Exclusive Report: Life on a West Bank Settlement
By Sarah Sirota
Israeli settlements continue to expand and grow. Those who live there can’t imagine anything else; those who don’t can’t fathom why someone would. Yael Simckes, a 51 year-old inhabitant of Elazar, a Gush Etzion settlement, falls into the former category. In this exclusive Jewish Post interview, Simckes opens up about her life on the settlement.
A mother of four, Simckes has lived in Elazar for 10 years. Her children go to school on bulletproof buses, which protect them from drive-by shootings. The armored buses shield their passengers from terrorists who frequently let loose on wild shooting sprees.
In October 2005, such an attack occurred. A car filled with Palestinian terrorists dramatically slowed when it drove past a Gush Etzion hitchhiking post, which was packed with citizens waiting for rides towards southern Har Hebron. Shots were fired from the vehicle using an automatic weapon. The terrorists then drove away, leaving three Israelis dead and three wounded.
Yet, Simckes is not concerned about safety in the settlements. Her husband, Daniel, she explains, is an optometrist who practices in Jerusalem. Within two blocks of his work, there have been six attacks. Major cities and heavily populated areas are favorites for the Palestinian terrorists; the settlements are susceptible to attacks as is any location in Israel, but are not more prone to them. Statistically, she concludes, “there are more attacks in Jerusalem.”
When Simckes moved to Elazar 10 years ago, there were 150 families, now there are 370. Located in the center of Gush Etzion, right on the Jerusalem-Hebron highway in the Judean mountains, Elazar continues to grow. The need for affordable housing outside Jerusalem is what’s causing the settlement that lies just 10 minutes away, to grow. They are currently waiting for another 75 houses to be built. The government initially approved the construction plans, but has now halted them.
Elazar did not originally start out as a communal settlement. It was originally founded in 1975 as a “moshav shitufi”, an agricultural community, and boasted 75 families. The settlement was named after one of the Maccabee brothers, killed in battle not far from there. However, Elazar did not succeed as an agricultural community and its population dwindled to 25 families. Only when it became a communal settlement did Elazar begin to flourish.
A central synagogue, a well-stocked study hall, and various shiurim (weekly learning classes), comprise the religious life of Elazar. There are also a number of different schools in the Gush Etzion (commonly referred to as the Gush) area.
Simckes’ 13 year-old daughter, Keshet, goes to school in Rosh Tzorim, a kibbutz in the Gush. Her school, Reishit offers small classes with special needs children integrated with the regular children. It features a flexible program that emphasizes the initiative of the children and their active role rather than the more common passive teaching style. In doing so, the school gives its students the opportunity to work together with the disabled children, and to learn experientially, at their own pace.
The settlers of Elazar work primarily in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and within the 15 settlements in the Gush itself. Yael teaches in Jerusalem while her husband, Daniel, works in three optometry clinics, two in Jerusalem, and one in Efrat.
Simckes describes the quality of life as being “so high.” In Jerusalem, she relates, there is the hustle and bustle of city life, making it difficult to carve out a comfortable niche for oneself. In Elazar, there is a strong sense of community and a shared religious lifestyle. “The Yishuv [settlement] is our life”, she explains, “and the people in the Yishuv are our extended family.”
Elazar is an all-religious settlement; its gates are closed on Shabbat. The inhabitants are Dati Le’Umi (Modern Orthodox). Most Charedim (Orthodox Jews) would not be comfortable there, because there is a wide range of observance; people have TV’s and both men and women work. The men all serve in the army, while a lot of the women perform Sherut Le’Umi, an alternative voluntary national service. Simckes clarifies, “culturally, that’s expected; someone who wouldn’t identify that way might not be comfortable.”
On June 19, 2008, a ceasefire went into effect between Israel and Hamas, the militant group governing the Gaza Strip. The truce that is supposed to last six months, states in its terms that Hamas will halt their attacks on Israel, and Israel will end its raids on Gaza. Concerning the ceasefire, Simckes admits, “I don’t think anything’s about to change; it’s just a matter of time. I don’t know what a cease fire is if another bomb falls on the Negev every day. It’s just a joke unfortunately.”
When discussing the government’s “giving-up” Gaza, Simckes sighs with consternation as she remembers. In February 2005, the Israeli government, then headed by Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, voted to remove all Israeli settlers and military bases from the Gaza Strip. The plan began to be implemented on August 15, 2005 and was completed on September 12, 2005. During that time, all Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip were dismantled and the 9,000 settlers who called it their home, were evicted. (Most of them lived in the Gush Katif settlement area in the southwestern part of the Gaza Strip.) Those who refused to voluntarily vacate their homes, were literally dragged away by Israeli military forces.
“It was a huge mistake”, Simckes says. “It ruined thousands of people’s lives. The government was criminally negligent towards people; there are families living in cardboard boxes. It’s tragic. There’s a tremendous amount of anger toward Olmert and the corrupt government he’s got. Everyone who lives in the Gush feels the same.”
As much as she loves Elazar and Israel, Simckes acknowledges that it is very difficult to raise children in an environment where you know they’ll have to go to war. The kids grow up so quickly and next thing you know, they’re 18 and it’s time for them to serve. Sending teenagers away to fight in a never-ending war is extremely hard and demands an incredible sum of loyalty and nationalistic pride, which then translates into duty. “You have to have a tremendous amount of faith to live here,” she says, “but I wouldn’t live anywhere else.”
Since Israel was founded in 1948, there have been 1,634 civilians killed in terrorist attacks. People see this number and deem it a danger zone, an unsafe place in which to live and raise children. Yet Simckes says all it depends on how you look at it. As an outsider looking at statistics, listening to the radio, and reading about the most recent attacks, it is easy to discriminate against the settlement’s safety. However, in terms of quality of life, Elazar offers the warmest and richest environment. “People in the Gush pick up hitchhikers all the time. You go into cars with complete strangers. You would never do it in America,” she explains, “there is very much of a community feeling.”
The settlement embraces its inhabitants and creates a warm and loving home. Danger and uncertainty are a part of life, but not the dominating forces. “What’s security? What’s safe?” she asks. “It’s a different world. We profile and know what to look out for.”
Yael Simckes serves as a contact on the Nefesh B’Nefesh website for the Elazar community. Nefesh B’Nefesh is an organization that aims to educate and inspire Jews around the world on the crucial importance of the land of Israel, while also seeking to revitalize Aliyah by advertising its appeal as a Jewish home.
To learn more about the Nefesh B’Nefesh organization, visit www.nbn.org.