View from the Hills: Settlers out to lunch with Congress

I concluded my opening remarks by saying, “I stand before you as a proud and unapologetic ‘settler’ or resident of Judea and Samaria.”

113th Congress in Washington (photo credit: REUTERS)
113th Congress in Washington
(photo credit: REUTERS)
‘Everyone here in this room today – we are all settlers,” I said during my opening remarks at a sit-down luncheon at a Gush Etzion restaurant, while standing in front of around 20 members of J Street’s February “Leadership mission to Israel and the Palestinian Authority.”
The delegation, consisting of four Democratic members of US Congress, J Street staffers including executive director Jeremy Ben-Ami and 13 of the organization’s members from all over the US had requested the meeting, according to an email sent by a J Street representative, to “include a settler perspective in our visits,” which as the email explained is always a part of J Street missions.
Without speaking for the three other Gush Etzion residents who also volunteered their time to speak to the group, including former Israeli diplomat Lenny Ben-David, political consultant Ruth J. Lieberman, and Efrat Religious Council head Bob Lang, I was exceedingly reluctant at first to accept the invite. In no way, shape, or form would I want my presence at the lunch to be construed by my family, friends, colleagues, or most importantly by the participants themselves as an endorsement of the organization’s mission or activities.
“Today, we are all settlers,” I explained, “because if God forbid an Arab terrorist would open fire on this very room, and cause mass casualties, the first news...reports wouldn’t say ‘Israelis’ were attacked, or ‘tourists’, or ‘US Congresspersons, or ‘J Street peace activists,’ but until the victims’ identity’s were sorted out, just the fact that we’re in Gush Etzion. We’d all initially be referenced as ‘settlers’ who came under attack.”
And the term “settler,” I clarified, has become a dirty word used to demonize a group of people, specifically Jews, simply because of their geography. So in my view J Street’s mere presence, whether they liked it or not, made them temporary “settlers.” I concluded my opening remarks by saying, “I stand before you as a proud and unapologetic ‘settler’ or resident of Judea and Samaria.”
THE MAIN points stressed by my fellow settler volunteers, who all had a turn to speak, was the desire for true co-existence with our neighbors. The irony referenced repeatedly was that before “peace” – before the 1993 Oslo Accords, which gave legitimacy to Yasser Arafat and the PLO as the official representative of the Palestinians and as Israel’s partner, there was a great deal of cooperation, co-existence and even camaraderie, between the Jews and Arabs in Judea and Samaria and particularly in Gush Etzion.
While my colleagues referenced instances today of collaborative projects which do exist as well as the daily interactions which take between Jews and Arabs in the Gush – the Rami Levy Supermarket at the Etzion junction – where Arabs and Jews work and shop together being the prime example – the reality is, as one of the panelists said, “we no longer sense a willingness to cooperate [on joint endeavors] on the side of the Palestinian Authority.”
At one point during the meal, Illinois Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky (ninth district) whispered a question. She asked me (to paraphrase): Where we are today [in Gush Etzion], this area won’t be given to the Palestinians, will it? I answered that while some describe Gush Etzion as a “consensus” community, always to remain under Israeli control, the reason I worry is that fact that the Palestinian leadership has never endorsed Israeli control over the Gush or over any other areas of Judea and Samaria – not one centimeter.
I went on to tell to Schakowsky and the others present that the best way to understand what the Palestinian leadership’s position is on the issues is to listen to what is being said in Arabic on the official PA news channels, in the mosques, and in the classrooms. I explained that just listening to the daily anti-Israel incitement being spewed by our “partners” is truly a reason to be skeptical that any type of agreement would yield peace.
A lively but respectful discussion continued on a variety of topics with regard to the present situation in Israel as well as hopes for the future. Afterwards, the J Street non-staff members themselves were given the opportunity for a short question-and-answer session.
This was also carried out respectfully and without a hitch.
After lunch, the two sides said goodbye and parted ways, and the J Street group boarded their bus for their next destination. Us settlers stayed back to analyze the experience. While unsure or perhaps a bit skeptical as to whether our participation in the meeting would yield change in J Street’s positions in regard to the future of Jewish life in Judea and Samaria, we all agreed it was necessary, as residents of the area, to at least make the effort.
The writer is a media analyst, freelance journalist, and host of Reality Bytes Radio, on