NSWJBD-Honest Reporting Advocacy Mission – Day 4
Twenty people – mostly members of Sydney’s Jewish community, plus a number of West Australians and Americans – are currently participating in the inaugural NSW Jewish Board of Deputies-HonestReporting Advocacy Mission in Israel – Day Four from Marilyn Immerman.
We departed the hotel promptly a 8.45am for our trip into the West Bank to Gush Etzion, which consists of a bloc of settlements organised into one regional council.
They are built on land which has been inhabited by Jews for centuries and is particularly holy because it is on the actual “Path of the Fathers”, dating back to biblical times.
The aim of our visit was to gain a deeper understanding of the issues with regard to the settlements, which some argue are the chief obstacle to peace.
Our guide was Yarden Frankl, who is on the staff of HonestReporting and lives in the religious settlement of Neve Daniel. This beautiful settlement, consisting of 500 families, is named after a convoy whose members were killed while making their way to the Gush in order to assist the Jews in their struggle against the Arabs in the months preceding the War of Independence. We entered through the checkpoint which we were told is there more to deal with the problem of theft than out of fear that a terrorist may try to infiltrate. It appears that many Palestinian Arabs enter on a daily basis to work there, and the entire settlement has been built through their labour.
Another long time and very passionate resident of Neve Daniel, David Shire, gave us his personal perspective on the controversial issue of the settlements. He brought along his Palestinian Arab friend, Jihad, to answer our questions and to demonstrate that the settlers and Palestinians have friendly relations. We were told about a local mall where they all shop together. Jihad has spent time in a Palestinian prison for so-called collaboration with Israeli Jews. He was confined in a very small cell where he was forced to drink water from the toilet. He is very anti the Palestinian Authority, accusing it of being incompetent, and he claims that the vast majority of his fellow Palestinians would far prefer to live in Israel. However, they are too afraid to speak out for fear of being labelled traitors.
Visiting the West Bank and seeing the intricate way in which the Jewish settlers and Arabs live amongst each other showed us how difficult it would be to separate the two groups and how much more badly off the Arabs would be if they were prevented from working for the Jews. Boycotting goods coming from the West Bank would, in fact, do the Arabs much more harm than good – something that the pro-Palestinian advocates of BDS do not seem to grasp.
At Kibbutz Kfar Etzion we viewed a film relating the tragic story of how this community was destroyed in the Arab Riots of 1936 and was then rebuilt, only to be destroyed again by Arabs during the War of Independence. This was after a protracted struggle in which the settlers fought bravely not only to protect their land, but also to defend the road to Jerusalem. In 1967 the children of these settlers returned to rebuild Kfar Etzion.
Over a delicious lunch at Gavneh the matter of the settlements was hotly debated. One important insight gained was the need to separate the two issues of the legitimacy of the settlements on the one hand and the possibility of withdrawal from them (for reasons such as the high cost of defending them or simply for the sake of peace) on the other hand.
In mid-afternoon we set off for the Old City and met our guide, who lives with his family in the Jewish Quarter. As we wound our way through the narrow, cobble-stoned streets he pointed out various sites and described what it is like to live in such a unique environment. We lit candles, bringing in the Shabbat and then wended our way to the Kotel, where we witnessed the joyous dancing of hundreds of young yeshiva students. We also bumped into a group of 31 Year 10 students who arrived today on a tour organised by the Board of Jewish Education in Sydney. After time for prayer and contemplation at the Kotel, we were served a 5 course dinner. Some guests included a young man who was born in Kuwait, was brought up thinking he was a Muslim Arab and only recently discovered that he is, in fact, Jewish because his maternal grandmother was Jewish. He has since spent time studying at a yeshiva in Israel.
After witnessing the spiritual bond that religious settlers in the Gush have with the land and then experiencing shabbat in the Old City, many of us came away at the end of the day feeling quite uplifted.
Marilyn Immerman is a participant on the mission and a senior teacher at Sydney’s Moriah College.