Wednesday, September 14, 2011

My day in the West Bank settlements

An account of my day in one of the West Bank settlements with Motti Lerner, the playwright of Pangs of the Messiah.  I decided to be deliberately vague about which settlement and the rep there whom we met—since I didn’t tell them I would be blogging, I think it would be unfair print a public account that mentions them by name.

It was an early morning for me and Motti, 6am so we could get to the settlement in time for our 10am meeting.  We drove to Jerusalem and took the bus from there; Motti had had a bad experience once getting lost driving in the West Bank and he thought a bus was safer.

The bus drive went through empty, dry dessert.  Motti said that it could be as green as the roads around Jerusalem if trees were planted, but aside from the occasional olive grove, there was no greenery.  There was also little sign of civilization after we passed the dividing wall.  The road deliberately avoided the Palestinian towns, to avoid creating  further tensions.  Still, the bus was heavy with protective armor and bullet proof glass.

Motti explained that we were on a “Jewish” road, and that Palestinians had there own roads.  Although I understood the reason for the separation, I must admit I found the designation of a road just for Jews disturbing—both for Arabs and in light of my own associations with Jewish history (This is a bit of another subject, but I have really come to realize how Israeli Arabs and Jews live in totally different worlds—different schools, different laws…this is a choice on the part of the Arabs as well)

After driving on the winding road for a while, we finally came to the settlement.  We were early, so we stopped at the gas station and Motti grabbed a coffee.  Four soldiers with machine guns were also on line for a snack.

We headed inside and got stopped at the gate by a guard who was suspicious of my camera. Motti explained...something to the guard, who seemed to eventually accept it.  Then we went in.

The first thing we encountered was basically a trailer park for settlers, making a small neighborhood.  These, I was later told, were settlers waiting to be allowed to build homes.  The government had halted construction, and indeed the Supreme Court had ruled that some recently constructed homes needed to be dismantled.

Then we hit an area of pretty little houses on paved roads.  They all looked exactly alike-- red shingles, white walls, white tile floors.  The song Little Boxes came to mind, and indeed it turned out that the first fifty houses has been ordered en mass, as pre fab housing.  They wanted something quick and utilitarian which also conveyed the idea that here, no one is richer or poorer than anyone else, we are all equal and in this together.

We went to the Community Office and said hello to the secretary there.  She showed us a map of the settlement and we saw that the file on Motti had been pulled; they had reviewed it before he came. The secretary said the whole settlement was in mourning—a  young man from there had been among those recently killed.  The funeral was set for Thursday.

We also saw an exhibit on the Indian immigrants who recently joined the settlement and were in the process of being formally converted.  This particular settlement, we were told, is full of immigrants.  Part of their mission is to bring Jews in from around the world.  These Indian Jews said they had ancient Jewish origins.  The government accepted that and gave them citizenship, but at the settlement they were converting them just to be sure.

We left the offices after that and went to visit J—, a settler activist and former head of the regional council.  The rabbi who had been our original contact had cancelled, using the upcoming funeral as his excuse. Motti suspected the rabbi had simply had second thoughts.

J— was very welcoming and eager to talk.  He reminded me, in an odd way, of the Mormons I recently encountered during my brief stopover in Salt Lake City.  He, too, seemed eager to spread the Word.  The word for him was that all Jews must work together in order for the Messiah to come.

J—’ s home was full of simple, pre fab furniture to go along with the pre fab house.  Utilitarian and modest, except for the many books, mostly religious, that filled the shelves.

J— eagerly grabbed a book and an article about a document that was found, dating back to 500 BCE.  That document seemed to him to predict the Messiah in our age, though God needed all Jews, not just some, to do righteous deeds, and then and only then would the Messiah arrive.

This is why, he explained, it was so important to him to reach out to all aspects of Israeli society.  Some settlers had become isolationists he said, they refused to even pray for Israel, because they were so angry about the disengagement from Gaza.  But he sees things differently—in fact, he has become deeply involved with the general housing crisis.  He thinks the same technique used to build in the settlements could be used to create cheap housing—it is 300,000 to buy a home (was he referring to dollars or sheckels?  I wasn’t sure—take the number and divide by three if it’s sheckels), but it costs only 100,000 to build a new home, he calculated.

What he was suggesting sounded to me sort of like the projects, Israeli style.

Motti asked him what he would do if he had to abandon his settlement, because of a peace accord.  I would leave, said J—, the unity of the Jewish people is more important to me than the settlement, the most important is that all Israel feels like one.  And what, Motti asked, if part of the agreement would be allowing 40,000 Arabs the right of return (this number comes from the agreement Ehud Barak was ready to sign at the summit with Clinton, though ultimately Arafat refused).  40,000 would be too many, J— said at first.  But then he relented.  The unity was all, he said.

But then, he continued confidently, it won’t happen.  The Arabs will never agree.  He hoped instead that Jordan’s King would be overthrown and that the people, who are 70% Palestinian, would make Jordan into a Palestinian state.  Then, why would any Arab want to go to Israel?

There was another solution to the whole problem, of course.  If the Messiah came, it would all be moot, anyway.  But Jews had to be unified and righteous.

J— got a call, one of the unending series of phone calls he was fielding as he spoke to us.  He had to leave, but wanted to drive us back to Jerusalem.

We accepted.  He took the Jewish road, of course, but took a quick detour to a winery in the midst of the West Bank.  I made this, he told us proudly.  My last act as Head of the Regional Council.

It was a beautiful winery, stuck in the middle of the dessert.  He took us down to see the barrels.  Even Motti lit up, with all his doubts (he will not buy any products made in the West Bank, on principal),  Motti’s family has a history of working in wineries, and being in one was exciting for him.

Then, J—’s assistant switched on a film for us to watch.

It was the sort of propaganda film that verged on parody.  Stirring music played, the ancient history of Samaria and Judea was recounted (these being the regions of the West Bank), then the modern history of pioneers who have reclaimed and tamed the land into producing wine grapes was extolled.  Jews toiled—hard work, but so fulfilling.  The future never looked brighter for this land.

The film ended.  That was a bit ridiculous, said Motti.  Yes, said J—.  But he was beaming.

Where were the Palestinians?  Motti asked.  You had a whole film about the history of the region, and you didn’t mention the Palestinians once.

I guess we should have, said J—.  Maybe you’re right.  It didn’t occur to us.

Later, Motti commented, who would believe this film, anyway?  Not even those who support them.

They believe it, I said.  Couldn’t you see how much J— and his assistant loved it, how proud they were?  This film is not to convince others.  It is to convince themselves.

Motti agreed.

After the film, J— asked if we wanted to have a wine tasting.  Motti said he was too sleepy and would have to drive later.  So instead, J— drove us into Jerusalem and offered us a warm goodbye.

Such a nice man, said Motti.  Really nice.  But this is the paradox.  All his life, he has been doing nothing but building settlements  Such energy and leadership.  But he has done more to destroy Israel than anyone I know.