Amoz Oz, the late Nobel Prize winner in literature and a hero of Israeli secular leftists, called me on the phone 13 years ago this summer with a surprising request:
“Tzvi, would you be willing to speak to my long-time friend, Nadine Gordimer, who also happens to be a Nobel Prize winner in literature?” He explained that Gordimer campaigned on behalf of the Boycott Israel movement in her native South Africa and was visiting Israel for the 2008 Jerusalem International Writers’ Conference. She wanted to meet and talk with a “settler.” Would I agree?
I immediately answered, “Yes.”
Gordimer wanted to hear from a “settler” what motivated him to live on what she understood to be “occupied Palestinian land.”
Oz and I did not know each other and until his phone call never had spoken with each other. The only reason he called me is that my name came up when he asked local acquaintances if they knew of an English-speaking “settler” who lived near his home.
I live in a “settlement” called Beit Yatir, located several hundred yards beyond Israel’s pre-1967 borders and only 10 miles from Arad, a small city between Beersheba and the Dead Sea, where Gordimer would be visiting Oz at his home.
Her visit to Israel angered South African pro-Palestinian activists, who accused her of intellectual dishonesty for setting foot in Israel instead of boycotting the conference.
Despite her visit coinciding with the 60th anniversary celebrations of the establishment of the modern State of Israel, Gordimer assured her friends that she shared their feelings and that no one should doubt her “solidarity with the struggle – our struggle – against apartheid.”
Born Jewish but an avowed atheist, Nadine lived all her life in South Africa, where she drew comparisons between Israel and the former South African Apartheid policy, which she fiercely and successfully campaigned against.
In Israel, her pro-Boycott hosts arranged for her to meet with Arab and Israeli leftist leaders. Gordimer, like them, thought that Israel should be talking with Hamas. Unlike them, she took the initiative to do what Boycott Israel activists almost never do. She insisted on speaking with a settler.
Oz arranged for me to meet Gordimer at his modest apartment in Arad. She was respectful and dignified, and she spoke with a firm but gentle voice.
Gordimer opened up the conversation with a comment that she wished a bomb would drop on the Temple Mount, the holiest site to Jews and the third holiest Moslem shrine. I am sure that she was not aware that our meeting was taking place less than a week before the Hebrew date when Jews mourn the destruction of the First and Second Holy Temples.
She then politely took out her notepad and began to read some questions.
“Why do you live on Palestinian land?” she asked.
The answer was and still is very simple. “The land on which I live is not ‘Palestinian,’” but understanding the answer requires a bit of knowledge of geography and history.
I explained to her that my “settlement,” a politicized word that a century ago meant any community in Israel, is located in the Southern Hebron Hills, between Arad to the south and Hebron to the north. It is a desert mountain area stretching over more than 100 square miles where few people whether, Arab or Jew, ever lived until 40 years ago.
The climate and the hilly and rocky land area are an unfriendly combination for agriculture. There is no rain in the summer, when temperatures reach into the upper 30s Celsius. The winters are harsh, with gale-force winds and near-freezing temperatures, accompanied by occasional heavy rainstorms and sometimes snow.
Most of the land, including that of Beit Yatir, was uninhabited until recent years, and it is likely that no Arab or Jew ever had stepped on the plot of ground where our house stands. The only things that ever occupied our land were rocks.
Gordimer was listening carefully and without interruption. Nothing I said was new to Amoz Oz, who sat silently.
I told her that from the early 14th century until 1917, under the Ottoman Empire, and until 1948 and 1967 under the British Mandate and the Jordanian occupation, the rulers largely ignored the area. It had virtually no economic value and was dangerous due to the tiny presence of scattered Bedouin slaveowner tribes from Egypt.
The Ottoman Empire and its successors retained possession of almost all of the land, most of which was worthless.
Gordimer absorbed my explanations and began to understand that the term ”Palestinian land” has almost no basis in the southern Hebron Hills region because Arabs had little presence in the area under Ottoman rule, let alone own any land. Only a few hundred Arab families lived in two villages, Yatta and Samoa, south of the city of Hebron where the population was approximately 10,000.
My next statement shocked Gordimer. I told her that north of Hebron and Jerusalem, where the land was more viable economically, there is a limited basis for the term “Palestinian land” because are many documents that record land purchases by Jews as well as Arabs.
I noted, for example, that a Jewish businessman name Shmuel Yosef Holtzmann in 1932 was involved in the purchase of a kibbutz named Kfar Etzion, located between Jerusalem and Hebron. The kibbutz fell in the 1948 War of Independence but was re-established after the Six-Day War in 1967.
The fact that Jews had bought land in what now is called the “Palestinian territories” was a bit too much for Gordimer to believe. She was visibly jolted because it contradicted the basic premise that Jews are living on Palestinian-owned land.
She turned to Oz and asked, “Is this true?” He nodded his head in affirmation while maintaining a silence that continued throughout almost all of the discussion.
I pointed out another example of a legal deed of a Jewish purchase of land in the last place she could expect – Gaza. In 1930, Tuvia Miller purchased 65 acres in Kfar Darom [literally “South Village”] for a fruit orchard on the site of an ancient Jewish settlement of the same name mentioned in the Talmud.
After Arab rioters destroyed the orchard in the late 1930s, the Jewish National Fund bought the land, where a kibbutz was established until its residents fled in the face of the invading Egyptian army during the War of Independence in 1948.
Following the Six-Day War, Kfar Darom was re-established along with more than a dozen other new communities in the region until the Israeli government decided to end a Jewish presence in 2005 and expelled several thousand Jewish residents.
“This is very surprising,” Gordimer commented. She once again turned questionably to Oz, this time more earnestly. “Amos, are Tzvi’s statements accurate?” Oz this time became a bit uncomfortable as he again nodded silently
In an effort not to mislead her, I emphasized that Arabs, as well as Jews, also have legal deeds to many properties north of Jerusalem and that in most cases, the Israeli government has expelled Jews who settled there or has compensated the original owners.
Gordimer then changed the line of questioning and asked if our family moved to Beit Yatir “out of ideology?” She was surprised to hear that like the vast majority of “settlers,” we crossed the pre-1967 borders for very practical and materialistic reasons. “Settlement” houses were and still are relatively cheap, the air is clean and most of the communities are less than an hour away from urban centers.
This clearly took her off guard because it broke the false image of settlers as wild-eyed fanatics carrying out “ethnic cleansing.”
In order to demonstrate the complexity of the social and political structure in the so-called “occupied territories,” I pointed out to Gordimer that there is a makeshift fence separating our community from two Arab families who live by themselves. The 130 families on Yatir are their only neighbors.
The head of one of the Arab families served in the IDF and provided the army with valuable intelligence information. The last thing he wants to see is a Palestinian country. The other neighbor, his cousin, supports Hamas.
Gordimer appeared to be struggling to comprehend information that rarely is mentioned even in the media and certainly not in anti-Israel circles. Oz continued to say nothing.
Visibly tired, Gordimer told us that she had no more questions.
I certainly did not convince Gordimer to become a Zionist or denounce BDS. Her hosts already had shown her the usual points of interest for anti-Zionists, such as the hideous wall that makes up only five percent of the 450-mile security fence that straddles the pre-1967 borders. The Boycott Israel movement calls the fence the “Apartheid Wall.”
Oz told Gordimer that he, like many Israeli leftists, oppose on principle any Jewish presence in predominantly Arab-populated territories that Jordan and Egypt abandoned in the Six-Day War.
They believe that Israel can live safely within the pre-1967 borders. For them, it makes no difference who owned land and who lived there, whether 100 years ago or 3,000 years ago.
I am equally sure that this was the first time she understood that the anti-Israel lobby does not represent the whole truth and, most importantly, that settlers are normal human beings and not evil people. She learned that, like most everything in the Middle East and especially in Israel, that nothing is simple.
Before we bid each other farewell, Gordimer, after taking a deep breath, said, “I must say I am confused.”
I silently took her words as a great compliment, to myself for presenting an accurate rendition of the facts, and to her for agreeing to speak with and truly listen to a “settler.”
Unlike almost all pro-Palestinian and BDS activists, Gordimer believed it was important to listen to a settler instead of ignorantly adding to explosive diatribes that have no purpose other than to shout down anyone who disagrees.
Gordimer was a rarity. Boycott Israel supporters and pro-Palestinian politicians can learn from her.