Bridging the political gap

English speakers from both sides of the political spectrum embark on a revealing bus tour of Gush Etzion.

gush 298.88 (photo credit: courtesy)
gush 298.88
(photo credit: courtesy)
'We occupied this magnificent home with marble floors," says 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 cease-fire. Even though the situation had become increasingly dangerous following the cease-fire, "we saw plain-clothed Hizbullah operatives moving back in and going from house to house searching," he recalls. The soldiers nevertheless cleaned the house before evacuating. "We even washed the floors." But these Israeli soldiers didn't stop there - 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, presents a completely different 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 is to offer the English-speaking community a forum for dialogue, so that people will feel free to express their points of view, no matter how divergent, and without being demonized by "the other." In Jerusalem recently joined a busload of former immigrants - mainly from South Africa plus a few from the US and UK - on a visit to Gush Etzion. The group comprises some well-traveled people who can 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 have to consult the map to note where the bus is headed. For Maurice Ostroff and Henry Shakenovsky, the answer is distressingly apparent. They express 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 points out, "They would have no such compunction 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 proves to be one of discovery. The bus passes the area where we are told Samson spent his youth, and a short while later, the site where it is believed David slew Goliath. This is ancient history - the biblical personalities and events were familiar. Less well-known is the modern history. On a stretch of road passing Kibbutz Netiv Halamed Heh ("Way of the 35"), the passengers have a head-on collision with their more recent past. The guide describes how a unit of 35 soldiers from the Palmah and Heyl Sadeh ("Field Force") 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 during the War of Independence. 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 follows the route taken by the 35, an emotional journey that triggers thoughts of battles past and lives lost. A SUDDEN jolt. The bus has 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 remarks, "What is the Green Line? The Arabs only know the Blue Line," referring to the Mediterranean Sea. During the disengagement, 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," expresses one participant. The change of atmosphere is palpable as the bus crosses over into the West Bank. People look more keenly out their windows. Why? Are they apprehensive? The organizers consider postponing the trip because of an increase in violence spilling over from Gaza following the violent Hamas coup there. There is even the suggestion of traveling in a bulletproof bus. The explanation lies elsewhere. In truth, the army checkpoint appears less daunting as a physical barrier than it does as a metaphor. "Crossing the Rubicon," one participant jokes. We are visiting one of the most disputed pieces of real estate in the world. Not in dispute is the heightened feeling of excitement. A short while later, David Paz, a South African immigrant and pediatrician from Efrat, relates the heroic story of the defense and fall of Gush Etzion. And he chooses to do so at the most iconic spot in the entire Gush - beside the "lone oak tree" at Alon Shvut. Paz begins with a quotation 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 clears up a mystery for many of the visitors: Why Israel commemorates its fallen soldiers on the day before Independence Day. "Ben-Gurion insisted," Paz reveals. "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 unfolds. "In 1947, the Etzion bloc was home to some 450 settlers, including 211 women and children," continues 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." This account brings Paz back to the story of the lone oak tree, and how Alon Shvut - Hebrew for "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," concludes Paz. It is time for refreshment. But even this experience is not free of the history of Jewish bloodletting. The bus stops at Pina Hama ("The Cozy Corner") on the busy highway between Jerusalem and Hebron. Close to both Alon Shvut and Efrat, the venue is frequented by soldiers and is a place for locals to meet those who protect them. Shirley Epstein, an immigrant from Glasgow, Scotland, who has lived in Alon Shvut for the past seven years, welcomes 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 café was established in memory of Dr. Shmuel Gillis and Tzahi 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 recounts. "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 does not frighten off the resilient residents of Gush Etzion. On the contrary, it only makes them more determined. "Make no mistake, these settlers are here to stay," says Rolo Norwitz, a Unity in Diversity participant from Kfar Saba. This is his first trip to the area, and he is "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 is no less emphatic. Admiring the buildings in Efrat - a town of 9,000 residents or some 1,500 families - he agrees, "These guys are not moving." As if tapping into the thoughts of his visitors, Riskin bellows, "Let me make it quite clear: I am a proud settler." He has everyone's attention. A meeting has been convened in which the visitors interact with local English-speaking residents, again mostly South Africans. Discussions over supper are loud and boisterous. Dinner over, the chief rabbi of Efrat has the floor. Speaking loudly, slowly and forcefully, Riskin is 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." When Riskin quotes Theodor 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 is clear: to blur any Zionist distinction between communities 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 (aliya group) from South Africa. "Young and idealistic, we were fueled by the ideology of the movement." What is sad, she says, 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. [Prime Minister Ehud] 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." So what would happen if the government were to require the settlers to leave the West Bank? How would the charismatic rabbi of Efrat react? Riskin is 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 resonate with his visitors. Bernard Hurwitz, a veterinarian from a moshav in the Sharon, is 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 Eitam. The government has not yet approved construction, but 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 says. How the unwritten chapters in the Gush Etzion saga will one day read is hard to predict. As the bus drives away down an ancient road called "The Path of the Patriarchs," the visitors from the Sharon are 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 is "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 sighs: "Who knows, if I had my life [to live] over I may want to live here."