This fantastic piece was written by a friend and neighbor of mine when we took a creative writing class together here in Tekoa. Thank you Debbie for allowing me to share.
== SETTLERS ==
by Debbie Rosenzweig
“Oh, you look different than I expected,” she observed aloud, scanning me from top to bottom and back again over her maroon plastic rimmed glasses. She clearly considered it a compliment, smiling as she edited the data entry she had filed away about me in her brain based on our previous conversations. Gila is the distributor of one of the English text book companies that I use to teach my students in the elementary school in Tekoa, a village located in the Gush Etzion settlement of the West Bank. Like other places of a similar status, Tekoa is considered legal by Israeli law and illegal by international law; the strongest safeguard of our security by some, the strongest obstacle to peace by others; the essence of our heritage and identity by some, the epitome of racism and apartheid to others.
Gila and I were meeting to discuss the most effective way in which to use the text books. After several obnoxious phone conversations, we had decided to meet in a coffee shop in Jerusalem, because she refused to cross “the Green Line” to get to the dangerous settlement I call home, no doubt picturing a smattering of caravans studded with bullet wounds, personally guarded by gun-toting religious fanatics foaming at the mouth.
“What did you expect?” I challenged, as I sat in the empty chair beside her. My response threw her off guard, as I knew it would. “Oh, I don’t know,” she stammered, “how long did it take you to get here?” Classic subject change. “Ten minutes,” I shrugged triumphantly, choosing to trim it down by eight minutes to make her feel stupid, instead of exaggerating in the opposite direction to make her feel guilty about dragging me out here. “That’s it?” she blurted out, surprised. “Sure,” I responded nonchalantly. Mission accomplished.
Over the course of the following hour and a half, Gila repeatedly complimented me on my intelligence, my analytical skills, and my concern for the students, noting in typical Israeli fashion that she really hadn’t liked me over the phone. Thanks. The feelings are mutual. My disdain for her increased with each patronizing accolade, culminating with her final confession: “I just thought you were going to be, like a – like a – mitnachelet!” she confessed, referring to a female settler, often seen wandering suspiciously through illegal territories wearing far too much mismatched fabric, splattered with the vomit of her own babies and the blood of her neighbors, leading a pack of wild, predominately male children with matching fleeces and disheveled sidelocks, tzittzit blowing furiously in the desert wind.
“There are all sorts of people in Tekoa,” I explained, exhibiting great intelligence and concern for my ignorant, offensive student, “secular, religious, American, Russian, French…”. “French?!?” she interrupted, trying to Photoshop a cultured European with high heels and even higher moral standards into her image of the occupied territories. We soon wrapped up the meeting and promised to be in touch, but our interaction stayed with me as I caught busses and hitchhikes back to my home, such a mystery to so many people in this country.
Just over half a year ago I was busy with my own deliberations about moving here; what about convenience, security concerns, political statements, community? I had recently returned from several months of volunteering in Nepal with an Israeli NGO along with American and Israeli Jews, mostly secular, anti-capitalist, vegetarian left -wingers who looked at me and my bearded, skullcap wearing then-fiancé with confusion and distrust. After months of building relationships, breaking stereotypes, and pretending to help disadvantaged Nepali children, I told one of my friends that we were thinking of moving to Tekoa. “I’m sorry I won’t be able to visit you there,” she explained, “but I refuse to go somewhere that I am so ideologically opposed to.” When she did come visit months later, she was shocked by what she saw – long-legged Russian women in short shorts walking their dogs, secular and religious teens hanging out together at the pool, beautiful, permanent homes with lovely gardens, and a breathtaking view of the Judean desert.
A place which seeks to both destroy labels and respect those that others choose to use forces us to challenge our prejudices while maintaining our sense of hard earned identity and lifestyle. I remember the confusion I experienced when I left seminary and went to study in Bar Ilan University. I had self righteously donated all my pants and immodest clothing to charity and moved to Israel, to what I thought was a holy world of black and white capital T truths, only to date a religious guy who didn’t believe in the messianic redemption, learn heresy from highly respected Jewish history and philosophy professors, and see young married women wandering around campus in head scarves and pants. Pants! I resisted such dangerous temptations, holding on to the absolute truths that had given me no choice but to abandon my family, friends and lifestyle to move to a warzone, yet the world I was building for myself was already starting to shake.
Now, several years later, I find myself at home here, in this pluralistic, mixed settlement, representing people all across the religious, ideological, ethnic and cultural spectrum. I take great pleasure in being unable to tell which of my students are from observant homes, in not having to worry about being judged by my outfit, in hearing Spanish, Russian, French, Hebrew and English in the streets, in sharing my space with people who are different from me, and, of course, in sticking it to the Gilas of the country, showing them what a true mitnachelet is really like.