Here are some of my impressions from a series of experiences and events after a quick whirlwind week in Israel over Chanukah. Mostly it simply passed too soon, but we did manage to grab some of the great gusto that Israel has to offer people like us who fly in and out and you’re done.
I always end up relating to some of the native Israelis that it is their fault that we Jews who reside in the Diaspora treat Israel in that now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t fashion. I maintain that Israel has been marketed to us over the decades as a kind of Disneyland, and too often we have responded and treated Israel as more of an unreachable fantasy than a reality. But this is a dissertation that will take us in another direction.
On the matter of directions, after a down day of less-than-usual running around and collecting experiences, we decided to take an early evening drive to Bethlehem to recite Tehillim and daven Ma’ariv at Kever Rochel. Our friendly GPS refuses to take us anywhere in Israel that others claimed ownership to prior to 1967. When it comes to places like Bethlehem, the GPS claims ignorance. It flashes a warning to the driver that it is best that he or she consider some other kind of jaunt, because driving to Bethlehem or that vicinity can be detrimental to one’s health. Those were not the precise words, but that’s the general idea.
What is so consistently fascinating is how close Bethlehem, and Kever Rochel in particular, are to mainstream, everyday Jerusalem. But on a Tuesday night of Chanukah, after spending half the day before in Tel Aviv and the evening in S’derot, we were anxious to do something less physically taxing. So we figured on a short drive to Bethlehem.
I was not expecting the thick fog that descended on the area along with the darkness. So I apparently missed the left turn that takes you for a short ride—probably a half mile or so to the checkpoint and security wall that leads you directly into the Kever Rochel parking lot. I realized that I was driving too far and had missed what was otherwise a fairly simple and routine turn. I was looking for a spot on the road to turn around and just backtrack, but the road just kept on going. I saw a sign with an arrow that pointed to Hebron and then I observed a road sign that pointed to a turn into the community of Elkana, which I had heard of previously.
Fortunately, the fog, while quite dense, was also patchy, and when I arrived at Elkana I was able to see 20 or so feet in front of me. I turned around and headed back, but knew that I would have to once again navigate my way through the thick fog—at least this time in the “right” direction. On the return trip, I noticed the sign I had missed that would send us in the direction of Kever Rochel.
A few days earlier, on Thursday evening—the day we arrived—we had hooked up, as we usually do, with David Landau at Standing Together. On our last two trips to Israel, last week and during last summer, David had things scheduled that he wanted us to participate in on the very day we arrived. When we arrive in Israel after the long flight, we are both exhausted but also energized and champing at the bit to hit the streets. That’s where David and Standing Together come into the picture, and it is never a disappointing experience.
He picked us up in central Jerusalem at about 8 p.m. and we drove out to an army base in Hebron. David drives an SUV with a trailer attached. The trailer is really a kitchen with all the amenities. On all the trips like these that I’ve made with him, it never fails to amaze me how starved these young men are who are serving in the IDF. You would think that the army wants to nourish their troops well. But no, it seems to be very much the contrary. Perhaps it’s a way to keep the troops lean and fit and ready to do what they are trained to do with maximum precision and efficiency.
The strategy and the military manual aside, these guys are starved. We pulled into the base, where our arrival had been prearranged. David opened up the flaps to the trailer and a short-order kitchen appeared. He has speakers on top of his SUV and blasts the music that announces his arrival. There is a grill and a freezer. He pulls out bags of pita breads, frankfurters, and frozen hamburgers, turns up the heat on the grill, and we start cooking. We also picked up a few seminary students who are volunteers for the organization to help with the distribution of the food to these 200 or so military people.
My wife is cutting the pitas in half, and the franks and the burgers can’t come off the grill fast enough. As soon as they are ready, I am handing them out the window of the trailer and these guys cannot consume these treats fast enough. Some of the young men ate as many as six half-pitas stuffed with franks or burgers.
Two weeks ago, this group was down south and ready to enter Gaza. Now that the operation and incursion was called off, they are back in Hebron and doing security work every night, rooting out terrorists and taking action that prevents terror attacks that could potentially emanate from within the Arab section of the city.
“We were down south at the Gaza border and we were told we were going in three different times,” one recruit said. “In fact the gates were swung open and my platoon had the address of the home and the name of the Hamas people we were to detain, when the mission was called off,” he added. He said that it was a little unnerving and even frustrating to be ready to go to battle only to have it called off at the last conceivable minute. But such is the way of life in Israel and in the overall Middle East.
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It has become that we feel we have not accomplished much unless we spend at least part of a day with Israel Danziger of Mishmeret Yesha. He is indeed a unique man who was born and raised in Brooklyn and who harbors what many consider the most extreme right-wing views on the issues of the day. I’m not saying that I don’t share some of his views—maybe even many of them—but the basic difference is that he lives those positions and attitudes and I only think about them from time to time.
He does a lot in the realm of security and protecting the sometimes vulnerable Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria. Last week, for the second time, he took us out to the pristine and impressive landscape of Maale Rechavam a few kilometers outside of Gilo, a burgeoning community on the outskirts of Jerusalem.
He insisted that I meet up with him near a landmark on the road that the signs say is the “Herodian.” This was a fortress built by King Herod some two thousand years ago. The mountain fortress overlooks the Judean desert and the mountains of Moab. The fortress was one of three locations outside Jerusalem that the Jews managed to retain control of after the Romans destroyed Jerusalem in 70 CE. The Jewish armies managed to hold on for one year—until 71 CE—before being routed by the Romans. So Danziger says that once I pass the Herodian fortress, I will see a turn into Kfar Eldad which will take me into Maale Rechavam.
It is probably important to note that the names of these communities are not simply pulled out of a hat. Rechavam was named for Israeli government minister Rechavam Zeevi, who was assassinated in the hallway of the Jerusalem Hyatt by Arab terrorists 11 years ago. Likewise, Kfar Eldad is named for Israel Eldad, a leader of the pre-state Lehi and a noted Israeli philosopher. Today Kfar Eldad has about 80 homes and families that reside there.
The Maale Rechavam community features some small built homes but is mostly dotted with a dozen or so caravans where families have taken up residence. More specifically, this area is what the media here as well as in Israel would call an “illegal hilltop community.” It is in a quasi-legal sense attached to the nearby settlement community of Kfar Eldad—which is close by but not really that close that one could consider it an extension of that community unless perhaps you were looking at it from an aerial map.
The idea here is the ongoing and justifiably unrelenting effort to build Jewish communities on the land of the Jews—Israel. The Israeli Civil Administration, the anti-settlement groups like Peace Now, and many European observers of these slowly developing communities contend that the objective here is to create “facts on the ground” that will make it impossible for their diplomatic fantasy of a contiguous Palestinian state to someday become a reality. The current government is relatively passive on these issues and as of late has looked the other way as building continues in earnest.
It’s a little funny, but most of the building takes place at night and from Thursday afternoon until Shabbat arrives on Friday afternoon. Thursday is when the inspectors from the Civil Administration leave work early and Friday is their day off, according to their latest employee contracts. Young families reside here, and for now Danziger points out that their immediate need is for an eiruv and a shul at a designated spot up on a hilltop overlooking the community.
On this morning, he has us planting olive trees. This is how one establishes ownership around these parts—the trees show not only that you belong here but that you’ve been here. We dug and planted, filled the area surrounding the trees with earth and some fertilizer as a sign that we were there.
Then it was on to Bat Ayin, a pristine settlement community that, while populated by regular families, is unfortunately known for its craziness and radicalism. But that is only because three of the men who lived there were convicted some years ago of conspiring to plant a bomb in the yard of an Arab school in Jerusalem. They are still in prison.
Danziger takes us to meet a family that is enrolled in a course that his organization is teaching on self-defense and the use of weaponry. We meet the couple and their children. He is from San Francisco, she is from Texas, and their kids, except for the oldest, were born in Israel.
“For us it is about feeling safe and being able to protect our children and homes,” the wife, Naomi, says. In addition to the use of guns, they are being trained in how to fight off attackers in hand-to-hand fashion. “There have been problems,” says the husband, Dovid. “In addition to gun use and fighting, we are also being trained in how to maneuver our cars if we are surrounded or attacked while on a road.”
It is a fascinating look into everyday life and the continued struggle for Jewish control of the land of Israel from the so-called settler perspective. One of the prerequisites to be enrolled in the Mishmeret Yesha course on self-defense is that you have to reside in a community that does not allow Arab labor inside the boundaries of the community. The premise here is that whatever friendly or peaceful overtures are made by Arab residents or neighbors, they are always considered as part of a scheme to harm Jews and Israel. It is difficult to disagree with this position when you view the history of what has taken place here over all these years. As to why that is such an important, fundamental criteria, Israel Danziger simply states, “Who in their right mind lets their enemy into their home?”
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