"We occupied this magnificent home with marble floors," said Rafi Ostroff, relating his experiences in last summer's war in South Lebanon. Holed up in a deserted house in a deserted village, Ostroff and his Golani comrades spent many days shooting and being shot at, and were among the last reserve units to leave following the ceasefire.
Even though the situation had become increasingly dangerous following the ceasefire, "we saw plain-clothed Hizbullah operatives moving back in and going from house to house searching," he recalled. The soldiers nevertheless cleaned the house before evacuating. "We even washed the floors."
But these Israeli soldiers did something more - something unlikely for soldiers in battle zones around the world. They left letters for the Lebanese owners. "We apologized in English and Arabic for taking over their home and offered to replace anything missing. We also expressed that we would one day like to meet in peace."
If people on the "Unity in Diversity" tour bus from the Sharon area to Gush Etzion were expecting to meet "settlers" who uproot Palestinian olive groves and harass villagers, Ostroff, from Alon Shvut in Gush Etzion, presented a completely contrary image. It is precisely the image of "the other" who holds contrary views on national issues that gave birth to Unity in Diversity, an English-speaking group founded some six months prior to the pullout from Gaza in 2005.
"What is the point in talking to them? They don't understand and never will," is an attitude common on both sides of the political divide that does not cut with the group's founders, Henry and Ruth Shakenovsky of Ramat Hasharon and Maurice Ostroff of Herzliya. Their aim was to offer the English-speaking community a forum for dialogue, so that people would feel free to express their points of view, no matter how divergent and without being demonized by "the other."
In June, Metro joined a busload of former immigrants - mainly from South Africa plus a few from the US and UK - on a visit to Gush Etzion in the West Bank. The group comprised some well-traveled people who could rattle off places like Slovenia, Russia and China, as "been there, done that." Yet for towns on their doorstep steeped in Jewish history like Efrat or Alon Shvut, most had to consult the map to note where the bus was headed.
How come? For Maurice Ostroff and Henry Shakenovsky, the answer was distressingly apparent. They expressed disappointment with those who declined to join the tour, particularly those who participated when the meetings were held in the Sharon, but opted to skip the trip because, on principle, they do not venture over the Green Line. As Ostroff pointed out, "They would have no such compulsion when visiting the Western Wall."
This was precisely the attitude that the founders were hoping to overcome. "At least expose your mind to the other point of view. Hear what they have to say and hear it on their turf," says Shakenovsky. "We agree to disagree - that is our founding premise - and whether we approve or disapprove, what we have to avoid is a 'milhemet ahim' (civil war)."
The road to Gush Etzion from Beit Shemesh proved to be one of discovery. The bus passed the area where we were told Samson spent his youth, and a short while later, the site where it is believed David slew Goliath. This was ancient history - the biblical personalities and events were familiar.
Less well known was the modern history. On a stretch of road passing Kibbutz Netiv Halamed-Heh ("Way of the 35"), the passengers had a head-on collision with their more recent past. The guide described how a unit of 35 soldiers from the Palmah and Hish units, most of them students at the Hebrew University, set out in the middle of the night to help the beleaguered residents of Gush Etzion. Carrying vitally needed medical supplies and ammunition, they came upon an elderly Arab shepherd. Believing he would pose no threat, they sent him on his way. It was a mistake and they paid dearly.
The shepherd reported their presence and hours later "the 35" were ambushed and killed to the last man. Their bodies were stripped and horribly mutilated. While the needed supplies never made it to Gush Etzion, something less tangible but no less important did: their story. It would inspire and help chart the future of an area referred to intimately as "The Gush."
The residents of Gush Etzion will tell you, "They did not die in vain." The bus followed the route taken by the 35, an emotional journey as minds drifted back to battles past and lives lost.
A sudden jolt. The bus had stopped at the army checkpoint officially separating Israel from the West Bank - in itself a controversial observation. "Is not the West Bank Israel?" we would later hear Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, the Chief Rabbi of Efrat, berate. "This is not occupied territory. This was never Arab land. If any people are occupying, it is the Arabs."
Even mentioning the Green Line can solicit a rebuke. Pam Paz from Alon Shvut remarked, "What is the Green Line? The Arabs only know the Blue Line," referring to the Mediterranean Sea.
During the disengagement from Gaza in 2005, there was much furor at Unity in Diversity meetings over semantics. Was the disengagement an evacuation or an expulsion? "It was like tiptoeing through a verbal minefield," expressed one participant.
The change of atmosphere was palpable as the bus crossed over into the West Bank. People looked more keenly out of their windows. Why? Were they apprehensive? The organizers considered postponing the trip because of an increase in violence spilling over from Gaza following the violent Hamas coup there. There was even the suggestion of traveling in a bulletproof bus.
The explanation lay elsewhere. In truth, the army checkpoint appeared less daunting as a physical barrier than it did as a metaphor. "Crossing the Rubicon," one participant joked.
We were visiting one of the most disputed pieces of real estate in the world. Not in dispute was the heightened feeling of excitement.
A short while later, David Paz, a South African immigrant and pediatrician from Efrat, related the heroic story of the defense and fall of Gush Etzion. And he chose to do so at the most iconic spot in the entire Gush - beside the "Lone Oak Tree" at Alon Shvut. Paz began with a quote from David Ben-Gurion: "I can think of no battle in the annals of the Israel Defense Forces which was more magnificent, more tragic or more heroic than the struggle for Gush Etzion. If Jerusalem exists today, Israel owes its gratitude first and foremost to the defenders of the Etzion Bloc."
This quote cleared up a mystery for many of the visitors: Why Israel commemorates its fallen soldiers on the day before Independence Day. "Ben-Gurion insisted," Paz revealed, "It was the day that Gush Etzion fell."
With the emblematic tree in the background (the "lone oak" is incorporated into the logo of the Gush Etzion Regional Council), the saga of Gush Etzion unfolded. "In 1947, the Etzion Bloc was home to some 450 settlers, including 211 woman and children," continued Paz. "Although under constant Arab attack, holding it was believed critical for the defense of Jerusalem. The precarious situation prompted the evacuation of the women and children, who were escorted by British troops to Jerusalem in January 1948. Despite a valiant defense, the day before the declaration of the State of Israel on May 14, Kfar Etzion - the oldest and largest of the four settlements in the bloc - was overrun. All 240 of its defenders were massacred."
Which brought Paz back to the story of the lone oak tree, and how Alon Shvut - Hebrew for "The Oak Tree of Return" - acquired its name: "After the destruction of Gush Etzion, the Arabs looted and destroyed the buildings and uprooted the trees. Inexplicably, one oak tree survived, which became known as the 'lone oak.'"
What also survived was a will to return. "During the intervening years between the fall of the Etzion Bloc and the Six Day War in 1967, the survivors and their children would hike to a vantage point on the Israeli border, where at a distance they could view the giant oak tree. The Six Day War brought their dream to fruition and today the settlement of Alon Shvut is home to over 700 families," concluded Paz.
It was time for refreshment. But even this experience was not free of the history of Jewish bloodletting. The bus stopped at Pina hama ("The Cozy Corner") on the busy highway between Jerusalem and Hebron. Close to both Alon Shvut and Efrat, the cafÃ© is frequented by soldiers and a place for locals to meet the boys and girls who protect them.
Shirley Epstein, an immigrant from Glasgow, Scotland who has lived in Alon Shvut for the past seven years, welcomed the group. She is one of an estimated 600 volunteers who work at Pina hama, "200 on a roster basis man the place, another 400 bake cakes and pastries," she says.
The popular cafÃ© was established in memory of Dr. Shmuel Gillis and Tzachi Sasson, local residents who were murdered within 10 days of each other by terrorists in February 2001. "During the shiva (mourning period), Arafat phoned Gillis's widow," Epstein recounted. "Her husband had been a popular doctor in the Arab community. We heard how Arafat tried to apologize: 'It was a mistake. Your husband was a friend to the Arabs. We would never want to harm him.' She replied, 'Yes, you may not have planned to murder my husband specifically, but you did plan to kill a Jew - any Jew. Shmuel's death was no mistake.'"
The loss of loved ones will not today frighten off the resilient residents of Gush Eztion. On the contrary, it only makes them more determined. Like the local Judean rock, these Jewish communities appear no less embedded into the landscape. If Arab riots forced the early Yemenite Jews to flee their homes in 1929, the establishment of The Cozy Corner is the Jewish settlers' response today.
"Make no mistake, these settlers are here to stay," said Rolo Norwitz, a participant from Kfar Saba. This was his first trip to the area, and he was "amazed at the development. I expected caravans and makeshift dwellings and what I'm seeing are magnificent homes that could stand anywhere in the world. This makes the situation far more complex and a political solution more intractable than ever."
Herman Musikant from Kibbutz Ma'agan Michael was no less emphatic. Admiring the buildings in Efrat - a city of 9,000 residents or some 1,500 families - he agreed, "These guys are not moving."
As if tapping into the thoughts of his visitors, Rabbi Riskin bellowed, "Let me make it quite clear: I am a proud settler."
He had everyone's attention. A meeting had been convened where the visitors interacted with local English-speaking residents, again mostly South Africans. Discussions over supper had been loud and boisterous. Dinner over, the Chief Rabbi of Efrat had the floor.
Speaking loudly, slowly and forcibly, Riskin was determined to quickly dispel any derogatory connotation to the word 'settler.' "Yes, Efrat is a settlement, but so were Tel Aviv, Herzliya and Ra'anana."
The rabbi was tailoring his remarks for his visitors. Every city and town in Israel was at one time a settlement.
When Riskin quoted Herzl's "If you will it, it is no dream," adding that "with Efrat, the reality has been even greater than the dream," the subtext was clear - to blur any Zionist distinction between settlements within and over the Green Line.
Pam Paz, who has been living in Alon Shvut since 1978, came to Israel with a Bnei Akiva garin (settlement group) from South Africa. "Young and idealistic, we were fueled by the ideology of the movement."
What is sad, she explains, is that "when we came here 30 years ago to live in Gush Etzion, Israelis used to say, 'Kol Hakavod' (well done). Today I feel we are hated. Olmert can't wait to take down the outposts, and were it not for the war last year, he would already have done so. The very people who are prepared to give their lives for this country are the same people the Left wants to destroy. Herzl had a modern vision for the State of Israel, but for me, Zionism started with Abraham. We believe God gave us this land."
If American immigrant Phyllis Bloch of Kfar Saba was present, she would undoubtedly have taken exception to the implication that she was any less a Zionist for not sharing Paz's passion for the territories. An ESRA (English Speaking Residents' Association) vice-chair, Bloch expressed at an earlier 'Unity in Diversity' meeting, "I always thought we're more a people of the soul than the soil."
So what would happen if the government required the settlers to leave the West Bank? How would the charismatic rabbi of Efrat react? Riskin was clear. "I do not believe in anarchy. If the government demanded it, I would reluctantly have to accept, with one proviso. Prior to any evacuation, the government must provide jobs and housing. What happened in Gush Katif was a disgrace, a shame and a stain on the government. To this day, despite the promises, most of those former residents are still without work and living in temporary housing. It will not happen again. It will not happen here."
The Rabbi's words resonated with his visitors.
Bernard Hurwitz, a veterinarian from a moshav in the Sharon, was significantly more sympathetic to the settlement cause than at previous Unity in Diversity meetings.
"Compromise today is seen as weakness. We saw the price we paid with the pullout from Gaza. Can you imagine the price if we left the West Bank? At the moment there is no-one to talk to and nothing to talk about."
"In any event," says Hurwitz, "we cannot afford to compromise until the world has broken the back of radical Islamism. This is no longer only Israel's problem."
In the meantime, people like Michal Singerhut, a pregnant mother with an eight-month-old baby, are planning to move onto an empty hilltop to save what she believes is an endangered section of Efrat called Givat Ha'eitam. The government has not yet approved construction, yet she is not deterred. "The government wants Efrat to get smaller, we want it to grow bigger," she recently told The Jerusalem Post.
Supporting her is Datya Yitzhaki, who relocated with her family to Efrat after being forced to leave Gaza in 2005. "I already lost one home, but we want to show that Zionism is not dead," she said.
How the unwritten chapters in the Gush Etzion saga will one day read is hard to predict. As the bus drove away down an ancient road called "The Path of the Patriarchs," the visitors from the Sharon were reminded that this area has a history of Jewish civilization that can be traced back thousands of years.
For June Levy from Netanya, the visit was "a wonderful experience." She was last in the area when visiting Kibbutz Kfar Etzion in the early 1980s. "We couldn't even get there in the bus, and had to walk the last stretch through the fields and over rocks."
Efrat at that time was still only a "dream." Levy sighed: "Who knows, if I had my life over I may want to live here."
We need to talk
"Unity in Diversity" is a group of mainly English-speakers from both sides of the Green Line who meet to discuss issues on the national agenda. The membership is open-ended, and people are encouraged to join. Currently there are approximately 200 members, mainly immigrants from South Africa, North and South America, Australia and the UK.
Meetings are held every few months, conducted in English, either at a venue in the Sharon or a West Bank settlement. Occasionally, guest speakers have addressed on issues such as Conflict Resolution or - in the aftermath of the Gaza evacuation - spokespeople for the evacuees.
"We wanted to move away from the ugly trend that had taken root in our society of demonizing each other," explains Maurice Ostroff, a co-founder of the group. "Whatever our political views, we set out to prove that ideological opponents could engage each other in rational debate and a civil manner."
This emerging group feels it is up to them to buck the trend and create a fresh dynamic of intellectual discourse. "Our aim was never to try and change the views of the other side. We realized that was an exercise in futility," continues fellow founder Henry Shakenovsky. "We wanted to establish a forum for dialogue, where people would be free to express their views to an audience that would listen."
What was most disquieting to Shakenovsky, was what he termed, "the dislike of the unlike."
S-A olim who fell defending the Gush
In the office of the South African Zionist Federation (Telfed) in Ra'anana stands a memorial board listing all the former Southern Africans who have fallen in the defense of Israel.
Two of those names, Zvi Lipshitz and Chatzi Berelowitz, died in 1948 in the bloody battle for Gush Etzion.
"Both of them made aliya in the mid-1940s to Gush Etzion and became embroiled in the battle for the Gush," Solly Kopman of Petah Tikva, who knew them both from his days in the HaShomer Ha'Dati movement in Johannesburg, told Metro.
"Chatzi was killed on May 13, the day before the declaration of independence, by a sniper at the Russian Monastery.
Zvi fell the next day. He was among the group that was surrounded and captured.
There were some 30-40 of them including women and children, and they were gunned down and covered ina pit."
"In May 1949, Chief Chaplain Shlomo Goren negotiated with the Red Cross to retrieve the bodies," Kopman continued. "Goren, together with some members from our movement, were taken blindfolded to Gush Etzion where they exhumed the bodies and brought them to Jerusalem."
By this time Kopman had immigrated to Israel and was living in Jerusalem. "The bodies were lined up in Rehov King George. I participated in burying them on Mount Herzl, which at the time was little more than a barren hill. We placed them in a 50-meter oblong grave with inscriptions of their names and where they had been killed."
Every year Kopman visits their gravesides to pay his respects.
For further information about Unity in Diversity, contact: Maurice Ostroff (09) 959-5261 or [email protected], Henry and Ruth Shakenovsky (03) 540-3542 or [email protected]