In Budapest, where I recently spent a weekend, all I wanted was to be with Jews.
The city is so pretty, the Hungarian food (which we sampled in the weirdly named Ghetto Goulash) is tasty, and the river – well, the river. The Nazis were loath to waste bullets shooting Jews into the Danube; inconceivably, they tied three together for the execution. I kept thinking of Tommy Lapid and how his mother saved him there, and of Yair Lapid and how blessed we are to live in Israel. We went to shul, something I never do here on Friday nights; the service, and the people, just felt like home.
And then I came home, to pictures of our prospective ministers – Arye Deri, Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich sporting their beards and kippot – and, scarily, I felt zero kinship with these men; they seem so foreign to me. Bleakly, I keep wondering whether there’s still a place for us here, among these Jews who advocate for gender separation in public places and annexing a million Arabs without giving them the vote. Is this what we signed up for, so many people are thinking now; is this what we gifted to our kids? Is Israel turning some of us, God help us, into people who dislike our own?
It’s hard to stay upbeat.
But then, at a dinner with mutual friends, I met Sarah Mandel.
Sarah Mandel is a settler. She lives with her Londoner husband and seven children in a caravan in Ebay Hanachal, a small outpost in Gush Etzion; she wears the uniform of her community: long skirts, long-sleeved T-shirts, hair wrapped tightly up in a scarf. I’ve become so warped, that it’s frightening to me: One look at her pretty face, and I’d pegged her as a Ben-Gvir fan.
“I’m sorry I couldn’t get here earlier,” she said, in her calm, measured (British) voice, which I have come to love. “I couldn’t leave the demonstration.”
So it turns out that Mandel, far from supporting the extreme religious Right, has been spending Thursday afternoons at the junction outside Efrat, demonstrating against them. She is part of a small but vocal group who believe hooligans have hijacked Religious Zionism and don’t speak for the entire settler movement. And, in an increasingly polarized country, joining these demonstrations is more than just a lovely way to spend an afternoon.
Mandel admits she never thought about clashing narratives or Palestinian oppression before she moved to the West Bank 18 years ago. Growing up in a traditional Jewish family in London, she always had a sense of not entirely belonging to her country of birth. “My grandfather changed his name after serving in the British army from ‘Israel’ to ‘Ingram’ so as not to draw attention to his Jewishness,” she says. At Oxford University, where she did a degree in PPE (philosophy, politics and economics), casual remarks such as “Hitler didn’t build enough gas chambers” spurred her to start learning more about her religion; gradually she became more observant. It was obvious to her and her husband that Israel was the place for them: “It’s an amazing privilege to be part of this land.”
With privilege, though, comes plenty of drama. The Mandels arrived in Jerusalem in 2003. The Second Intifada was raging, buses exploding, fear setting up camp in every heart. “Paradoxically, the West Bank seemed not so scary at the time,” she recalls. “And affordable. I was not so aware of politics then, but I felt we had the right to live anywhere in the State of Israel. And we always knew that if the government chose to give up land for peace, we would pack up and move; I would not be lying on the ground refusing to go.”
As the years passed, Mandel did her PhD, brought up her kids, worked, rode horses and relished her simple, Torah-focused community, the connection to the land and living among passionate neighbors. But gradually she became aware that there was a different viewpoint among other neighbors, whose lives were controlled by her country’s army but with whom she had zero contact.
“I started wondering about the Palestinians in our midst,” she explains, “and I listened to what people from Roots were saying. We can’t ignore that the Palestinian people are occupied, but where I live we hardly hear any discussion about this.”
Roots began in 2014 with a meeting between students of Rabbi Menachem Froman and the politically prominent Abu Awwad family. It grew into the only grassroots transformative network of Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank, with initiatives to provide support, personal engagement and a space to talk productively about ways to end the conflict. Mandel joined the group in 2016, volunteering with the only mixed Arab/Jewish summer camp for kids in the West Bank. “That took my blinkers off big time,” she says. “For the first time, I learned about the Palestinian narrative and how it interacts with mine.”
When Mandel recently heard of a Jewish grandmother who was beaten up en route to accompanying Arab farmers to pick their olives (an activity that is all too often a flashpoint for violence between Jews and Palestinians), she was shocked. “This was literally on my doorstep,” she recalls, “and it’s huge. There are always two points of view: the evil settlers who attack the innocent versus the evil Palestinians who are out to get us.”
The attack on the Jewish grandmother by her own people left Mandel shaken. “We live in this contested part of the world,” she explains, “and I am concerned for my kids. I want them to be the peacemakers at the table, not racists, ruled by fear.”
In the disputed West Bank, it’s not a small thing to live by the Torah law of respecting the strangers among us. Mandel was even criticized publicly by a rabbi for advocating for a mixed children’s summer camp. She handles these attitudes with characteristic grace and understanding. “They stem from a deep fear and a lack of willingness to engage at all in knowing the other,” she claims. “In my yishuv, we’ve just had a week of preparing for disaster – earthquakes, bombs. What about if we spent a week getting to meet our neighbors? Wouldn’t that be more beneficial?”
Mandel is not a politician; she has no practical solution for the conflict. “But I do know that religion has no place in the governing of the state,” she says. “We need to build the groundwork for peace; if Northern Ireland could do it, so can we. But first of all, we need to live in a moral Jewish state, not one led by racists and fear-mongers.”
I wonder how many of the Jewish inhabitants of the West Bank would agree that Ben-Gvir and Smotrich have lost the Jewish plot; so far the demonstrations have only attracted a small group of Israeli protesters, and even fewer Palestinians. But, save one life and it’s like saving the world, goes the Talmud; I guess changing one mind is equally crucial.
Sarah Mandel certainly changed mine; I will think of her and try not to feel so negative when I see crocheted kippot and swishing skirts. Not all settlers or Religious Zionists support the horrible rhetoric that is sweeping our sacred land, which seems to be in such an unholy mess.
May God spread his tabernacle of peace over us all; surely, it’s about time already?
For more details about Roots: www.friendsofroots.net/
The writer lectures at Reichman University and Beit Berl. [email protected]