It’s hard to read Orit Arfa’s novel The Settler and not feel her bitterness stemming from Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005. I will attempt to keep my review as apolitical as possible. Please note – this review may contain spoilers as to story’s direction.
Let’s start with the facts. In 2004, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon proposed a “Disengagement plan” that would see the country unilaterally relinquish control over the Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip and the northern West Bank in recognition that “there exists no Palestinian partner with whom to advance peacefully toward a settlement.” There were 9,000 Israeli residents living in 21 civilian Israeli communities in the Gaza Strip at the time. In August 2005, Israeli soldiers evicted these settlers and a month later, the last IDF troops withdrew from Gaza.
The Settler opens as soldiers are evicting the Dakar family, long-time Gush Katif residents and agricultural pioneers in their community. The scene is traumatic – a family of ordinary citizens who didn’t break any laws is being forcefully pulled out of their home – yet it is a scene that most Israelis avoided seeing, or thinking about. This harrowing experience leads Sarah Dakar, the family’s oldest daughter, to reevaluate everything she has held dear about Israel and its values.
“The very symbols we cherish as Zionists are now symbols of our oppression,” Sarah thinks, questioning why her family was being forced out of Gaza. “Did so many Israelis really not want us there?” It was self evident to Sarah and her family that “the land belonged to the Jews, that Gush Katif was a buffer zone, that Hamas terrorists would take over if [they] left.”
Sarah and her family believed that the government’s plan would never actually happen. “Settlers were out of touch with the reality around them, didn’t believe the disengagement would happen.” And when it did, it was not ‘disengagement’, but rather an ‘expulsion’.
Statements like this repeat ad nauseum in Sarah’s mind, and in her conversations with the people she meets after fleeing from her parents’ home. The novel makes a half-hearted attempt to explain the other side – the government’s and the majority’s rationale in leaving Gush Katif – but this is always in the context of why the country made a wrong decision.
“Some rabbis even said that Gaza wasn’t technically a part of biblical Israel, not like Judea and Samaria. I always liked to believe that the land of Israel was our birthright, promised to our forefathers, and Gush Katif was the embodiment of an ideal: a utopia of Torah observance that lived out the highest biblical value of settling and sowing the land of Israel.”
While her parents are left to deal with a temporary home, first in a Jerusalem hotel and then in a Nitzan ‘caravilla’, Sarah escapes to the big city. She abandons her religious values, one by one. She no longer observes the Sabbath, no longer eats kosher. After all, she rationalizes, if God has abandoned her and her family, what was the point in adhering to the traditions?
Sarah, now going by the name of Shachar, replaces Judaism with the nightclub life of Tel Aviv. Everything she sees is compared to her former observance of the traditions. “I look up to the DJ booth the same way people looked up to the ark of the Torah just hours ago: in search of transcendence.” Sarah/Shachar “has claimed the dance floor as her Holy Land.” Sarah wins a nightclub beauty pageant, leading her new friends to declare: “The settler has officially become a sexpot.”
But The Settler is not entirely the story of Sarah’s disengagement from Judaism, but rather the story of “a good girl gone bad to better”. Eventually she realizes that the nightclub that has come to replace her Gush Katif home is an illusion, without values or principles. She begins to search for her way back – back to her family and her traditions. And, she helps her boyfriend – the anti-religion, diehard peacenik nightclub owner -to see the error in his ways in how he relates to the Gaza withdrawal.
This book is a coming-of-age story that will not appeal to all readers. Despite the creation of a terrorist Hamas entity in the wake of Israel’s unilateral withdrawal, most Israelis have “buried it in [their] collective memory.” No matter how much she calls out for attention, not everyone will sympathize with Sarah Dakar when she recalls her former home: “It wasn’t a ‘settlement,’ an ‘obstacle to peace,’ a ‘territory’. It was a home, a home worth fighting for back then – and now.”
Sarah cannot disengage from her traumatic past, but the rest of Israel has already moved on.