Sunday, February 11, 2007

The First Civilians in Beit El

For a decade, from 1967 to 1977, Beit El remained an army base, only ten miles north of the nation’s capital, Jerusalem, but seemingly a thousand years in the past. After 20 years of Jordanian rule, the surrounding Arab villages, populated by simple farmers, still went about their daily lives without the assistance of running water or electricity.
“I remember,” Baruch, my Shabbat host tells me, “when we used to come out at night, the whole landscape was dark.” It’s easy to understand why the Arabs chose to build their villages on the sites of ancient Jewish villages. Living in conditions not too different from those of mellinea ago, the decision of where to found a new settlement was likely similar to that made by the first Jewish settlers mellinia ago. Without the benefit of pumps or pipelines, the villages had to be built close to natural sources of water, springs and streams, as well as on defensible hilltops.

Beit El Bet today
Meanwhile, in the army base, conditions weren’t much better. The old Jordanian barracks were declared unfit, so the army set to work building new barracks. Then one day in 1977, shortly after the election of Israel’s first conservative Prime Minister Menachem Begin, the soldiers woke up to find a group of twelve young couples living in the abandoned barracks, studying Torah. Begin had ridden a pro-settlement tide into power, but was also eager to shed the image of “fanatic” he had earned in his younger days while the fighting the British occupation in the Jewish underground. Israel’s American backers wanted the Jews out. Despite a decade of failed peace plans and stonewalling by Israel’s neighbors, the international community was convinced that the Arabs would eventually recognize Israel in exchange for a withdrawal. Between the pressure from the conservatives in his own government to push ahead with the settlement drive versus the international outrage at Jews living in Beit El, Begin was in a jam. Like all politicians, he took the path of least resistance, deciding to let the settlers’ idealism die a natural death. In the middle of nowhere, with no electricity, no running water, in substandard buildings and the sub-freezing temperatures, the settlers would start to miss the warm, comfortable apartments in Jerusalem. They would never last the winter.
Army trailer/barracks

The settlers, meanwhile, set about patching up holes and sealing cracks in the windows. When springtime rolled around they were still there, learning in their little yeshivah. Rabbi Zalman Baruch Melamed, the head of the Yeshivha, could be seen every morning hauling water containers up the hill from the spring below. The small group had survived, the army got used to them, and the politicians had moved on to other matters. Now with a longer-term presence, and with growing families, it was time to build a real yeshivah and housing. They petitioned the army, but were denied. After all, this was a military base, no place for rabbis. Finally, the yeshivah students worked out a deal with the army. They would enlist, be given weapons, and guard the base. The local commander was ecstatic at the idea. This would free up his own soldiers from monotonous guard duty to take a more active role in policing the region.
An ancient wine press

Now taking turns guarding the base through the long nights, the settlers petitioned the base commander to build four bathrooms. Of course, every religious Jew needs to wash his hands and say the blessing after relieving himself. Since it is forbidden to say a blessing in an unclean place, like the bathroom, most restrooms in Israel have a small entry hall where one can fulfill the mitzvah in cleaner conditions, and these bathrooms would be no exception. Approval for construction came down the chain of command a few weeks later, but the settlement leadership had bigger plans. This was one of the first projects carried out by Yaakov Katz, nicknamed Katzele, and it was to be no ordinary bathroom. Negotiating with contractors, he finally found a foreman willing to work his crews around the clock in staggered eight-hour shifts. Waiting until the base commander was away for a few days, they broke ground, and the cement mixers and work crews charged ahead at a furious pace. When the commander returned, his jaw dropped. There were four bathrooms, all right. It just so happened that the entry hall was about 150 feet by 150 feet, large enough to double as a study hall and beit midrash.

The yeshivah today. Obviously, a lot has been added since that first building.

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