Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Kind of Like a Shield

As Sarel drove swiftly down the motorway in his mother’s car, the villages on the nearby hills raced past our windows – the fluorescent green lights of the minarets the only way to distinguish at night between Jewish and Arab towns. Sarel spoke freely and easily to us during the journey, beginning with his take on the value of settlements to Am Yisroel (the people of Israel).

“Some people see settlers as just there [in the Shtachim] to annoy the Arabs”, he said, “but I see them as the true patriots. They keep the war away from the centre of Israel, from Tel Aviv, Netanya and the other cities – kind of like a shield”. He told us that the passion and dedication of settler youth can be seen by the disproportionately high number of settler soldiers in special forces units of the army. “It’s because they know to do their duty for their country from the minute they are born, just by living in the Shtachim, so they want to do the same when they get to the army”, said Sarel.

He spoke sadly about the back problems that forced him to become a jobnik, as opposed to a combat soldier, and the regret is apparent in his eyes as he talked about his childhood friends’ heroics in their various fighter units. He talked about the army with the same ardency that Arik always displayed whenever we talked with him during family gatherings, and with the same seriousness that Sarel himself used to chastise me whenever I’d come and stay at his house sporting an (illegal) earring with my army fatigues.

Sarel told us that the security wall is little more than “an arse covering exercise”, and that it is of no real value other than a way for politicians to placate the Israeli electorate. “It’s not effective, nor useful in the long term”, he said. “The Arabs will outgrow the land we give them, and then there will be anarchy. Plus they should be able to meet up with the Israeli Arabs on the other side of the wall, in my opnion”.

He told us that, “even though settlements help stretch out the borders of Israel”, he despises the illegal hilltop outposts. “There are just three caravans on a hill, and it takes four soldiers to guard them”, he said angrily. “These three fucking families cause the deaths of our soldiers”, he spat, momentarily forgetting his mild-mannered speech and cursing the extremist settlers who endanger military lives. “I wish the army would just forget their principles, their code of conduct, and just let the hilltop crew fend for themselves”, he sighed, turning off the main road and scanning the empty streets for parking spaces.

Once we’d parked up in a side street opposite the bar – “I have to park facing forwards, since all soldiers are taught to park that way on base in case of emergency” – we went inside and ordered a beer each. Sitting at a table in the small but crowded Irish themed bar, Sarel told us about life for the youth of Elkana. “Growing up in Elkana is amazing, but gets very boring by the age of fourteen or fifteen”, he said.

“Even though I love settlements and the ideology behind them, I doubt I will live on one when I’m older – I need to be by the beach”, he said. Sarel is a hiloni/dati mix, or – as he calls it – Datlash [acronym for dati sheleavar, religious who’s gone secular]. “I am a Zionist, and I am a supporter of the settlements, but not because of the Biblical connection – more because it’s our land and we need to keep it”, he told us. “I don’t believe in land-for-peace”, he declared. “I believe in land-for-land, or peace-for-peace”.

“My dream is to live in peace with the Arabs”, he went on. “In the pre-intifada days, I remember I used to fill up the water bottles of the Arabs who harvested their olive groves by the edge of the yeshuv, but all that [interaction] has gone now”. He told us that his politics haven’t changed since joining the army, but that most of the soldiers in his unit are from Tel Aviv and don’t believe in the settlement enterprise. He said that his main political influences have been his father and his friends from Elkana. He doesn’t talk about politics with his girlfriend – “but I know that she hates her friends from Herzliya Pituach having to guard settlers”. He said that “I don’t think I could date a leftwing girl”.

As we made steady progress with our pints, Sarel told us “Gaza was such a big mistake”, and that he doesn’t think that there can ever be peace between Israel and her neighbours. I asked him if it made him depressed to think that there will be a perpetual state of war, but he told me “no, it doesn’t upset me, since I’m used to it by now. I was born into war. Since I was one year old, I’ve been going to Yom Hazikaron ceremonies, I’ve learnt Zionist history at school about the wars we fought, and I’ve lost family and friends in battle. You, coming from England, can’t imagine having your best friend killed, our a mate from school losing an eye on a mission”.

He told us about his experiences of Diaspora youth, such as the five days he spent with a Birthright tour group from Montreal. “They were the same age as me, but they were like little children – all the cared about was booze, girls and clothes… I felt this very strongly when I was with them”, he said. I asked him if he didn’t lament the loss of innocence that Israeli youth suffer when growing up in the midst of a conflict, but he said that if anything, he felt the opposite. “I want my kids to know and care about more than just their immediate surroundings”, he replied. “I want my kids to go to the army and be fighters. I know that there’s a chance that they might die in battle, but that’s the way it is. I don’t know why I feel this way, but I do”. His words, to all intents and purposes, were as harrowing as those of the residents of refugee camps who resign themselves to their own children needing to give their lives to fight the Israelis.

Sarel went to Bnei Akiva [the orthodox youth movement with a strong presence on both sides of the Green Line, and round the world], although only until sixth grade. “They told me that I would make a great madrich [leader], but that I was not religious enough”. Repeating his self-styled Datlash status, he said that he and his friends call themselves “upgraded version of hiloni youth, since we grew up with principles and morals”.

Josh then asked Sarel why both Kedumim and Elkana have so few restaurants and cafes. Sarel replied that people won’t got to eat or drink in a place where they know everyone and see the same faces, but that they prefer to go out to the nearby cities – which might be difficult for Kedumim residents to do, but is far easier for those who live in Elkana. “Everyone who has a car goes into Petach Tikva or Kfar Sava. People have tried to open more cafes in Elkana, but they always fail”.

He told us that “yerida [reverse of aliya] is out of the question. Never”, and that he wants to work for Shabak [internal security/intelligence] some day. He said that the military is so close to his heart because “the better the army looks, the better the country looks. The conflict is a symbol of our image. Of course we do have the Americans giving outside help, but we look after ourselves as well”. He told us that “the way that the Jews have bounced back since the Shoah is amazing. My generation has the honour to be the last one that can meet Holocaust survivors, so me must learn what we can from them and continue the fight for survival”. Repeating the adage he heard in school and at home in his childhood, he told us “the country that does not learn from its past has no future”.

As we drank up and headed for the door, Sarel looked at the pictures of footballers on the wall of the bar and declared “the Israeli national team is wonderful – you can see Arabs, leftwingers and rightwingers all hugging one another after a goal”. He told us that the only reason that the bar is Irish themed is because the Irish colours matched the green and white kit of the local team, Hapoel Kfar Sava.

On the way back, he said that “settler girls are beautiful, but they’re too religious. We joke that the streets are kept clean by our girls’ skirts trailing along the floor”. He put on a CD of “settler music – like klesmer, but with a trance beat”. We listened to the popular tune “Aba, hayiti dos” [Dad, I became a black-hat], as we sped up the motorway back towards the yeshuv.

Sarel then told us about the different types of hitchhiking that settler youth have to do to get around. “When you’re thirteen or fourteen, you only hitch from bus stops, but when you are a couple of years older, you start walking out at junctions between the cars, knocking on doors and asking for a lift. Of course the parents worry, but they know that there’s no other way to get around when they live so far out in the country”. He said that even though the parents all give their kids money to take the bus, “no one listens to them – hitchhiking is the trend. And anyway, there’s more chance of being blown up on a bus than being kidnapped in a car”.

Finally, he drove us round the settlement of Magen Dan, a relatively recent yeshuv which adjoins Elkana via a twisting country lane. All of the families live in trailers and caravans, yet the shul is made of bricks and mortar. “The first thing that any settlers build on their yeshuv is the shul”, said Sarel. “It’s their way of saying ‘we’ve arrived, we’re here to stay’”.

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