Avner S., 26, is a handsome young man with a smooth face that gives him the appearance of a teenager. He is, in spite of his soft exterior, a hardened ex-combat soldier who served in the top combat unit of the Israel Defense Forces – Sayeret Matkal. Both Avner and his colleagues are wearing helmet-like skullcaps and tzizits, which are flowing out of their T-shirts. The roofers, busy putting on red tiles, and the other two dozen workers, all of whom are veterans, are now on a new mission- to build up the land of Israel.
This group, led by Avner, and many others like them, have began a movement that is reminiscent of the early 20th century. An idealistic and pioneering movement of Jewish Labor, inspired by the philosophy of A.D. Gordon. Unlike many secular-leftist, post-military service young men who let themselves go and use drugs in Thailand or India’s Goa, Avner and his crew are being true to a paraphrased rendition of JFK’s famous words: “See what you can do for your country, for your ancestral heartland.”
While the kibbutz youth, who once symbolized Israeli idealism and self-sacrifice, have left the kibbutzim in droves moving either to Israel’s cities or abroad, the young men of the West Bank settlement communities stay where they were born and raised and raise large families. They are reviving today’s sagging idealism and bringing back the old values of self sacrifice that characterized Israel’s pre-state era and the early decades of its existence, in the 1950’s and 1960’s. And they are doing it in the face of cynicism and malice coming from the Israeli urban and leftist elites who control the media and academia.
Globalization and Americanization have left many of Israel’s secular and urban youth in an almost nihilistic state. Youthful Israelis living in the cities seem to have more in common with their rudderless peers in Western Europe and the U.S. than with their fellow Israelis in the settlements. When they are not occupied with drugs, sex, and other hedonistic pursuits, they seek lucrative jobs in high tech industries abroad that provide them with a luxurious lifestyle. Edna G., 21 is typical for her generation. Originally from Beersheba, in the Negev, she moved to Tel Aviv six months ago after completing her military service. She is now hoping to move to New York to study and, she hopes, to “make money and live the good life…”
In the leftist, post-Zionist, bastion of Shenkin Street in Tel Aviv, idealism is dead. The talk in the popular coffee-houses is about government corruption, but animus towards the settlements and settlers is ready to burst out at a moment’s notice. Young people here have more sympathy for the Palestinians in Gaza than for the settlers in the West Bank. Their Judaism has long ago turned into some form of universalism, and the Torah is simply meaningless to them. They are cynical about patriotism and believe in nothing else but living for today.
Sweating in the midday heat Avner comes down on a ladder from the rooftop to get his jug of water. What about Tel Aviv and its post-Zionism, I ask? He thinks for a moment and replies in a quiet and assured voice, “Our mission of rebuilding the country and bringing back its idealism will not end at Yitzhar, we plan to go to Tel Aviv and build there too – not only houses but souls as well.”
“And what about the Arab-Palestinians surrounding you,” I continue? “We respect them as people, and they respect us.” Unlike the Jewish developers in cities of central Israel who hire and exploit mostly non-Israeli labor, Avner and his ilk believe in Jewish Labor – to “Build and be built by it” as a well-known old Zionist pioneering song goes.
The Arabs from the surrounding villages are ambivalent about these hard working Jews who cultivate the land and build their own homes. In their hearts, the Arab villagers admire the fortitude these young Jews display. At the same time they resent the fact that the Jewish Labor movement is denying them construction jobs. Still, commercial activities between Jewish settlers and local Arabs in the West Bank benefit both communities. Tension and acts of terror arise primarily when the local Arabs are incited by visiting officials of the Palestinian Authority or by radical Islamist activists.
The land that Jewish settlers live and build on is government ownded, not taken from local Arabs. Although pioneers like the legendary Moshe Zar of Karnei Shomron, a community not far from Itzhar, would buy land for cash from Arab landlords occasionally, there are few, if any cases of Jewish settlements built on “stolen” Arab land as the anti-Israel movement abroad often charges.
The young men of Jewish Labor are not only reviving the idea of Jewish manual work, a long forgotten pursuit by ordinary Israelis, they are also creating a defensive and strategic shield for Israel by building a chain of hilltop settlements that control the passages from the Jordan Valley to Israel’s coastal communities and that surround Palestinian cities like Nablus, Jenin, Kalkilya, and Tulkarm. The Jewish settlements in the West Bank are the first line of defense for the State of Israel.
History seems to repeat itself. The kibbutzim of the pre-State era formed the front line of defense for the Yishuv – the Jewish community in Mandatory Palestine, against Arab attackers. Nowadays, the Jewish settlers in the West Bank have taken up their roles. Similarly, the idealism of Jewish Labor once practiced by the Kibbutzim is now carried on by practical and idealistic young men like Avner and his friends.