Three days ago, the US Assistant Secretary and Department Spokesperson, Bureau of Public Affairs wrote a scathing report expressing “deep concern” about the recent “settlement activity” in the West Bank:
We are deeply concerned by reports today that the Government of Israel has published tenders for 323 units in East Jerusalem settlements. This follows Monday’s announcement of plans for 770 units in the settlement of Gilo.
Note that this isn’t building new “settlements,” this is building within the boundaries of the Area C “settlements” (which are really just Jewish communities that Arabs are more than welcome to live in except none of them want to). The US Public Affairs spokesperson continues:
We strongly oppose settlement activity, which is corrosive to the cause of peace. These steps by Israeli authorities are the latest examples of what appears to be a steady acceleration of settlement activity that is systematically undermining the prospects for a two-state solution.
Stop right there. These communities get in the way of a two state solution? Really? I used to agree with this because this is what all my friends, even my Jewish friends, and the media, unanimously parroted and still do to this day. Until I learned the truth.
I’m writing to you from the beautiful Neve Daniel, in the Gush Etzion area. Yes, this means I’m in what the majority of (uninformed) Jews call “the settlements.”
I used to oppose “the settlements.” I saw “settlers” as these crazed radical ultra-orthodox Jews with their long beards and their head coverings, almost like aliens whom I, as a secular Jew, couldn’t relate to at all. Since I couldn’t relate to them, I couldn’t see myself or even my own family in them, so it became easier to believe the distorted perspective of them portrayed by the mainstream media, as radical religious fanatics who are only there to “outbreed” the Palestinians and prevent a Palestinian State.
I wrote articles and statuses about how “the settlements” get in the way of peace. How we could have a Palestinian State and live happily ever after as long as those pesky, stubborn, ultra-religious asshats would just get out.
Enter Sarah. Sarah is a good friend of fellow Israellycool contributor Ryan Bellerose, and we got in touch through the pro-Israel grapevine. I didn’t know anything about her, I didn’t even know what she looked like, but I knew Ryan and I knew Ryan had stayed with her so she was probably okay. So in the summer of 2015, I took the address she gave me and asked a cab driver to take me there.
I didn’t see a fence, a rope, or a magical green line like I had imagined I would. I just thought we were going to a neighborhood in Jerusalem, which we were. I didn’t know it was East Jerusalem. What I saw was a neighborhood totally contiguous with Jerusalem Proper.
It was only when I got there that Sarah made a joke about living in a settlement, called “Har Homa,” one of the “settlements” mentioned in the US Public Affairs briefing. Sarah covered her hair with a snood, which is sort of like a giant sock for hair (this is the best way I can describe it), wore a long skirt past the knee, and covered her arms with a “shell” – a plain white long-sleeve shirt under a t-shirt. She “looked” like the caricatures of settlers I had seen, but she certainly didn’t act like one. Sharp, witty, and educated, with ubiquitous pop culture references and the occasional curse word, Sarah could be described as “chill.” She worked a full-time job, and was accepting of my short shorts and tank tops, even though she had a son my age who lived with her at the time. She also didn’t even express any objection to me hanging out with her son alone in his room, where we talked about video games and the army (I didn’t know about yichud, the Jewish law that prevents a man and a woman being in a room alone before marriage, at the time).
A year later, I spent Shabbat with Laura Ben David, a prominent writer, photographer and Director of New Media and Marketing for an NGO, an organization that reconnects people with Jewish roots to their ancestral community. Laura looks like your typical suburban mom, which is exactly what she is. “We aren’t here to take over Palestinian land, we didn’t build on top of a Palestinian village,” she told me, “we are here because all this was empty space, a beautiful place to raise children, look at the beautiful view!” She motioned to the breathtaking view from the top of the mountain, where we could see the entire country to the Mediterranean Sea. “On a clear day, you could see the Azrieli tower in Tel Aviv,” she told me.
Laura is not a religious extremist – far from it. She wore khaki pants and a t-shirt, with her beautiful curly blonde hair for all to see. She is accepting of everyone: her six children, four of which are grown, range from haredi to completely secular, and she loves them all the same. Through the streets of Neve Daniel, you could see young children in all styles of dress, some boys wearing kippot some not, some girls wearing skirts, some not, playing together.
“There is no precedent,” Laura said, “with all the other conflicts going around in the world, nobody else is being told to leave their homes.” Indeed, if the roles were reversed and a group of Jews were telling Arabs to get off “Jewish land” to make way for a “Jewish State” in this day and age, the world would be justifiably outraged. Despite it being fundamentally immoral, we uprooted all 10,000 Jews from the Gaza Strip in 2005 and look where that got us: a terror enclave controlled by Hamas.
Some claim that the current crop of Jews living in the Gush Etzion area are mostly Americans with “no ties” to the land. “If there is nobody living there, why not build?” Laura said, “and we know of several families who were kicked out of their homes in 1948, who waited nineteen years to come back here.” She continued: “saying Jews have no history here couldn’t be further from the truth.” When I looked far off into the distance from Laura’s balcony, all I saw was a bare mountain, aside from the 500 families living in Neve Daniel. just above and below us. If nobody else is living in these barren expanses, why not build? Why not expand? Why would expansion hinder a Palestinian State? How do the Palestinians get away with not allowing a Jewish minority, while it would be unfathomable for Jews not to allow an Arab minority.
Contrary to the “settler” stereotype, Laura believes in a two state solution: “I’m all for a Palestinian State, I don’t see another way around it.
Life in the Gush is quiet, and doesn’t feel like a conflict zone. “We go grocery shopping with Palestinians, I take a photography class with women from the Gush and Palestinian women…we generally get along just fine.”