EFRAT, West Bank (Oct. 2)
For my new wife, Dena, and me, Israel’s recent withdrawal from the Gush Katif communities in the Gaza Strip was a sour twist of fate. While families were being expelled, we were moving into our first home together in Efrat, a West Bank community 8 miles south of Jerusalem. Suddenly, so many of the questions that I thought I had answered, both for myself and from our friends and family, took on new life.
Two days after our June wedding in Pittsburgh, we rushed back to Israel to start our new life together. Our plan was to sublease an apartment in Jerusalem for a month until our new residence in Efrat was ready. After hearing our plans, our families immediately expressed their concern about our safety. We explained that Efrat, the largest community in the greater Etzion bloc, with more than 6,000 residents, has thankfully remained quiet during the intifada. Their second concern was, “Isn’t that an area that Israel is going to withdraw from?”
Initially, this question seemed as easily pushed aside as the concern for our safety. Even under Ehud Barak’s proposed plan in 2000, which included removing a large majority of communities in the West Bank, Efrat and other parts of the Etzion bloc would still have been maintained. And currently, as far as the planned security fence is concerned, we are situated well inside.
But now, after Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, I feel less secure about the future of Gush Etzion. It’s not that the area is being discussed as a future point of evacuation. But suddenly the future of any residence outside the pre-1967 border seems so unclear. I am left feeling jaded after watching footage of families forced from their homes and communities, and my sense of security has been challenged in a deeper way than any terror threat. Worst of all, the shared enthusiasm that Dena and I share about building our future in Israel was dented so soon after it began.
From the beginning of our courtship, before the outcome of Gush Katif was clear, we would remark about the unique and wonderful life that only Israel could offer. We were ecstatic about being in the majority for the first time in our lives; we loved how even the garbage men were Jewish. We were enthralled about Jewish holidays being national holidays, and that the Sabbath was a day of rest for the whole country. And when questions about our future arose, such as community, lifestyle and education for our future family, as great as America is, for us it could never compare to the authenticity of Israeli life. We had no doubt that the Jewish state, though not perfect, more than any place else reflected who we were, and who we wanted to become. Yet before we unpacked our suitcases, my optimism about that future started to sour.
Much of my disdain has nothing to do with my personal opposition to the withdrawal, but with the way the situation unfolded. I never imagined that a Jewish government would remove people from their homes before they had appropriate solutions for their future. Many of these people are now out of work, living in high school dormitories, and their children are not yet enrolled in school. Ironically, many are living lives similar to survivors from Hurricane Katrina. The luster of living in a country built by and run by Jews fades when the country’s elected body demonstrates little compassion for its evicted brothers and sisters.
The most painful part of the withdrawal was not the land itself, but the people who lived on it. The residents were people who actualized their dream of building warm, compassionate and connected communities. It was a diverse place, filled with Ethiopian, Indian, Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews These were idealistic people, both openly religious and secular, who supported the state and served in the army. They boasted about their agricultural output and their beautiful white sand beaches. And during all my discussions with many people there, I never heard them speak of hate, despite the constant rockets and attacks.
As Dena and I settle into Efrat, we are finding much of what I cherished in my trips to Gush Katif: an idealistic and warm place filled with kind and inspired friends. Since 40 percent of the city is native English speakers, it’s a place where the cultural differences seem less distinct. The grocery stores carry many of our favorite American brands, and the local library carries many English books, so it feels familiar. Since we don’t have a car, strangers often offer us rides into Jerusalem or neighboring communities, and we play Jewish geography on the way.
These are the reasons that we moved to Efrat, and in many ways, we are living the life that we had dreamed. Yet still in the back of my mind, I can’t help but fear that our vision of the Jewish state might also someday be slated for expulsion.
Despite my sadness about the present, and my fears about the future, my idealism is not so quickly dashed. We will keep dreaming, and working to implement those dreams, and I hope the same will be true for the former residents of Gush Katif.
Jonathan Udren is a freelance journalist and editor from Fort Lauderdale, Fla. He made aliyah in 2003.