Not your ‘typical settler’: Secular settlers speak out

‘Guys with “peyot” and bearded faces are much more photogenic than a guy without a beard who speaks Hebrew that everyone can understand’

Ran Segal (photo credit: MIRI TZACHI)
Ran Segal
(photo credit: MIRI TZACHI)
Almost 20 years ago, Ran Segal and a few of his friends climbed to the top of a hill, stuck a piece of wood in the ground and began building their homes. However, in this case, it wasn’t divine providence, or hope that the Messiah would come sooner, that spurred them on, and neither Segal nor his friends sported long, flowing sidelocks or blazing eyes.
With his long ponytail, Segal looks more like a kibbutznik from the Jezreel Valley. He seems very much at home as he graciously welcomes guests to his sprawling home, which looks out over the valley. Although he lives in an outpost in the territories, Segal grew up in Yehud and is completely secular.
People hear the word outpost and they immediately conjure up an image of teens with peyot (sidelocks) and large kippot drinking out of jerry cans and raising goats. “We actually did start out here with jerry cans and slept at first in a truck,” Segal remembers. “We didn’t have running water or any buildings, so we started constructing a road and even had a few goats here for a while, so it’s not so far from the generalization.”
With the onset of the intifada and suicide bombings in the 1990s, their political views became a little more extreme. The Jerusalem bus bombing in February 1996 hit them particularly hard. “There was a bomb on a No. 18 bus, right before the elections,” Segal recalls.
“The Shin Bet [Israel Security Agency] told Shimon Peres, who was prime minister at the time, to impose a closure on the territories, but he wouldn’t acquiesce.” And so, a suicide bomber from Hamas got on a bus making its way to the Central Bus Station in the capital in the early morning hours and murdered 24 people.
Segal was living at the time in Nahlaot, near the Mahaneh Yehuda market, and he joined protests against the government – and the prime minister in particular. “I was interviewed on TV and I said something like, ‘Peres, the genius, decided to ignore the Shin Bet’s recommendations.’”
“But instead of using the footage with me, they showed some religious woman screaming her head off, because she looked more typically like a settler. So, yeah, I don’t look like a typical settler, but the typical settler isn’t what you think it is. Many settlers are much more bourgeois than you think, and actually have normal jobs. Guys with “peyot” and bearded faces are much more photogenic than a guy without a beard who speaks Hebrew that everyone can understand.”
With respect to socioeconomic issues, on the other hand, Segal expresses a different stance. “I’m much more liberal than you think,” he says. “If Israeli society becomes disgustingly capitalistic, no agriculture will survive – at least not farms belonging to Jews. If agriculture is valued, then the state should start investing in it a little.”
SEGAL IS not alone. Many secular families have chosen to live over the Green Line in order to improve their standard of living. According to a survey carried out by the Council of Jewish Communities in Judea and Samaria in 2013, one-third of settlers are not religious. In cities, 29% of the population identifies as non-religious, whereas in regional councils this number rises to 31%, and in local councils to 46%.
In outposts – Jewish settlements over the Green Line that have not yet been recognized by the authorities (B’Tselem claims there are currently 98 of them) – it’s much more rare to find secular middle-class people. Out of the 22 households living in Givat Arnon, near Itamar, only five identify as secular. But without a religious motive, what inspires them to live there?
Three families, from two different outposts, will try to explain why, and it turns out that their reasons are quite varied. Some are there because of wars, others to bring about peace. None of them, however, mention God.
Segal reaches behind him and points at the mountain and at the houses in the Palestinian village. “That’s Akraba,” he explains. “For now, Arabs live there, but we’ll solve this problem, too.”
“Yes. Open up the Talmud and you’ll see that Jews used to live here, just like they did where all these villages exist today. All of these villages once had Jewish names.” But Segal quickly qualifies his words. “I say ahlan wasahlan [Arabic for welcome] to any Arabs who are willing to accept that they are living in a Jewish country. But if they don’t accept this situation, they don’t need to be here.”
Segal himself suffered a trauma in May 2001 when a friend was murdered by a Palestinian while on guard duty (it was supposed to be Segal’s shift, but his friend had switched with him). Following the attack, Segal and his friends decided to name the outpost Givat Arnon in memory of their friend.
What makes a nice secular Jewish boy from Yehud want to live in an outpost?
“To establish an outpost,” Segal corrects. “Ideology. This is the Land of Israel. It belongs to us and there’s no reason we shouldn’t live in every corner of it.”
Many people who live here are motivated by what they read in the Bible and by religious ideology.
“If you look back 100 years, you’ll see that Arabs started moving into the area as a result of Jewish achievements – 80% of the Arabs who live in the region are new here and only came here in the last 100 years,” he claims.
Can’t you say the same thing about the Jews here?
“No, the Jews have come home. All you have to do is dig down 20 cm. and you’ll find remains from 2,000-year-old Jewish communities.”
But the concept of a state is not a religious one.
“Israel by definition is both Jewish and democratic,” he replies. “Religion is part of our country. Israel is the Jewish state. The fact that there are a bunch of fanatics in Tel Aviv who don’t want Israel to be Jewish is what’s crazy.”
As a non-religious person, what drives you to want to live here?
“I live here for the same reason that people are living in Emek Hefer and Emek Beit She’an.”
But nobody is breaking international law in those places.
“Some of these communities were created under the rule of the Ottomans or the British.”
But the land was legitimately purchased.
“That’s not true. I hosted someone who specializes in international law here on my balcony, and he explained to me that this is all nonsense. There were also radical left-wing organizations that opposed Jewish immigration to the Land of Israel in the 1920s, but I tell you that this land belongs to me.”
And where is the border of your land?
“Where the Land of Israel ends.”
Which is where?
“That’s a good question. I don’t know where.”
FOR NOW, Segal can remain calm; although Givat Arnon is not officially recognized, all the proper paperwork has been filed, and so he and his fellow residents are required to pay property taxes and utilities to the authorities. The reason why, explains attorney Nelly Ben-Dror, who specializes in realestate law in Judea and Samaria, is that in terms of property ownership, the land belongs to the state in every respect.
“You have to differentiate between ownership rights and the right to build on land,” explains Ben-Dror. “There’s the question of who the land actually belongs to, and what the planning and building law stipulates. Demolition orders are granted when someone builds without a permit, but there are ways to rectify the situation without having to destroy the building.”
The most popular method is by attaining permits retroactively. “Many settlements in Judea and Samaria were built on state land, and the planning permits were obtained retroactively.”
Even in the nearby settlement of Itamar, which was founded 30 years ago, planning permits were granted only after they were acquired. There’s bureaucracy on both sides of the Green Line.
Inside a house with high ceilings built out of stone and metal stands Shmuel Barak, who is busy pushing corks into wine bottles and then attaching a label with the Arnon Winery logo. Barak produces the wine from grapes that grow in the expansive vineyard that stretches all the way to Segal’s house.
Barak, who wears a wide-brimmed hat and sports a magnificent mustache, is the most veteran – and oldest – resident of the outpost. He was born in 1948, the same year as the state.
“We began in essence at the end of Bibi’s first term,” Barak says. “We were a group of secular Israelis who were protesting the Oslo Accords. We were sick of politicians. The National Religious Party was the party pushing for Land of Israel rights and in 1999 a lot of secular people voted for them, but unfortunately they were a pretty disappointing lot.”
Why did you end up picking this location?
“We just kind of ended up here. One of our goals was to settle the land. So we started out in Kadim, then we went to Homesh, and then finally ended up here in Itamar. We arrived around the month of Kislev, in the winter, and I was enthralled by the incredible view – it touched me deep inside.”
Barak understood that if he really wanted to establish an outpost, he had to leave his cushy job as a scientist at Rafael Advanced Defense Systems and spend all his time creating the new outpost, far from the wife and children he’d left behind in Nahariya.
“There are Arab villages over there,” he says as he gestures toward the area next to the outpost. “We surround them from the North, as well as from the South. And here is the ‘Detroit Road,’ which reaches from the Jordan Valley all the way to Netanya. We need to keep control of this route, it’s really important.
“It’s not like we picked this spot specifically. The authorities directed us here – the construction company Amana, Arik Sharon, the government, everyone. That’s how everything happens here, you know.”
Except that you have a demolition order hanging over your head, don’t you?
“Yeah, there pretty much always is one,” Barak says as he leans forward over the picnic table we’re sitting at on his balcony. “But it’s not a real demolition order. When we first arrived, some of the guys asked, ‘What if we build homes and then they destroy them? What will we do then?’ I said that we’d cross that bridge when we came to it. Otherwise we’d never have gotten started. And now, everyone – including the IDF – realizes that we’re serious and that we’re here to stay.”
That didn’t work in Amona.
“In my opinion, they were banging their heads against a brick wall. There, they were told that the land belonged to Palestinians. Here, no specific people are claiming the land. It’s land owned by the state, that’s been approved by the committee.”
What makes a secular man from Nahariya wake up one morning and want to create an outpost in Bible country?
“The truth is that for me, too, it was a move back in time. I was overcome by emotion. The feeling of going back to the early years of our people is an amazing thing.”
Did you have clear ideological reasons for coming here?
“Ideology did not play a central role in how I got here. It was more based on how I felt, and of course the incredible view. I’ll never forget how when I first arrived here, I was watching the sunrise at six in the morning and I felt so powerfully connected with nature. I just couldn’t believe this was happening to me. I guess if you look at it logically, it seems a bit crazy.”
Do your friends think it was a crazy move?
“They used to tell me it was crazy, but this was back in the days of the intifada when things were really difficult here. Since then, all of my left-wing friends have come to visit me here. And they’ve removed us from the hill now three times.”
What do your kids think about the fact that their father lives in an outpost?
“At first, they had their doubts, but afterwards, they were like, ‘Dad, do whatever feels right for you.”
Do you have ideological disagreements with your kids?
“No. Everyone has their own opinion. My oldest son is focused on the economics and only sees the material side of everything. He asked me, ‘What are you investing in?’ So I told him, ‘Some people open clothing stores when they retire, others buy a yacht and sail around the world. I’ve chosen a different way of life.”
The outpost was your retirement present?
“Yeah, I guess,” he laughs. “I started the winery about six months after I arrived. I was offered a post at the Weizmann Institute, but I agreed to work only three days a week.”
Are there specific moments that really drive home for you how far away you are from Nahariya, from the city?
“Of course. People are always asking me how can I live in two separate places. I don’t know how it works, but it does. Baruch Hashem [praise God], every time I come to Nahariya, my grandchildren seem so happy to see me. I come to visit often, so my family doesn’t mind me living here.
“And when I’m here, I use my time as wisely as possible so I can contribute to the best of my ability. I just started building a house here. When I first got here, I walked around trying to find a good place, and I finally picked this spot, right where you’re standing.”
Keren Inbar (photo credit: MIRI TZACHI)
Keren Inbar (photo credit: MIRI TZACHI)
A LONG way from there, south of Herodion and near the settlement of Nokdim, lies Sde Bar. Not everyone here likes using the term outpost. In general, the Gush Etzion area has a different feel from settlements in other areas across the Green Line.
The late Rabbi Menachem Froman of Tekoa is probably the most famous individual from this area. Froman was a leftwing settler who was well known for his highly developed sense of humanism. The Inbar family in Sde Bar were very close to the rabbi.
“You consider this an outpost?” Keren Inbar asks me in a surprised voice. Inbar is a 37-year-old music teacher who’s been living here for five years. After conferring with her husband, she agrees that Sde Bar is an outpost that was retroactively recognized.
The Inbars have one child, and like many of the 30 families that live in Sde Bar, they lead a secular lifestyle. “We like to sing a little on Friday nights when we make kiddush, but that’s about it,” Inbar explains.
This might also be because her husband used to be haredi. “There are more religious families than secular ones, but our aim is for it be 50%-50%,” Inbar says.
Sde Bar began as a youth village and boarding school for atrisk teens. “And then all of a sudden it just closed down, and all the youths either returned to jail or were turned out onto the streets. A few years went by, and then a community was established here. It’s not an outpost – there are real houses here, not caravans. It’s all very organized and serious.”
Inbar, who used to be a left-wing activist, arrived here with her husband. Before she came, she couldn’t even have located Tekoa on a map. “I thought it was somewhere on the other side of the moon, and that everyone living there was really religious. But when I got here, I was completely blown away,” Inbar says. “The landscape is beautiful and the community is so wonderful and supportive.”
What do you think about the hilltop youth?
“I think the violence is completely inappropriate. I don’t think rage is helpful. I believe in humanity. The Jews might be the chosen people, but in no way should we discriminate against other people. And if someone hates another because he’s not Jewish, then in my mind this is a dreadful situation. Not to mention people engaged in burning, stealing and spraying epithets on walls.”
How do your views compare with those of other people who live here?
“When I first arrived, I thought my brain was going to explode, but after a while I realized that I was closer to the Arabs, that I had a better relationship with them than other people here. It turns out that I’m much more connected to Arabs now that I’m living here.
“When I lived in the city, I used to just sit in my air-conditioned apartment and spout opinions about the situation. Here, I’m involved in the relationships between Jews and Arabs, and I see that people have made a lot of good connections. It’s great to finally get my feet wet, and get involved, instead of just talking about things.”
Do your left-wing friends come visit you here?
“Many of my friends don’t come visit me here, because they’re too scared to come. Some of them had plenty to say when I became a settler. Not many came to my wedding, which was here in Sde Bar, in the dairy, and that was hard for me.
“My friends consider me to be right-wing, but that’s just not true. And I don’t believe that you can say the land belongs to someone. This might sound ridiculous, but I believe the land belongs to itself.”
As a secular person, what do you think of the religious people who live here?
“Some people view the Arabs as intruders and don’t like them. A lot of times you hear kids saying things, because they’re just repeating what they hear at home. Even in Jerusalem you hear people talking about Arabs like they’re disgusting, unwanted, and ‘not like us.’
“People are always saying that the only thing Arabs understand is force. Of course, not all of the religious people feel this way; some are very tolerant and are interested in getting to know individuals. It’s very individualistic.”
Shmuel Barak (photo credit: MIRI TZACHI)
Shmuel Barak (photo credit: MIRI TZACHI)
SHMUEL BARAK from Givat Arnon agrees about the hilltop youth. “I don’t think what they’re doing is good, but it’s also a shame that they’re getting so much attention. They’re just being wild, trying to show off for the guys. They should come here – I’ll give them some work to do.”
Barak says that he’s not worried if the house he’s just beginning to build will be demolished. “I believe that the process of resettling Judea and Samaria is a natural process,” he says. “Some people say that it’s not our land, that we haven’t lived here for long, but I feel deep in my bones that this is a natural process. You can feel it in the energy here. It’s going to be a great thing.”
Some people might say this is wishful thinking, and that it won’t happen in the end, for better or for worse.
“The Palestinians themselves already understand that we’re here to stay. At some point they’ll come to the conclusion that they need to live with us, and that without us they have no way to survive. I envision their big cities – Nablus, Kalkilya, Jenin, Jericho, Ramallah – being independently administered under Palestinian control. But the villages will remain under our control, with a Palestinian state in Gaza.”
That’s a very creative solution.
“No, not really. It’s already the reality.”
Translated by Hannah Hochner. Originally published in Ma’ariv.