Breaking stereotypes

Secular settlers of Judea, Samaria are a lot different from the type of citizens the media portrays.

Settlers (photo credit: Anav Silverman)
(photo credit: Anav Silverman)
It is a little-known statistic that one third of the population of Judea and Samaria are secular. “Thanks to media stereotypes, most people automatically assume that every Israeli who lives in Judea and Samaria is a religious extremist,” says Hila Luxenburg, 29, a tour coordinator for the Council of Jewish Communities in Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip (the Yesha Council). “This is simply not true. What the general public does not realize is that all sectors of Israeli society – religious, ultra-Orthodox and secular – are living Judea and Samaria. We have right-wingers and left-wingers and everything in between,” says Luxenburg, herself secular and married, raising her family in Kfar Adumim.
Indeed, hundreds of secular families and young couples have moved into Judea and Samaria – for a variety of reasons, ranging from political, ideological and economic to security concerns.
For Itay and Hadar Livneh, both 29 and students at the Hebrew University, the decision to move to Kfar Adumim was quite simple.
“We both wanted to get away from the city,” Hadar explains. “Jerusalem is beautiful city but we were searching for a certain quality of life. Kfar Adumim drew us in – because of the peacefulness and the warm community atmosphere.”
“Residents are open and no one judges your background to see how religious or how secular you are. There is something special about living in a mixed religious-secular community,” adds Itay, her husband.
Both Itay and Hadar are secular, and grew up in secular, apolitical families.
Hadar is from Atlit, and Itay grew up in Moshav Kfar Syrkin.
“We come with a secular perspective – our families did not keep Shabbat or kosher, but we very much respected Jewish heritage and tradition, and were raised with a strong love for the land,” says Itay, who served in the IDF for five years.
“People always say to us, oh, you moved to a settlement because it’s cheaper living.
I wish it were true,” says Hadar. “There is an amazing history to this area. I feel as if we are living in the Bible. With all the natural scenery of the Judean desert and stories from Tanach that took place here – you realize this isn’t just another neighborhood in Israel.”
As a certified tour guide, Hadar is wellversed in the biblical history of the Land of Israel. Pointing in the distance, Hadar tells me how the Book of Joshua defines this area as the border between the tribes of Judah and Benjamin.
“As a tour guide, I bring many groups from the Gush Dan area to this region,” says Hadar. “When they meet me, they aren’t suspicious because I look just like someone they would know back in Tel Aviv. They don’t believe me when I tell them that I am a settler.”
Itay, who studies political science and international relations, and Hadar, who is also majoring in political science and the history of Israel, work hard on breaking the settler stigma at the Hebrew University’s Mount Scopus campus as well. The two are active on campus initiating politi-cal debates and organizing guided tours of Judea and Samaria for students. “We are like a bridge here,” says Itay. “Our goal is to show the secular population a Judea and Samaria that they can relate to through people like us.”
DANNY DAYAN, the head of the Yesha Council, who recently penned an article for The New York Times about the legitimacy and necessity of the settlement establishment, wholeheartedly agrees with this approach.
“We need to continue conducting outreach to the secular public, and slowly we will make an impact and correct these stereotypes, which the media continually perpetuate,” explains Dayan, a secular businessman who made aliya from Argentina in 1971 and lives in the mixed community of Ma’aleh Shomron, one of the 30 settlements of Samaria.
“It is easier to go against someone who looks different from you than someone who looks similar to you. The left-wing media in Israel and abroad have given a completely incorrect image of the people who live in the Jewish communities of Judea and Samaria,” Dayan tells The Jerusalem Post.
“Our lifestyle is very similar to the rest of Israel,” says Natalie Hershkovitz, 50, of the secular communal settlement Barkan. “We are not religious fanatics, and no, olive trees do not get destroyed. There are academics and small business owners who live in our community, and our children serve in elite army units. We are very normal people,” says Hershkovitz, mother of six children.
Barkan is located in southern Samaria, about 25 kilometers east of Tel Aviv and is part of a chain of settlements along the Trans-Samaria Highway. It was founded in 1981 by secular Israelis who were part of the Beitar and Herut movements, and stands adjacent to the Barkan Industrial Park, which has 120 businesses and factories that employ about 3,000 Palestinian Arabs from the area.
Hershkovitz, who was born and raised in Tel Aviv, moved from Sheinkin Street to Barkan with her husband, Itzik, and their children 15 years ago.
“We chose to raise our family in Barkan because we wanted our children to have a greater understanding of Israel and our right to live in this land. In Barkan, we were able to afford a bigger house and the community was close enough to Tel Aviv so that my husband could still get to work.”
“We are religiously secular,” says Hershkovitz of her family. “I grew up in a very secular Mapai household in Tel Aviv, and we don’t want religion controlling our lives, which is why we moved to Barkan, as the community fits our ideology.”
“But I do keep kosher today,” adds Natalie.
She warmly describes the community’s synagogue, explaining that “every Shabbat night, the synagogue is completely full. It is an Orthodox synagogue – there are separate men and women’s sections but women can come in jeans and without covering their hair. We have every kind of prayer service that you can imagine – Yemenite, Moroccan, Ashkenazi – it all depends on who is leading the service.”
Hershkovitz also speaks fondly of the religious communities in Samaria like Yitzhar, which more often than not makes negative media headlines.
“Yitzhar, at least in the media, is always portrayed as extremist. But I know there are very good people there and many positive agricultural endeavors taking place in that community. It seems that the only time certain settlements make the headlines is when there are scandals,” she says, exasperated.
For Natalie, the issue of coexistence in Judea and Samaria is a non-issue.
“We regular people know how to live together,” she emphasizes. “It’s the politicians who can’t live together. Judea and Samaria is not some Twilight Zone.”
The city of Ariel, Samaria’s capital, is home to almost 20,000 Israelis, about 90 percent of whom are secular. Avi Zimmerman, the executive director of the Ariel Development Fund, is one of the city’s 10% who are religiously observant.
“My family and I feel very welcomed here,” Zimmerman, originally from New Jersey, tells the Post.
Zimmerman believes that Ariel is “no less politically progressive than any other city.”
“The city’s treasurer is Druse and the city engineer is a Muslim Arab from Kafr Kasim,” says Zimmerman. “We are the capital of Samaria and there are hundreds of more families interested in moving here.”
Ariel was established in 1978 by 40 families who were led by Ariel’s current mayor Ron Nachman, with the approval and support of the government. They were motivated by strategic security concerns, explains Zimmerman.
“The first pioneers of Ariel recognized that Israel needed a wider waistline to defend itself from attack. The government of Israel has always supported Ariel as a strategically vital city.”
Ariel is located halfway between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River, providing protection for the coastal area.
In 2008, President Shimon Peres was a keynote speaker for Ariel’s 30th anniversary commemoration where he praised the founding members and Nachman for their hard work and the city’s high quality of education, effective integration of immigrants and friendly relations with Arab neighbors.
“Ignorance exists in all sectors in Israeli society about Judea and Samaria,” points out Hila Luxenburg. “Even religious people have their own stereotypes of settlers.
Not many people seem to realize that you can be an ideological settler and secular too. The love of the Land of Israel – it belongs to everyone.”
Anav Silverman is an educator at Hebrew University High School and a writer based in Jerusalem.