Monday, March 23, 2009

A Settler Home for Purim

(I waited until I left Israel to post this story, and I am not sure why. I guess I didn’t want to have to confront whatever anger it might inspire in those I write about. I tried to convince myself that I was being polite. Now I wonder if I am just cowardly.)

I met a young writer at my reading in Jerusalem. He invited me to join him for the Purim holiday in the settlement of Neve Daniel where he lives. I accepted the invitation right away even though I have strong feelings about the settlements themselves. These communities are built on stolen land in the West Bank and are deemed illegal by nearly every international body. I believe, and so do most Israelis, that the settlements represent one of the biggest obstacles to peace. If violent jihadists represent extremism on the Palestinian side of the equation, than the settlers represent extremism on the Israeli side. I have always believed this.

I took the bus from Jerusalem into Neve Daniel. The Wall followed the highway for part of this journey. For the benefit of the settlers, I suppose, the Israelis have made the Wall attractive here. Some of it is built of textured stone in various shades of pinkish tan and ivory. The implications of the barrier – its effects on Palestinian life, its silent rejection of peace – are whitewashed by a pleasant, garden-wall aesthetic.

Purim is a fascinating holiday. People dress in costume, sometimes as characters from the biblical figures the holiday is derived from. Others in disguises that would befit our North American Halloween. There is a lot of eating and a surprising amount of drinking. For many, drunkeness during Purim has a spiritual component. The bus was filled with young Israelis and American yeshiva-students in varying costumes. I listened to them talk about all events that were planned. Who was going to which party and with who. I know little about Judaism, but I always associated the faith with sombre devotion. It was heartening to see Judaism linked with such silliness and fun.

My settler 'guide' met me at the bus stop and took me to the house where we would have the Purim meal. The place was packed. More than twenty people crowded around the table. The noise was amazing. At times it seemed that everyone was talking at once, with one or two people singing Purim songs at one end of the table or another. With all their guests and the happy noise, my hosts had little time to talk with me about my project. I was relieved at this. I was afraid such talk would lead to a talk of politics, and I knew that my views would be as repulsive to them as theirs are to me. I suspect my hosts knew this, too. I decided to be a quiet and grateful guest, even though this made me feel like a fraud.

Things got uncomfortable, though, midway through the meal. One of the children had dressed up as a cowboy, and the family sang ‘Home on the Range’ in honour of his costume. Afterwards his mother, my host, announced that she knew another version of the song that she helped write. Her husband asked her not to sing it.

“Okay. I won’t sing it, but I will say the lyrics.” She turned to me. “But you have to remember that I am from the inner city.” The woman proceeded to recite a racist version of the song written to insult Mexicans. I don’t remember the middle part, but the song began with:

Oh give me a home,
Where the cockroaches roam…

And ended with:

Where seldom is heard
An English word,
And the bodegas are open all day.

I didn’t know how to react. The woman was clearly proud of this song. And she was beaming at me. I wanted to tell her that the song fit exactly with my image of what settlers are like. I wanted to say that I was not surprised at the song because, after all, the settlements themselves are built out of racism. I wanted to thank her for showing her true colours to me and vindicating my discomfort at accepting her generosity, and for being here at all. But I didn’t say anything.

After the meal, one of the children, a four year-old girl dressed as an angel but with her wings tied on upside-down, decided she wanted to sit in my lap. While the rest of the family was distracted by the post-meal prayer, the little girl reached across the table, grabbed a handful of raw cucumber sticks, and started playing with them as if they were building blocks.

“What are you making?” I whispered in her ear.

“A choo-choo train,” she whispered back.

I like kids. The girl reminded me a little of my niece, who I miss terribly when I am away from home, and I was touched by her immediate trust of me even though I was a stranger. It was a sweet moment.

But as we were both playing with our food, something occurred to me. If you had asked me, in that moment, if I thought that this little girl’s home should be taken away from her, I would have said yes. I would support the bulldozing of her house, of her school, of the playground down the road where she climbs the monkey bars and swings on the swings.

I had a hard time with this. I had a hard time reconciling my opinion of the settlers as a group with the hospitality of this family and the tenderness of this one child. I haven’t changed my mind about the settlements. They are immoral. But things get complicated when we are confronted by individual souls. It was a difficult day.


Carol said...

I couldn't help but think of a lyric of John Lennon's, when I read your last paragraph - if life could only be that simple:

"Imagine there's no countries
It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace"

Rather idealistic, but a wonderful fantasy. We are all of one blood, unfortunatly it gets rather complicated after that thanks to religion and politics. The little girl would have evoked the same feelings in me.
Safe journeys.

Daisy said...

I wish we could erase the history. I wish we could forget what has happened in the past and start fresh. Noting would change if we continue reacting they way we always did. I know it's a wishful thinking.
have a safe trip

Filomena said...

Hi Marcello,

Thank you for this post. It is a necessary reminder of how a divisive society consistently reflects dysfunction. I suspect that your "discomfort" with the dinner was a natural reaction to how bizarre the whole thing must have been. And who among us has not been placed in a similar situation of hospitality extended by individuals who conjure up in our hearts and minds very mixed feelings? Is it cowardly not to know how to react, in the moment, with spoken words in such cases? Gratefully, with writing, we can reflect and re-visit, which you have done beautifully.

Btw, what do you think of the whole George Galloway controversy? Does it surprise you?



Marcello Di Cintio said...

Hi Filomena. Thanks for writing.

Am I surprised about the Galloway issue? I suppose I shouldn't be. This is a government, after all, that boasts a sitting member who called Nelson Mandela a terrorist.

Nobody, not even a monkey like Jason Kenny, really thinks that Galloway is a security threat. (Though a sub-monkey like Rob Anders might). But that is point. It is not about 'thinking.' I guarantee that there was no reasoned debate about what should be done in this matter. Harper's government rules Canada according to some conservative playbook that reduces every issue to the question, 'what would our conservative voters prefer?' So a man like Galloway's, whose views are not conservative, might be banned from the country. The CBC, tagged as liberal, suffers from cuts while right-leaning media gets bailouts. There is no nuanced thinking, only reaction.

The Conservative Party does not understand that it governs the entire country, not just the third of Canadians who actually voted for them.

(I should point out, too, the similarities between Hamas and the Conservative Party. Both are right-wing parties first elected as a reaction to the perceived corruption of the governing power rather than for their own politics.)

Alan said...

I hope you will have the intellectual honesty to post this:

First of all,it would have been the right thing to discuss all of this in person when you were here in our home, instead of over the internet after you left.
I will leave the correcting of your other "facts" and "history", etc.
to others, and will just comment on one point- the "song" you heard at our home.
We lived in an apartment in Washington Heights for 13 years, in a small apt in a not so well kept building (the land lord happened to have been a Jew, since race seems to matter so much to you).
Due to the lack of proper maintenence in the building we were constantly battling scores of roaches (and mice...). Nonetheless it was a very special period in our family life and we laughed (and sang) about some of the difficulties, and anoimilies- all real and part of our experience(and none putting anyone down).
The were was no racism in the song- rather you saw/ heard (as you said yourself) exactly what you expected to... We were not making fun of others, in those lyrics or otherwise. We joked about what we experienced.BTW none of the many neighbors that we knew were Mexican, as far as I know although I didn't check as it didn't makea difference to me.
The Talmud teaches us that people project their shortcommings onto others. I am saddened to see how your predjuces caused you to project it onto others. We (us "settlers") live here because it was our home for thousands of years, long before there were Moslems or so called "Palestinians". What does racism have to do with it?
Arabs work in Judea without fear daily- what happens when a Jew walks into an Arab village by mistake?

Yitzchak Twersky

Eitan said...

Hi Marcelo,

I really appreciated your ambivalence about the little girl and the difficulty of reconciling your connection with her with your image of the rapacious, racist settler. Once you look closely at something, it inevitably takes on greater texture and becomes more complex than it had seemed from afar.

The same is true of the settlement you visited. From the distance of one reading the newspapers, one might well conclude that all the settlements are built, as you wrote, on stolen land. But let's come a little closer and watch the story take on more texture.

When you visit Neve Daniel and look around, you might notice the sign in one small park in the center of the settlement. That sign reminds the reader that Neve Daniel was built on land which used to be a farm -- the "Cohen Farm," in fact. Farmer Cohen, a Jewish farmer, owned the land before the 1967 war, and in fact even before the 1948 war which created Israel. Farmer Cohen was there, and was there as a full legal owner, before there was an Israel, farming his land. When he was done farming, he donated the land to the Jewish National Fund, which today holds state lands for Israel. The 1948 war led to the creation of Israel, but that Israel did not include the Cohen Farm in its borders. The 1967 war left Israel with the Cohen Farm, so some Jews came back to the land which had been Farmer Cohen's (and then the JNF's) and built the place where you spent a pleasant Purim.

Purim is the holiday which highlights surprises of turnabout, the ways in which dire situations can turn suddenly joyous, worry to celebration, mourning to gladness. Perhaps it's appropriate that your perceptions of the settlers began to change on that day as well...

Marcello Di Cintio said...

I want to thank Eitan and Yitzchak Twersky for taking the time to comment. It is always interesting to discover who out there is 'listening.'

And Mr. Twersky, since you are following the blog, perhaps you could be so kind as to post the complete lyrics to your wife's song. I only remembered the beginning and the end.

Ashley said...

Well done Yitzchak for posting here, though I don't necessarily agree with your assessment of Marcello's perceptions or history in general. And well done Marcello for going wider with this discussion and encouraging us to come here and see the conversation in progress. The intellectual honesty inherent in voicing what you thought, being called out, and allowing the discrepancy to stand is SO IMPORTANT. That you examined your own intentions surrounding waiting to write about this until after leaving Israel is the crux of it all: that hesitation and self-doubt is the gem inside the writing and is its own salvation.

Keeeeeeep going!

Alan said...

I was stunned when I read your article. My innocent song which I shared with you- and with our twenty plus odd guests from all different walks of life that evening, celebrated the contentment(not racism!) of living in a community where I found joy!!!- (which is why we chose to live there for over thirteen years). I will not repeat the lyrics as per your request as you have proven yourself to be one who twists to suit his agenda.I was reminded of the lyrics from another famous song-
..."All lies in jest, still a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest..."
I will add that the week following Purim, we hosted a weekend in our home for ten teenage girls from Etheopia- hardly the racist image that you would like to paint us as being.
I hope that my daughter and her brothers and sisters will grow up to follow our example of loving and embracing strangers, and inviting them to their home, even though there will be those who will use it as a way to stab them in the back.
Geula Twersky

Daneil said...

Let's see who really is the racist?? You want to destroy the houses and towns of one people based solely on the fact that they are Jews and think that the obstacle to peace is those towns when in fact the Jew killing started long before there was a Jewish state. We call what you openly advocate racial cleansing in its pure form. You also support a two state solution when the Arabs DO NOT!!! They openly call for an Arab state "from the river to the sea" Just as the Irish Catholic Republican living in the middle of Protestant unionists is proud that he is just that I'm proud to be Israeli, Jewish and a resident of the Jewish towns on the West Bank of the Jordan river in particular the town you visited and wrongly called "stolen land". By the way we will accept your full apologies if and when when they come.

Marcello Di Cintio said...


I read over my initial post, which I wrote with great care and much consideration, and I don't believe I have anything to apologize for.

Anonymous said...

How sad it is that someone that has the ability to write doesn't have the ability to read or understand facts - Gush Etzion - the settlements were stolen lands - yes stolen from the Jewish people from the Arabs that never claimed it, until the Jews settled it.

I feel sorry for you marcello - you have let anti semitism seep into your brain and heart.

The big question here is why were you afraid to post this while in Israel ?- Were you afraid those viscious settlers would attack you and kill you? You are projecting how your loving Arab friends would react if you were to say to them they are repugnant for killing women and children in cold blood.
It seems to me that you missed out a small detail in your description of Neve Daniel, when you entered the community. There is a memorial site of a thirteen year old boy that was gunned down while learning Torah in Jerusalem -
gee I don't think the Arab terrorist knew who he was killing, only that it was a Jew.

Tell me what do you think of the Arab countries that kicked out the Jews and took their property? Maybe Israel should call the settlements refugee camps, and then send in freedom fighters to reclaim their ancestral lands - hmm I don't think you want to hear that either.


Jaimie said...

I find it interesting that Mrs. Twersky would "not repeat the lyrics as per your request as you have proven yourself to be one who twists to suit his agenda."

It seems to me that the lyrics could not be "twisted" printed in their original form; there wouldn't be the chance for that, coming from the original speaker. Perhaps she does not wish to repeat them for they do not back her defense?

A quote to keep in mind here would be "The truth always reveals itself."

Martin said...

Good Morning Friends,

On a similar vein to Carol's post, I wanted to point toward a commonality we share, a need for harmony and peaceful relations.
And on that note I wondered if any of you had come across the work of the Permaculture Research Institute in the Dead Sea Valley?
In their project to re-green the desert there, Muslims, Christians and Jews worked together to create a solution to food security by building a 12 acre food producing garden, an oasis of hope amidst millennia of traditional agricultural practices.
The Permaculture team were laughed at for suggesting the changes they brought, no doubt every day there were doubts about the possibility of change, after all for so long people have done things the way they have always done them and so formed established patterns of belief.
However, nature is wiser than man, and man when he learns to work with nature becomes wiser by understanding his relative ignorance.
With the looming reality of peak oil, inevitable changes to the way things have been will follow, it then calls upon the greater humanity within each of us to reach out and strive for new goals, new potentiality and new possibilities for the world to be shared by our grandchildren.
I for one would have loved to experience the celebration of Purim, for beyond the specific differences of our many faiths there are simple, undeniable truths ... we're all just families. Families that make communities. Mothers, Fathers, Aunts, Uncles, Brothers, Sisters, young and old, all enjoying the gift of sharing the last drop of water, the last crumb of bread and the greater part of ourselves in an often unconscious offering to life itself.

Here's a toast to the past, the present and the future.
May we learn from our past, be present in each moment and find harmony in our shared future by embracing the richness of our diversity.

With Love


Avraham B said...

To Marcello: I think you'll publish this because not doing so would prove everything I say, and I don't think you want that.
To anyone besides Marcello reading this: I am the young writer he wrote about.

When we first spoke about your coming to Neve Daniel to meet some of my friends, you said you wanted to get an equal and unbiased view of the situation. Amazingly, I believed you, and in fact defended you to others. They told me that, same as every other western writer you had a preconceived position and you were just fishing for 'evidence' to support it. To my shame, I told them you really did want the truth and to give you a chance, and, for my sake, they did.

I suppose if I get down to it I knew you weren't going to be swayed by anything you experienced here. I suppose I was just hoping that experiencing the natural and overflowing warmth and hospitality of my friends here would put a tiny scratch in your armour and perhaps make what you wrote slightly less than a full out attack on us.

All that you wrote about the Jews not belonging here and us stealing the land, I expected, and to be honest it doesn't bother me so much. After all, I can just add you to the very long list of writers who have it in for the Jews.

What I am absolutely livid about though is this:

"If violent jihadists represent extremism on the Palestinian side of the equation, than the settlers represent extremism on the Israeli side. I have always believed this."

I am shocked and hurt that you can even think to compare me and my friends, simply on the basis of our geographical choice of residence, to people who purposely murder women and children for political gain.

I would ask you to retract this part of your post so that I don't have to go and apologize to my friends for exposing them to someone who thinks they are no better than cowardly murderers. Tell me it was an oversight or a mistake, something, just don't tell me that terrorists and 'settlers' are equal in your mind.

If it wasn't a mistake, and you really did want to get an unbiased view, then tell me Marcello, how long did you spend with Hamas?

Alan said...

No, Jamie you are totally wrong. My wife was digusted at Marcello's twisting of the lyrics to suite his prejudice and racism. The line he fogot was a reference to our rodent problem in the apt. it went "and the mice come out at night to play". I guess that makes us racists insofar as we favor the human race over that of rodents.

You join Marcello in his baseless and highly prejudiced racism against Jews. This is the core of the matter- Moslems (and their husbands such as Marcello) who can't stomach Jews living anywhere, especially in the Middle East. It doesn't matter that the land never belonged to them, wasn't occupied by anyone (or was occupied by Jews). They just can't stand that we are here.

No one from ND bothers Arabs who live near us in Nahlin, or the hundreds who work here daily. The same is not true in the reverse.

But I forgot, you and Marcello are only concerned with your theories and orejudices and shouldn't be bothered with facts. If you were interested in honest objective truth you could begin by reading From time immemorial. But that is a big if...

Avraham B said...

In the amazing world we live in people can be selective of who they condemn on the Palestinian side, yet on the Israeli side everyone is condemned for the very same reason that if applied to the Palestinian side would condemn all of them. This while the Palestinian side, at least passively, supports factions of terrorists. While there is nothing of the sort on the Israeli side.

In the amazing world we live in people will be up in arms when accidental collateral damage occurs on the Palestinian side. Yet when Israeli civilians are purposely murdered, it rolls off them like water off a duck's back and makes no impression whatsoever.

In the amazing world we live in people will ceaselessly seek to blame Jews for all of there own shortcomings. Inventing logically ridiculous 'reasons' why it is all their fault. Even though a moments objective consideration would reveal these peoples position to be a farce at best, and willful condemnation of the righteous at worst.

In the amazing world we live in people's constant desire to perceive everything they've done as good and right, will make them blame others for their own problems. Rather than admitting a mistake, correcting it, and moving on a stronger person for it.

Anonymous said...

So Marcello you must be pleased with todays news - a poor arab had to go into a community and savagely kill a thirteen year old boy and critically wound another child (7years old) with an axe in his head - why you ask? according to you - these children are a threat to peace! Hey marcello I sure wouldn't want to offend you - I might get a bomb in my car - because just living in Israel is a threat to peace.
Funny but I don't seem to remember hearing any stories about how the Arabs brutally killed the british when they ocuppied these areas - makes you kind of wonder when this terrible injustice started doesn't it?

Marcello Di Cintio said...

Only a lunatic - and an anonymous, illiterate one at that - could glean from my blog that I would be 'pleased' with the news of a dead child.

I will continue posting comments to this blog until they get personally abusive. And they are edging close to that.

I guess I will have to erect my own little wall.

Ashley said...

Keep going Marcello! This is your blog and beware of those who would have you censor yourself. As a travel writer your tool is your impressions, even if they are (in the opinions of some) inaccurate. Look at how powerful your words have been here, how many lives they have touched. You may not be welcome to re-visit these people but you have certainly opened a valuable dialogue and brought many previously unattached people into the discussion. Well done.

That said, your commenters should be reminded that simply being, in theory, unfavourably disposed towards Israeli settlement policies and/or the history of same does not an anti-Semite make.

Eitan said...

Friends, the temperature of the rhetoric on this thread is rising to a level at which it's becoming difficult for us to really listen to one another. If one purpose of communicating here is to examine our own thinking by hearing the thinking of others who may disagree with us, preserving mutual respect is even more important than usual. We all feel strongly about this topic, but I suggest before we push "publish" that we each wait an hour, review what we wrote, and decide whether it will contribute constructively to the conversation. Sorry for preaching; end of sermon ;-)

Avraham B said...

Marcello wrote me:

"At my second visit to Neve Daniel, your friend said "for every civilian the Palestinians kill, Israel should build another settlement." This comment, I think, equates jihadists and settlers more than anything I wrote. What do you think?"

This was my response:

I think it most certainly does not equate them.

Erecting a settlement is a profoundly less incendiary thing than murder, at least it should be. Unfortunately from world response one would get the impression that we are trying to commit the same crimes against humanity that the Palestinians do, just by building homes. I see no equation whatsoever between the two.

What my friend meant is that we wouldn't stoop to using the same contemptible tactics the Palestinians do. However, we do need to do something, and since erecting settlements seems to mean so much to them, perhaps they would view it as retaliation and think more carefully about their actions before they commit these crimes.Unfortunately I don't think that would actually work, but it is an idea worth weighing carefully.

This is a military situation, obviously, and if you were to ask any military officer what the solution to this crisis is militarily, I think you'd be very surprised by their response. I don't mean an Israeli officer either, I mean any American, Canadian, British, or Australian officer. If you've read Sun Tzu, and you learn the facts of engagement, in Gaza for example, you'll realize the astounding lack of aggression and the profound pacifism with which Israel has repeatedly responded to these attacks on it's population.

Shimi said...

There's a lot to be said about what you just posted but I'd just like to point out a few things to you. The settlement you visited, Nive Daniel, is part of the Gush Etzion block in the Judean Hills. When the early Zionist settlers came to the what was then called Palestine, they bought up uninhabited parts of the hills and built up K'far Etzion. Shortly before or during the 1948 war, every inhabitant of the settlement was brutally massacred by Arabs. After Israel conquered back the Judean Hills in 1967, the K'far Etzion area was still uninhabited. Since the area was close to Jerusalem Israel decided to build settlements there as part of a defense strategy. Currently, the area is Called Gush Eztion and is included in the Road Map as part of Israel. The right of these settlements to exist is not being seriously debated in the peace process.

Also there is a major difference between settlers and Islamic Fundamentalist/facist/nationalist terrorists. The main one being: settlers don't strap bombs onto themselves and bomb civillians in the name of Allah. Settlers might be crazy, but they're not murderers.

Alan said...

I’d like to add to what my friend Avraham wrote.

He quoted you as follows:

"At my second visit to Neve Daniel, your friend said "for every civilian the Palestinians kill, Israel should build another settlement." This comment, I think, equates jihadists and settlers more than anything I wrote. What do you think?"

1. Assuming that this is indeed what you wrote, and I certainly trust him, that is the most specious argument I’ve ever heard.
Your statement equated the actions of terrorists in committing acts of terror with settlers living and budding homes in terms of the extremism and being an assault on peace. That is what was objectionable about your comment.
I most certainly was making no equation of the sort. What I said was the following: The terrorists goal is to remove any Jewish presence from Israel. [Incidentally, not from Judea and Samaria- rather from Israel. Palestinian terrorism did not begin with Jewish control over the “West Bank”. It predates 1967 and if- God forbid- we ever went back to the 1967 borders it would continue.]
Therefore , the most effective non-violent and humanitarian means of eliminating terrorism is to eliminate the incentive. Building settlements in response to acts of terror would soon teach them that they are counterproductive. Has Israel done at the start of the first intifada, it would have saved thousands of lives- both Israeli and Palestinian.
I fail to see anything in this that equates terrorists who target innocent women and children with Israelis trying to live on peace in their homes.
2. There is no country in the world where its citizens have a greater historical and moral claim to their land than in Israel (especially Judea and Samaria). At the same time , nowhere in the world are people who build homes accused of being obstacles to peace and equated with terrorists other than here. No one questions the rights of Amercans or Canadians of English citizens, no one is boycotting their products. And yet, when we return to our land the world is in an uproar. When we build on barren land, previously uninhabited land or a Jewish farm you object. There is a presumption that the so called Palestinians should be given anything they ask- and if not, we are impediments to peace. There is no excuse for such patent nonsense.
There is no explanation for any of this other than anti-Semitism. We are not the racists here!

Yitzchak Twersky