An unsettling Shabbat in the West Bank

April was a difficult month. I found out right before Shabbat, during Pesach, that the girl who died in a stabbing on Jerusalem’s light rail train was a fellow study abroad student at Hebrew University. I didn’t know Hannah Bladon well, but I’d met her before, and she was one of those people I saw all the time around campus. We hadn’t talked so much, but in the subsequent days, I learned that she cared about this country and truly wanted to understand its religious significance. She was a Christian, killed on Good Friday. Sometimes this city feels impossible.

Speaking of which: The following weekend, I had a Shabbaton with my study abroad program to talk about politics (particularly regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict). For me, everything I think about is tied up in politics, but this was one of our only activities of the semester officially devoted to discussing politics. It was three days saturated with reminders of the difficulty of making peace in this tiny sliver of the world. I came away from the weekend more knowledgeable about the issues, but I also left with an exhaustion that I am certain everyone in this country feels: When so many people say peace is impossible, it’s easier to turn the other cheek and choose to focus, instead, on other aspects of your life.

We spent Shabbat in Alon Shvut, a Jewish settlement in an area called Gush Etzion. It’s a group of several Jewish towns, comprising some 50,000-100,000 Jewish settlers. Most Israelis consider Gush Etzion to be “in the blocs,” meaning land in the West Bank that will become part of Israel if there ever is a peace agreement. So, ideologically speaking, it’s less extreme than, say, small communities located on hilltops, where Jewish residents sometimes carry machine guns in what could be viewed as a Wild West drama with the local Arab populations.

Before we got to Alon Shvut, we met with some brilliant and important people in the Israeli political world. We talked to Rabbi Yoel Bin-Nun, one of the ideological pioneers of the settlement movement. We talked to Yossi Klein Halevi, whose book, Like Dreamers, tells Israel’s story post-1967 through the eyes of a group of seven paratroopers who brought the Western Wall under Jewish control in the Six Day War. (Yoel Bin-Nun is one of those characters.) We met with Hagit Ofran, who monitors all settlement construction in East Jerusalem (indeed, where I live, next to Hebrew University) and the West Bank for Peace Now. On Shabbat we talked to a political consultant who works with Likud, Netanyahu’s party. We met with Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger, an Orthodox rabbi who lives in Alon Shvut and who created an organization that brings settlers and local Palestinians together to share stories and swap traumas. He was inspired to create the project after realizing that, after 30 years living in Gush Etzion, he’d never had a real conversation with an Arab, and he had never heard the term Occupation. Now, even while living in the West Bank, he actively advocates against the Occupation. Then we heard from another rabbi, the head of a prominent women’s seminary, who lives in Alon Shvut to connect to the land’s biblical roots. He feels that by living there, he is helping usher in the Messiah.

How do I make sense of all of this?

We also checked out some of the most contentious physical sites of the conflict. We drove to the edge of Jerusalem, where we got off the bus to take in the sight of the enormous, ugly, concrete wall separating Jerusalem from Palestinian-controlled Bethlehem. It was striking: Arabs streamed out of a security checkpoint, where they could’ve been strip-searched or otherwise humiliated (this is an uncontested truth), and boarded buses for their Friday trip to the Al-Aqsa Mosque. It might be the only time of the week they’re allowed out of Palestinian-controlled West Bank and into Israel, to Jerusalem. After this, we went to Kfar Etzion, the first Jewish settlement in the West Bank. The people who built Kfar Etzion considered it coming home, the rebuilding of a Kibbutz with the same name that was destroyed in the ’48 war and whose members were rounded up and massacred by Jordanian soldiers the day before Ben-Gurion declared independence.

Everything is so complicated.

Then we went to what’s called the Path of the Patriarchs, where Abraham purportedly walked with Isaac on the way to Mount Moriah, where Abraham almost sacrificed his son. We took out the Tanakh and read the verse that supposedly leads to this conclusion—I didn’t totally see the connection, but for some people, living out there equates to literally walking in the footsteps of our forefathers. Then we drove past the Gush Etzion junction, where just the week before a terrorist drove into a 60-year-old man. It’s where three Jewish boys were kidnapped, and later killed, three summers ago, before the war with Gaza. It also leads to the separate towns of Gush Etzion, each of which is a separate utopia—because they’re surrounded by barbed wire fences and are patrolled by IDF soldiers every minute of every day, except for Shabbat, when the gate is locked.

What can we do?

After Shabbat, we visited the organization Roots, started by Rabbi Schlesinger, which brings together Jewish settlers and Palestinians for dialogue. We heard from an American Jewish settler and a Palestinian couple from a local village. To be sure, it was remarkable to see a man with payos and a huge kippah sitting next to a woman with a hijab, both of whom live approximately five minutes apart in maybe the most contested strip of land in the world. But instead of inspiring me, I left feeling beaten down, defeated: Yes, this is dialogue, but there’s nothing equal about it. The security forces that are in place to protect Shaoul, the settler, and to defend him at all moments, strike fear in the heart of Saadia and Jamal, the Palestinian couple. (I don’t mean to say that the Israeli army shouldn’t be protecting Jews in the West Bank. Of course if should. But it’s complicated. We need to accept that.) A 15-year-old boy in their village was killed by the IDF for no reason. It was a mistake, yet the Israeli army kept the boy’s body for months, inexplicably, before returning it. This couple often encounters a checkpoint at their town’s border, where their entire car is searched, and sometimes they aren’t allowed to leave the village. Yet the soldiers are absolutely necessary because of the 10-year-old boy in Shaoul’s settlement who was killed when a Palestinian attacked him with an axe and because terrorists still drive by the intersection with the intent of killing any Jew who’s waiting at the bus stop.

I left feeling lost. Most of all, I was shocked and sad to hear so many Israelis say, particularly in Alon Shvut: We can’t talk about two states right now. That’s for later. Many people were more blunt and said that a two-state solution might not be the right one, that there might never be a Palestinian state, that we might just let this thing—the Occupation, the return to Judea and Samaria, whatever you want to call it—continue. Yossi Klein Halevi, the author, made aliyah from America over 30 years ago. He said something I’d never considered: In America, people still talk about peace in Israel, but people here don’t use the term peace. They talk instead about ending the conflict in simply the least bad way possible. Even the woman from Peace Now proved this; she didn’t talk about justice but rather leaving the West Bank so that we can maintain Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, because the Occupation threatens that. Not because the Occupation is morally wrong.

I had an incredible weekend learning from really brilliant people from diverse backgrounds, across the political spectrum. I just wish any of them had left room for optimism.

About the Author
Gabby Deutch studies history and journalism at Yale. She's currently studying abroad at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.