Leaving the Settlements

05.06.13 3:40 PM ET

My family and I have been living in the West Bank for the last four years. But we’ve decided to take some time away. We’re moving to America, so that I can take up a post-doctoral position at the University of Notre Dame. Moving from the West Bank to South Bend, Indiana—I imagine we're in for a big culture shock.

Before I go, I thought it might be interesting or even informative to share with the readers of Open Zion some of the more surprising things that we're going miss—and not going to miss—about life here in the Occupied Territories.

Racial diversity: When you live in a settlement like mine, you know that all of your neighbors are Jewish. But those Jews might be of any number of racial and ethnic backgrounds. We live in a religious settlement among religious Ashkenazi Jews, Sephardi Jews, Yemenite Jews, and Ethiopian Jews. There are a number of Peruvian converts, and their children, in our town, who were of Native Peruvian ethnicity. Furthermore, I here had the pleasure of teaching a number of young Chinese men who had Jewish ancestors and had chosen to convert to Judaism. In the Ashkenazi community in which I grew up in England, a Sephardi Jew was something of a rarity, let alone a black or far-eastern Jew. Growing up here, among religious Jews of many racial backgrounds, my children know first-hand that the Jewish people is a multi-racial and multi-cultural people; that Jewish fraternity is colorblind.

Being a stereotype buster: There was nothing more fun, in conversation, than being able to describe myself as an anti-occupation, left-wing, religious settler. That list of adjectives just left people so confused. And I like to confuse people. Most people fail to realize that the Jews who live beyond the Green Line are a pretty diverse bunch. Describing myself as an anti-occupation, left-wing, religious Jew who lives in Indiana won’t be as much fun, or as corrective to people’s biases.

Being around such well-rounded, open-minded Jews: I know that in my town, many people have politics quite far to my right. I know that many of my neighbors deeply disagree with me about issues to do with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But it shouldn’t be forgotten that we are lucky enough to be living in a global heartland for open-minded Orthodox Jewish thought. I am constantly in awe of the many Jewish educators and thinkers who live in this town, pushing the boundaries of Jewish thought further. The number of residents in this town with more than one university degree is staggering. The number of residents who work in full-time Jewish education is breathtaking. Modern Orthodox Judaism is so often a compromise position where Jews are either more Modern than they are Orthodox, or more Orthodox than they are Modern. But in this town, we are surrounded by examples of men and women who are steeped in Torah learning, and have minds that are wide open to secular culture, and hearts that care about issues of human concern that stretch way beyond the narrow borders of the Jewish world (despite the disagreements that I have with a large number of my neighbors over the rights and wrongs of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict).

And please don’t get me wrong: I know that the small Jewish community of South Bend, Indiana is warm, Jewishly engaged, Jewishly literate, and vibrant beyond its size. We’re looking forward to being a part of it. And they’ve already been wonderfully welcoming to us, despite our not yet having stepped foot in their town. But where we live right now, we feel that we’re at the very center of an important Jewish movement.

Palestinians: In the rest of Israel, when Israeli Jews meet with Israeli Arabs, it is normally within the context of an economic arrangement; and normally, the Arab is providing a service for the Jew. This socio-economic reality doesn’t lend itself to the creation of authentic friendships. Apart from in universities and in hospitals, where Arabs and Jews work side-by-side, learn side-by-side and receive treatment side-by-side, most Arabs and most Jews live in worlds separate from one another. Where I live, there is certainly such an imbalance. It’s even more heightened, as we live as the occupier close to towns that are not Israeli-Arab, but Palestinian: occupied. And yet here, when we go to the supermarket, we shop alongside Palestinians from Bethlehem. And when I take my kids for pizza, we sit at a table next to a Palestinian family from Hebron. And we get talking. Not as worker and employer. Not as occupier and occupied. As two families eating pizza at the same restaurant. Those sorts of encounters between Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs are far too infrequent. They happen daily where I live. I will miss them.

Of the things that I won’t miss, the ones that jump to mind have to do with the politics of this region.

Uncertainty: I do believe that most of Gush Etzion will remain in Israeli hands, even after a two-state solution. I also believe that most of the residents here could be persuaded to vote for such a solution, and that the building of these towns was justified, even if their growth should now be frozen pending a final status agreement. The orphans of the Gush Etzion massacre were bound to resettle this land, much as the orphans of Deir Yassin would have done had we lost the Six Day War. But there is something eerie about living in a town that exists in a political no-man’s land. Things can never feel normal in Israel at large, and all the more so in the settlement blocks, until a mutually agreeable arrangement over borders is reached between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

Passionate disagreement: As I’ve been at pains to point out in the past, the Jews beyond the Green Line are not a homogenous group. Many of them are secular. Many of them are not Zionists. Very few of them belong to the extremist fringes of Israeli politics (perhaps up to 10 percent of them, which is far too high, but still a fringe minority). But in England, the country from which I emigrated, everybody seems to function on the following assumption about themselves: “I am (roughly) in the political center. People to my left are a bit naïve and people to my right are a bit uncompassionate. People to my far left are crazy and people to my far right are racist bigots.” That assumption allows for a lot of fruitful discussion. You can talk to people you think to be merely a little naïve. And you can talk to people you think to be a little bit uncompassionate. So, most people in Britain can talk to those on their immediate left and on their immediate right.

But in Israel, and especially in the settlements, people seem to operate on the following assumption: “Anyone to my left (on the Israel-Palestine issue) is at best, deluded, and at worst, a traitor. Anyone to my right is a vile racist.” The senior head of my rabbinical academy, the saintly Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, has headed this institution in the West Bank since 1971. For many, that is enough to make him quite right-wing, in that he’s been part of the establishment of Jewish life in the Occupied Territories for over forty years. He once wrote a letter in evident disgust at the appalling decision of a rabbinical seminary in Hebron to hold a memorial for the ruthless murderer, Baruch Goldstein. But the “Rabbis” of that institution were not impressed by his words. They were easily able, in their minds, to discount the saintly and erudite Rabbi Lichtenstein because, after all, he had been a supporter, albeit a relatively muted one, of the Oslo peace process. They wrote to him that his words were “not to be heard. For when God’s name is desecrated, one does not grant due respect to sages.”

Likewise, more recently, a number of far-right MKs in the new government took a decision not to interfere with the eviction of some very provocative settlers in Hebron. Immediately, the hardline settlers were quick to accuse their own elected officials of all sorts of treachery. In such a climate, debate is impossible. Politics becomes stymied.

Though we’re unlikely to return to a town beyond the Green Line, I hope that when we do return to live in Israel, things will have changed for the better.