Sketches of Israel & Palestine Part I: Settlers

One of the first meetings on my trip to Israel and 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 fulfilments of his faith. The Jewish passage towards Jerusalem, aliyah, is based on a biblical narrative that this is the fulfilment 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 Ardie made clear at the outset of our meeting, was an insistence that nothing we would say today 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.

So we talked and before long, some inevitable questions about the harsh treatment of Palestinians were asked by my fellow travellers. The atmosphere became tense and more emotionally charged. I felt there were three threads of dialogue that Ardie raised in response to questions from our group, which I’ll do my best to recount:

1) A dispute about the levels of oppression: Ardie suggested that Palestinians are not oppressed. One argument for this, he said, was that many are living 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 appear 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 here that the discussion enters an endless dialogue of debate and arguments, accusations, denials and justifications that have troubled this land for so many years. I’ve stumbled into the centre of a very messy and highly charged dispute and I’m starting to wonder if my presence as a curious traveller is welcome. Yet I’m here. To learn, to listen and 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. Taken aback, I tried to explain 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 many consider an astonishing miracle in itself. As one of the early settlers in his community, he has helped Erfrata to mature as a neighbourhood. As we drove through the clean, beautifully maintained suburban streets, lined with colourful shrubs and olive trees, I could imagine the strong sense of community and solidarity 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 such a shared purpose suffers less from the social problems endemic in other communities such as addictions 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, this is Ardie’s home now.

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? Ardie was the most welcoming host, but I didn’t sense much warmness towards his neighbours over the wall. The wall serves as both a comfort and a 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 a 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 mis-informs its audiences and instils 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 waking 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 other’s beliefs, it was only to learn and understand more about this complex land. However, I did have hopes that I would witness some signs of genuine compassion towards Palestinians. Perhaps some admission of the human rights abuses and inflictions placed on hundreds of thousands of innocent people every day. A sense that this is unacceptable and that we need to strive for better. 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 unsettling. I wanted to find hope, but it wasn’t here.