The bus left Jerusalem’s central bus station and made its way east through settlements. As dusk fell, we got deeper and deeper into the West Bank, stopping at hilltops. At one, a motorized security gate had to open, and a guard waved us through to a collection of caravans on loose cinderblock footings. The bus reached the end of the road and turned in a circle. In the back of the bus were eight quiet soldiers carrying M16s, most wearing yarmulkes. They all got out at the next stop, at a base on a mountainside, its walls painted colorfully with heraldic military icons and topped with barbed wire. The location was strategic. It overlooked two roads into Palestinian areas, marked by the large red signs that warn Israelis not to proceed because it is dangerous. I had a glimpse of bustling Palestinian life down one road, but our bus did not serve that community.
Then I felt nervous about getting off in the wrong place. The five chattering girls in the back row were yokels. None spoke English but when I said the settlement I was going to, they said we’d not yet got there. Never before had the colonial aspect of the Zionist project so strongly come across as on these dry precarious fearful hills.
I was visiting a settler I knew in a religious community 20 miles from Jerusalem, to answer the question: Had settlers ever had it so good? A journalist friend had posed the question to me. The peace process was keeping the pressure off, the settlers had power in the government and the army, and the settlements were growing rapidly.
My destination was like a small western town under a big dry sky. A couple of lights in open storefronts showed bleakly down the road, and the circle I’d been dropped in had a wall of wooden advertisements for local business, all in Hebrew, except for a seamstress’s sign in English.
My acquaintance came to get me in an old compact and brought me back to a big house on the mountainside. The interior was a variation of carpenter gothic: exposed rafters and stair stringers in knotty pine, a beige tile floor. The place lacked any tone. There was a newish stainless steel refrigerator but the house was absent the suburban ampleness the settler man could have had for his family if he’d stayed in America. The furniture was old. The children working on the sukkot hut in the back yard wore plain clothes. I didn’t see a TV. The man was a professional who had moved here so his children would have a meaningful Jewish life, in a very Jewish community. I’m not using his name out of respect for his privacy.
He said my journalist friend was wrong, it was an anxious time for settlers. Kerry really wants a deal. Obama wants a deal. Netanyahu was under huge pressure, because of linkage: the U.S. won’t do anything on Iran, which wants to destroy us, unless the Israelis give in on a Palestinian state. So there was a good chance of a handshake on the White House lawn, of settlers forced from their homes. The settler community was organizing against the fear. The national referendum on ceding land could stop a deal. (Ben Caspit at Al Monitor says the same thing about a deal: the settlers believe Obama and Netanyahu have agreed, Iran for Palestine.)
We sat on a balcony as night fell. He was big and schlumpfy and his shirt was open and he kept flopping his knit yarmulke back on top of his head.
He pointed out lights on the horizon and said that even secular Israelis were attached to this land. He has a liberal establishment friend, an official who grew up in a famous kibbutz in the Galilee– he drives into Judea and Samaria every year with his children, to remind them, this is what makes us Jews. The Machpelah in Hebron, Nablus where Abraham built an altar, the Herodion of King Herod, Jericho, the Jordan. This is the terrain of the Bible. We were here 4000 years ago. We have never left.
You say Machpelah with irony, he said to me, excluding me from the community; but, How do you think we got our name? This is Judea!
On the next road over, big dogs barked at one another, staking out territory under a lone streetlight. A kid streaked by on a bicycle. It was like lonely towns out west.
There was already a Palestinian state, the settler said, past that mountain where Moses died, on the Moab. Jordan. Palestinians should have citizenship in that state. Even Palestinians inside Israel should have citizenship in that state. You could not have two Palestinian states on the Jordan River. That was a death warrant for Israel.
Really he did not see why anything should change. Palestinian workers came into the settlements to build houses at better wages than they could get in the villages. Palestinians had moved into this area as the settlers developed it. Let’s build together, he declared. I want them to do well too. The Palestinians had had the opportunity to build a state under Oslo, but they hadn’t. Look at Gaza. Look– if they joined with him to build a common future, everyone would do well.
The only problem was their not having any political rights, he conceded. Of course that was a concern. It got a lot of attention from leftwingers– like yourself. But if you lived out here, what was wrong with the status quo? It had worked for decades. It was better than the alternative: the Arab dictatorships and civil wars. The Palestinians here accepted the status quo, most of them. Yes, they should have greater freedom of movement. But Israelis had to go through checkpoints too. It slowed down their lives too.
It got cool and we went inside and sat on the overstuffed lumpy furniture. His children came in from working the sukkot and had some of the bottled ice tea and paid me no mind. The famous Israeli informality.
What if this settlement ended up being in a Palestinian state? he asked. Well, if the Palestinians let him stay, he would stay. So long as he had equal rights as a minority.
I felt I had caught him out. “Why isn’t that a model for the whole of Israel and Palestine? Everyone has equal rights, minority or not.”
He shook his head confidently. The Jewish people need a state. We have demonstrated that, with out incredible achievements. This is the Jewish state. We have one sliver of land. There are 350 million Arabs around us and we are just 7 million.
His view is what you always get to in Israel: This is Jewish land. All the liberal talk is just a charade, a Mizrahi friend has said to me; to be Israeli is to be rightwing.
The settler spoke of Jewish predestination. Look at all the Nobel Prizes, he said. Mitt Romney was absolutely right when he spoke of Jews’ cultural and economic superiority. This is the most inventive, vital society anywhere. If you have an idea, you can find someone who can execute it. We are the most creative country in the world. We’re the only people to revive an ancient language. Really, it’s incredible.
Obama had tried to acknowledge the Israeli predestination in his way, in his Jerusalem speech last March.
while Jews achieved extraordinary success in many parts of the world, the dream of true freedom finally found its full expression in the Zionist idea — to be a free people in your homeland.
That sounded good, but the settler was unimpressed. Obama had only done it for his donors. The donors had rebelled when Obama took on Netanyahu in 2009. Obama didn’t like Israel and meant to make a show of breaking Netanyahu. But advisers in the White House had said, Are you out of your mind? And when Obama ran for reelection in 2012 he had promised the donors he would visit Israel.
Still, the place seemed bleak to me, absent elegance or joy. I said I thought he was a pioneer, but the settler said that was one of the myths of Israel that had fallen to the wayside after he made aliyah here a long time ago. People were out for themselves here like anywhere else.But yes: there was a lot of meaning in living here, in anchoring the Jewish presence in the Holy Land. In taking on the Iranians and other enemies of the west.
He became animated as he related the plot of an apocalyptic book he read, The Last Israelis. It’s not great literature, he said, but the story will grab you. An Israeli nuclear sub in the Persian Gulf learns of the destruction of Israel. The sub is a microcosm of Israeli society, with liberals, rightwingers and Arabs too. It has ten nukes that it can destroy Iran with, and the crew takes a vote and fires them only at nuclear facilities. Pinpointing them. So in their last act, the Israelis act ethically, targeting military installations. Showing the world this is what Israelis are like. We are moral people. Israelis will do anything for peace. We don’t what to kill anyone.
What a burden all this history and religion and meaning and existentialism is, I said. The settler agreed with me. A daughter of his had just spent three months in India, to “clean out her mind,” as the Hebrew expression goes. He too has to clean out his mind from time to time: he has to leave the country to remember what it is like to live in a place without all these primal issues.
It’s not an easy life here. He admitted his concern: not all Jews are committed as we are. They don’t have the resolve. I used to go to Gaza on business during the Gush Khatif days, he said, and I met Palestinians. They are determined to wait us out. They have resolve. I don’t know if the Jews do. All these Jews who are moving to the United States– His voice trailed off.
I thought of the Arabic word, Sumud, and said, The Palestinians have waited you out from the beginning. It could work.
He nodded, then stood up.
“Alright?” he said.
We shook hands but there was no ceremony. The children smiled goodbye.
I told him I could find my way back to the 11 o’clock bus to Jerusalem and walked back down the bench road along the mountainside. A man in a dark jacket was saying goodbye to his mother and starting a motorcycle. A store with a fluorescent light had a door open, selling soft drinks and chips.
I didn’t wait for the late bus but put out my thumb. The first vehicle that went by stopped and took me into Jerusalem. Three men in an oversized van. None spoke English. Again I had the impression of yokels, and thought, American Jews won’t be able to relate to these Israelis, and that cultural separation was functional: in time it would allow American Jews to witness civil war or uprising here with some indifference, to look on at the end of the Jewish state without feeling a stake in it.
They dropped me in a working class neighborhood at the edge of the city and I got a bus into town.