A day in Gush Etzion

A day in Gush Etzion, August 2010 Jewish Observer

West Bank settlement bloc

Photos and Story By Marshall Weiss, The Dayton Jewish Observer

Photo: Marshall Weiss
At an elementary school in Tekoa that integrates secular and observant students

Only a 15-minute drive south via a new road from Jerusalem, the Gush Etzion settlement bloc is a study in contrasts. The rugged beauty of the rolling Judean hills seems to go on forever — except where checkpoints and barbed wire come into view.

Here, approximately 70,000 Jewish settlers — from fervently Orthodox to Russian olim (immigrants to Israel) to secular Zionists — make their home, in what is effectively a suburb of Jerusalem.

On June 21, the Jewish Agency for Israel offered 1,000-plus delegates at its assembly in Jerusalem the opportunity to learn more about major issues confronting Israeli society. JAFI is a major beneficiary of North American Jewish Federation annual campaigns. The JAFI delegates, Jewish leaders from around the world, could choose from one of four full-day site visits.

I joined fewer than two dozen delegates on a bullet-proof bus with two armed guards for a day in the West Bank’s Gush Etzion bloc. Though JAFI facilitated the site visit, the organization doesn’t fund projects over the Green Line.

The guide for this visit was Shani Simkowitz, director of the Gush Etzion Foundation, which oversees public relations and fund-raising for the 18 communities in the bloc. A high-profile spokesperson for Gush Etzion, along with Mayor Shaul Goldstein, the Modern Orthodox Simkowitz grew up in Brooklyn and attended the Yeshiva of Flatbush.

At the age of 15, she made youth aliyah, finished 11th and 12th grade in Israel and then joined the IDF two weeks before the Yom Kippur War. She lived in Jerusalem for a few years and then moved to the Gush Etzion settlement of Tekoa in 1981.

“We wanted to be near Jerusalem and we wanted to settle the land and connect to the biblical heartland of the Jewish people, and at the same time, do some kind of modern pioneering ideology,” Simkowitz says.

Biblical and modern Jewish history
The site of the Gush Etzion bloc was part of the ancient land of Israel. On the eastern side, King Herod built his summer place, the Herodium, complete with swimming pool. The Herodium is a popular tourist attraction in the gush; Herod’s tomb was discovered there two years ago. It’s here where the Maccabis of the Chanukah story waged the great battle against the Syrian Greeks and their elephants, in which Maccabi Eleazar was killed. A settlement of 350 families now bears his name. Tekoa was the biblical home of the prophet Amos.

“Here, they prepared olive oil to take up to the Second Temple,” Simkowitz says. “And today, a young family in Tekoa has reinstated this, making an olive press and making their own Jewish oil, and again bringing back the traditions of our patriarchs.”

Ancient synagogues, wine presses and mikvahs have been unearthed throughout the gush.

“When the pilgrims would come up for the three festivals a year, from Beersheva,” Simkowitz says, “they would be coming toward the Temple, they’d park all their kit and caboodle, all their livestock and their families. They’d pitch a tent and they’d take a ritual dip to be pure to go up to Jerusalem.”

With the advent of the modern Zionist movement, Jews attempted to settle the area in 1927. That year, Yemenite Jews and fervently Orthodox residents of what was then British Mandate Palestine established Migdal Eder on land purchased a few years earlier by a Jewish group called Zikhron David. Tensions with neighboring Arab villages were high and the economy was tight; the settlement failed and was destroyed during the Arab riots of 1929.

In 1930, Shmuel Yosef Holtzman purchased Migdal Eder, renamed it Kfar Etzion and attempted to resettle it. Six years later, rioting Arabs destroyed most of Kfar Etzion; the settlement’s Jews fled.

Between 1943 and ‘47, Jews again reestablished their presence in the region, with four communities.

Photo: Marshall Weiss
Ruins of the bunker where the last defenders of Kfar Etzion perished during the War of Independence in 1948, on display at the Kibbutz Kfar Etzion Visitors Center Commemoration Site

When the United Nations announced its partition plan in November 1947 to divide Palestine into a Jewish state and an Arab state, Gush Etzion fell within the proposed Arab area.

The Arabs rejected the partition plan outright and David Ben-Gurion, head of the Jewish Agency — then the Jewish state’s de facto government — agreed to the partition. Ben-Gurion had the women and children of Gush Etzion evacuated to Jerusalem.

In January 1948, Gush Etzion’s 480 residents fended off more than 1,000 Arab attackers, who critically weakened the bloc. To bring supplies and help defend Gush Etzion, the Haganah (predecessor to the Israeli Defense Forces) sent 35 of its soldiers to the settlement. On their way there, they were detected by a shepherd in the early morning hours. Armed Arabs bludgeoned the 35, the Lammed Hey, to death.

In May 1948, during Israel’s War of Independence, all four Gush Etzion communities fell to the Jordanian Legion. The Arabs killed 240 settlers, took another 260 prisoner, and razed the settlements.

The Haganah and Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, credited the battle to defend Gush Etzion as a buffer against a southern attack on Jerusalem.

In 1967, after the Six-Day War, Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol encouraged the children of the Gush Etzion settlers to return and resettle the area. They came back and reestablished one of the four fallen communities: Kfar Etzion.

Growth, building continue in Tekoa
Simkowitz gives a tour of an elementary school in Tekoa, which she helped establish in 1987. From 1987 to ‘95, she was the regional supervisor of early childhood education for Gush Etzion. The focus of this particular elementary school is to integrate the children of the nearly 600 religious and secular families of Tekoa.

“My daughter, who is now 29, was in the first grade when we started this,” Simkowitz says. “We wanted children to learn together. We sit in an area that isn’t very accepted by the whole of Israel. So most people who live in these communities are Orthodox. The ideology of the (Tekoa) community is we don’t educate people to be Orthodox, we don’t educate people that they have to be religious. Some are Russian olim who know nothing (of Judaism), who don’t keep kosher. Our children are friendly, not like in some of our neighboring communities where it’s taboo. Our school and our ideology are based on live and let live.”

To get the school off the ground, Simkowitz says she had to fight the system. In Israel, the Religious Education Administration oversees religious-oriented schools and the Ministry of Education oversees secular schools.

“It wasn’t accepted by the religious that kids would sit in a classroom and not cover their heads and not go to prayers in the morning,” she says. “The school does, unfortunately, go by the Ministry of Religion and we’re still fighting them.

“There are parents, in the morning, who want their kids to pray and learn how to pray. And there are parents who don’t want it. So those who don’t do a regular religious prayer have some kind of Jewish-oriented activity.”

Photo: Marshall Weiss
Shani Simkowitz, director of the Gush Etzion Foundation, in front of her home in Tekoa, Gush Etzion, West Bank

During its first year, 28 students were enrolled in a combined first and second grade. This school year, there were 180 students from first to sixth grade. Next year, Simkowitz estimates there will be about 240.

She attributes the growth to the new road from Jerusalem, and the appeal of Tekoa’s diversity.

“Many people are buying real estate here, which means that there are more children. So the Ministry of Education has added two new kindergartens. We already have five. And every classroom (at this school) is having another classroom built on because we’ve had so many people coming to the community.”

Although the 10-month settlement freeze on new housing expires in September and it’s uncertain whether or not Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will extend the freeze, Simkowitz explains that all building permits given before the freeze account for the construction that continues in Tekoa.

“When they build homes (here),” she says, ”they build a separate apartment to rent out to a young couple.”

Right now, Simkowitz says, there are 30 units of one residential project going up and 16 of another. These two projects will likely provide housing for 92 new families.

“If you had a building permit, you were allowed to build,” she says. “And God willing, we’ll continue to build because we say this is the right of the Jews to be anyplace in the world. We certainly have the right to be in the heartland of the Jewish people. This is my country. This is where you might not agree with me, but this is why I am here.”

When asked if Gush Etzion might be part of a final settlement swap with the Palestinians, Simkowitz says, “I don’t use those terms. It’s not what I believe in. I don’t believe there’s going to be a swap. And if I did, I’d have to put a ‘for sale’ sign on my house yesterday.”

‘Peace of the simple people’
One person who is not certain Gush Etzion would remain with Israel in a final settlement is its mayor of 11 years, Shaul Goldstein.

An engineer who owns a construction company that builds houses all over Israel, Goldstein says he’s not sure Gush Etzion has anyone to advocate for it at the bargaining table.

Photo: Marshall Weiss
Gush Etzion Regional Council Mayor Shaul Goldstein

“Personally, I have good connections with this government, from the prime minister down, everybody,” Goldstein says. “Even (defense minister) Ehud Barak we have some discussions with, but his agenda is totally different than what I believe in.”

Goldstein says Israel’s real battle today is the hasbara, the PR. “It’s the main thing we have to push.”

He calls the prospect of a two-state solution “the biggest lie.”

“It’s not a two-state solution, it’s a three-state solution,” Goldstein says. Peace, he adds, “is living together.”

“What Gush Etzion tries to do for the last years is to make cooperation (with the Palestinians), small things: with the students, between the adults in construction, in commerce, in business, on land, recycling water.

“What is the answer by Salam Fayyad, the moderate (Palestinian Authority) prime minister? First, we’re going to get Judea and Samaria, they call the West Bank, free of settlers, which means free of Jews, and Israel can have 20 percent Arabs. And second, he said, anyone who is going to work with the settlers is going to be punished, sentenced to jail and fined.”

As an example, he cites the opening of a Rami Levy supermarket the prior week in Gush Etzion. Of its 120 employees, 70 are from Palestinian communities, 50 are from Jewish communities. More than 1,600 Jews and Palestinians showed up for the opening.

“For them (Palestinians from Bethlehem, Hebron and area villages), it was like a celebration,” he says. “They don’t have those things in their shops. The day after, when some of them went to Bethlehem, Palestinian policemen stopped them from the entrance to Bethlehem and fined each one of them with their bags from this store 300 shekels. Why?”

“We’re very friendly with our Arab neighbors,” Simkowitz says. “They come to our weddings, they come to our brisses.”

The Palestinian Authority is threatening to ban West Bank Palestinians from working in the settlements. According to Haaretz, in 2009, 22,000 Palestinians had permits to work in settlements or in their industrial zones.

“That means building will stop, they won’t have a livelihood and we’re very upset by this,” Simkowitz says. “My friend Muhamed said, ‘I built all your homes. I should have built a house here for myself.’”

Goldstein says he regularly invites his colleagues from Palestinian municipalities to take part in emergency response programs.

A few years ago, he asked area Palestinian mayors to participate in training for earthquakes. They agreed but when they called the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah for approval, they were forbidden to take part. Now they show up for training exercises, he says; they don’t ask permission from Ramallah.

“This is how we’re trying to build what I call the peace of the simple people,” Goldstein says.

When asked if he’d extend Israeli citizenship to all Arabs in the West Bank, he says, “I’m not sure that my answer is finalized. I can tell you one thing that I believe: Hebron belongs to us more than Tel Aviv. Why? Because of the history. So on one hand, I believe this is my country. On the other hand, I don’t want to live in apartheid. So how to solve it? First of all, I have to say very modestly, that not every problem I can solve.”

According to the World Factbook of the CIA, the current total population of the West Bank is 2.51 million; 83 percent are identified as Palestinian Arab and other, 17 percent are identified as Jewish.

“When I sat with the Arabs about a month ago, the village here, we analyzed what things we can cooperate on together, what kind of employment we can do together, what kind of projects we can initiate together,” Goldstein says. “And a day after, the head of the village came to me and said, ‘I was threatened in the evening right away. I was called to Bethlehem to the governor to say that you should never cooperate with Shaul. I told him that my children are living here. Shaul can help me and not you. And now we’re going to sit here and live together because my children are worth more than your rules.’”

Goldstein says that yesterday, one of the Jewish settlements here distributed posters with his photo and the headline “Arab lover.”

“They say I’m going to destroy illegal Jewish houses, which I’m doing, because it’s against the law and I have to destroy it, and that I’m helping the Arabs put plans on their village. I’m not afraid of it.”

Goldstein doesn’t believe there will be peace here in this generation. He can’t imagine a scenario in which the Palestinians would accept a demilitarized state, a key Israeli demand. “Not that I don’t want it (peace). But if you’re asking me, they (the Arabs) don’t want peace. Especially if we’re talking about keeping Ariel, keeping Gush Etzion, keeping east Jerusalem. This is what Israel demands.”

Within Gush Etzion, there is a drive to achieve a normalcy beyond normalcy. There is a drive to create model Jewish communities.

The Rosh Tzurim settlement is home to the Sadnat Shiluv Reishit learning center, which integrates special-needs and mainstream children. In every class, there are 20 mainstream children with five special-needs children. As they grow to hostel age (19-21), the students with special needs receive vocational training in animal therapy, rehabilitative horse riding, and music. Last year, Reishit started its first apartment in the community for its graduates.

“Parents of mainstream children decided they also wanted their children to benefit from being in a proper community where everybody has a place,” says the parent of one child with special needs who went through the program.

More than 400,000 tourists visited Gush Etzion last year to enjoy the hiking, Jeep rides, expansive zip-line, winery, brewery, Cherry Picking Festival, and historic landmarks.

“Those people are coming and they’ll see the change,” Goldstein says.
He and Simkowitz hope this will alter outsiders’ perceptions of the settlements.

Simkowitz says the greatest misconception regarding the settlements is “that we’re obstacles to peace. That because of this, Iran wants to take over the world.”

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