A land of his own: How a Soviet childhood links to West Bank annexation

SETTLEMENT AFFAIRS: From Soviet discrimination to a home in Gush Etzion, settler leader Shlomo Neeman has always battled for his rights.

 YESHA COUNCIL head Shlomo Neeman: ‘Sovereignty is ideology. It is faith. But it is also about day-to-day living.’  (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
YESHA COUNCIL head Shlomo Neeman: ‘Sovereignty is ideology. It is faith. But it is also about day-to-day living.’

Settler leader Shlomo Neeman was distraught when he first learned he was Jewish at age seven.

“Mother, who am I?” he asked as he struggled to fill out an informational school form for his first-grade class in the former Soviet Union that included a nationality question.

“You are Jewish,” she answered. 

He was shocked. 

“I am Jewish?” he repeated letting the words sink in.

 Judea, Samaria and the Jordan Valley heads of councils attend a press conference of the Yesha Council outside the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, August 12, 2021 (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
Judea, Samaria and the Jordan Valley heads of councils attend a press conference of the Yesha Council outside the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, August 12, 2021 (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

“Yes,” his mother answered.

“It created an internal crisis because to be Jewish was bad,” explained Neeman to The Jerusalem Post last week in his Gush Etzion office. If he was Jewish, then was that true of this family as well, he wanted to know.

“And you?,” he asked his mother.


“And father?


“Grandmother Rosa and Sonya and Grandfather Michael,” Neeman asked.

“Jewish, everyone is Jewish,” his mother responded. 

The full weight of the situation sunk in the next day when the teacher asked each of the pupils to provide her with the information orally during class.

She wrote their answers down in her class book, as he recorded the weather on the class chalkboard. 

Every day a different pupil was assigned this task. They were so small they had to stand on a chair, placed on a table, just to reach the board. 

Neeman said he can recall the moment as if it was yesterday. He is perched on top of the chair, scrawling on the board as the teacher asks him his nationality and he replies Jewish.

The class burst into laughter. 

The young teacher, 19, was just out of school and “we were her first class,” recalled Neeman. “I remember how she gestured with her hands and told the children, ‘It’s forbidden to laugh” in a vain attempt to control the situation.”

Neeman, 50, now a father of five and a grandfather of four, has traveled a long distance from his early childhood that was stripped of all knowledge of his history and faith to the religious and political life he lives now in Israel as the leader of those seeking to maintain Israeli rights over territory beyond the pre-1967 lines.

The disconnect is so great, that Neeman didn’t even want to provide the Post with his Russian first name, explaining that it was irrelevant. He changed it to Shlomo as a sign of his return to his roots. 

From Russia to Israel: Battling for settler rights

AFTER HIS arrival in Israel in 1990, he graduated from the Hesder program in the Har Etzion yeshiva in Gush Etzion, became an educator and served as a Jewish Agency emissary in Kiev. He also worked with MK Ze’ev Elkin (National Unity Party) when the latter was the minister of immigration and absorption.

Neeman was elected to head the Gush Etzion Regional Council in 2017 and is running for reelection this year. He was also appointed last year to head the Yesha Council, which is the political arm of the settlement movement. He told the Post he viewed both appointments as pragmatic positions that allow him to improve the quality of living for residents of Judea and Samaria, without delving heavily into politics.

But the gray-haired man, with a beard, glasses and a knitted skullcap, became a recognizable face because he took office in Gush Etzion just as the movement to apply sovereignty to the West Bank settlements gained steam on Israel’s national stage.

He was among five settler leaders who flew to Washington in 2020 to be on hand when former US president Donald Trump unveiled his peace plan that could have allowed Israel to apply sovereignty to 30% of the West Bank. The group also included regional council heads Yossi Dagan of Samaria, Israel Ganz of Binyamin, David Elhayani of the Jordan Valley, and Efrat Council head Oded Revivi.

Israel agreed to suspend the annexation of what would have been all the West Bank settlements in exchange for the Abraham Accords, under which it agreed to normalize ties with four Arab countries: the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan.

As Neeman spoke with the Post, he sat behind three flags that hang on small polls in his office, one for Gush Etzion, one for Israel, and one for sovereignty. The flags are testaments to what, along with his religious faith and family, that he holds dear. Neeman described himself as a man who always adapted the principles of his future vision to his present-day reality. Now, he said, he is living already in the shadow of the time when Israel will control the land from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. 

The Biden administration and the Europeans might speak on an almost daily basis about a two-state resolution to the conflict based on the pre-1967 lines. Neeman, however, is certain that in the end, only one nation will control the area and that is the Jewish nation, for whom it’s their historical and religious birthright.

He recalled the Oslo Accords of 1993 and 1995, which gave birth to the Palestinian Authority and divided the West Bank into three sections – Areas A, B, and C – as a “great disaster.”

He was a young man when the plan was unveiled, but even though he was new to Israel, he joined the protest and was arrested along with many other activists.

Oslo “was a great mistake and even a crime, against the nation and our heritage” that will take decades to rectify, he said. The application of sovereignty, he said, will correct that injustice. 

Neeman wasn’t discouraged by the suspension of sovereignty in exchange for the Abraham Accords. Trump “needed” a win and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did as well, he said. 

“I know it is a temporary concession, this nation can’t manage to operate without sovereignty,” Neeman explained as he spoke of the settlements in Area C which are under IDF military and civilian rule.

As long as the Jewish population in the settlements grows, he explained, so does the need to apply Israeli law to Judea and Samaria.

“Sovereignty is ideology. It is faith. But it is also about day-to-day living,” he said. Neeman is so certain about his vision for the future, that he is not overly concerned by the talk of an Israeli pledge not to apply sovereignty in exchange for a deal with Saudi Arabia.

What is positive here, he said, is that the entire direction of the conversation has changed. Under the Oslo Accords, Israel talked about how much land it would give up, he said. 

“Today the concessions are about how to delay sovereignty,” Neeman explained.

He underscored that he was opposed to any delay in the application of sovereignty but is at least comforted by the philosophical switch.

“Instead of fighting for territory,.. today we are fighting for when it will be our territory. We are going in a good direction,” he stated.

So, sovereignty “won’t be this year,” but it could be in two years or four years,” he said.

His vision of Israel’s eventual borders would envelop all of the West Bank and the Jordan Valley.

“The person who thinks that the border will pass by this window, next to [the Israeli sovereign cities of] Beit Shemesh and Kfar Saba is deluding himself,” Neeman said.

“The nation’s border will be the Jordan River,” Neeman explained as he rejected the possibility of an eventual Palestinian state on any part of that territory.

“There won’t be a Palestinian state. We won’t let it happen, but it is also not relevant, there is no preparation for it,” he said.

From his view, “the Palestinian Authority is the enemy” because “it wants to take my land from me, and the land is above everything. No one will get this land because it’s our land,” he said.

Similarly, he believes that flying a Palestinian flag, while it symbolizes a state on Jewish land,  rather than solely an ethnic identity, should be outlawed.

In the future, there would be one Jewish state on the Land of Israel, with full individual citizen rights for Palestinians, but not national rights, Neeman said.

“Every Arab [in Israel] deserves full individual rights. This is a country filled with minorities and I am prepared to give them citizenship,” he said.

“I will not stop anyone from exercising their right to learn their language, to practice their religion and to pray to their God as happened to me,” he said.  

“But against the person who wants to take the only piece of land that I have, there will be a war to the bitter end,” he added. 

“National rights” to this land, however, “can belong to only one nation, the Jewish nation,” he stressed.

Neeman dismissed the concern that demographics make that option difficult because the Palestinian population would outstrip the Jewish one.

Jewish families have to have more children, Neeman noted. More significantly there has to be a vast investment of resources in encouraging Jewish immigration and easing restrictions, he said. 

Demographics is not necessarily a recipe for nationality, he stated. 

“In New York, there are more Jews than in Judea and Samaria, but none of them is asking to become their own nation in New York,” he explained.

Neeman is not afraid of the charge that in a one-state resolution to the conflict, Israel would be an apartheid state, explaining that it was part of the antisemitism that Europeans have leveled against Israel.

Europe is a continent where people had literally “cooked the Jews into soup” during the Holocaust, he said.

Now, he said, antisemites “mark our wine” and “don’t want us to sell ice cream.”

“I am not afraid of being called an apartheid state, because it is a lie. I believe in rights for everyone,” he said.

The issue of rights and the lack thereof and the importance of land in the debate about the Israeli-Palestinian is deeply personal to him in light of his background in the FSU, which prohibited the Jewish faith.

BORN IN 1973, his life was initially barren of any Jewish content even though he lived in Birobidzhan, the site of the failed Soviet experiment to create an autonomous Jewish enclave within its borders.

As a first step, he turned to his grandparents at age 12, to ask that they could teach him Yiddish. They refused, explaining that it could only spell trouble. 

Undeterred at age 13 he signed up for an after-school Russian teen program for budding reporters run by a Yiddish language paper. The reporters wrote in Russian. A team of elderly Jews translated it into Yiddish for the readers. One of them agreed to hold a Yiddish language class for the writers. Knowing Yiddish, allowed Neeman to build relationships with more affiliated Jews in Birobidzhan.

As the Soviet Union crashed around him at age 15, he began to dream not just of a language of his own, but a land of his own. His family, by then, had joined him in his journey.

“I am a Jew, and the Jews have a state of their own,” he thought at the time, writing articles about it on a typewriter, including a letter that he addressed to the people of Israel. It made its way across the Mediterranean and was published in Maariv.

“I wrote that I was a teenager in Birobidzhan. I don’t have a synagogue I don’t have anything, and I want to be Jewish and I want to live in Israel,” he recalled.

Neeman who had already taught himself rudimentary Hebrew opened a branch of the Beitar revisionist Zionist movement, originally founded in 1923 by Ze’ev Jabotinsky, who is the spiritual father of the Likud party.

Although still in high school, he went onto the nearby university campus with a friend to search for new members and there he was awe-stricken almost immediately by a beautiful young woman who passed by.

“She’s out of your league,” his friend said. Neeman approached her, anyway, asking if she was Jewish. She looked at him, Neeman said, “like she was the Azrieli tower glancing at a small ant.” But she answered in the affirmative and agreed to come to a meeting.

Within three days they were holding hands and he was introducing her as his finance. When his family was cleared for immigration to Israel, however, she had yet to receive permission. He kept the black and white photo they took holding hands, just before he left, not knowing if they would ever see each other again.

Neeman landed in Israel with his nuclear family just after Hanukkah. It was a moment he had dreamed of, he said, and it felt, “like redemption” because he had returned home. 

He was so elated he felt the whole country should be obviously awash in national pride.

“I was disappointed... because I expected to see Israeli flags all the way to Jerusalem,” he said.

He was among those immigrants who bent down and kissed the ground upon arrival, well not exactly the ground, he explained, more like the cement tarmac at Ben-Gurion International Airport, but it had the same feeling.

Even in Birobidzhan, he had felt the lure to the Land of Israel so much so, that although he didn’t understand anything about the politics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he knew he wanted to live in the West Bank, which he referred to as Judea and Samaria.

“Back in Russia we wanted to establish a settlement in the liberated territories, in Judea and Samaria” or “we wanted to live in Hebron,” he said.

But there were no available homes in Hebron and former prime minister Yitzhak Shamir had just attended the Madrid conference, promising not to create new settlements.

His fiancee, who arrived less than a year after him and changed her name to Shlomit, shared his vision. 

They sought a home in the youngest, smallest settlement, which at the time was either in Dolev or Karmei Tzur. But the caravans in Dolev only had one sink, but those in Karmei Tzur had two. It made keeping a kosher kitchen easier, so they went there.

“My first Shabbat as a married man I observed in the Karmei Tzur vineyards,” Neeman said, explaining that it has been his home ever since.

He feels as he walks, that this is his land, “the land of our forefathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob” who walked the same ground at the time of the Bible.

To those who feel that after two thousand years of discrimination against the Jews in exile, including in Russia and Europe, the Jews should be uprooted, he has only one thing to say: “It’s my land, leave me alone.” 

His voice drops, as he states, “I am home.”

After trips abroad, “I kiss the ground when I return.”

“This land won’t go to anyone else, it is ours... I have a nation here. Here is my land. Here I am master of the house. We will stay here for eternity.”

There is no doubt about this, he stated, adding, “We’ll talk in another 2,000 years.”