Sketches of Israel/Palestine Part I: Settlers

One of the first meetings on my trip to Israel/Palestine was with Ardie Geldman, an Israeli settler that lives on the Efrat settlement, south of Jerusalem. Ardie is originally from Chicago, Illinois and made aliyah to Jerusalem with his wife in 1982. He has six children and works as a fundraiser. Searching for his name online brings up various blog posts from people that have visited him, in hope of hearing “a settler’s viewpoint”. Ardie welcomes many overseas groups into his home and over time he has ended up engaging almost exclusively with groups that sympathise with Palestinians. He has written extensively about these experiences and his story was an important narrative for us to hear on our journey.

Ardie warmly welcomed us into his home. After a brief introduction, I asked Ardie what motivated his move to Israel. In short, he explained that in his early 20s, following the death of his father he started going to his local synagogue and found himself drawn to his Jewish faith and heritage. This developed during his college years and eventually, he felt it was clear that moving to Israel would be one of the ultimate fulfillments of his faith. The Jewish passage towards Jerusalem, aliyah, is based on a biblical narrative that this is the fulfillment of God’s promise to the descendants of the Hebrew patriarchs. The importance of living in Israel is also written in the writings of the Talmud.

Now, one thing that was clear from the start of our meeting: Ardie insisted that nothing we would say would change his views. He says he has heard all ‘the questions’ before and can respond to them all. With that said, the terms of our meeting were clear and that it was naive to believe that his heart or mind would be changed!

So we talked and before long, the inevitable questions about the treatment of Palestinians were discussed. The atmosphere became more tense. More emotionally charged. I felt there were three threads of dialogue that Ardie raised in response to questions from our group:

1) A dispute about the levels of oppression: Ardie suggested that Palestinians are not oppressed. One argument for this, he said, was that many live good lives and drive expensive cars, so how can we call that oppression? To further endorse this narrative, he referred us to his “Points of Light”, which are a collection of case studies on his website of positive Jewish and Palestinian collaboration and support. His argument that followed, was that the activities that appears to us as oppression, are rather justified responses to evil acts and continued threats to the safety and security of Jewish Israelis.

2) His right to the land: which is based on both a biblical and historical argument.

3) That Palestinians have had plenty of opportunities to strike peace deals with Israel, but have not been willing to negotiate.

It’s with such claims that we enter the endless dialogue of debate and arguments, accusations, denials and justifications that have troubled this land for so many years. I’m walking into the middle of an emotional, long-standing dispute and I’m starting to wonder if my presence is welcome. Yet I’m here. To learn, to listen, to observe.

Ardie said he was frustrated that Israel attracted so much international attention. He suggested it was disproportionate and he asked why groups like ours were not visiting countries such as Syria and China, where there are much more serious abuses of human rights. He said he wants to see protest groups spread out a bit, as Israel attracts a disproportionate amount of attention. I was surprised that he felt this and I pointed out that myself and other members of our group do care passionately about other injustices happening in the world.

I thought about how Ardie’s entire adult life has been centred around the creation and advancement of Israel, something he considers an astonishing miracle in itself. As one of the early settlers in his community, he has helped Erfrata to mature into a neighbourhood. As we drove through the clean, beautifully maintained suburban streets, lined with colourful shrubs and olive trees, I could believe there was the strong sense of community that Ardie described. A community where neighbours support each other and find connection through their different journeys and shared beliefs. A more connected community is usually a healthier community. Perhaps one that’s motivated by a shared purpose suffers less from the social problems endemic in other communities such as alcohol abuse and petty crime? I thought about Ardie’s family and home: a Beatles Songbook balanced on the piano, a neighbourhood he has invested his entire life into cultivating. He would never want to give this up. Whether the arguments are rational or irrational, straight or skewed, Ardie would always justify his rights to live on the Efrat settlement. A justification that has come at great cost to Palestinians.

Yet what life is this? These settlements are encircled by heavy duty security. Fencing, guards and imposing walls. On the inside, people must feel a great sense of safety and comfort. Yet I wonder what other feelings brew. How do children feel growing up with the wall? What do they feel about those on “the other side”? What are they told? The wall is both a comfort and a huge barrier to finding peace and connection with the wider community.

As I write this, I google Ardie again and find his Facebook page, where he recently shared this blog piece by an ex-Israeli soldier who was stationed in the West Bank. The blogger describes how he sat in disbelief during a lecture by the NGO Breaking the Silence, which was full of lies and misinformation, aimed at instilling hostility towards Israel. That blogger was once a soldier and felt that “Israel’s concern for the welfare of the Palestinians was impressive, and he was proud to be part of it”. This is an example of the narrative Ardie wants to tell. That the Palestinians’ human rights movement misinforms its audiences and instills a hostility towards Israel. He is trying to present a different Israel, one that has moral fibre and fully rational, justified responses.

As I read that blog piece, I then thought of a story which I heard on the podcast, This American Life (Episode 493: Picture Show). It’s a story about Israeli soldiers that were ordered to go through the streets, routinely wake up Palestinian families in the middle of the night, to take photos and ask questions. A routine exercise they called mapping. The soldier in this story explains that the exercise wasn’t really about mapping (he was ordered to throw the data away straight afterwards), rather it was about maintaining power, intimidation and control over the Palestinian population of that town.

These are just a couple of stories to highlight how easy it is to find dialogues that present two utterly different perspectives on this land. In meeting Ardie, I understood that our purpose was not about changing each others beliefs, it was about seeking understanding. However I did have hopes that I would witness some signs of a genuine compassion towards Palestinians. Perhaps an admission that human rights abuses are really happening to thousands of innocent people everyday and that this is unacceptable. I hoped to witness a genuine desire for a peaceful future. I was drawn to Ardie. He was warm, friendly and welcoming. Yet I found the experience uncomfortable, because I couldn’t find genuine hope.

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