My first of three interviews on Tuesday was with Nahum Pachenik, one of the founders of Eretz Shalom (Land of Peace). Inspired by the teachings of R’Menachem Froman of Tekoa, Eretz Shalom is, to many, a paradox. Composed entirely of Jewish settlers, the organization is both committed to the rights of the Jewish people to live in the Land of Israel and to live side-by-side in peace with their Palestinian neighbors.
Whatever preconceived notions one might have of the essential identity of “Jewish settlers” or “peace activists”, Nahum and his colleague shatter them all. We met at his home in Sde Boaz, an unauthorized hilltop community established nine years ago, connected to the urban settlement of Neve Daniel by a winding, uneven dirt road. Coming over the ridge of the hill, it was very clear that this place is the paragon of an “illegal outpost.” A scattering of unevenly distributed caravans splayed across an open, rocky break in the fields, it is home to fourteen families, both secular and religious.
Nahum was not embarrassed to say that this is an “illegal settlement” which he hopes will be given official sanction in the future. The notion of illegality must be clarified here: while according to the international community any Jewish residence in the West Bank is an “illegal settlement”, in Israel, an illegal settlement is one which is built without the authorization of state authorities. Sde Boaz is not built on private Palestinian land, but rather state lands.
The legal differentiation stems from the status of property upon Israeli capture of the territories in 1967. Those lands to which individual Arab land holders could demonstrate ownership by way of a deed were largely respected. Those lands to which no private ownership could be proven, which were generally previously administered by the Jordanian state, the British, and the Ottomans before them, also became state lands under Israeli administration.
There are of course notable exceptions where the state expropriated private lands, usually under the justification of security, and the land later was re-titled “state land.” So too are there many examples of Jewish settlers seizing privately held land for their own as there are examples of Palestinians seizing both private Jewish and state lands for their own use. More on this in future posts.
The importance here is the careful attention Nahum pays to this distinction. Driving toward Sde Boaz, he pointed out to me Arab owned fields on the left and right interspersed with Jewish owned fields. Passing a fig tree growing over the road, he told me that he regularly tells his children that they cannot pick the fruit of this tree. It does not belong to them; it is on the land of their neighbors. Nahum admits that it is difficult to keep of the precise lines on this checkerboard and mistakes and violations do occur. Last week, he had to stop an Arab farmer who had begun plowing an open field across the street from his own which did not belong to him.
In most of the world, this would be a simple property dispute. However, in Israel, where every centimeter is a political issue and presents the potential for an international incident, these issues must be handled carefully. While Eretz Shalom does not have a political program per say, they do aspire to normalize the relationship between Israelis and Palestinians. When such disputes are between neighbors and not between sworn enemies, the scope of the conflict is different.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Nahum believes, is a product of both peoples insisting that they have an exclusive right to the land. They use a language of “ownership” rather than a language of “belonging”. When one owns the land, they come from a position of power, but when one belongs in the land, there is a basis for discussion among equals. The whole of the land belongs not to Jews or to Arabs, but to G-d. Some twenty times in the Bible, he argued, this theme is mentioned. The Jewish laws of shmita, in which every seven years the land is to be left uncultivated and lands sold in debt is to be returned to its original owners, reinforce that the title to the land is not for human beings alone.
The most important mission of Eretz Shalom, then, is to “change awareness, consciousness of the land.” Living in the Land of Israel is by no means easy, but Nahum believes that there is space for two families in one house. By engaging in bottom-up activism, rather than relying on political solutions, he is convinced that they can “change the reality of conflict here.” They do this in part by facilitating regular dialogue groups between Israeli residents of the West Bank and Palestinians in which they discuss issues of mutual concern and interest: religion, food, children, life, and only then do they turn to the conflict.
Only by building trust between the two parties, can they really approach the issues which most divide them. This does not mean, however, that Eretz Shalom is post-nationalist or post-Zionist. Nahum asserts that he and his partners are Zionist and they are committed to Jewish life in the land. His narrative is the Torah. As “the land of the bible, the source of our nation,” and the place of his birth, he has the right to live here.
They also acknowledge, however, that there are two nations that reside here, two national cultures. They want to get to know the other, to learn about their culture, history, and religion and vice versa in the hopes that the two sides can see each other less as dangerous opponents and more as friends.
This is not a movement of “peacemakers”, nor is it a “nationalist” movement; it is a movement “out of the books.” Indeed, they are not openly accepted by either the far left or right in this country. The right claims that they are leftists because they speak with the Arabs while the left will not have anything to do with them because they are “settlers” whom they demand “get out of Yehudah and Shomron.” They walk a very thin line, but theirs is a “new idea” connected to the reality that “we are here and the Palestinians are here.”
It is the dream of the Right, he believes, to one day take all the Arabs out of Israel by war, while it is the dream of the Left to one day expel all Jews from the territories through violent means. Both dreams are alive and well for both sides, but neither acknowledges the reality of physical coexistence, that Israelis and Palestinians must live together in their shared land in peace. This peace is not one of signed agreements for which the political establishment is so enthusiastic and the the international community so demands. This approach has failed again and again. Why make the same mistakes? Why not try new ideas?
Eretz Shalom believes that the source of the conflict, the inability of both sides to recognize their shared stake in the land, will be the source of the solution. Here they are looking for cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians on key, day-to-day issues: education, health, safety, ecology. Aside from their dialogue groups, the organization also hosts classes and shared play times with Israeli and Arab children so that “enemies become friends.”
It is all well and good, he suggests, when Israeli leftists and Palestinian academics get together and write agreements like the Geneva initiative, but they are not the ones involved in the conflict. On an everyday basis, it is the Jews and Palestinians of the West Bank who interact, conflict, and ultimately must live together. If the day should come when the Israeli government decides that it will implement a plan of “two states for two peoples” in which it will withdraw from the West Bank, Nahum says that he wants to be a minority in a Palestinian state, and there are “30,000 people who think like me.”
He does not want to remain to take power or create a problem for the Arabs. If the Palestinians want a democracy, they will need a minority; a state which is Judenrein will not be good for them either. It will collapse, he believes, without them. If their is a Palestinian parliament, he says, perhaps he will be a member. In the end, Nahum insists he is not a politician and peace can only come from being good neighbors. “If we want peace, we must lean to accept each other”.
Certainly there are many on both sides of the political spectrum who will charge that Nahum is naive or, at worst, dishonest in his intentions. Speaking to other Jewish residents of Yehudah and Shomron casually, they have noted to me that, yes, they would like to stay regardless of the political outcome. However, the Arabs would not let them. With regular pronouncements by Hamas and elements of Fatah that they still dream of driving Jews out of the land, this argument is hardly without merit. Those on the left who firmly take such organizations as a conspiracy by religious Jews to “perpetuate the occupation.”
Yet as one of the few groups on the ground actually building a framework for coexistence, not across international borders through physical and political division but between neighbors in the shared terrain of a land in peace, it is difficult to not be impressed. Nahum is happy to let others take on the questions of borders, security, and demography. For him and for Eretz Shalom, the greater obligation is to find a way to live day-to-day in a land which they unabashedly declare to be theirs, and another people’s as well. Clearly, they have a long and challenging road ahead.