Girls at War
How a group of teenage believers could reshape the Israeli-Palestinian struggle
“Ulpana High school, Where settler girls go to become ‘real men’ ”
That was the headline I read. You think of settler girls and you think “Little House on the Prairie” or the Jewish equivalent of the Girls Madrassas I’ve been to in Pakistan: Learn your religion, learn how to be a good wife, then have 10 children. But the girls in this story were getting all that and a little extra. Instead of afterschool sports they did afterschool fight-the-state. When civil administrators showed up to enforce a settlement building freeze, the girls blocked the road, whipped mud at them, sat on their jeeps. When 100 riot police showed up, the girls lay down on the wet road, climbed into garbage bins, and hurled trash. Only after a 5-hour battle were the administrators able to deliver their pieces of official paper—building-freeze orders.
The article was from 2009, but I wanted to know more. I called Rav Gadi Ben Zimra, the founder of the school, and reached him. He passed me to his wife, Nurit, the co-founder. She passed me to a neighbor involved with the school who spoke better English—and who could vet me. Her name was Mina Browdy and she told me that she was thrilled that we wanted to come do a piece on their school, meet Gadi and Nurit, hang out with the girls. And of course we could stay there. Ten days? Wonderful. I booked a ticket, as did my friend, the photographer Gillian Laub.
Then two days before the flight, Mina emailed me:
We thank you for your interest to come and write an article about Ulpanat Levona but we reconsidered the idea and decided not to go along with it.
Thank you! Our beloved teacher Rut Fogel Hy”d was murdered with her husband and three children, a three month old baby that was slaughtered cruelly by the wild animals that some of you think are able to make peace.
All the best
We decided to go anyway.
Tapuach, red poppies in bloom, a sharp wind. The settlement sits atop a hillside above Highway 60 on the West Bank. Established by Kahanists and Yemenites, Tapuach is now home to an assortment of new Israelis—Kazakhs, Russians, Peruvians. It was the Friday before Purim and Moriya was sitting on a blue couch in the front yard of her family’s ranch house across from the town playground, painting her fingernails purple. A few years ago, Gillian had met Moriya, who of course knew of Ma’ale Levona. Her younger sister Roni was a student there. Moriya had been too homesick to stick it out—Ma’ale Levona is a boarding school—but she considers herself almost an honorary graduate. Her Facebook friends are nearly all Ma’ale Levona girls.
Moriya, who is 19, was wearing blue balloon pants, a turquoise-and-silver nose ring, and a silver Star of David around her neck emblazoned with Meir Kahane’s famous emblem—a thumb rising out of a tight fist. Roni is 14. Her nail polish was blue, and she was wearing a Snoopy T-shirt and a wooden pendant etched with the Hebrew words: “Kahane was right.” They’re fighters, these girls, each in their different way. “We called him after Benjamin Zeev Chai,” said Moriya of her 6-year-old brother. Benjamin Kahane, the son of Meir Kahane who was killed, was her father’s best friend, she said. A lot of her father’s friends were killed, she said, as she handed Benjy a candy. One of them is still in prison for killing a Palestinian.
“I was depressed all this week. I can’t smile,” she said. It had been only seven days since the murder of the Fogel family, who lived down the road. The mother, Ruthi, was Roni’s teacher. As Tamar, the Fogels’ 12-year-old daughter, told reporters, around midnight she came home from a Bnei Akiva youth meeting to find her mother Ruthi lying in a pool of blood and her home the site of a massacre—her mother, father, two younger brothers, and 3-month-old sister all slaughtered with knives. Two of her younger brothers survived.
“This week was crazy,” Moriya told me taking me inside to the living room to see her Facebook page on the family computer. “Look my friend writes: ‘Don’t be sad. Don’t give the thugs what they want.’ ”
Then Roni said that the day after the murder, everyone in Tapuach went down to the junction and threw rocks at Arabs. “We all wanted revenge. We just won’t cry and feel sorry for ourselves. We will do something about it. You know? If someone comes to kill you, then you kill them first, says the Torah.” Tapuach was notorious for “price tag” vengeance—which is nothing new in outlying settlements where Jewish vigilantes have been known to take the law into their hands. What was new to me was the vigorous and organized participation of adolescent girls.
Roni took note of details about the murder, including the fact that her teacher Ruthi had tried to fight off the killers, while her husband appeared more gentle, and died holding the baby in his arms. The murders had hit all the girls hard. The school is a tight-knit place, the faculty and students like an extended family. “My Ulpana is special,” said Roni. Another girl at the house laughed: “Every girl thinks their Ulpana is special,” she said. “Not like Ma’ale Levona,” said Roni cheekily. Her peers at Ofra—a more sober, academically rigorous Ulpana—were “geeks, nerds,” she said, and then laughed in that way only teenage girls can laugh at the Other.
Moriya proudly pulled up a photograph of Roni and the gang at a junction holding up signs against the Israeli army for dismantling an illegal outpost. Then she noticed that one of the girls had posted the Channel 2 news segment on Tamar Fogel. “Oh my god I want to see that. Look: Tamar asks Bibi to free Jonathan Pollard.” The reporter showed a clip of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visiting Tamar at her grandmother’s home, and exclaiming in his most resonant voice, “We know who the enemy is.”
In the clip, Tamar is seen alternately sobbing into her grandmother’s arms and raging back at Bibi—angry not just at her loss, but at the official hypocrisies. “What will happen if you do something?” she asked the prime minister. “Your America will be angry? America will do something to you?” When the prime minister tells her, “They murder. We build,” she challenged him. Tamar Fogel knew from experience that building can be undone. She and her family were evacuated from Gush Katif in Gaza in 2005; she told the prime minister that he is making a war between brothers. “They’re Obama’s poodle,” scoffed Moriya about her government.
At the end of the clip Moriya and Roni were frozen. They were proud of Tamar. With her resolve, poise, and tragedy, Tamar would undoubtedly become a symbol of their generation’s heroism, and another chapter in the settlers’ self-made biblical narrative.
If I’d had a movie camera, I’d just have you watch and listen to these girls for hours. You’d be fascinated, stupefied, shocked, bored—but you’d keep watching. I want you to see just what I saw, not the facts we’re used to—the ones about the Jews from Queens or Brooklyn or Minneapolis who upped and flew to the calling of Zion. We’ve heard from them enough and we think we know just what they’re going to say. But when they enacted whatever romance of pioneering, frontiering, and longing for collective meaning it was that brought them here, they created facts on the ground. Not houses and trailers; they can be bulldozed. They spawned boys and girls, 10 to each family on average.
“Aren’t they beautiful?” a psychiatrist and playwright from Jerusalem asked me, of such girls. “Pure faith mixed with youth. It’s the most erotic thing.” They are a generation of girls born on the land known as the illegal settlements who did not arrive with ideology and hope like their parents. They just sprouted there.
They say it takes one generation to found a new language. These girls are a new language, believing that they belong to the land on which they were born, and sponsored by the government they despise, which pays for their roads and electricity. I wondered how this new generation will affect the narrative of struggle not only between Israelis and Palestinians, but also among Israelis themselves.
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