The old-new Zionist dream

Gush Etzion is shedding its settlement bloc image and rebranding itself as a vibrant tourist haven.

gavna 88.298 (photo credit: )
gavna 88.298
(photo credit: )
After the War of Independence, the orphans of the fallen defenders of Gush Etzion would stand on Mount Zion in Jerusalem and stare southward at the lone 800-year old oak tree, longing to return to their roots. Many of the bereaved have returned to Gush Etzion since it was recaptured in the Six Day War, and the ancient oak tree has found company in vineyards, hillside terraces and 15 well-established and growing Jewish communities. The oak tree remains a Gush Etzion icon, and it's the stamp of a new publicity campaign by the municipality intended to put Gush Etzion on the map - but a map that has nothing to do with warfare, nationalism and border politics. The local tourist board is seeking to undo the stereotype of the settlement bloc as an unsafe cluster of caravans populated by fundamentalist religious Zionists and to brand it as a vibrant, up-to-date, and enjoyable tourist haven and residential community for Israelis regardless of political and religious shades. Last year Gush Etzion drew more than 400,000 tourists during its peak season from Pessah to Succot; their hope is that this year the tree will enjoy even more company. HISTORY AND ARCHEOLOGY An apt and moving introduction to the tragic history of Gush Etzion can be had at the Kfar Etzion Visitors' Center at the religious Kibbutz Kfar Etzion. Currently, the design of the center is rather drab, but plans are under way to transform it into a hi-tech, interactive gallery. A well-done sound and light presentation, with just the right amount of drama, tells of the rise and fall of the first Gush Etzion settlements established in the early 1940s: Kfar Etzion, Massuot Yitzhak, Ein Tzurim and Revadim. It's difficult not to feel Zionist emotion when the monitor rises to reveal the actual bunker the Arab legion bombed in 1948 as it sheltered women and children. "If there exists a Jewish Jerusalem, our foremost thanks go to the defenders of Gush Etzion," we hear David Ben-Gurion declare. The Gush Etzion landscape is being billed as another draw for settlement-wary tourists. While most man-made attractions are closed on Shabbat, there is a plethora of sites to visit if one has a car with good tires or a 4x4. The tourist board encourages people to enjoy Shabbat outings within the forests and nature trails of Gush Etzion. Since they are located outside the residential areas, visits there pose little Shabbat interruption for religious residents. The off-road Path of the Patriarchs starts at the lone oak tree at Alon Shvut and leads to the upscale suburb of Neveh Daniel. Tradition has it that this route was taken by Abraham on his way to Mount Moriah for the divinely averted sacrifice of Isaac. Ancient springs, millstones and ritual baths line the path, but unfortunately, signage is somewhat lacking for the visitor. Other popular archeological sites include Herodion, Herod's palace and burial place, as well as the Biar aqueduct, a dark underground water tunnel built by Herod to transport water to Jerusalem but which now transports adults and children for adventuresome water hikes. ANIMALS AND SPORTS Havayot Yoni Yehuda, a world expert in animal therapy, pulls out a large shoe box housing two hedgehogs, one female and one male. He pets the male hedgehog who relaxes at his touch, while the female hisses. Whenever he explains to people that the female is in heat, he invariably gets some male in the audience making a snide comment about female mood swings. But this hedgehog fact, he says, is one way animals can lightheartedly enlighten us about human behavior. Yehuda became fascinated with the animal kingdom when he had horse therapy following an IDF injury, and later, a terrorist shooting. He has since dedicated his life to studying the field of animal therapy, whereby animals are used to promote empathy, communication and healing. He has created Havayot, a highly specialized animal farm, in the backyard of his family home in the community of Elazar. At Havayot, over 1,000 mammals, reptiles and birds serve as psychotherapists. Unlike at standard zoos, children and adults can enter the cages and interact with the ducks, iguanas and turtles, as well as animals usually unfriendly to people, such as foxes and raccoons. Yehuda is a pioneer in the field of animal imprinting in which people parent animals to foster friendly, therapeutic and non-threatening animal-human interactions. Havayot runs special programs that can help treat people with emotional and behavioral disorders, learning and communications disabilities, post-traumatic stress, and Down's syndrome. Open Hol Hamoed Pessah and Succot, otherwise by reservation only. Pessah house Monday to Thursday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Deerland Those who perceive the West Bank as Israel's Wild West may find some evidence at the sports and nature park, Deerland. The visitors' lodge, which operates as a meat restaurant in the summer, looks like a Western saloon, with wooden paneling and prize antlers of all shapes and sizes covering the walls and on top of the bar. Live antlers abound in the petting zoo nearby, where visitors can interact and feed various species of horned animals and wild birds. If you've already made it past the Green Line, you might as well take a round-trip on Deerland's zip-line - the longest zip-line in Israel and the second longest zip-line in the world. Any adventure lover should be tempted to glide 400 meters over the foliage of Wadi Gan Eden. But for those too scared to return on the longer 600m. line, a jeep takes visitors back. Deerland also features a climbing wall, paint ball and archery, and during Pessah they hope to operate a hot-air balloon, permission pending. By appointment/reservation only until Pessah, after which Deerland is open from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Entrance fee NIS 15 including one attraction. Each attraction costs NIS 10 to NIS 25 (excluding zip-line which costs NIS 100). WINE COUNTRY Tamar and Shraga Rosenberg are hoping to fulfill the biblical blessing given by Jacob to Judah, "he washes his garments in wine," by reviving wine production in the land bloc allotted for the tribe of Judah. Given its high altitude (1,000 meters), Gush Etzion, like the Golan Heights, is an ideal region for vineyards and wine production. The couple discovered their knack for agriculture when they began sowing blackberries in their backyard, only to find how successful they were. They started to make blackberry liquor with the surplus until they realized the potential for wine production as well. Tamar, a structural engineer by profession, and Shraga, a social worker, planted their first vine in 1995. Today, they produce 30,000 bottles a year at the Gush Etzion winery. Their wine production facilities are available for public tours at their visitors' center, which also houses a quaint dairy restaurant with its own bakery. Open Sun.-Thurs. 9 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Fri. 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Saturday after Shabbat until midnight.