“I’d prefer you call it a village, not a settlement,” our host requested. “I think if you just call us ‘settlers’ it’s kind of dehumanizing,” he explained.
A few minutes earlier, this American-Israeli father had invited a group of 15 American students and adults into his home. He lives in the village of Efrat, which most people would call a Jewish settlement in the West Bank. His community of about 8500 sits atop a hill just south of Bethlehem and looks down on ancient terraces populated by silver-green olive groves.
We sat in the cozy living room while our warm, rotund host told us the story of moving his family here from Chicago in the early 80s. When he completed his family’s tale, he moved on to the story of Israel and Palestine. We heard about the Jews’ ancient connection to this holy land. He pointed out that no empire in the history of the Middle East ever bore the name Palestine. This land has hosted rulers with names such as Roman, Ottoman and Israelite, but not Palestinian.
To describe life as a settler in the West Bank – or “a villager in the land of Israel” – the man provided an anecdote. He described this story as the “first violence of the Oslo peace process”. In 1993, shortly after the historic handshake between Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestine Liberation Organization chairman Yasser Arafat, our middle-aged friend’s family was driving home from Israel proper. A car full of Palestinians approached from the opposite direction. As they passed, a man in the other car opened fire with a machine gun, spraying the Israeli car with bullets. In what the Israeli man described as God’s protection, the shooter aimed too low, and no one was injured.
Throughout our visit with the settler, the students offered intelligent, unoffending, but sometimes challenging questions, which he answered willingly. We left his home with gratitude, hoping to maintain a relationship that would allow us to learn more from him in the future.
In the afternoon, we got to tour a tiny fenced-in Israeli kindergarten in the settlement. A young Israeli teacher unlocked the gate for us. We walked across the threshold and into a world of innocence, bliss, and beauty. I noticed a large compost bin sitting in a garden near the entrance and lamented the scarcity of such features in America’s schools. A friendly sign stood over the bin, explaining in Hebrew how to use the compost.
The teacher explained that this school teaches its students to develop a relationship with nature. She led us into the school’s small greenhouse, tucked between the building and the surrounding fence. Inside, three rows of pots provided soil for tomatoes, basil, lettuce, cucumber, thyme, and other vegetables and herbs. The children all tend to these plants themselves, their teacher explained. Just outside the greenhouse, she pointed out old drawers, thermoses, street lamps, and 5-liter beer containers filled with soil and their own array of vegetables and herbs. She proudly reported that students from her school frequently go home and teach their parents how to live more sustainably.
After a survey of the greenhouse and gardens, our guide brought us inside to see the space where the children spend most of their time. Just beyond the entrance, clear plastic spheres hung from the ceiling, each filled with a different grain or seed: lentils, chick peas, cardamom, beans, sunflower seeds, and others. Inside the first classroom, large cardboard flowers hung from the ceiling. Real, dried sunflowers sat on red knee-high wooden shelves, with half of their seeds removed. Wall decorations included a variety of recycled and reused goods. In the second classroom, five-year-old Israeli children sat at tiny tables making prints on paper using leaves dipped in paint.
I found myself thinking – this is a place I would love to send my kids. These children will grow up with an appreciation for the earth and a knowledge of how to interact with it. Unlike most of the developed world, they will both observe and engage in the process that creates their food.
As we prepared to leave the school grounds, I walked outside and around the side of the building to the playground in the back. They had the sort of jungle gym I would have loved as a child: swings and slides in abundance, with ample structures to climb.
I paused and took it all in: the playscape, the adults sitting alone waiting for younger versions of themselves to scamper out and disport themselves, the mulch beneath their feet. Finally my gaze fell on the wire fence – the barrier that encloses this small benevolent compound.
Suddenly this fence sparked a flashback that transported me to Delhi, India.
Fourteen months ago, while studying in the land of Gandhi and Ganesh, I visited an embassy school in the nation’s capital. My group had eaten lunch with a British family that lived in the gated community that incorporated the school. We sat in their dining room, ate Subway sandwiches with Sprite and Lays potato chips, and played with their children. After swimming in the community pool, we continued on our way. We walked out of the gate, crossed the street, and entered the toughest slum in all of Delhi.
In the midst of a city of 12 million, across the street from a wealthy international community, lie 3000 of the most destitute people on earth. We walked between patchwork shanties, dumbfounded by the juxtaposition presented by these two neighboring blocks. One man we met had not left his cot in years.
Why would the pristine school in Efrat remind me of the embassy school in Delhi? There is no squalid, overcrowded slum in or near Efrat. So what sparked the connection?
Let’s say you did decide to peer through those chain links and down into the valley – what will you see?
It might not come into focus at first. You might have to venture downhill somewhat, to get a better look. You might have to squint. You might have to listen very carefully, just to catch a whisper as it passed on the wind. If you do these things, however, what will you find?
You might find people whose homes have been displaced by massive roads built to connect settlements with Israel. You might find livelihoods lost on the hundreds of acres of olive trees bulldozed to make way for a wall twice as high as the one that fell in Berlin 22 years ago. You might find men and women in Bethlehem who once drove twenty minutes to visit their families in Ramallah, and now must take a circuitous route through checkpoints and over mountains, with a travel time that is impossible to predict. You might find a peaceful protester whose unarmed brother was killed by an Israeli rubber-coated bullet.
If these images sound troubling, however, you don’t have to put yourself through it. You don’t need to come down from the hill. It’s awfully hard to make out that sound on the wind, anyway.
You don’t have to look beyond the fence.