When Aaron Lipkin looks out, he sees biblical history all around. There is Bethel, where two bears mauled the hooligans who heckled Elisha. Across the way, near a radar station, is quite possibly the place where Abraham and Lot parted ways millennia ago—avoiding further conflict by dividing the land.
When I visited the Holy Land last month, I heard Aaron Lipkin give a hilltop talk behind the guarded gates of Ofra, the first Jewish settlement in the West Bank. At our feet were the broken remains of several houses deemed illegal and demolished by the Israeli government in 2015. While Lipkin lamented that chapter, the mood in the rest of the settlement was largely optimistic. When Israeli soldiers passed a playground bustling with children, their presence was a source of calm, not concern, for the many parents in this Jewish enclave of 3,500.
In 1964, David Ben Gurion, the first prime minister of modern Israel, personally answered a letter from Avi Lipkin, the teenage boy who would become Aaron’s father. That correspondence set the Lipkins on the path from being a modestly observant New York City family to becoming “complete Jews” in the land of the Bible, as Ben Gurion put it. Today, Aaron is proud to be one of the orthodox Jews now repopulating what he calls “Judea and Samaria”—what others call the “occupied territories.”
Since the first pioneers began to lodge at a former Jordanian army base in 1975—with, as Lipkin is quick to point out, the tacit approval of a left-wing Israeli government—the settlements have proven a flashpoint in the long-running dispute between Israelis and Palestinians. The overall conflict dates to the end of British control over the region in 1948. That year is remembered by Jewish Israelis for the War of Independence that established a nation. For Palestinians, 1948 is remembered as Al-Nakba, the catastrophe, a time that saw hundreds of thousands displaced from their ancestral villages.
Many of those Jews who fought in 1948 had just survived the Shoah, or calamity, at the hands of the Nazis and were willing to die to secure the Jewish homeland first promised by the British in the 1917 Balfour Declaration. Another successful war in 1967 would extend Israeli control to other areas, including the West Bank of the Jordan River. Of course, the Palestinians never voluntarily consented to the plans of the British or expulsion by the Israelis, and today many still treasure the physical keys for their familial homes and share stories of their former lands on which Israeli settlements now stand.
Most protesting Palestinians can only make their case from afar, but Daoud Nassar does so from atop another West Bank hill, one free of Jewish inhabitants. The Tent of Nations vineyard and farm sits on high ground near Bethlehem, with expanding Jewish settlements visible below. When Israel attempted to declare this property “state land,” the Nassar family produced documentation from 1916 (a relative rarity from that era) plus a long history of on-site cultivation (also a rarity in a culture where most farmers live in villages and commute to their fields). A matter the Nassars hoped would be settled quickly by their deed has dragged on through the court system since 1991. Along the way, as Daoud half-jokes, the farm has been forced to become a model of sustainability. With no access to public water and sewer systems, Tent of Nations collects rainwater and uses composting toilets. Denied electricity from the grid, they have gone solar; and refused building permits, they have dug down, utilizing the natural caves on site. Israelis have also destroyed many of their fruit trees and blocked the main access road, which passes a school newly built for Jewish settlers. Visitors to Tent of Nations must now cover several hundred yards on foot.
As a Palestinian island amid a rising tide of settlements, Tent of Nations serves as a beacon of hope for many. The Nassars’ response to their situation rejects both violence and a victimhood mindset, seeking to channel their frustrations into on-the-ground work while maintaining their motto: “We Refuse to Be Enemies.” Living up to that credo can be difficult, but Daoud practices what he preaches by proclaiming the image-bearing humanity of Israeli soldiers to his children even when his family is detained while driving to church. Sometimes he welcomes gun-toting Jewish settlers onto the land. Such de-escalations break the cycle of reprisal and can lead to surprising results, such as an Israeli military commander who apologizes or a former settler who returns to help dig a latrine.
The Nassars’ peacemaking has provided hope for hundreds from near and far who have accepted the family’s invitation to “come and see, then go and tell.” The influx of international guests also serves as something of a security umbrella against vigilante attacks and provides customers for the farm’s wine and produce, otherwise difficult to sell in a web of checkpoints and regulations.
Those checkpoints and regulations exist, at least partially, because a more open flow of goods and people contributed to the deadliness of the Second Intifada, the Palestinian uprising from 2000 to 2005. More than a thousand Israelis, mostly civilians, were killed by suicide bombers and other means. Today, crude unguided missiles are fired periodically from the coastal Gaza Strip. After Israel withdrew its troops and settlers from Gaza in 2005, elections in 2006 gave increased power to Hamas, a violent terrorist movement supported by Iran. Not every Palestinian is a peacemaker.
Aaron Lipkin and Daoud Nassar live on different hills in what is for both a holy land, but the prospects for crafting a system under which each can see his family flourish in safety seem slim. The Trump administration hints that its own “deal of the century” proposal is soon forthcoming, but the recent history of violence makes many Israelis reticent to put more political power into Palestinian hands. Nassar sees a two-state solution as essentially “dead,” killed by a patchwork of settlements like Ofra that have sprung up near Arab villages, making a peaceful partition all but impossible. Lipkin told me that many of his Palestinian acquaintances would rather live under Israeli rule, given the fractured and corrupt state of Palestinian leadership. Yet the Jewish nationalism that led to Israel's creation plus many years of mutual bitterness, frustration, and bloodshed make a one-state solution where Palestinians can live as something other than second-class citizens appear unlikely as well.
Nevertheless, amid the gloom, some still sow seeds of peace. As Nassar says, “We are people of the resurrection, we are people of hope, we are people of light.”
John Murdock toured the Holy Land in April with the Telos Group.
Photo by trialsanderrors via Creative Commons. Image cropped.
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