Today, I had a visit from the Middle East editorial board of one of the most influential international news agencies. They were glad to have an opportunity to meet the “settlers” up close and try to understand what makes the Jews of “the West Bank” tick. Although the visit was short, I did my best to give them a glimpse into our communities. I explained to my guests what a big challenge it is to have visitors for such a brief time; we would rather have an opportunity to show a more rounded picture, and not be forced to focus on a narrow slice of our reality. Still, within the time frame, our guests were exposed to a handful of locals that they might not have thought they would meet here.
At a coffee shop in the Ariel Sports Center, we met with Shay Atias, a public diplomacy expert who has come over from Israel’s government to take the region’s international relations to the next level. He told our guests how the Shomron is working to confront the delegitimization of Israel by giving a real face to the people who live in this area. People to people diplomacy can work wonders beyond the executive planning of suit-wearers in government offices. Those who wish to defame Israel rely heavily on the public’s ignorance of the issues at hand. We wish to open up our communities to the outside world. With Shay’s help, we are communicating our message: “Come in and take a look. Meet the people who live here. Feel free to ask what motivates them to cling to this land. You might realize some things that you hadn’t considered before.”
From Ariel, we passed by my home town of Kfar Tapuach via Hawara to Itamar, where we met with Rachel and Alon Zimmerman, who have been growing organic fruits, vegetables and dairy products there for nearly 30 years. The Zimmermans are not only pioneers in Israel’s organic farming efforts, but they are developing systems for green and renewable energy and systems that preserve water and other natural cycles. Many other residents of Itamar have followed their lead and become organic farmers. Actually, this town alone has become one of Israel’s leading producers of organic produce. This might come as a surprise to people who have been indoctrinated to think that Jewish settlers in “the West Bank” are the new colonists. Colonists have traditionally been known for exploiting the riches of the lands they control, whereas these people – who love the land so much that they are motivated to invest in preserving the environment – don’t match that description very well.
Visiting at the Mishkan Ehud Campus of the Itamar Yeshiva, the guests observed the permanence of the buildings, in contrast to the temporary trailer home type buildings they had been expecting. They were interested to learn that the source of funding for this complex (which cost about $1.5 million to build) came from donations made in memory of the Fogel family, who were killed by terrorists two years ago. On the plaques noting substantial donors to the building, they read names of a couple of Israeli government agencies (who acted as partners in funding), but also noted that private donors greatly outnumbered the few government grants.
20 minutes up the mountain to the east, at the Givat Arnon Winery, we met with Yair and Hen with their baby and another on the way, who shared the story of their hilltop community, along with wine and cheese tasting from Shmuel Barak’s boutique winery. From the patio of the winery, we looked to the east and saw the beautiful view of the mountains east of the Jordan River and the Dead Sea at its southern point.
All of the meetings were eye opening for our guests, who had come from afar with a preconception of what they would see in the land of the “hilltop youth.” Had time allowed, they would have preferred to stay longer to visit with each of the personalities they met on the way. But they were under pressure to get back to Jerusalem in time to meet with a new Knesset member.
On the way in the car and throughout all of the meetings, the same persistent question kept coming from the lips of the guests: “But what is your plan? You obviously see your future here and wish for Israel to annex these areas. What will you do with the Palestinians?”
Jewish residents here, much like Jewish people elsewhere, are very opinionated. There is a saying: “if you have two Jews, you’ll have three opinions.” That would suggest that many Jews have two opinions themselves. So when asked, many people here will jump at the opportunity to draw out elaborate plans for what they would do if they were in charge. But the truth is, as I explained to the guests, that most of the Jewish residents of the communities dotted throughout Judea and Samaria really don’t care what the world opinion is about our existence. We have invested all we have in building our future here – because we believe that this is the heartland of our national homeland. The mountain ridge of Judea and Samaria is the heartland of the Bible. All major events in the lives of the founders of our nation – Avraham, Itzchak and Yaakov – took place at locations here in this heartland, in Shechem, Shilo, Beit El, Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Hebron. For us, the Jewish national claim to Tel Aviv and Haifa extends from our claim to the region of Judea and Samaria – and not the other way around.
We are optimistic and do wish for peace in Israel and in the region; we are also realistic and acknowledge that the Middle East is a hot region and that tensions between peoples here is common. 20 years of the Oslo experiment have proven to be a great flop. Obviously, empowering the PLO and placing them as government has not advanced peace. Hopefully, peace will come about one day. Realistically, we understand that that will take time. We also realize that peace in this region can come for Israel only from a position of strength, and not through signs of weakness expressed by the readiness to give away central sections of our national homeland.
As our guests observed clearly by visiting in our towns (or “settlements,” if you like) is that hundreds of thousands of Jewish Israelis have invested their livelihoods in building their homes here and project the future for their families here for many many years to come. The Shomron region’s annual population growth is 5 times greater than Israel’s national average. That is due both to a very high birth rate and a high percentage of second generation residents who also wish to make their homes and raise their own families in the communities where they were raised. We also have a high level of internal migration of young families from elsewhere in Israel.
So the basic answer to “what is our plan?” is that we plan to grow. We pray for the best and we believe that with the blessings of G-d, things will work out as planned.