While I was in Israel as part of the 2018 Women of Reform Judaism (WRJ) Wilkenfeld International Women’s Leadership Seminar, a group from ARZA (Association of Reform Zionists of America) was touring there, as well. I was able to join their group for a day, themed “What Are We Talking about When We Talk about Settlements?”
First, I invite you to think about what the words “settlement” and “West Bank” mean to you. I certainly had images in my mind. During this visit, I had the opportunity to interact with a number of individuals who choose to make their homes in settlements on the West Bank – or, to use other language, “in communities in Judea and Samaria.” Indeed, we learned that language is important.
The first thing that struck me was the proximity: We left the hotel in Jerusalem, and within 10-15 minutes, we were crossing a checkpoint into the West Bank.
Our first visit was to Pnei Kedem, an illegal settlement – though our hosts preferred we call it “not yet authorized.” Home to fewer than 50 families, this small, young community is surrounded by barbed wire fencing. We were allowed to enter through a security gate only after our host arrived to escort us.
There, we met with a husband and wife who chose to make their home here only a few years ago. Rabbi Gabe Riess taught at URJ Heller High, & Shira Riess is the daughter of Rabbi David Forman, z”l, a well-known leader in the Israeli Reform community. Both Gabe and Shira, who have deep Reform roots, chose to live an Orthodox life in this settlement outside the Green Line.
Unsurprisingly, our group saw many things differently than Gabe and Shira do, including how settlements impact the long-term prospects for peace and the desire for two states for two peoples. In spite of these differences, though, they received us graciously, and it was enlightening to be able to have a respectful dialogue across our very different perspectives.
We next traveled to Yeshavat Har Etzion, a yeshiva in the Gush Etzion block of settlements. These settlements have a long history, dating back to the 1920s, though on a much smaller scale than today. The yeshiva we visited was founded in 1967, shortly after the capture of the West Bank territory in the Six-Day War.
The school is set on beautiful grounds, its study rooms are filled with light. Its students, who have completed high school, serve in the Israeli army as part of their yeshiva program and dress in modern clothes. The young man who toured us grew up in one of the settlements of Gush Etzion and felt passionately about their importance, located between Jerusalem and Hebron; he described them as the protector of Jerusalem’s southern flank and the future of the Jewish people. Again, it was a perspective largely different than our own.
Our next visit was with an organization called Roots, which fosters dialogue between Jewish settlers and Palestinians residents to create trust and to challenge the assumptions each community holds about the other.
First, we met with Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger, an Orthodox Jew and a settler who told us that, although he had lived in the West Bank for over 30 years, he had never spoken with a Palestinian resident. They lived side by side but had no relationship; each group was invisible to the other. Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger and Noor Awwad, a young Palestinian man, both told us that their participation in this dialogue angers others in their respective communities. Yet Roots participants travel around Israel and around the world, in pairs of one Jewish settler and one Palestinian resident, to spread the message that communication is possible.
So what did I learn from my day in the West Bank?
We already know that any path to a lasting peace is extremely complicated. I learned that as much as I believe that the continued growth of settlements in the West Bank is an impediment to peace, those who believe otherwise are articulate, gracious, and equally passionate about their worldview.
I learned that some believe there is a path to a one-state solution wherein Israel remains both a Jewish and democratic state.
I saw firsthand people that many of the people who live in these settlements have done so for generations and cannot envision living anywhere else, and I also met people who chose to relocate to the West Bank only recently.
And at Roots, I learned that a small enclave of Jews and Palestinians are attempting to open lines of communication, even in the face of pushback from both their communities.
I can’t say that I feel either more hopeful or less hopeful for having had this experience, but I do feel grateful for the opportunity to step behind the Green Line and see the world through the eyes of others – if only for one day.