Here to stay

Gush Etzion’s residents grapple with future hopes and present realities.

A rabbi and a sheikh at a prayer session for Muslims and Jews in Gush Etzion. (photo credit: ELIAZ COHEN)
A rabbi and a sheikh at a prayer session for Muslims and Jews in Gush Etzion.
(photo credit: ELIAZ COHEN)
The rocky peaks of the northern Judean Hills have seen their share of sorrow and tragedy this past year. Countless terror attacks have plagued the region, with the entrance to Gush Etzion – the main junction known as Tzomet Hagush – a frequent target of terrorists committing hit-and-run attacks, as well as stabbings of civilians.
But for the 70,000 Jewish residents living in Gush Etzion’s 22 communities, life continues , despite the unusually difficult year.
Beginning in June, with the kidnapping and killing of the three teens Naftali Fraenkel, Eyal Yifrah and Gil-Ad Shaer, and in November, the murder of Dalia Lemkus, 26, an occupational therapist who was stabbed to death by a Palestinian man, many others while waiting to get home by hitchhiking or by bus have been wounded in brutal Palestinian attacks.
Reactions from Gush Etzion’s diverse range of residents differ widely in regard to the reality facing them. The common consensus, however, is that no one is moving away.
“We are here to stay,” says Rabbi Shaul Judelman, a native of Seattle, who has been living in Gush Etzion for 13 years. “There have been rocks and Molotovs thrown at us, with quiet periods and flare-ups in the past two to three years, but we don’t let that stop us,” he asserts.
“I was at the funeral of Dalia Lemkus last month, where her sister spoke. She recalled how eight years ago Dalia had survived a stabbing attack in Gush Etzion and had been lightly wounded. People asked Dalia, ‘Aren’t you afraid to continue to travel in the region?’ And she responded that if she stopped the way she lived her life, then the terror wins,” recounts Judelman.
“I think that message is reflective of all us living here. You pray with kavana [intensely] when you’re on the roads, while building resilience in your heart,” he says.
But Judelman, 35, a teacher of Torah and ecological thought, is raising his family in Tekoa after living several years in Bat Ayin. He sees another side to life in Gush Etzion.
“One of the big questions that we face here is how to raise our children not to hate as they grow up in the midst of a conflict. The Palestinians will not disappear. Like us, they are here to stay. We are in for the long haul, and we have to find a new language of communication with our neighbors,” he says.
“There is a lot of friction and stress, even fear, and the need for security is great,” he adds. “But I believe that we have to look for people on the other side who recognize that we are not going to disappear. We need to reach out to those Palestinians so that we can empower one another. The reality is that there are Palestinians out there who agree with me and have reached similar conclusions.”
Judelman has spent years working on a local level, leading several outreach initiatives to Palestinians living in Gush Etzion. The main project of which he is part is called Roots, inspired by Rabbi Menachem Froman, the rabbi of Tekoa, who died in 2013 and served as spiritual mentor to Palestinians and Israelis seeking peaceful dialogue and common ground.
Judelman notes that one Roots activist, Palestinian Ali Abu Awwad from Bethlehem, will be touring the United States with Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger of Alon Shvut in May and June 2015 to share their common experiences with the other.
In the framework of the Roots project, Palestinians and Israelis in Gush Etzion meet on a regular basis to discuss a myriad of subjects, such as the conflict, life, religion, parenthood and terror attacks.
This summer, the group held a summer camp for Palestinian and Israeli children in Gush Etzion, notes Judelman. “One of the goals is to nurture a perspective that is more grounded in reality and less in ideology and fantasy.”
“I’m not terribly optimistic about the future, but what else are we going to do?” asks Judelman. “We have little bits of light, and we work on making them brighter. We have an obligation to this land. God is in charge of everything, and He decided that the Palestinians would be here when we returned. We have to find a way to work this out.”
Judelman credits his approach to the pluralistic high school he attended in Seattle, which helped him understand that there are multiple ways of looking at things.
“We have to live our truth, but we shouldn’t feel threatened by others. We don’t have to be afraid to acknowledge that the Palestinians are here,” he says.
“On the other end, Palestinians hear our story told, and they see Jews who aren’t embarrassed to live on this land and are proud to be here. In this kind of context, the level of understanding is much more real. Our Palestinian neighbors learn to see us beyond occupiers, oppressors and aggressors but as people who belong here, who have returned after 2,000 years of exile. We were here and now we’ve come back, lighting our menorahs in the Judean Hills,” he says.
Other outreach activities that Judelman is part of include talks and workshops about dialogue activities with soon-to-be soldiers in pre-army academies and connecting local Israeli and Palestinian community leaders.
ELIAZ COHEN is a poet and member of Kibbutz Kfar Etzion and active member of the Roots project and other peace initiatives in Gush Etzion. His connection to Gush Etzion stems from a familial place.
“I grew up hearing stories about my grandfather, whose family was from the original Kfar Etzion that was destroyed by the Jordanian Legion in 1948,” he says.
Kfar Etzion was established in 1930 on the site where the former Migdal Eder agricultural village had been founded by a group of Yemenite Jewish immigrants and haredi residents in 1927. During the 1929 Arab riots, Migdal Eder was destroyed, and in 1930 the site was purchased by Shmuel Yosef Holtzman, who wanted to establish a Jewish community between Hebron and Bethlehem called Kfar Etzion. Arab riots again destroyed the community, but from 1943 to 1947 Jews settled Kfar Etzion and three other communities, Masuot Yitzhak, Ein Tzurim and Revadim, all part of the strategic Gush Etzion bloc. Two days before the proclamation of the State of Israel, the Arab Legion attacked Gush Etzion, massacring 127 men and women in Kfar Etzion. The communities were rebuilt, along with others after the Six Day War in 1967, when Israel forced the Jordanian army to flee the Judean Hills.
“After I got married, we built our home in Kfar Etzion because of my family’s roots here,” explains Cohen, who has been living in Gush Etzion for 20 years. Cohen, who grew up in Petah Tikva, connected with former National Religious Party MK Rabbi Hanan Porat, who died in 2011, and Rabbi Froman during their years in Gush Etzion.
“Two very different people in terms of politics and ideology, but I found inspiration in the way their arguments always ended in warmth and respect,” he says.
Some of Cohen’s peace-led initiatives are born in the most unexpected circumstances. After the kidnapping and murder of Fraenkel, Shaer and Yifrah, Cohen and a delegation of Palestinians and Jewish residents from Gush Etzion paid a visit to the Fraenkel family in Nof Ayalon.
“We came with letters of strength and condolences written by Palestinians and settlers in the region for the Fraenkel family,” says Cohen. “It was a very moving visit, and the Palestinians whom we had met with prior to the visit expressed their grief for the families of the murdered boys and [Muhammad] Abu Khdeir [allegedly murdered by Jewish extremists] and wanted to do something,” he recounts.
“On the way back to Gush Etzion from the Fraenkels,’ we conceived this idea that maybe we should hold a joint fast in protest of everything that was going on,” recalls Cohen.
Consequently, on July 15, more than 40 end-of-fast events were held, with Muslims and Jews getting together to break the fast of Ramadan and the fast of 17 Tamuz, which both fell at the same time this year. These joint prayer and study sessions were held around the world and in Israel in a number of cities and towns, from Eilat to Jerusalem and the Gush Etzion Junction.
HOWEVER, OTHERS, such as activists Yehudit Katsover and Nadia Matar of the Women in Green movement, see the reality of Gush Etzion quite differently.
“The peace activities are coming from a place of innocence and goodwill, but for me it’s difficult to trust the other side because Palestinian leadership does not follow this direction,” says Matar. “The good Arabs don’t represent their leadership, so I don’t see any point to these dialogue activities as long as the dream to destroy Israel exists on the Palestinian side.”
Katsover of Kiryat Arba and Matar, who made aliya from Antwerp when she was 18, are co-chairs of Women in Green, a grassroots movement of women and men of all backgrounds. The nonprofit organization, established in 1993, is dedicated to safeguarding the Land of Israel and encouraging Israeli sovereignty over Judea and Samaria and the Jordan Valley. Following the murder of the three teens in the summer, Matar and Katsover, along with the Zionist Midrasha, led the way to establishing Givat Oz Vega’on on a neglected forested hilltop overlooking the Gush Etzion Junction.
“Before we cleaned up this site, Palestinians would throw rocks at Migdal Oz from this point,” explains Katsover. “This place was a dump, full of garbage. After the tragic murders, we felt we had to do something,” she says. “We want to change the security reality here.”
The hilltop, originally called Givat Oz, was given the added acronym for Gil-Ad, Eyal, and Naftali, who were kidnapped not far from the site. Youngsters from across Israel have gone there to help clean up and create trails through the forest, as IDF soldiers patrol the area. Numerous events have been held there, and it has become a family-friendly picnic area with designs for further tourist development, says Katsover, who has four grandchildren living in nearby Efrat. Knesset members, dignitaries, local authority heads and leaders from the Gush Etzion Regional Council and others have visited the site in recent months.
“I’m not afraid to raise my children here,” says Eliashiv Kimchi, of nearby Efrat. He and his wife, Talia, new parents to a baby girl, are working to clean up the Oz Vega’on site. “We are needed here in Gush Etzion, and nothing will ever succeed in chasing us away.”
“We are one huge family in Gush Etzion,” concludes Cohen. “There are many different types of people with diverse views, but there’s room for all of us in these hills. We are all needed here.”