Contrary to remarks made this week by opposition leader Isaac Herzog when addressing the Israel Democracy Institute, former residents of Gush Katif would go back there in the blink of an eye if they had the chance.
In the course of his address to IDI, Herzog claimed: “In the end, no one today wants to get up and reestablish Netzarim,” which was one of the settlements in Gaza destroyed by Israel within the framework of the disengagement. Herzog emphasized that even though settling inside the Gaza Strip had been an initiative of the Labor movement, which he now heads, with hindsight he believes that the decision was a mistake. But former residents of Gush Katif and northern Samaria who were forced to leave their homes believe that the mistake was not in settling but in being uprooted and dispersed all over the country.
While settlement in the Gaza Strip was initiated and encouraged by the Labor movement, the fact is that the majority of families who settled in Gaza came from the national-religious movement and lived a Torah-observant lifestyle in which they were able to create a natural blend of Zionism, farming, hospitality, community and national service with Torah study.
Several of them recalled this with longing at a 10th-anniversary commemoration that was held at the President’s Residence this week. If Herzog really wanted to know how they felt about going back, he should have watched a video that contained excerpts from a collection of 800 testimonies by former residents, or spoken to any of the hundreds who converged on the President’s Residence to remember a shared past and to talk of the difficulties in building a shared future after what they had left behind.
Regardless of where anyone might stand in the political spectrum, this is an extraordinary human story of courage, grief, suffering and hope, which has left permanent scars on too many people.
In video clips and live on stage, former residents of Gush Katif could barely contain their emotions. In the 10 years in which they have been building new lives for themselves and facing new challenges, the pain of being uprooted has not subsided.
Even those who were children when they left still feel that yearning for what used to be.
A case in point is Ori Mansher, who was born in Gush Katif and now lives in Nitzan.
Young though he is, he spoke with great nostalgia of the freedom of a magical childhood, and how all of a sudden “Paradise disappeared.”
In a matter of minutes, he said, a child has to understand that he no longer has a home. For all that, none of the uprooted lost their love for Israel, the land and the people, he said, and all did their military and other forms of national service. Many were reconstructing their communities, albeit in a different place, “but if we ever get the chance to go back, we won’t hesitate for a moment.”
Natan Bar who lives in Karmei Katif, had three sons when he was uprooted from Gush Katif. Since then, his family has increased to include three daughters, but not much else has changed.
They still live in the trailer home that they first moved into after the disengagement.
All the plans for a permanent community infrastructure are still on the drawing board at the top of a pile of broken promises. Bar’s oldest son was seven at the time of the disengagement, and Bar took it for granted that there would be no synagogue in Karmei Katif in which to celebrate his son’s bar mitzva.
But he was sure that there would be one by the time that his second son reached maturity. Wrong. His third son is now 11, and it is obvious that he, too, will miss out on celebrating his bar mitzva in a permanent synagogue. Had they not been uprooted, all three boys would have most definitely celebrated their bar mitzvas in a Gush Katif synagogue.
Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein confessed that he had wrestled with himself about being statesmanlike or giving in to his emotions, and had decided that it was permissible to be human and emotional.
He castigated Ariel Sharon’s government for uprooting all that had been built and planted even at a time when it was already known what the repercussions and the dangers would be. He also spoke of the herd mentality, which was a dangerous phenomenon at the time and which continues today with a cumulative effect in its impact on public opinion. For this he blamed the media for what it published and did not publish and the manner in which it decided what the public should know. Throughout his address, Edelstein’s controlled anger, even a decade later, was almost palpable.
Among the ministers and members of Knesset who attended the event were Uri Ariel, Ayelet Shaked, Ophir Akunis, Eli Ben-Dahan, Nissan Slomiansky and Ayoub Kara, as well as former ministers and MKs including Gideon Sa’ar and Orit Struk.
Arguably the most famous of the displaced settlers was twice-evicted Avi Farhan, first from Yamit and then from Elei Sinai. Farhan and his wife, Laura, were among 18 of the evicted families who completed a five-day, 122-kilometer protest march from their current habitat at Kibbutz Neveh Yam to the President’s Residence in Jerusalem. The 18 families, who have lived in temporary homes for the past decade, said that they are tired of being refugees in their own country.
■ WHILE STILL finding her way in the Foreign Ministry, deputy minister Tzipi Hotovely, though not yet as forceful as was Danny Ayalon in the same role, is already introducing new regulations and has asked the Protocol Department to ensure that dignitaries who come to Israel on state or official visits are taken to the Western Wall. A senior source within the department confirmed that the request is on the table, but that it is not yet certain whether it is merely a request or an order. As it is, said the source, because the majority of such visitors are Christians and interested in going to the Garden Tomb, which is relatively close to the Western Wall, they are often asked if they would like to go there as well.
For many years now, it has been a tradition for official visitors to be taken to Yad Vashem, as was the case Thursday with Dutch Foreign Minister Albert Gerard Koenders and Britain’s Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, who made international headlines with his assertion that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wants “a permanent standoff with Iran.”
Following the assassination of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, said the source from the Protocol Department, many foreign dignitaries felt the need to visit his grave and lay a wreath.
After a couple of years this more or less ceased, but in recent months there has been a revival, possibly because this is the 20th-anniversary year of the assassination. Dignitaries are also taken to the Grove of Nations near Mount Herzl to plant a tree.
The Protocol Department coordinates all such visits with Yad Vashem, the Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund, the World Zionist Organization and the rabbi responsible for holy sites and the Western Wall. Generally accompanying most of these visitors are the ambassadors of their respective countries, and those serving in Israel for longer periods have been to Yad Vashem at least a dozen times, especially former German ambassador Andreas Michaelis during this 50th-anniversary year of diplomatic ties between Israel and Germany.
Michaelis who wound up his term at the end of June, has been succeeded by Berlin-born Dr. Clemens von Goetze, 53, who for the past three years headed the department for Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East at his country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and before that was head of the foreign policy office of the president of Germany.
■ SOME ORGANIZATIONS and institutions mark milestone anniversaries every five to 10 years, but former members of Australian Habonim Dror who are living in Israel have much longer intervals. In fact, it’s 25 years since they last held a milestone celebration- cum-reunion. But this year happens to be the 75th-anniversary year of Habonim in Australia, so a few former members – Jeanette Gory, Oren Zauder, Yoni Glickman and Vered Samuel – put their heads together and began organizing a 75th-anniversary event, which is tentatively scheduled for October. The problem was that they had very few names and addresses. Of some 12,000 Australian expatriates living in Israel, close to 1,000 were members of Habonim.
Gory managed to put together a list of 150 and published a Facebook request for more names, which brought instant results and boosted the list to almost 200. Any eligible person who wants to be included in the list should contact jeanettegory@ gmail.com, and to find out more about former members should go to the Facebook page.
Of course, some of the people who were in the same groups in Habonim in Australia have been getting together in the interim, but there has not been a mega reunion of former members and emissaries from Victoria, New South Wales, South Australia, Western Australia, Queensland and New Zealand in quarter of a century.
Habonim obviously encourages aliya, and each year the movement sends groups to Israel to participate in programs on kibbutzim and in other areas of Israeli society.
Many of the participants return to live permanently in Israel. Even before there were such programs, some became founding members of kibbutzim, most notably Kfar Hanassi and Yizre’el.
Habonim was founded in Britain in 1929 by Wellesley Aron, who was the grandfather of singer David Broza.
Aron was also one of the founders of Neveh Shalom, the village which is an example of Arab-Jewish coexistence.
Dror was founded in Poland in 1915, and some of its members fought in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. In Israel, Dror was aligned with the Hakibbutz Hameuhad network of kibbutzim, whereas Habonim was aligned with Ihud HaKibbutzim. When the two kibbutz networks merged in 1980 to form the United Kibbutz Movement, the two youth movements did likewise.
One of the most public figures among the former members of Australian Habonim is Mark Freiberg, better known these days as Mark Regev, Netanyahu’s chief spokesman.
■ SOONER OR later, Jewish visitors to Poland, especially to Warsaw, come across Jonny Daniels, the British- born founder of From the Depths, which seeks to preserve whatever is left of prewar Jewish Poland. Daniels, who is also an Israeli citizen who has formed a good relationship with members of the Knesset, was very happy to welcome Knesset Deputy Speaker Hilik Bar on his first official visit as chairman of the Israel-Poland Parliamentary Friendship Group. After meetings in the Polish parliament, they went to Skulsk, the tiny city from which a branch of Bar’s family originated, and rededicated the area of the desecrated and desolate Jewish cemetery, returning one simple tombstone to the site.
This tombstone had been stolen and used as a grinding stone. By returning it, and placing a plaque on the site, Daniels and his assistants were able to start the process of trying to recover more of these tombstones and to restore the cemetery to a semblance of what it had been before it was plundered. Last month, when Bar addressed a special meeting of mainly Polish and Israeli diplomats who had come together to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the renewal of diplomatic relations between Israel and Poland, he apologized for his inability to address them in Polish as some of the other Israeli speakers had done, but explained that he was only a quarter Polish.
■ AT THE International Conference on Jewish Genealogy in Jerusalem last week, Ingrid Rochberger, one of the local organizers, explained how DNA had helped her husband to locate a long-lost relative of whose existence he had never been previously aware.
Rochberger had written to the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw with a query related to some genealogical research that she was doing. When the reply came, there was an added comment that there was a gentleman in his 90s, who came several times a week to help out with translations.
His name was similar to Rochberger’s, and the writer of the letter wondered if they were related. Rochberger doubted that they were but made allowances for the fact that names change from one place to another, and even when they stay more or less the same, the spelling may change.
The nonagenarian’s granddaughter subsequently came to Israel and met with the Rochbergers and was told that the only way to ascertain whether they were related was to do a DNA test. The granddaughter took a test kit back to Poland and the grandfather actually did the test. It turned out to be a perfect match to that of Rochberger’s husband. So the Rochbergers went to Poland, met their newfound relative, discovered him to be a delightful, multilingual, highly intelligent and entertaining man, and had a really good time with him.
The bottom line is that modern technology is facilitating a lot of family reunions. But it’s not always technology that can take credit. Sometimes it’s an ability to piece together fragments of stories told by different people from different countries and trace them to a single source, a common relative.
Matan Shefi and Aleksandra Dybkowski of the Jewish Historical Institute’s Jewish Genealogy & Family Heritage Center spoke of how they collect stories for posterity, but how some of these stories trigger their memories that someone else has told a similar story about someone with a similar name and background, and when the stories are compared and researched, a common thread is revealed.
Notwithstanding the broad geographic range of the program, by and large the lectures and workshops related to Poland had the largest attendance because so many of the 800 participants, even though four and five generations removed, could still trace their roots to Poland and wanted to know more about the places in which their forebears were born and raised.
■ INTERVIEWED BY Michael Miro on Reshet Bet radio, Labor MK Stav Shaffir complained that MKs who are part of the government coalition are more interested in keeping the opposition at bay than in what may benefit the public. Shaffir said that bills proposed by members of the opposition are automatically rejected, simply to prevent the opposition from having any leverage, regardless of how beneficial the enactment of the bill might be to the public. Miro condescendingly told her several times, as though she were a child who doesn’t understand, that this is the way of political culture. Shaffir begged to differ.
■ NOTWITHSTANDING THE deterioration of diplomatic relations between Turkey and Israel, Turkey has not removed its diplomatic mission from Israel, though there has been no Turkish ambassador since 2010 when ambassador Ahmet Oguz Celikkol was recalled after having been publicly humiliated by then-deputy foreign minister Danny Ayalon. Relations had been strained before that, but the manner in which Celikkol was treated was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
However, the downgrading of relations has not prevented Turkish tourists and businesspeople from coming to Israel, nor has it prevented some Turkish outreach to the Jewish community.
Gultan Kisanak, the mayor of Diyarbakir in Turkey, is due to arrive in Israel next week for a special public lecture at the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem. The mayor has been instrumental in the reestablishment of Armenian churches and a Jewish house of worship in Turkey and will present an update on the situation in the region.