American-Israeli Settler Holds Out in Hebron

For one year from 2007-2008, Amar traveled around the world reporting on how people from all walks of life view the United States through text and video.  The following is one of a number of posts from Pakistan. For more, click here.

Hebron - "Make no mistake. The Americans are enemies," argues David Wilder, the spokesperson for theHebron Jewish Community. "Under the leadership of Rice and Bush (in that order), the United States has been transformed into one of Israel's most dangerous foes."

Hebron is a heavily contested, Biblical town in the West Bank. Abraham is believed to be buried here, along with Isaac. Now one hundred thousand Arabs live here, and about ten thousand Jewish settlers surround the city in the Kiryat Arba settlement. But smack in the center of the Arab town live David and a group of eight hundred Jewish settlers. In addition, about 500 Israeli soldiers are assigned to guard them round-the-clock -- which is one reason many other Israelis dislike the settlers.

Together, the settlers' and soldiers' presence makes Hebron possibly the most tense city in the West Bank. The settlers have cordoned off the adjacent streets for security, evicting Arab storekeepers and delivering a blow to the local economy. The adjacent streets are empty, save a few Israeli armored vehicles and soldiers with assault rifles. It feels like a ghost town. A few large Hebrew signs curse their Arab neighbors with various epithets for "stealing their land." A bumper sticker on David's front door reads, "Without Arabs, there would be no terrorism."

David's devoted the past two decades of his life to settling Hebron and multiplying as fast as possible, in the hopes of one day "returning Hebron to Israel." But he fears his country of birth, America, will curb his ambitions if he doesn't act fast enough.

David was born and raised in small-town New Jersey. A Reform Jew with a Roman Catholic best friend, he claims classmates regularly taunted him, an experience that only sowed the seeds for him to identify more seriously with Judaism. At college in Cleveland, Ohio, David got his first chance to visit Israel as part of a study abroad program.

It was 1974. Israel was reeling from the traumatic Yom Kippur War of 1973, which was the first real blow to the nation's morale after their victory over Syria and Egypt in 1967. Israel's existential struggle gripped his imagination. There was a purpose here. David decided to stay on a bit longer, and then a bit longer. His parents weren't thrilled with his decision to move overseas.

But soon he became engaged with orthodox religion and spent the next eight years moving from one Yeshiva, or Jewish religious school, to another. In holy books, he claims he found his personal calling: to populate the land of Judea and Samara and reclaim it for the Jews.

So after just nine days of courtship, David got engaged to an Israeli woman and soon after they gave birth to their first child. Now he has seven children, a moderate number for this settlement where many have over a dozen kids.

"If we have more children, it will become harder and harder for Israel and America to negotiate our land away," David explains. "I raise my kids to relate to America as a force to be dealt with…one that is not necessarily on our side." His two oldest daughters, 27 and 25, both married at 19; each already has three children, and expects more.

Outside his third-floor apartment in the settlement of Beit Hadassah, dozens of schoolchildren play on a basketball court. Beside it lies a daycare center, a gift from an American Jewish couple.

"The [orthodox] American Jewish community is instrumental to our existence here and our survival here," David explains. Each year David and the Hebron Jewish Community host a fundraiser in New York where tickets cost $180 per head. Attendance regularly tops twelve hundred. He sends out regular podcasts to American faithful over iTunes, explaining how America is crucial to providing funds for social services like schools and maintenance operations. They're also important, he says, for settling.

"When I see a Jew in America, even those supporting us, I think, 'Why are you over there? You should be here.'" About fourteen of the 90 families in the center of Hebron, roughly 13%, hail from the U.S., a significant percentage. American's aren't lured to Israel for financial reasons, like other immigrants might be. They largely come with great curiosity or purpose, he believes. And he hopes to bring more over to settle the West Bank.

David's determination to stay in Hebron is typical of the attitudes of many hardcore Israeli settlers here, and shows just how difficult it is going to be for the Israeli government to get them to vacate the West Bank as part of a comprehensive peace agreement.

As for coexistence with Arabs, he says, "A two-state solution is fine, as long as we get all of Israel [including the West Bank] and the Arabs go somewhere else." He says anything short of this would be suicide.

This proposition is nowhere on the Annapolis negotiating table, I point out. “Do you really believe that’s possible?”

David responds: “To live here, you have to have a strong idealistic streak; you have to have a lot of faith.”

IsraelAmar Bakshi