I Couchsurfed with Settlers in the Holy Land

By Andy Tenido

Alfei Menashe.

After catching a settler bus out of Gvaot (which, in contrast to the Palestinian buses leaving Bethlehem, was not stopped at the checkpoint and boarded by irate, gun-toting soldiers for a document inspection), I set about organizing my next CouchSurf. This was to be with Roni, a 23-year-old "businessman" from Alfei Menashe, near the West Bank city of Qalqilya.

Roni seemed a little suspicious of hosting an outsider in the settlement and wanted to meet me in Jerusalem before taking me out to Alfei Menashe. We exchanged phone numbers and he would periodically call me to get coffee. This turned into a frustrating game because, despite what I told Roni, I do not live in Jerusalem. I live in Ramallah, the de facto capital of the West Bank. Even though Ramallah is only about 15 km from Jerusalem, the trip takes around two hours thanks to the necessity of passing through the Qalandiya checkpoint, a kennel-like people-cage seemingly designed to afflict the greatest possible amount of inconvenience and humiliation upon everyone who passes through it.

After many botched attempts at meeting up, Roni called to invited me to an exciting event: he has a business, he said, that operates in 23 countries, and over the coming weekend they'd be meeting with their American business partners at a convention center in Tel Aviv. It's a closed event, but Roni reckons he can get me in, if I'm interested. Which, of course, I am. Meeting a big-shot businessman and his American business partners in Tel Aviv? My head swam with the possibilities of what this shady, mysterious business could be and what I could find out about it at this meeting.

The business was called Monavie and, although it really is a big-shot corporation, I quickly realized Roni is decidedly not a big-shot businessman. Monavie, you see, is more or less a pyramid scheme. Its business model is called "network marketing" and similar to Avon or Mary Kay, it involves getting people to get their friends to sell stuff, then the friends get their friends to sell stuff, and so on. Roni is maybe three stones up from the bottom of the pyramid, and it seems unlikely they're going to be building monuments to him any time soon. 

After trying to sell the idea to me, Roni shared his view on the settlements. "It was Arab land until 1967. Then some Israelis moved in when we took it in the war. We will have to give it back when Israel leaves that area. Some of us will have to leave. But for now, we live with the Arabs and coexist. It's very nice." In the five months I've been living in Palestine, I haven't met a single Arab who would describe the settlements (or the settlers) as "very nice," but I guess Roni has to tell himself something to be able to sleep at night.

While we talked, the convention center quickly filled up with açai-obsessed Israeli socialites. It soon turned out that what Roni meant when he said he was "meeting with our American business partners" was that one of the motivational speakers had flown in from the US to tell the crowd that anyone can sell açai juice in wine bottles if you just believe in yourself really, really hard.

At this point, I should mention that this took place around day four or five of the Israeli bombing attack on Gaza known as Operation Pillar of Defence. The war ended up causing at least 158 Palestinian casualties and six Israeli deaths, none in Tel Aviv. After the American guy was done jabbering at us, everyone in the room started dancing to that Black Eyed Peas song that goes "Tonight's gonna be a good, good night." This song is incredibly obnoxious on a good day, but watching a bunch of juice salesmen dance to it, waving Israeli flags while their army was bombing the shit out of Gaza on that same "good, good night" was one of the more obscene spectacles I've witnessed in my lifetime.

The American guy came back to tell us he had been sexually molested as a child. I didn't really understand what this had to do with selling açai juice, but if he had to get it off his chest, I guess it's good he had a venue to do it in. Roni gave me a ride back to central Tel Aviv and we made plans to meet up again so I could come out to Alfei Menashe. This didn't end up happening, but I did make it out there a couple of weeks later, CouchSurfing with a woman who was about the same age as my mum.

A memorial statue in Alfei Menashe.

The woman I met through CouchSurfing, Tami, picked me up in the nearby town of Kfar Saba. She and her husband David are Americans who immigrated to Israel about 20 years ago and never looked back. On the way to Alfei Menashe, we stopped to pick up Sam, David's daughter from a previous marriage. In the car, I learned that Tami is surprisingly liberal for a settler. She points out the separation barrier (also known as the "Apartheid Wall," depending on which side of it you're on) to the side of the highway.

"They built the security fence here, which is not good," Tami said, and Sam piped up from the backseat: "It's not good? It saves lives!" "Yeah, but first, it's passive security, which I don't like. Second, it cuts villages in two and people can't get across," Tami answered, before conceding "But it does save lives." We passed a Bedouin village and Tami said when the wall was built, the people there called their family from all over the West Bank to move in, hoping they would get Israeli citizenship due to the fact they lived inside the wall. But Israel, predictably, didn't give it to them.

Arriving in Alfei Menashe, I was struck by how much it looks like any upscale American suburb. It has nicely manicured lawns, a public swimming pool, clean streets, and immaculate houses. It was like the ticky-tacky town from Weeds, except with way more Israeli flags. When I got to Tami's house I met David, who loves cooking, talking to the family's myriad animals, and playing Civilisation on the computer. It seems these activities, plus reading, are pretty much all Tami and David do. They're basically like any American nuclear family, two cars in the garage and so on.

Construction in Alfei Menashe.

Except that, like all settlers, they live on stolen land, which they explain away by claiming Alfei Menashe is a "consensus settlement," basically meaning they believe the Palestinians don't mind it's there. I arrived on Shabbat, and helped David prepare Shakshouka. After we ate, I learned that Tami is a retired counter-intelligence officer who now spends her days studying the Torah. The next morning, Tami told me she used to be a volunteer sniper. Meaning she worked as a sniper with the Israeli police just for kicks, without getting paid.

Her explanation of the difficulties of sniper work with the police force destroyed any illusion I had of her as a normal American liberal. "Being a sniper for the police is much harder than being a sniper for the army," she said. "If a terrorist takes a hostage, you don't only have to worry about shooting the terrorist and not the hostage, you also have to worry about shooting a bullet through the wall of an apartment and hitting somebody else, or smashing glass and sending shrapnel everywhere. If you're in the army, you don't have to worry about any of that. It doesn't even matter if you hit what you're aiming at." 

Click through to read about the Israeli settler rave.