to wet trailers, “Running water, and holes in the roof, so we could take a shower whenever we wanted to, or whenever it rained.”

Atzmona Spokesman

It wasn’t the first time they had experienced an uprooting. Atzmona was originally the name of a settlement in Sinai. When Israel surrendered Sinai to Egypt in the 1980’s, Ariel Sharon, then still an army general, destroyed the settlement of Atzmona as fulfillment of the final stages of the treaty. General Sharon then moved the original refugees from Atzmona to Gaza, there to replace ailing secular kibbutzim. Over twenty years later Sharon, then Prime Minister, decreed the destruction of all Gaza settlements.

Atzmona, in Gaza

“Eventually, we came to these hills west of Hebron. Atzmona was always an agricultural settlement. We believe in the mitzvah of working the Land of Israel. But nobody here wanted farmers, and we couldn’t get land or water rights.”

The settlers tried moving to several hilltops, but every time they tried to set down roots, they discovered ancient ruins. In fact, none of the Jewish villages in the area are built on hilltops because every time a ruined village is unearthed, it immediately becomes a protected archaeological site.
“Two and a half thousand years ago, this area was what Gush Dan is today,” he says, referring to the crowded suburbs of Tel Aviv. “Between these hills and Jerusalem, over 1.5 million Jews made their homes.” Today, the land is largely grassy fields, forest, and a few farms.
“When we moved into the neighborhood, we set up near Kibbutz Shomeriyah. Most of the kibbutzniks had moved on, and the agricultural development was experiencing extreme financial difficulty. When we religious fanatics moved in next door, that was the final straw; the kibbutz closed up for good.”

Welcome to Kibbutz Shomeriyah

The settlers of Atzmona were stuck. Unemployed, living in trailers, far from the nearest city, with no prospect of returning to working the land, the situation looked bleak.

“But then, we had an idea. We joined the kibbutz.” Kibbutz Shomeriyah, though now defunct and bankrupt, was still legally a corporate entity. As such, it had extensive water rights and owned large swathes of the surrounding land.

The streets of Kibbutz Atzmonah

“We felt it was the perfect shidduch. The historical surroundings, the fulfillment of working the land, and the mitzvah of settling the Land of Israel, made it perfect.”

Cactus farming

The last action of the kibbutz, before disbanding, had been to begin construction of a sports and recreation center. The Atzmonah settlers found the incomplete structure and turned it into the community synagogue.

The Synagogue (on the banner is a photo of the destroyed synagogue of Atzmona.) "Atzmonaim Forever."

Today, jackhammers, drills, and welding torches echo over the hilltop; the sounds of new construction to accommodate their rapidly growing families.

New construction in Shomeriyah

“We’re going to settle and rebuild this entire area. Then, we’re going back home to Gaza.”

Vintage agricultural equipment

What I learned in Yeshivah Today:

The ninth plague, that of darkness, suffered by the Egyptians wasn't just the inability to see. For three days, a thick cloud of darkness settled over the land, such that the Egyptians couldn't even move. The Jewish slaves, who were not afflicted by the darkness, brought their Egyptian neighbors food and water. This explains why the Egyptians later willingly handed over their gold and treasure to the departing Jews, out of gratitude.

When the Jews came to ask the Egyptians for their gold, the Torah uses the word, "Lish'ol." Ramban translates this as "requesting as a gift." I.e., it was understood that they were taking it and leaving the country for good. Rashi, however, holds that the word "Lish'ol" means "requesting to borrow." This would explain why the Egyptians, who were so docile and friendly moments before, were willing to be marshalled to chase after the departing Jews once they realized that the Jews weren't coming back. They wanted their gold. It should be noted that the Egyptians owed the Jews back wages for 210 years of unpaid slavery, so the laws of stealing/property ownership don't enter into it.

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