Tripping in Samaria And Talking With Settlers
What would you expect to see on a tour of Samaria? What do you expect settlers to be like?
A Very Little Bit of Background
Samaria is the ancient name of the region based upon the name of what was once a capital city of the northern Kingdom of Israel. The Hebrew name is The Shomron. After the Jordanian occupation of the region west of the Jordan River in 1948, it was subsumed under the name, The West Bank. Internationally, and sadly, in Israel as well, that is the name most often used for the region, while with time, more and more Israelis are calling it Judea and Samaria or Yehuda v-Shomron.
In the 1967 war, Israel won back control over Judea and Samaria (J&S), but ceded some of that control when it signed the Oslo Accords with the PLO, an agreement that lead to the creation of the Palestinian Authority. There is a war of sorts going on now concerning the future of these disputed territories, unquestionably recognized by most Jews as the heart of our Jewish Homeland (even if many say “so what!”). What is questioned by leftist Jews within Israel is whether or not it is wise to hold onto these lands as opposed to giving them up in a negotiated peace treaty with the Arabs who live there and allowing it to become another Arab-Muslim state. Leftists outside of Israel, Jewish or not, seem to see us as colonialists with no legitimate ties to the land as an indigenous nation.
Purpose of the Samaria Trip
Recently, I went on two organized trips to Samaria. One trip was with David Haivri (organized by the Ministry of Strategic Affairs and the Shomron Council) and the other with David Hermelin (organized by The Center for Public Diplomacy and Israeli Hasbara). Both trips had the same overall goal: to show people the reality on the ground in Samaria and let them reach their own conclusions.
There was no attempt by either of the two Davids to change our political views. No attempt to feed us lines they wanted us to swallow and accept. Both Davids gave us credit for intelligence. Their attitudes matched my own approach — it is okay to disagree as long as both sides to the disagreement have access to knowledge and facts. (For the sake of transparency, I lean toward the right regarding Israeli sovereignty in J&S and while I attempt to be balanced in my writing, I am sure my bias comes through.)
The differences in the two trips were in the details – we began at the same point, and then went in different directions.
Samaria Trip Itineraries
Both trips began with a view of the Mediterranean coastline (visibility permitting) from Paduel. This stop showed us the possible consequences in thinking we can negotiate a peace with an entity that still claims to want to wipe us out (their own words) by handing over land that puts our most populated area and our international airport into the palms of their hands. I wrote about this part of the trip separately here. If peace is going to be negotiated, and here group participants may have very divergent approaches to how that should happen, at least they have seen, with their own eyes, the significance of giving away land. Still believe it is wise? That is fine; you have seen what that could mean, and the fact that you were willing to come out to do so is not to be taken for granted.
The trip with David Haivri covered more ground because we were given a bit more time. Some of us came with our own cars to meet the bus at Ariel at 8:30 am. The trip ended back at Ariel at about 5 pm. In contrast, the trip with David Hermelin began at noon in Tel Aviv and ended at about 7:30 pm back in Tel Aviv. That gave us about 8.5 hours versus 5 hours in Samaria. Remember, in both trips we first visited the State Lookout spot at Paduel.
My Take-Away From the Trips to Samaria
I like human interest stories. I think the eye-level interactions that we were afforded in both trips brought certain aspects of life in J&S alive. For example, it is one thing to hear about factories that employ Jews and Arabs who work side-by-side. It is another thing to walk through the factory and absorb the atmosphere of calm and well-being exuded in the place.
The Zimmermans are an impressive couple. They have established an organic farm in Itamar that is self-sustaining and follows the agricultural laws laid down in the Tanach. We got to taste some of their products, such as yogurt, dried fruits, cheeses and bread.
The view of Nablus was an eye-opener. It is a HUGE city. And tucked away in that city are Joseph’s Tomb and Jacob’s Well within the beautiful Orthodox Church that was built over it. So near yet so far. Jews cannot go to Joseph’s Tomb without an army escort. The Oslo Accords, however, were supposed to guarantee Jewish access to the site.
The visit to the techina factory left me wanting a different kind of interaction with a representative of the Samaritan community. I would have liked to have heard more about their beliefs and their history.
At the Shomron Council building, we heard a lecture by Michal Eshed on the Hebrew origins of the names of villages now claimed by Arabs. She told us that the only town that was originally called by an Arab name is Ramla; Ramla is within the Green Line. This inspired me to want to learn more about our ancient geography.
The main element of the trip organized by David Hermelin was our visit to Har Bracha and the talk given by Rabbanit Inbal Melamed. We were told how 20 families arrived on this spot 30 years ago to establish the community. Their purpose is to fulfill the commandments to both settle the land and to establish Jewish sovereignty over it.
Har Bracha has come a long way from its humble origins. They run a hesder yeshiva (combining Talmudic studies with military service). In order to encourage the yeshiva students to stay on and raise families in Har Bracha, they have developed a system of self-help whereby the entire community contributes to a fund, each family according to its ability, that provides grants that help young people become established until they are able to support themselves. That includes providing them with the resources to complete a university education.They do not ask for donations from outside the community – they are totally self-sustaining. Rabbanit Melamed talked of their hopes to grow into a full-fledged city with about 20,000 residents. With the determination she displayed, they might just make it.
There may be extremists living in Samaria, but the people we met were just like people we meet in Haifa, Jerusalem, Beer Sheva and everywhere else in the country. I guess there are probably extremists living in those other cities too. I just do not have much to do with them, if anything. Perhaps the same can be said about the people we met on our trip.
Of course, you cannot be in Samaria and not see the large red signs warning Jews to stay out of Arab villages because it is dangerous for us and also against Israeli law.
On the bus from Tel Aviv to Samaria and back again, David Hermelin talked to us about approaches to those who vilify Israel. Perhaps the entire trip can be summed up by the following response he suggests to those who question Jewish rights to Judea and Samaria:
You do not get to judge whether or not I have a right to live in my land. I do not really care what you think about that and I am not going to try to persuade you of anything. But if you want to know what my experience is, I am happy to discuss this with you.
My Recommendations for Future Trips
I enjoyed both trips and I am glad I went on both of them. The guides and the itineraries complemented each other and provided a broader picture than each one separately.
The main thing missing for me, however, was an overall context and structure for the trip. Here is a map I put together that shows all the places we went (not in order of our visits, however). Legend: 1=Paduel (State Lookout); 2=Barkan Industrial Zone; 3=Ariel; 4=Lookout over Nablus; 5=Har Gezirim; 6=Har Bracha; 7=Itamar (Zimmerman Farm)
I suggest a two-page handout be distributed when participants board the bus. One one page would be a map similar to the one above, showing the sites to be visited (and showing their proximity to Tel Aviv). The map could also include place names in the original Hebrew for some of the 714 sites in J&S that were originally Jewish.
The second page would provide some basic facts about the sites to be visited. This should also include what the organization behind the trip hopes participants will gain from each stop. When participants are not made to guess why the tour includes specific places, it helps participants organize their thoughts, orient themselves and focus on the site from the very first moment of descending from the bus. I anticipate that engagement will be greater and impressions more long lasting.
I hope that the Shomron Council produces a film that can be screened at the start of every tour to the region. I know how seeing the films in the Hebron Museum and at Caesaria helped me appreciate those sites much more deeply and I would like to have a similar opportunity at a future visit to Samaria.