Life in the settlements
Sanguine in the face of a fraught future
Israeli and Palestinian negotiators met this week after peace talks stalled 18 months ago over the continuing refusal by Israel to stop Jewish settlements in the Israeli-occupied territory of the West Bank. So what is it like to be Jewish and live amid the tension?
Bethlehem is where the Christmas story began, located at present in what is commonly known as the West Bank, the area which Palestinians see as part of their state, while Jewish settlers see it as part of the “land of Israel”. But it was in Samaria, to the north of Bethlehem, that my husband and I spent Christmas Day on our recent visit to Israel.
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While we were there, we saw four Jewish families. We were wondering how they felt in the current climate, not least since Israel would appear more isolated and vulnerable both in the wake of the Arab Spring and the ever-increasing threat from Iran. More pressingly, with Unesco recognising a state of Palestine and the Palestinians lobbying for recognition from the United Nations itself, we wondered how they saw their future in the West Bank. We, ourselves, somewhat apprehensive as to what we might encounter while travelling in that area, were surprised to find an environment of tranquillity. We first visited Matan El – “a Gift from Gd” – a remote outpost of some 16 young families and a few unmarried individuals. People living there are extremely right-wing in their political views. The couple we met had been married for just over a year and had a beautiful baby son. The young woman was from Ethiopia while her husband was born in Israel. They were living in a caravan and mentioned that no permanent buildings were allowed in their settlement. In fact the residents had built a synagogue but this was not permitted. After intense negotiations, it was agreed that the synagogue would be boarded up rather than pulled down. Now services are held in one of the caravans.
Access to Matan El is via a narrow, winding road through a desolate but impressive landscape – bare, mountainous terrain dotted with scattered olive trees, and described, in Hebrew, as nof Bereishit, “a view from the time of Creation”. Despite the fact that there is no fence or security guard at Matan El, the young couple seemed perfectly happy and expressed no fears about the future, believing that God had given them this place and would protect them. This sentiment, shared undoubtedly by many settlers, is hardly conducive to peace.
From there we drove to Ginot Shomron – Gardens of Samaria – a fairly large and more established settlement located equidistant from the Arab towns of Qalqilya and Nablus. There we met a more mature couple, the husband originally from Argentina and his wife
Jewish settlers build a makeshift synagogue at Maoz Esther, near the Jewish settlement of Kokhav Hashahar, north-east of the West Bank city of Ramallah. Photo: CNS
from England. In their ground-floor flat, we also met Abbas, a Palestinian builder from a nearby village, who, with his fellow workers, was constructing an additional bedroom and bathroom to make the home more comfortable for the couple’s children and grandchildren when visiting.
In fact, the living room of the house had already been extended, as our hostess pointed out with great pleasure. We were rather surprised that, in the uncertain political and security climate, our hosts felt it worthwhile spending money on developing their home, but they seemed perfectly sanguine. It was certainly gratifying to witness the cordial relationship they seemed to have with Abbas who, we were told, had been given a key to their home.
Equally sanguine seemed the young family we visited in Kedumim – “Antiquity” – an established settlement even deeper in the West Bank territory. The young couple, the husband a computer engineer working in a bank near Tel Aviv and his wife a teacher, also live in a caravan with their three young sons and have been living there since their marriage more than seven years ago. They are planning, however, to move to a flat in a building under construction in the settlement. Construction had been held up due to the previous settlement freeze and had only restarted after the failed peace talks with the Palestinians. The young woman was born in Kedumim and most of her family – parents and six siblings – live there. When we arrived, her husband was not yet at home, since neither Christmas Day nor Sunday is a holiday in Israel. We learned that she had gone back to work now that her third son was more than a year old. Indeed, we were surprised to hear that she drives herself to the school she teaches in on the other side
8 | THE TABLET | 7 January 2012 of the Green Line through a number of Arab villages. When the father of the family returned, it was time to light the candles for the festival of Chanukah, which commemorates the rededication of the temple in Jerusalem in the second century BC, following the victory of the Maccabees over the Syrian king Antiochus Epiphanes, then ruling Judaea, who had outlawed Jewish customs and observances, and desecrated the temple. It was very moving to observe the five-year-old eldest son say the prayers before the candle lighting.
Our last stop was Shaarei Tikvah – “Gates of Hope” – an established settlement of some 1,600 families located much nearer to the Green Line. Only when the former Argentinian living in Ginot Shomron was alone with us had he told us that Shaarei Tikvah would be safe in comparison with his settlement, since it would be exchanged for other land in the event of any peace agreement. He had voted for the centrist party, Kadimah, rather than the right-wing governing party, Likud. This was the only acknowledgement we had heard from anyone so far that the situation in the West Bank might be problematic.
Our host in Shaarei Tikvah, however, was less sanguine when we mentioned this to him. Neertheless, he said, as long as there was no one to talk to, things would stay as they are. In contrast to the previous homes we had visited, he and his wife live in an almost palatial villa.
It was at a dinner party in Tel Aviv the following evening that we ended our visit to Israel. Our hosts and their guests were sophisticated intellectuals of the moderate religious persuasion, among them university lecturers and a columnist from the liberal daily newspaper Haaretz. We were surprised to find out that a few of the guests lived on the West Bank and had just come to Tel Aviv for the party that evening.
Over dinner, the conversation centred mainly on the friction between the ultraorthodox and the rest of society; not only are the numbers of the ultra-orthodox increasing, as they have the highest birth-rate, but they are becoming ever more extreme in their life style. As well as reinforcing the segregation of the sexes in buses, women are being told not to walk on the same side of the street as men. A notorious recent example that was mentioned was when an ultra-orthodox man spat at a seven-year-old girl for walking on the wrong side of the road in the town of Bet Shemesh, near Jerusalem.
A different, but not unrelated, topic of conversation concerned a splinter group of women, known as the Taliban, who cover themselves from head to toe in black robes so as to conceal the form of their bodies. In order to avoid contact with men and preserve their modesty, some of them even refuse to breastfeed their baby sons.
■ Emma Klein is a writer on Jewish affairs.
‘The party that owes its origins to Methodism has a similarly strong link to Massgoing’
It’s the time of year when the political pages of newspapers resemble the football coverage, with predictions of sackings and survivals filling the columns. Plenty of the analysts are harsh about Labour leader Ed Miliband’s poor standing with the public and forecasting his replacement by Yvette Cooper sooner rather than later. Mr Miliband, however, is pressing on and in the last days of 2011 announced he has appointed a new chief of staff, Tim Livesey. Mr Livesey, despite a track record in diplomacy, public affairs and press relations, as well as a stint at Number 10, may seem a curious choice for Miliband: he is best known for his work first for Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, and latterly at Lambeth Palace for the Archbishop of Canterbury. And yet, he may be singularly appropriate. The party that doesn’t do God, to use Alastair Campbell’s 2003 phrase, is at least doing theology these days. When the radical journalist W.T. Stead asked the first Labour intake of MPs in 1906 which books or authors most influenced their beliefs, the vast majority mentioned the Bible; only two MPs mentioned Marx. The result gave rise to the often repeated claim that Labour owes more to Methodism than to Marx.
But religion has increasingly come under attack from those on the Left who view holding a faith as an irrational act by the enemies of progressive politics. That view found a strong champion in Mary Honeyball, a writer on the LabourList blog, who denounced the influence on society of the Catholic Church “and other extreme Christian organisations”.
But Miliband has had other ideas, telling the congregation at Manchester Cathedral the day after he was elected Labour leader in September 2010 that Christians would play an important part in the party’s renewal.
Since then he has been listening hard to some of Labour’s more imaginative thinkers, among them the Jewish political theorist Maurice Glasman, and the MP for Dagenham, Jon Cruddas. Both Lord Glasman and Mr Cruddas have been strongly influenced by Catholic Social Teaching (CST). Analysis of
Miliband’s last conference speech revealed his new-found interest in the politics of mutuality, reciprocity, solidarity – all strong concepts in Catholic theory. Elsewhere he suggested that he would focus more on the ethics of society. That could well include a renewed interest in that other mainstay of CST, virtue.
There has been another change, too. For years the Left, while recognising common ground with Christianity on justice, has seemed to perceive its focus on the family as some sort of betrayal, particularly of feminism. But certain Labour MPs, including those from its northern heartlands with large Catholic populations, have begun talking of the extent to which voters are more strongly attached to the family than Westminster politicians might think.
For the party that owes its origins to Methodism has a similarly strong link to Massgoing. Indeed, Ipsos Mori polls for The Tablet showed that Catholic voters stayed loyal to Labour in the last election. Moves are now afoot among Catholic MPs to meet Miliband to discuss how the party can still reach out to such voters, and I understand that he has indicated an interest in the idea.
But going beyond the basics of common ground will require some serious negotiation. Take an idea such as solidarity, at the heart of CST, and embraced by Miliband. Solidarity with whom? If one goes by, for instance, the comments of Catholic Jim Dobbin, the Labour MP for Heywood and Middleton, and expressed on the Labour Party’s own faith pages on its website, he embraces the values of solidarity and equal human dignity of the unborn. That is unlikely to go down well with the most ardent supporters of abortion within the party. The suspicion of Catholic MPs and their agenda has also not been helped by pro-life groups who were vociferous in criticising the placing of a Catholic intern within Jon Cruddas’ office because the MP in their eyes had failed to speak out on abortion.
If they get beyond these sticking points, a new focus that would pull Miliband closer to Catholic thinking would be an emphasis not just on equality but quality. He has already been speaking of the quality of people’s family lives. A focus on quality – were we good neighbours? Did we care enough about the elderly and the vulnerable? – articulates far more everyone’s engagement in society than does solely focusing on equal access to services and opportunities. It’s a challenge that speaks to Labour’s Christian roots – and its social democratic heritage.
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