We were looking forward to taking it easy and putting our pens back in their scabbards for a couple of hours, but the previously monosyllabic man behind the counter had other ideas. Finally clocking that we were visitors to the yeshuv, he decided to grill us on the purpose of our stay. “Are you Jews?”, was his opening gambit, to which I offered to show him the physical proof, but he opted to take my word for it instead – which spared the blushes of the settler girls crowded into the shop as well.
Upon hearing our plans for the book, he told us that he’d be shutting up shop shortly, and that he’d come outside and chat to us if we wanted as soon as he’d cleaned the place up. We retired outside to eat, then Yehiel – a stocky man with closely cropped hair in his mid thirties – came to sit with us and give us his views on settlements and Israeli politics. Wiping his oil-stained hands on his t-shirt, he launched straight into a vehement tirade against the Israeli public and the government who lead them.
“Firstly, this country is totally apathetic, and the cabinet only care about one thing – money. Olmert’s got too much to lose if he goes to war” - at which point he pulled his trouser pockets inside out to demonstrate Olmert’s primary concern – “so instead he spends his time talking to the Syrian president. Why? Are they talking about the price of beer? No – he’s going to give him the Golan, then keep handing over land all the way down the Jordan river to Jericho”.
Handing me paprika and other spices to sprinkle on the pizza, promising me “you’ll thank me for it”, he went on to declare that there are no true Zionists in the political system anymore. Surely the government are Zionists, I said, to which he replied “Maybe, but they only care about money first and foremost. There’s no one like Menachem Begin, or even Benny Begin [his son] – who was as straight as a spirit level. Where are the Ben Gurions today? Ben Gurion loved this country so much that he went to live in the desert in Sde Boker, yet today’s leaders are more interested in who has the nicest car, the biggest house”.
He then swivelled his guns on the Israeli electorate, “who have lost their ideology and drive. So long as they’re ok in their cities, they don’t care about the rest of the country. What about Sderot?”, he cried. “Why is Sderot not being looked after? I’ll tell you – because the residents are poor. They wouldn’t let Ramat Gan get treated like this”, he assured us. “The world wouldn’t mind us standing up for ourselves – in fact, the only time they admire Israel is when we are strong and stand up for ourselves, like in ‘67”.
“Our people run around like ants in Sderot, terrified that a Kassam will fall on them. There was a bag next to my shop today – why should I have to be scared that it could be a bomb?”, he asked, looking pained as he considered the fate of the Israeli man on the street. We asked him what he’d do if he were in power, and his eyes lit up.
“Now is the time to clear out the Arabs”, he said, “that’s what I’d do if I was the prime minister… but we’re not here to talk about dreams. The people won’t march for ideals, but if you offer them free meat or free fireworks, they’d be out on the street in a flash”, he remarked. I asked him if, in that case, he’d be joining his fellow settlers at next week’s protest at Homesh, but he shook his head and said “I doubt it – what’s the point?” – displaying the same kind of apathy that he had just been criticising in his fellow Israeli.
“Look”, Yehiel went on, “I read politics, and I follow world news. In Ukraine, they mobilised on the street to bring down the government, but here? Only Gaydamak does anything. He builds a tent city, and then the government are forced to follow suit – but they’d rather have kept the cash for lining their own pockets”.
Getting worked up again, he declared that “only the religious mobilise here. Look how they fought the government over the Gay Pride march in Jerusalem”. I replied that the reason the religious are so powerful is that they have totalitarian rabbis at the helm who call the shots for their communities to follow, and Yehiel agreed. “That’s right – though that system has it’s ups and downs, since the followers never have any freedom. The religious are small in number, but strong in spirit”.
He then moved on to a subject evidently very close to his heart. Of Yemeni descent – “I was born here, but my mother and father came over from Yemen in 1949” – he told us that “Israelis have a huge hole in their knowledge when it comes to understanding the Arabs”. “I feel safe here generally”, he said, gesturing expansively to the surrounding streets of Kedumim, “but at the same time I know what Arabs are really about”.
“Because my parents are Yemeni, I know the Arab mentality much better than you do, just as you know the English mentality better than I ever could, and just like a Polish Jew understands Poles the best. In the Arab world, there is no such word as compromise. If they are forced to compromise, they feel as though they’ve lost. If you found a stack of a hundred one dollar bills, the Arab won’t split it fifty-fifty with you. It’s the law of the jungle to him – he’ll fight you to the death for it. We have to act like them, and read their minds, and the only way is to be stronger than them”.
What about the peace deal with Egypt, asked Josh – wasn’t that an example of Arabs compromising. “It’s no peace”, maintained Yehiel. “It’s a cold war. And that’s no better than a hot war – worse, in fact, since we can’t go in and prevent them funding and aiding terrorists, because we have to act as though we’re ‘at peace’”.
Well into his stride now, Yehiel went on with his diatribe. “The religious know this, since they know that all through history we’ve had the same enemy – Pharoah, Moab, Amalek, Arafat, Hezbollah, and now Ahmedinijad. There were religious Jews who said ‘I’ve had enough of all this’, and took off their kipa and tried to forget they were Jewish, but then Hitler came along and said ‘no – your grandfather’s grandfather was Jewish, so now you’re going to die’”.
“Tell me why there is not a single Peace Now or Gush Shalom in the entire set of twenty two Arab nations?”, he asked us, “not even as far away as in Pakistan or Indonesia. I’ll tell you why – it’s because they haven’t made the mental switch to believe that compromise is possible. They know no better. Look at North Korea too. They dress exactly the same as one another, all in grey, just like the Russians did under communism. All they know is rice, day and night, night and day, so they don’t know that cornflakes and milk exists, let alone tastes better. The only way to change them is through the internet and open forums”.
I asked if Israelis couldn’t help with this task, for example joint schooling of Israeli and Arab children, in order to open them up to other opinion than just their own. “No way”, replied Yehiel adamantly. “Tell me, why don’t you go to their villages to interview them? Because you’re scared – you know they’ll kidnap you, and not even because you’re Jewish. Look at the BBC man [Alan Johnston] – they took him just because he’s foreign and they thought they could exploit the opportunity”.
I told him that some schools do have joint projects between Arabs and Israelis, for example going on trips together, but Yehiel scoffed at their effectiveness. “What, so they climb Everest together, take a picture, and go home? Meaningless – they will never, ever give up their quest to have Israel, and until they make the mental switch to compromise, it’s pointless shaking hands with them like Yossi Beilin does. Look, they kill their own people if they sell land to Jews – if a Kedumim resident sold land to Arabs, would he be killed? Of course not. Shunned, maybe, taken to court, perhaps – but not killed. And they’d kill the man’s sister too – even the Israeli Arabs inside Israel do it. If a mishi goes round with a boy they don’t approve of, she’ll be murdered”.
Showing no sign of slowing, Yehiel continued to drum home his lesson, ignoring the silent pleading in our eyes for him to let us go home to sleep. “In Abu Dhabi, they still walk around with sabres tucked into their belts. Mothers are happy when their kids kill themselves. Religious Jews don’t have this mentality – ok, Baruch Goldstein did, but he was only one man amongst thousands. If you want balance for your book, go and interview the Arabs in their villages – and if you’re too scared to, they you’ve answered your own question about how to bring peace. You can’t – we’ll live like this forever. It’s sixty years since the Shoah, and still there’s anti-Semitism in Europe – why? In Yemen, there was no Hitler, but Jews were attacked, their women snatched, they were not allowed to own land, and could only have donkeys, not horses. My parents came here to escape that in 1949, and I won’t let it repeat itself here in my land”.
I asked him if he hoped that life for Israelis would soon improve. “This is the improved life”, replied Yehiel. “I’d rather live in a bomb shelter here than be slaughtered by Nazis in Europe”. I told him that his outlook was depressing, and he said “that’s why we have Prozac – three a day, and you’ll be ok”. That wrapped up our chat, and Josh and I hauled ourselves back up the hill and straight into our beds.