The other day something just snapped inside of me. I was reading a nicely written article about a memorial evening in Efrat. And there it was — “the West Bank settlement of Efrat”. If I hadn’t been living in Efrat practically since it was first populated by families 35 years ago, and didn’t happen to know that there were was never a “caravan” stage, that Efrat was initiated with the blessing of the Labor government and that it is home to about 11,000 citizens of Israel who contribute in spectacular ways to our country — I would imagine a dusty hilltop with some miserable looking caravans, children running in every direction. And suddenly I wasn’t willing to accept the inevitable “But you live in an area not officially annexed by Israel”.
So I don’t, so what? Why have we all accepted this inevitable designation of “settlement”? The towns in the Golan Heights also used to be called settlements and then Israel annexed the Heights, and suddenly the same towns are “respectable” and Yehuda Harel gets an Israel Prize for developing the area. Well, Gush Etzion is also part of the consensus, and until Israel figures out how to make sense of it all, I think it’s high time that we got some legitimacy and recognition for being the amazing yishuv that we are. One out of five of our young people becomes an officer in the army, we just honored our very own Israel Prize winner, the hospitals in Jerusalem are staffed by hundreds of doctors and nurses who are residents of Efrat, we have people who excel in every type of profession and community service, making very valuable national contributions — why do we have to keep waiting to be graced with the untainted description of simply being called a town?
The founders of Efrat were determined to have good relations with their Arab neighbors. At first there were no fences, the only access road to the nearby Arab village was through Efrat, there were ball games between their kids and ours, we helped set up a nursery program and a small community center in a nearby village, sent some of their residents to medical school. I can go on and on, because there is much more, but much of that had to go under the radar when the intifadas changed the climate. But activity reflecting a desire for a good relationship does go on – never what it should be, never enough, but it does go on.
Words create images and associations. For years “the settlements” were the pariah of the nation, the cause of all evil, the reason for that elusive peace. Years ago I was at the airport, chatting comfortably with a fellow traveler – when he asked where I lived and I said Efrat, he turned his back and walked away without a word. It’s better now, I don’t feel that sort of extreme hostility from my fellow Israelis, but the constant use of the word “settlement” drives home that we are different, we’re second class, we don’t actually belong. But I am not different, I am not second-class, I do belong. I moved to Efrat, just south of Jerusalem, innocently hoping to be part of and to help create a new community in Israel, and I subsequently founded an organization that serves the whole country. I want my fellow Israelis to relate to me with a sense of oneness of purpose and closeness. If on a personal level someone chooses not to feel close to me because of where I live, that’s her or his choice, but why does that sort of estrangement have to be encouraged and reinforced by the Israeli media?
I respect the fact that for some people being called a “settler” is a badge of honor, the modern incarnation of the “settlers” who created the “settlements” of Tel Aviv and Zichron Yaakov and Degania. But words take on symbolic meaning, and for me in Israel today, the designation of “settler” fragments, separates and hurts.
It’s time for a change, it’s time to reconsider policy. The legal status of the towns and kibbutzim and villages where I live is not about to change anytime soon, and calling them towns or kibbutzim or villages or cities will not be changing any legal status or creating any facts on the ground – it will just be respecting the people who live here and want their fellow Israelis to be able to relate to them as fellow travelers on this amazing journey that is Israel.
May 18, 2018