The S-Word: A Weekend in an Israeli Settlement
On the day that I made aliyah to Israel, a nice couple with a teenage daughter stood behind me in the line at JFK Airport, preparing to drop off our bags. I began a conversation with the girl, who looked just a little bit younger than I, hoping she would be the first friend I would make during my aliyah journey. I learned that her mom and stepdad were making aliyah together, and she is in college in the US. The four of us talked as we stood in line for the three of us to sign our documents that would officially make us Israeli citizens.
The couple told me that they were moving to Neve Daniel, a settlement in Gush Etzion, where I had spent a Shabbat in 2013. Neve Daniel is a largely English-speaking and Shabbat-observant community, close-knit, and with many young kids. Oh yeah, and it’s technically over the Green Line, meaning it is considered a “settlement.”
We hear plenty about settlements from a political perspective on the news, but what I have found (now that this is my third Shabbat in this community) is something quite different from what I expected. Before visiting for the first time, most people (myself included) expect a dangerous area inhabited by extreme right-wing families who make Bibi Netanyahu look like Gideon Levy. I expected that their motivation for moving to a settlement might be connected to their belief that the land was given to Jews by God, or that Israelis should inhabit the land so that it will guarantee its Israeli identity in future land swaps.
The first time I visited, a well-known figure in the community told my group that Neve Daniel has very good relations with their Arab neighbors. Many of the people building the homes are Arab, and they prefer to work in Neve Daniel where wages are higher than they would earn working in their own neighborhoods.
During Shabbat dinner, we discussed what it is like to live in a settlement. Our hosts reminded us that even though Neve Daniel is a settlement, it is not a disputed land by most standards. When we hear about peace negotiations that may lead to a future Palestinian state, we usually hear that the West Bank and Gaza may become the future Palestinian land “with mutually agreed upon land swaps.” The reference to land swaps means that there are some parts of Israel that are largely Muslim/Arab and would theoretically be considered part of a future Palestinian state. Likewise, there are parts of the Palestinian territories that are largely Jewish/Israeli that would theoretically be considered part of the Jewish state. Neve Daniel is exactly the type of place that this “land swap” idea refers to. In fact, our hosts reminded us that after visiting Neve Daniel, President Jimmy Carter said this particular settlement is “not one that I can envision ever being abandoned or changed over into Palestinian territory. This is a part of settlements close to the 1967 line that I think will be here forever.”
After spending my third Shabbat weekend in Neve Daniel, I am surprised to say that I truly identify with the values that attract Jews to areas in Gush Etzion. My experiences with the land, vibe, and residents there have enabled me to better understand the people behind the headlines — those who have chosen to live (and welcome me into their home) in a settlement.
Eliana Rudee is a fellow with the Salomon Center for American Jewish Thought and the author of the “Aliyah Annotated” column for JNS.org. She is a graduate of Scripps College, where she studied international relations and Jewish studies. Her bylines have been featured in USA Today, Forbes, and The Hill. Follow her aliyah column on JNS.org, Facebook, and Instagram.