Reaching a settlement

As a Jewish settler building his home in Efrat, my daily contact with Palestinian workers has led to some close rapport, despite the tension.

March 18, 2010 00:19
4 minute read.
A Palestinian builder works in Ma'aleh Adumim.

Palestinian builder 311. (photo credit: Associated Press)


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My family and I are among the lucky few who began construction on a house in a Jewish settlement before Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s freeze began. We are building a house in Efrat, one of the places that will remain under Israeli jurisdiction in any future settlement. But our house too is under threat – the threat of boycott. First the EU announced that it will punish Israeli firms that produce their goods (almost always with Palestinian labor) in Jewish settlements. Then the PA chimed in with its plan to prevent Palestinian laborers from working in these settlements, one of their main sources of employment. That means our workers won’t be coming any more.

I am not, in principle, opposed to boycotts, even though they are of course a form of collective punishment. When faced with evil, boycotts, sanctions and embargoes can be an effective means of accomplishing the good without resorting to arms. World leaders are
pressing for sanctions against Iran – surely a justified form of collective punishment. And although not everyone supports the Israeli closure of Gaza, it should also be recognized as the least harmful means that can be used in confronting an evil regime. But for those who oppose the use of collective punishment in principle, such as the leaders of the EU, it is harder to understand how they justify imposing such punishments on Jewish settlements.

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TODAY THE settlements are almost the only place where Israelis and Palestinians meet on a regular basis. On my building site, 10 to 15 workers are employed every day. Despite the tensions, I am forced to interact with these workers on a daily basis, and after some weeks we have gotten to know each other. The Palestinians have a custom of slaughtering a sheep after pouring a floor of concrete, and they kept joking with me, asking when I would buy them a sheep? I asked the foreman, who told me that a sheep costs NIS 2,000. That seemed like a lot to me, so my son and I drove around the West Bank asking Arab shepherds to sell us a sheep. Sure enough, NIS 2,000 is the going rate. I gave the money to our foreman, and he showed up with a couple of huge pots and a dead sheep. Instead of 15 workers, he  brought all 50 of his regular workers to the feast.

I can’t say that I joined in the meal, but I did realize that it was an opportunity to extend a hand in friendship. I am not a great after-dinner speaker, but I thought that this time I would have to think of something. But what to say? I was worried that a Zionist tirade might give them indigestion. But I also couldn’t ignore the fact that I am a Jewish settler and they are Palestinian workers. So I decided to speak about my family. I told them our names: My name is Gabriel, Jibril in Arabic. My wife is Rachele. My father was named Joshua, as is my youngest son. His father was Abraham, Ibrahim in Arabic. And his father again Joshua. Why all these Hebrew names, when I am the first in my family to speak Hebrew? Why did my ancestors insist on naming their children in Hebrew, a language they did not know?

I explained to them that Hebrew has always been the language of the Jewish people, even when we didn’t speak it. I told them that Hebrew is closely related to Arabic, and that Jews are closely related to Arabs. Yes, some of the workers knew the old cliché that Isaac and
Ishmael were brothers, and that therefore we are first cousins – several hundred times removed.

I told them a true story about my childhood: that when I was young, my father told me that Arabs are our cousins, and that whenever I encountered an Arab, I should think of him as a friend. I also added that as I grew up I found out that this was not always the case. Many
people don’t see it that way; but I still believe in what my father told me.

I told them that this why I love Zachary, our foreman, because he doesn’t walk around saying ‘that is a Jew, that is an Arab.’ He says ‘that is a good man, that is a bad man.’ He roundly denied the charge.

I didn’t give a lengthy speech, but I spoke from the heart. I am not saying that events like this happen every day.. But I do wonder what will happen when the EU executives and the PA leaders have their way.

Rather than placing a boycott on the cooperative ventures of Jews and Palestinians, the EU and the PA should consider funding them. Where will my children have an opportunity to meet their Palestinian neighbors if not in a settlement? Where will Palestinians have an
opportunity to meet a Jew if not in a settlement? Let us hope that they will not have to meet only on the field of battle.
The writer is chairman of the Classics department at Bar Ilan. University. He lives with his wife Rachele and their seven children in Efrat.

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