Living the American Dream in the West Bank
Hanging Out with Israel’s Illegal Homesteaders
In many people’s imaginations, Jewish settlers in the West Bank are bearded, M16-toting fundamentalists living in hilltop trailers overrun with barefoot women and children. And sometimes that’s the reality—but not always.
In 2010, 269 Jews moved from America to West Bank settlements, many of which are marketed as “bedroom communities” to families and white-collar professionals in the US. The migration is called “making aliyah,” which translates roughly from the Hebrew as “movin’ on up.” Never mind that it’s a violation of the Geneva Conventions for Israel, as an occupying power, to install civilians in the West Bank, one fifth of which, according to the Oslo Accords, falls under the jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority.
To encourage Jews to illegally settle there, the Israeli government subsidizes home purchases and offers reduced rates for leasing land, in addition to the perks all new Israeli citizens get such as free health care, upward of a 90 percent reduction in property taxes, tuition waivers for earning advanced degrees, and a payment of about $14,000 spending money for a family of five. The first installment is paid on arrival at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport—in cash.
Prospective immigrants shop for homes at frequent government-sponsored events, like the Israeli real-estate exhibition that recently took place in New York, or the “aliyah expo” I attended a few years ago in the Times Square Marriott. Neatly bearded and wearing a knitted yarmulke, Shmuel Aron of Brooklyn Realty sat in front of a particleboard wall affixed with photos of sleek high-rises in Har Homa, which was billed as an Israeli town but is in fact a settlement located squarely within Palestine, near Bethlehem. Simply put, the Israeli government carves up the West Bank, builds illegal homes in Palestinian territory, calls it Israeli territory, and then invites Jews to move in. Booths draped in fabric offered information packets on floor plans, as well as the many government subsidies that accompany aliyah. After browsing the offerings, I spotted a bowlful of fortune cookies. “Israel is for tough cookies,” my fortune read.
While Israel encourages Jews from around the world to move anywhere in the Holy Land, Palestinians aren’t so lucky. During the 1948 War, when Israel declared statehood, Zionist forces expelled 700,000 Palestinians from what is now Israel. To Israelis, this was the War of Independence, and to Palestinians, it was the Nakba—the catastrophe. To this day, the Israeli government prevents these exiled Palestinian refugees and their descendants from returning to their homes.
The armistice lines drawn in 1949 after the war form Israel’s internationally recognized boundary, the infamous Green Line, which demarcates the West Bank from Israel. The building of Israeli settlements in Palestine began in 1967, when Israel occupied the West Bank in the Six-Day War. From the start, the goal of the settlement project was to establish “facts on the ground”—to erase the Green Line. There are now more than 500,000 Jewish settlers in the West Bank who live there in violation of international law. And sometimes there are rare Israeli casualties like in May of 2011 when a man sneaked into the Israeli settlement Itamar and knifed a whole family, killing three kids.
While 1967 marked the beginning of the establishment of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, in the 1980s the government developed a scheme to shift its settlement project into hyperdrive by marketing the developments to Israelis as “suburbs” of major metropolitan areas like Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Promises of generous government subsidies attracted droves of suburbanites from Israel proper and Jewish immigrants from around the world—people who crossed the Green Line into the West Bank less for ideological reasons and more for the good deals. The government seized more and more land from Palestinians to construct settler-only highways, connecting the homesteaders to cities on the Israeli side of the Green Line.
“The subsidized suburbia idea is what really changed the demography of the West Bank,” Neve Gordon, author of Israel’s Occupation, told me. In the past 30 years, there has been a 1,600 percent increase in the West Bank Israeli-settler population. The more Israelis over the Green Line, the thinking goes, the more entrenched the occupation will become. Settlers are used as pawns in a game of territorial acquisition and control.
Case in point: On November 30, 2012, the day after the United Nations voted to give Palestinians a status upgrade from “observer entity” to “non-member state,” the Israeli government made an announcement: 3,000 new settlement homes would be going up in the West Bank. If they hadn’t already made it clear while gobbling up land for four decades, it was now a certainty that the Israeli government didn’t intend to leave much of the West Bank for a Palestinian state.
In the VICE documentary Renegade Jewish Settlers, correspondent Simon Ostrovsky travels from Tel Aviv to the remote West Bank outposts where young Israelis squat for the sake of their heritage.
A little while back, photographer Gillian Laub visited the settlement of Hashmonaim—about 40 minutes northwest of Jerusalem. Residents of Hashmonaim enjoy manicured lawns, top-notch schools, and panoramic views of the surrounding hillsides. There’s even a baseball diamond by the entrance, just past the guardhouse.
Nearly half of Hashmonaim’s 2,600 settlers are from the New York area. With the Ben-Gurion Airport a convenient 22-minute drive away, many residents actually keep their white-collar American jobs, working remotely and commuting back as needed. Prospective settlers receive a handy FAQ sheet: “Is this area over the ‘Green Line?’ ” reads one question. “Geographically and tax-wise, yes,” the sheet explains. “Security-wise and politically, no.” In other words: Yes, this settlement is technically illegal according to international law. But because it’s guarded by armed men 24/7, and because the Israeli government officially sanctions the settlement, Hashmonaim doesn’t feel illegal.
Hashmonaim’s settlers are religious Zionists, meaning they see the land beneath their homes as God-given. It’s a territorial claim passionately disputed by the neighboring Palestinian village of Nil’in, the two enclaves separated by a barbed-wire fence.
But things weren’t always this way. In 1967, after defeating Egypt, Syria, and Jordan in the Six-Day War, the Israelis began the occupations of Gaza, the Golan Heights, and the West Bank, Nil’in included. In 1985, they seized about 234 acres from Nil’in and built Hashmonaim there. Then, in 2002, Israel began constructing the Separation Barrier—a wall that’s 273 miles long and growing. Today the stretch that passes through Nil’in is a fence that divides the Palestinians from Hashmonaim. (Other parts of the Separation Barrier consist of a 25-foot-tall concrete wall.) In addition to providing security, the Separation Barrier is just another move in Israel’s land-grab handbook: The wall’s route veers into Palestinian territory and puts Nil’in residents’ farmland on the Israeli side with their settlements. But Nil’in residents’ themselves, separated from their land, actually live on the Palestinian side. Israel controls where the fences are built, and they use its construction to cede more land. It’s an effective strategy: Today, 89 percent of Hashmonaim sits on land that once belonged to Nil’in. If all goes according to plan, when Israel finishes the construction of the Separation Barrier, another 625 acres—about 20 percent of what remains—of Nil’in’s land will be lost. So it goes in many Palestinian villages affected by the Separation Barrier’s route, which effectively annexes 10 percent of the entire West Bank.
Every Friday, as in many villages in the occupied Palestinian territories, residents in Nil’in hold a demonstration against the Separation Barrier and the settlements. While Israeli settlers are citizens subject to Israeli civil law, Palestinian protesters are subject to military law because they’re under occupation. Palestinians—including children—are regularly rounded up in the night, interrogated without access to lawyers, beaten, and even tortured, according to reports by numerous human rights monitors like B’tselem, Amnesty International, and Defense for Children International. Testimony is coerced from Palestinian children, pressuring them to give up information about protest leaders and participants. (In Bil’in, one village over from Nil’in, a Palestinian schoolteacher and protest leader named Abdallah Abu Rahmah recently spent 16 months in prison on charges of “incitement” and “organizing illegal demonstrations.”) Since 2005, Israeli Defense Forces have killed five Nil’in protesters, and at least 23 Palestinians—including 12 children—have lost their lives during protests against the Separation Barrier.
One rainy Friday, I visited Nil’in and tromped through the surrounding olive fields with Mohamed Ameera, a Birzeit University grad student who often attends the weekly protests in his village. We stopped at a low stone wall, about halfway between the village and Hashmonaim, the Israeli settlement. Mohamed pointed across the Separation Barrier, to a cluster of red-tiled roofs in Hashmonaim. “Those houses on the corner are built on my land,” he said flatly. Properties such as these would be sold to settlers as “cottages” or “villas” for upward of $1 million.
It’s not hard to see how the growth of settlements is a cause for tension here. “If somebody comes into your house, takes over the top two floors, and puts you in the basement, how are you going to live here?” asks Bethlehem University professor Mazin Qumsiyeh, a prominent activist against the ritzy—and American-filled—Gush Etzion settlements, about an hour’s drive southeast of Hashmonaim. A November 2009 poll in Arutz Sheva, a prosettler newspaper, supplied an answer. The survey asked respondents to imagine an ideal solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—more than half answered, “Transfer of Palestinians to another Arab country.”
Allison Levine Speiser and Baruch Speiser (top photo)
Allison Levine Speiser and Baruch Speiser both voted for Barack Obama in November 2008. The following August, they packed up their three kids and moved from Highland Park, New Jersey, to the West Bank settlement of Mitzpe Yericho. Two of their three children were adopted through the New Jersey foster-care system. “We don’t all fit in a box,” Allison, a former environmental-NGO worker and schoolteacher, explains. Mitzpe Yericho’s population consists of Jews from all over the world, which was a big draw for Allison and Baruch. “We wanted to live in a place where there would be kids who looked like my kids, families that looked like my family,” Allison says.
Baruch, a software engineer, was practical about joining a settlement: It was cheaper and easier to find the right kind of suburbia—“rural-ish but not rural”—and, importantly, Allison was gung-ho. She was adamant that the family only move to the West Bank, not anywhere within Israel proper. Both are religious Zionists, but Allison was the one who most wanted “to make a stand,” as she puts it. “My wife is very much a free spirit,” Baruch says. He laughs about Allison’s fantasy of living in a trailer outpost. “She has this romantic image in her mind of pioneering the land.” Last June marked the 45th anniversary of the Six-Day War. “They lost,” Allison says, her central New Jersey twang rising. “We won. Get over it.”
Joe and Aviva Offenbacher
One by one, Joe and Aviva Offenbacher’s relatives moved to Israel, until the time came when they were the only ones left behind in the upscale, heavily Modern Orthodox town of Teaneck, New Jersey. Their options: Either move into Joe’s parents’ empty apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan or “move farther east,” as Joe puts it. In 2004, they sold their messenger-service company on 16th Street and joined Joe’s sister’s family in Hashmonaim. With some start-up help from the Israeli government, Joe began importing and distributing Slurpee machines around the Promised Land, where the beverages are sold as Freezees for trademark reasons. Joe now works with local police to patrol the settlement. “It’s scary,” Aviva says of the weekly demonstrations on the other side of the Separation Barrier in Nil’in. “I see Palestinian flags waving in my backyard.”
Aviva and Isaac Nagel
When Aviva and Isaac Nagel gave birth to their first daughter eight years ago, they named her Aliyah. It was their own little inside joke: They always hoped “to make aliyah”—to immigrate to Israel—and having “made Aliyah” would remind them. As Zionist Modern Orthodox Jews, life in Israel promised the opportunity, as Isaac puts it, to fulfill “a specific mission as a people to bring God down onto earth.” In August 2010, they left their home in West Orange, New Jersey, for the West Bank settlement of Ariel, a city of 18,000 people that is built on 31 percent private Palestinian land, according to Peace Now, an NGO in Tel Aviv. Compared with the other cities Aviva and Isaac considered within Israel proper, Ariel, flush with government subsidies to encourage settlement, was a place where they could afford a house with a big yard.
Isaac works as a psychiatrist and sees patients via videoconference, telecommuting from 6 PM to 2 AM (9 AM to 5 PM CST) to an office in Milwaukee, a city he’s never set foot in. With the kids at school, Isaac and Aviva spend their days sitting in cafés or at Ariel’s country club, which was built with donations from American Jews.
Aviva settled in the West Bank for financial reasons, but she generally supports settlers with ideological motivations. “If the hilltops become totally covered by Arabs, there’s no Jewish presence,” Aviva says.
Words by Kiera Feldman and photos by Gillian Laub.
Check out more from our Imposters Issue: