All Around Gush Etzion

Just minutes away from Jerusalem lies Gush Etzion (Etzion Bloc), nestled in the Hebron hills. It is certainly part of the Land of Israel, but it’s not run according to Israeli civil law. Instead, like the rest of Judea and Samaria, Israeli military law governs. Today the Gush has 18 communities with Efrat, a very desirable suburb of Jerusalem, the largest. Gush Etzion’s status is unusual because it was part of the Yishuv (pre-state Israel under Jewish control) before the 1948 War of Independence, but was occupied by Jordan during and after the war.

The first 20th century Jewish community in the Gush was pioneered by immigrants from Yemen. It struggled due to economic problems and tensions with nearby Arab villagers and was eventually destroyed during the Arab riots of 1929.

The next year Shmuel Yosef Holtzman bought the property. His intention was to establish a Jewish community in between Bethlehem and Hebron. “Gush Etzion” was chosen as the name, taken from the Hebrew translation of his own name. In 1936, during the next period of Arab riots, most of what Holtzman had built was destroyed and the inhabitants were forced to flee the area. Between 1943-1947, the Jews returned and built four small communities which were all destroyed during the War of Independence (more about that to follow).

When Israel regained control of Jerusalem and the surrounding areas in Judea in June 1967, a new initiative was launched to resettle the Etzion area. Some of the pioneers were descendants of the people who fought and died there during the War of Independence. Today, there are about 45,000 Jews thriving in the Gush. Many of them work in Jerusalem or elsewhere, while others are employed locally in tourism, winemaking, and other endeavors. (www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org)

Michal and I and four friends set off early (not too early to avoid the worst rush hour traffic) from Jerusalem to visit the Arugot (translation: flower beds) Farms, which is being developed by four families, including the founders of The Land of Israel Network (thelandofisrael.com). It bills itself as “broadcasting the truth and beauty of Israel to the world” via the internet and various social media. I listen weekly to their podcasts, which are presented by very knowledgeable Israelis, mostly former American men with great backgrounds in Jewish history, philosophy and religion who believe in the destiny of the Jewish State. (The terrific guide and educator, Eve Harow, is also a broadcaster.) The signature endeavor of the network is raising funds to construct Arugot Farms. This was are first destination of our day trip.

“Founded by four environmentally conscious pioneering Israeli families who literally paved the roads to these previously inaccessible mountains, the Arugot Farms is becoming a sought after destination for both Israelis and tourists seeking to experience Israel’s magnificent natural beauty, encounter a renaissance of organic natural living, and walk through the rich history of Judea, from King David to the Maccabees, Rabbi Akiva and Bar Kochba.

Located in the heart of the biblical “Wilderness of Zif” where King David composed many of the Psalms and hid from King Saul, the Arugot Farms, in just a few years, has been transformed from a barren desolate wilderness to a Garden of Eden-like oasis, unlike anything in The Land.”
(from ThelandofIsrael website)

We visited with Ari Abramowitz, who along with Jeremy Gimpel founded The Land of Israel Network. We had little trouble finding their location (near the small community of Ibei HaNahal) because Ari’s parents were part of our little group. Located in the desolated and sparsely populated Nahal Arugot in Judea, the “under-construction” farm/vineyard/retreat/hotel has a panoramic view which is breathtaking.

Ari was raised in Houston in a 1950s-style Conservative family which gradually evolved into Orthodoxy. He credits his yearning for HaShem (a term for the name of God utilized for the unpronounceable YHWH) with drawing him to Israel and eventually to Nahal Arugot. In 2014 he and Jeremy joined two other partners who were already living on the mountain top to develop a touristic enterprise which includes many facets. With little or no financial backing they charged ahead, developing the project as funds were available. The awe-inspiring site is in the mountains between Jerusalem and Hebron, further “out” than any previous Jewish settlements.

On our tour, Ari showed us flourishing vineyards, which are not quite mature enough to harvest, and fledgling forests. There is an ecologic pond, nearly finished, which Ari said fulfills a prophecy in the Bible (Isiah 35-6/7): “Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert. The burning sand will become a pool, the thirsty ground bubbling springs. In the haunts where jackals once lay, grass and reeds and papyrus will grow.”

We saw Jeremy and Ari’s homes, which blend into the landscape, like all the structures on the farm. We walked through the unfinished retreat center and the circular house of prayer, which is being built on the highest location with a view of Jerusalem and the Dead Sea.

As Ari says, there is a palpable sense of destiny there. They have no fence or gate on the property for both financial and ideological reasons. Ari explained that while some communities in Judea and Samaria are heavily protected (think “gated communities” on steroids) others prefer to try to foster relationships with the Arabs in the vicinity. In fact, besides volunteer helpers in the project, many of the paid workers on the farm are Arabs from the vicinity.

Volunteers and funds have come, sometimes when the project was in dire straits financially. Ari gave us one example: German volunteers (whose parents and grandparents were Nazis) came to help for two weeks. They not only provided free labor but also the needed materials, fulfilling their Christian belief to assist in the Jewish development of the Land of Israel. At their request, Ari taught them Torah in the evenings. One oddity which Ari described, happened when it was time for tree pruning with the Germans. Ari directed the group: men to the right, women to the left. The irony was shared instantaneously by all.

Both Ari and Jeremy have put all their resources into the project, which is a not-for-profit endeavor. Jeremy even sold his valuable property in the prosperous town of Neve Daniel to enable their dream, bringing his large family with him.

The construction doesn’t stop. In the two phases, the “Eco” pool, Beit Tefiilah (house of prayer), the promenade throughout the farm, the retreat center and guest residence are all in being built. Although little is completely finished, Arugot Farms is already an inspiring undertaking, which through determination, grit, hard work, and religious zeal will undoubtedly be a popular spot for tourism and contemplation.

After our pleasant visit with Ari at Arugot Farms, which is the eco resort, spiritual retreat, and farm being built by The Land of Israel (thelandofisrael.com) ,we had to hurry to get to the Gush Etzion Heritage Center in time for the scheduled English language tour. The museum’s layout is a now-familiar one in Israel, in which a group is ushered through several rooms to watch a sound and light presentation and see artifacts from particular periods. Here, we found ourselves in a network of halls and passageways around the bunker where Kfar Etzion’s last defenders fell. The historical background:

At the time of hostilities with the Arabs in 1947, Gush Etzion consisted of four settlements, the first and largest of which was Kfar Etzion. On January 14, 1947, more than 1,000 Arabs attacked the settlements. The 450 Jewish fighters (men and women) repulsed the attackers but their communities were devastated, needed reinforcements, and were vulnerable to a future attack. The Haganah (Jewish “army”) sent a platoon of 35 soldiers, the “Convoy of 35,” with medical supplies and ammunition – but reaching the bloc proved difficult. On their first attempt, the soldiers were detected by Arab forces and were forced to retreat.

Impulsively, and without adequate preparation or orders, the soldiers hastily proceeded towards their endangered comrades in the Bloc. Soon the platoon was again detected by the Arabs; the commander led his troops to the top of the highest hill in the area, searching for cover. But the 35 were unable to escape and they were all massacred by hundreds of Arab militants. Their stripped, mutilated bodies were found the next day by a British patrol, but weren’t sent to Jerusalem because of the British fear of Jewish retaliation against the Arabs.

Gush Etzion was again the center of conflict in May of 1948, when, for a period of three days, residents of Kfar Etzion were able to hold off a large Arab army headed for Jerusalem. Eventually, despite their surrender to the Arab army, 240 residents of the kibbutz were massacred, another 260 were captured, and the settlement was razed. The prisoners of war were interred in Jordan, returning to the State of Israel in 1949. (www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org)

I highly recommend visiting the Heritage Center. It’s an excellent introduction to the flourishing Gush Etzion. Naturally, our next stop was lunch at one of the excellent wineries in the area. The Gush Etzion Winery is situated in an area that has been recognized for thousands of years for wine growing. The climate, differences in day and night temperatures, chalky soil, sloping vineyards, and the 3,000 ft+ altitude create ideal conditions for wine growing.

The winery’s kosher restaurant is a popular place for visitors and locals. The restaurant had plenty of choices at reasonable prices. Along with the tasty food we enjoyed a very nicely priced tasting of four wines. After sharing one dessert among our group, we were off to our last destination: Herodion National Park, built by the “King of Israel,” Herod the Great.

In 40 BCE the Parthians invaded Judea. Herod, whose father Antipater had ruled Israel for the Romans, fled to Rome where he had many friends. There he was elevated to be King of Judea by the Senate. Within three years Herod regained military control in Judea and began his remarkable reign with backing from the Romans.

Unfortunately, Herod was something of a monster as well as a master builder. He had his wife and mother-in-law killed, as well as his brother-in-law and at least one of his sons. When he died in 4 BCE, his three remaining sons fought over their inheritance. Within two generations, Rome turned on Judea, burned the city of Jerusalem, and banished the Jews from their holiest city.

Herod used the great wealth generated by the trade routes which traversed Judea to build massive projects. In addition to the Summer Palace site we were exploring, Herod built the port of Caesarea named after his patron in Rome, the fortress-palace at Masada opposite the Dead Sea, and his masterpiece, the magnificent enlargement of the Second Temple in Jerusalem.

The palace at Herodion was constructed on top of a man-made mountain, to catch the winds off the desert, as well as the magnificent views. It was divided into two sections: Upper Herodion, which contained the palace set within a circular fortress, and Lower Herodion, at the base of the mountain, which had numerous annexes for the use of the king’s family and friends. The system of water storage was very sophisticated, with huge cisterns to supply the needs of the palace, including a large pool in Lower Herodion suitable for boating.

Since our last visit, Professor Ehud Netzer of Hebrew University uncovered the grave of King Herod on the slope of the hill, not in the Tomb Estate which Herod had constructed for that purpose. Tragically, the archaeologist fell to his death while leaning on a wooden safety rail, soon after. Because of ongoing renovations to this area of the park, we were prevented from visiting the grave site.

Herodion was abandoned after being sacked by the Romans following the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE, but in 132 CE it was occupied by Bar Kochba, the great Jewish general. Bar Kochba utilized the cisterns at Herodion for his guerilla attacks on the Roman army. After ascending the path to palace ruins and exploring, we made a far cooler descent through the same cistern, via tunnels inside the mountain built to enable Bar Kochba’s bands to make surprise attacks against the Romans. Tactics like this resulted in Bar Kochba’s incredibly successful, but short-lived, victory over the Romans.

Because of that victory, Bar Kosiba (his original name) was given the nickname Bar Kochba (Son of a Star) and proclaimed Messiah by many Jews. “At the time, Bar Kochba – who was a man of tremendous leadership abilities – managed to unite the entire Jewish people around him. Jewish accounts describe him as a man of tremendous physical strength, who could uproot a tree while riding on a horse. This is probably an exaggeration, but he was a very special leader and undoubtedly had messianic potential, which is what Rabbi Akiva recognized in him.”
(https://www.aish.com/jl/h/cc/48944706.html)

Before leaving Herodium and Gush Etzion, we enjoyed a cool respite in the excellent gift shop. This region, so close to Jerusalem and so intertwined in Zionist history, is well worth exploring. We had a great day in Gush Etzion and will visit again soon, especially to see the progress being made at Arugot Farms.

About the Author
Steve Kramer grew up in Atlantic City, graduated from Johns Hopkins in 1967, adopted the hippie lifestyle until 1973, then joined the family business for 15 years. Steve moved to Israel from Margate, NJ in 1991 with his family. He has written more than 1100 articles about Israel and Jews since making Aliyah. Steve and his wife Michal live in Kfar Saba.
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