The hills are alive.
(photo credit: NATI SHOHAT/ Flash 90)
Givot Olam looks and feels like a slice of the American Wild West,
Walking around the rocky hills of the West Bank, you could
easily mistake the landscape and barren hilltops all around for rural
Located about six kilometers past the fence of the Itamar
settlement southwest of Nablus, the crunch of the dry, rocky soil is the only
The hilltop settlement is the site of one of Israel’s
largest organic farms, and from any perspective the ranch is impressive. Five
hundred sheep and a thousand goats graze the green hills, and hundreds of
free-range chickens wander around a large enclosure, with open access to a
heated, covered hen house to lay their eggs. Fifty employees manage an operation
that includes an industrial-sized flour mill, a feed plant to create organic
food for the animals, and state-of-the-art automated equipment that milks the
goats for the cheese, yogurt and other dairy products that are produced on the
spot and shipped daily around the country.
The picturesque scenery and
pastoral atmosphere makes it easy to forget that Givot Olam (“Hills of the
World”) is an unauthorized settlement outpost located in one of the country’s
hottest flash points.
In many ways, the rough terrain is a metaphor for
the residents who built the site and who maintain the business
Settling here has been far from easy – the hilltop was barren
before Avri Ran, founder of the Hilltop Youth movement, set up shop here in
1998. Ran was responding to a meeting between Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu
and US President Bill Clinton to negotiate further Israeli withdrawals from what
the Israelis who live here call Judea and Samaria.
Today, the site is
thriving, but by any standard life on the ranch is extremely basic. It is a
40-minute drive to the nearest supermarket and an hour from here to Jerusalem or
Tel Aviv, checkpoint traffic jams permitting. Elementary school children study
in Ma’aleh Levona, 20 minutes away, and teenagers are scattered at yeshiva high
schools and girls’ seminaries around the country. All the men serve on security
patrols, as do many of the women.
It’s a tough reality for city types to
digest, but locals say they chose Givot Olam exactly for the contrast to urban
life: quiet, outdoors, hands-on work – and most of all, living in the heartland
of the Land of Israel.
“This is a remarkable place to live in and to
bring up kids,” says Ran’s daughter Sarah Ben-Yitzhak, a no-nonsense,
26-year-old mother of three. “We have a real community here, a sense that we are
all working together for a goal that is greater than any of us – building the
land of Israel and creating organic produce for so many people.”
Like Ben-Yitzhak, all the permanent staff here are related to the Ran
family. Most were involved with building the ranch structures and developing the
family business. In contrast, the quiet, rustic nature of the farm – as well as
the work with animals – is particularly suitable for young people seeking
seasonal employment as well as individuals needing “time out” from the bustle of
city life or from personal crises.
For these hired hands, the stories are
as varied as the personalities. Tzippora Laguna, 43, was born in Chile, grew up
in Spain, lived in Sweden after getting married and made aliya after getting
divorced a year and a half ago. Another worker, Tzvi Aryeh Scheinerman, grew up
in an ultra-Orthodox family in Monsey, New York, but has lived in Israel since
making aliya alone 10 years ago at the age of 15. Everyone who works on the farm
Though their stories differ, some threads do run through
the entire community. Both Laguna and Scheinerman say they find solace in their
interactions with the animals.
Both also say the quiet and solitude of
Givot Olam is a good place for “searchers” to find themselves and for religious
types to commune with the Bible and with God.
“I’m a registered nurse,
but working as a shepherd is probably the most satisfying thing I’ve ever done,”
says Laguna, short and healthy-looking as a result of her physical work on the
farm. “My first job, back in 1987, was working with the cows at Kibbutz Zikim in
Gaza, and I loved it. Now, I tend the goats from 7 to 10 a.m., then I
come into the kitchen to cook lunch. I’ve got lots of time for myself, and every
goat has its own personality. They never talk back to you,” she laughs. “The
whole experience has given me a lot of confidence and allowed me to get back in
touch with my inner self, with the person I really am deep down.”
dedication to self-growth and to community has paid off and turned Givot Olam
into the country’s largest organic farm. It has also gained strong traction in
Israel’s health-conscious circles. Eightyfive percent of the country’s organic
eggs come from here, as does a large percentage of the organic cheese and milk.
Tnuva, the country’s largest food products conglomerate is a major customer, as
are health food stores like Nitzat Haduvdevan.
Looking east from Givot
Olam, the view could hardly be more idyllic. On a clear day, the mountains of
Jordan are visible, and there is nary a person or building in sight. A nearby
hilltop is known as Three Seas Hill, so named because on a clear day one can see
the Sea of Galilee, the Dead Sea, and the Mediterranean Sea.
Turn around from the same east-facing vantage point, however, and the view leads
to the settlement of Itamar, as well as to the Arab villages of Yanoun and
Awarta in the wadi below. Further in the distance is the Jewish settlement of
Har Bracha, high atop Mount Gerizim, and Mount Eval, and the outskirts of
Nablus, the largest Arab city in the northern West Bank.
wonderful views, the drive north from Jerusalem along Route 60 does away with
any question that some people consider this enemy territory.
The area is
dotted with painful reminders of the price in blood that the conflict has
extracted. Memorials to victims of Palestinian attacks on Israelis dot the
landscape. Closest to home is the village of Itamar, clearly visible from Givot
Olam, where 26 community members have fallen victim to Palestinian terror
attacks over the years, most recently the five members of the Fogel family who
were slaughtered in their sleep in March 2011.
Avri Ran is himself a
Ironically, while health food stores stock up on
Givot Olam products, local Arabs and left-wing Israeli activists say Ran and his
supporters have done much to spur the hatred and fear that is a standard part of
life in these parts.
Ran, a tough pioneer type with leathery deep
distrust of journalists, proudly says that the community takes care of its own
security needs and has never relied on the army – a fact that some people say
has left the lives of neighboring Arabs a living hell.
“We came here to
contribute to the country, not to be a drain on resources” is his dry
“It is no exaggeration to say the residents of Yanoun are
living under a constant threat of terror attacks from settlers in Givot Olam,
Itamar and other communities in the area,” says David Nir, a high-tech
entrepreneur and activist in the Ta’ayush Arab-Jewish Partnership
“Avri Ran’s been accused of killing Palestinians, and I’ve
personally experienced what can happen to an unwanted type who approaches what
he believes is his land. It’s true that he’s been acquitted of all the charges
against him, but the army investigations and subsequent trials against him have
been a joke.”
Nir says he suffered a head injury and permanent damage to
his nose after Ran smashed a rifle butt into his face.
Dror Etkes, a
former director of Peace Now’s Settlement Watch program, says Ran serves as a
guru to other settlers, especially young people. The view of Givot Olam, he
suggests, looks radically different from just a few hundred meters down the
“Settler violence has forced residents to flee Yanoun more than
once,” Etkes tells The Jerusalem Report. “Even today, Palestinians there cannot
walk 50 meters from their homes or they risk being attacked. Of course,
it goes without saying that the lands in question are stolen lands – Israel may
have turned them into ‘state lands,’ but photographic evidence shows that local
residents cultivated and worked the land for many hundreds of years until
communities like Itamar started springing up.”
Residents of Givot Olam
refuse to address the charges leveled by Nir and Etkes. But David Ha’Ivri,
executive director of the Shomron Liaison Office, says the proof is in the
pudding when it comes to “wild accusations” against the settlers.
Arabs and leftists have tried for years to ‘get’ Avri on trumped-up charges, but
they’ve always failed,” Ha’Ivri tells The Report. “Furthermore, many of these
groups have called for boycotts of ‘settlement’ products, but here, too, no one
is buying it. Look around – Givot Olam supplies natural, organic products to all
major chains and health food stores in Israel. That’s the uncomplicated,
unadulterated truth: The Land of Israel is producing top-quality produce, and
nobody is buying their radical agenda or attempts to smear ‘settlement’
“Make no mistake about it – we are winning this battle, and we
have no one to apologize to for that.”