On a cold and windy weekend in January, I traveled to Kfar Tapuach, [population 800] located in the heart of the Samaria region, in the West Bank. I was with 30 other post-high school gap year students as part of the Jerusalem U ‘Oz Fellowship’ program aimed to prepare us for the challenging task of Israel activism on college campuses. This was our second Shabbaton in a series of thought provoking weekends that had exposed us to diverse communities and political views across the Israeli spectrum. This Shabbat aimed to help us to understand the issue of Israeli settlements from the people who built them and live there.
The residents of Kfar Tapuach share a belief in reclaiming the hilltops of Samaria for the Jewish people and to walk in the footsteps of Abraham and Joshua. They live among hostile Arab neighbors in one of the most controversial and complicated regions of the world. Their Shabbat hospitality was as warm as their political views were extreme. Some were disciples or relatives of the late Rabbi Meir Kahana. The host of one member of our group considered Baruch Goldstein a hero.
Some had not been overly impressed when we told them we believe in hearing different perspectives and earlier that day we had met with the head of Peace Now — an organization opposed to communities such as this one. “You could listen to the Iranians who want to blow up Israel,” said one settler, “that’s a different perspective”. My Shabbat dinner host explained that there had never yet been an Arab attack on Kfar Tapuach, suggesting that the residents “have a reputation,” because “they (the Arabs) know we would retaliate.”
Talking to a number of residents I glimpsed the religious settler’s worldview and mindset: settlement and rebuilding of Israel is a biblical duty and the capture of the West Bank during the Six Day War was a call from God to His people to return to that part of the Holy Land. After intensely lobbying the Israeli government, religious Zionists established the community of Ofra in 1975. Dozens of other communities were established in the years to follow, including Tapuach in 1978. Over time people were drawn to the area for broader reasons than religious obligation to settle the land — they were attracted by the availability of inexpensive housing and green space hard to find in Israel’s crowded heartland, as well as government subsidies.
For the Kfar Tapuach residents we met, returning to the mountains of Israel is a fulfillment of the biblical prophecy and a sign that the redemption is near. “Once again, you will plant vineyards on the hills of Samaria…” (Jeremiah 31). They disagree strongly with their detractors in the media and on Israel’s left who say they have no right to be there, or who argue that the settlements are a barrier to peace. They politically resist any peace agreement which would leave them abandoning the homes they have built and communities they have created.
They contend that not only would evacuation from God’s Holy Land go against the Torah, but in fact it would be counter-productive to peace. They point to the failure of past withdrawals that Israel has made for the cause of peace. Israel’s withdrawal from Gush Katif (Gaza) resulted in a situation which led to several wars with Hamas and the Oslo Accords merely established a corrupt Palestinian Authority, which led to the horrors of the Second Intifada and, ironically, removed the right of Jews to visit Palestinian cities or Judaism’s holy places, as for example, the tomb of Joseph in Nablus.
We met a woman who was evacuated from Gush Katif who had resettled in Kfar Tapuach. She spoke with some distress about her house becoming a site for Hamas terrorists to launch missiles at Israel.
The residents of Kfar Tapuach reject the argument that their presence in some way subjugates the West Bank’s Palestinian population, and they quote statistical support for this position: 90% of West Bank Palestinians live in Area A under the semi-autonomous Palestinian Authority. They explain that Israeli settlements have brought infrastructure improvements to the West Bank, including new roads accessible to Palestinians and industrial zones that provide Palestinian jobs and wage levels higher than in Palestinian run factories. Also the settlers told us that they build on barren hilltops, whereas the Palestinians live in the valleys, where water is more accessible. They also point out that only 7% of West Bank land is being used at all, so there is plenty of room for both people to live as neighbors.
Although I disagree with some of the settler’s attitudes towards their Arab neighbors, my feeling toward Kfar Tapuach is that it is a humble Jewish community, full of love for Torah, the land of Israel, and fellow Jews. I couldn’t help sharing in settler’s feeling of ancestral ties to the land: Judea and Samaria (the West Bank) was the cradle of Jewish civilization – It is this land that God first showed to Abraham; It is where Moses was allowed to see Israel from a mountain top, from across the Jordan River. Here, overlooking Shechem (renamed Nablus by the Romans), I could see the tomb of Joseph, my namesake.
I think that reasonable people can see validity in some of the settler’s arguments: beneath their deep attachment to the West Bank they have a realistic understanding of the danger inherent in withdrawing from this area: If we have learned anything from the Oslo Accords and the Gaza disengagement, withdrawing from the West Bank has the potential to be disastrous. Yet, at the same time I cannot support an alternative of annexing the area, because neither the future of the modern democratic State of Israel nor the aspirations of the Palestinian people can be determined by the biblical yearnings a few hundred thousand Jewish settlers.
I left Kfar Tapuach more confused on the issue of settlements, on the two-state solution or any “solution.” However, my visit impressed upon me the complexities of these issues and with an image of the settlers as devoted Jews with deep love for the soil beneath their feet, rather than colonial aggressors.
I came away from the Shabbaton in particular and the Jerusalem U “Oz Fellowship” in general more informed about what the settlements represent. I return to the United States better able to explain the complexities of the settlements and the peace process and counteract the one-sided narrative often espoused in the media.