“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.
In 1996 Gadi Ben Zimra and his wife Nurit founded a sleepaway school for girls from 14 to 18 in Ma’ale Levona, a well-defended settlement on one of the highest hilltops in the West Bank. The school, steeped in the teachings of Kabbalists, would nurture a new kind of girl—smitten with God, righteous, ideological, ready to fight and procreate for the cause of restoring biblical Israel. This was the late 1990s, and teenagers were bored by the gray beards and dusty books that were standard fare at old-school rationalistic Yeshivot. They yearned for mystical teachings sewn into drama, song, ecstatic dancing, and the lure of religious climax. Ben Zimra and Nurit tapped into a wave of national religious euphoria and radicalism rising out of a widespread spiritual angst among Israeli youth and a backlash among the settlers against everything that Oslo stood for.
Ben Zimra’s beginnings give no hint of the radical to come. He was born in the Golan Heights to Italian immigrant parents, grew up in a suburb of Tel Aviv, and attended the traditional Orthodox Yeshiva Mercaz Harav when it was run by Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook, one of the inspirations behind the religious settler movement. At some point the bourgeois trappings of the old yeshivas and right-wing religion must have seemed inauthentic or too removed for Rav Gadi. He found his way to one of the most mystical and extreme yeshivas in the West Bank: Od Yosef Chai High School at Joseph’s Tomb, then located outside Nablus, and led by Rabbi Yitzhak Ginsburgh, native Missourian, mathematical genius, philosopher, Kabbalist, and Talmudic scholar whose political leanings could be described as Jewish-monarchist.
While Ginsburgh has written more than a dozen books—with titles like Awakening the Spark Within: Finding Your Soulmate; Kabbalah and Meditation, and Interpretation of Dreams and Paranormal Experiences—he is best-known for his notorious essay “Baruch Hagever,” praising Baruch Goldstein’s 1994 murder of 29 Arabs in the Cave of the Patriarch. Goldstein, he wrote, was following the five halakhic principles: sanctifying God’s name, saving life, revenge, eradication of the seed of Amalek, and war. Gadi Ben Zimra was Ginsburgh’s disciple, and over the last two decades he has—as news reports and many of the girls have attested (often with pride)—acquired a sizable rap sheet with Shin Bet. During the Second Intifada he was part of the settler vigilantes or “price tag” groups who believed in eye-for-an-eye justice and had no faith in and no patience for the law or the state. If Palestinians attacked, he and the vigilantes attacked Palestinian villages, torching wheat harvests, smashing cars, slashing tires, and shooting up water tanks and houses, some of them with children inside.
When Gush Katif was evacuated, Ben Zimra, like many radical rabbis at the time, practically severed his ties not just with the state—because “this is not a state loyal to the laws of the Torah”—but also with the Yesha Council, which represents the West Bank settlements. In an interview shortly after the evacuation, he said, “What the Yesha Council should have done, when the evacuation from Gush Katif took place, is say to all the rabbis and soldiers and officers in the army that the expulsion is against the Torah, and refuse to be a partner to this crime.”
He knew that what he was saying was revolutionary and he took it a step further. “The religious Zionist person says there is a state and I’m part of it. We say the opposite. We are the state.”
Shortly after the evacuation of Gush Katif, the IDF got orders to evacuate a small settlement of nine houses called Amona. As special police galloped on horseback into packs of settlers kicking up clouds of dust that swirled around their bodies, Rav Gadi sent girls from Ma’ale Levona to defend the Amona families. Hundreds of people were injured and some of the girls were sexually mistreated by the police, the girls told me. The violence, much of which was televised live, gave Israelis a taste of what a real civil war might look like. It also breathed new life into Gush Emunim, the messianic political movement that helped to inspire and organize the settlers’ fervent resolve to build on the lands conquered in the 1967 war.
Rav Gadi’s inspiration—what makes him an innovator, if you like—was to encourage girls to become front-line troops in the family combat between the settlers and the state. In an interview with a settler magazine, Rav Gadi says that the role of the body is “to express and reveal after contemplation the entirety of man’s internal infinite essence.” By now, the state and nation should be the macro for this private expression. That’s what his mentor Rav Kook had envisioned. But it hasn’t happened yet, and Rav Gadi is impatient to get there. “I crave the kingdom,” he writes. “Don’t wait until the Lord, blessed be he, brings us redemption. Get up and initiate.” Rav Gadi and his flock have to work harder to build a physical home for the divine presence. And who better to serve as the handmaidens of God’s kingdom on earth than a flock of adoring, fervent teenage girls?
Moriya was 13 at the time of the evacuation of Gush Katif. Today she works at the Gush Katif Memorial Museum in Jerusalem as part of her National Service. Photographs and text and video tell a narrative of Jewish productivity and then expulsion and suffering. It’s the kind of narrative that drives Moriya’s father Lenny mad. And it upset Moriya that Gush Katif didn’t fight back. She and her friends took buses to Gaza to block the soldiers, and Rav Gadi helped them. They were thrown in jail, and stayed there for 40 days because they refused to give their ID cards—a symbol of the state. She keeps a newspaper article tacked on her wall with the headline: “Sharon Can Sleep Well Now, Because Enemies of the Jews Are in Jail.” The enemies are 13-year-old Moriya, and two of her schoolmates. “I got arrested six times,” she laughed, showing me her “diploma” for bravery signed by the right-wing politician Moshe Feiglin.
She pulled down her wooden “war” chest from a bookshelf filled with comics, perfume, and prayer books. Inside the chest she kept magazines, clippings, paraphernalia from her fighting life like the handcuffs the police had put around her boots. Two months earlier she’d been arrested again when she and the gang tried to sneak behind the backs of the IDF and the Palestinian police into the Tomb of Joseph to pray. During the Second Intifada, when Moriya was 10, Ariel Sharon relinquished the tomb as a gesture of peace. “The Arabs are there and ruined the place, and don’t let us get in there,” she explained to me. “For all our generation this place is very important.”
Her father, Lenny Goldberg, arrived home with his truck of inflatables that he operates for kids’ parties. “Purim is a good time for business,” he told me. It’s also, he said, a great holiday about vengeance. On cue Moriya pulled up a photograph of herself as revenge-seeking vampire—black nail polish, blood around the lips, holding a gun. She was swinging to “Hit the Road Jack” and though Lenny smiled, he said he wished she’d listen to Jewish music. “It’s a challenge to keep my kids religious,” he said, confessing that it was he who brought Bob Dylan and the New York Knicks into his house.
Lenny is a warm father, a street philosopher with a Queens and Kahanist idiom. He grew up in Whitestone, Queens, met Kahane in the ’80s and became a Ba’al Tshuva, or one who returns to the fold. His wife Yael is from Yemen and between them they have tried to create a home for their four girls and four boys of certainty and meaning. On the wall across from the dining room table are four photographs of the family’s spiritual and ideological ancestors: Meir Kahane, his son Benjamin who lived a few houses away, the religious Zionist icon Rav Kook, and the young Avraham Stern, the poet and leader of the Stern Gang, looking a lot like Kafka. Their common ideology: to restore the biblical state of Israel.
Lenny’s all about strength, fighting back, looking like nut jobs. “We shouldn’t complain if CNN and BBC make us look like crazies,” he said. “That’s our trump card. The greatest deterrent factor you have with the Arab is they think you’re crazy.” He put on the voice of a namby-pamby teacher: “We love and they hate. We build and they destroy,” he whined. “No! King David killed.” He mentioned the famous Golda Meir quote: “ ‘I can forgive the Arabs for killing our boys but I can’t forgive them for making us kill them.’ That’s this, like, Jewish form of AIDS. Jews feel guilty about everything. They feel guilty about winning. … We’re so used to losing, getting killed all the time, Auschwitz, Holocaust.”
His philosophy is simple: Violence pays. Look at Egypt, he said. That’s how you get things done. “The intifada. Self-sacrifice is how they got land. So I am proud of my kids getting arrested. If they do things for God, I’m proud.”
I followed him and his daughters Moriya and Roni outside to the backyard. The land is rocky, conducive to cactus, and sprinkled with yellow wildflowers. On the hilltop across the road there’s a warehouse and tractors, where Benjamin Kahane’s father-in-law keeps some 200 goats. Sometimes they’re stolen, said Moriya. It’s a shepherd’s war between him and the Palestinians. Moriya loves that he lives and harvests in the open fields, outside the barbed-wire fences.
“You plant a tree in Israel for roots. But goats move. The land becomes yours by using it,” said Lenny. “It’s not just Arabs who graze. We don’t have to be in a ghetto. It’s law of the jungle: Use it or lose it.”
Looking out over the windblown hills, the rugged earth, and white-stone beauty—the donkey braying, the rooster crowing, the pumpkins and watermelons across the way—it was easy to see the romanticism of Lenny’s messianic, anti-consumer, anti-technology, agrarian, grazing war. He worried that without ideology, his kids would go soft. “The Arabs have Islam. The Quran gives them motivation and that’s why they are dangerous,” he said. “You can’t be a technical robot. We need Judaism.”
And that’s what Lenny so appreciated about Rav Gadi and his wife, he told me. They were grooming his girls to be both good wives and good Jewish fighters. “And when things heat up,” he said, with a glint in his eye, “the girls, too, set up a little hilltop.” A few months earlier Roni and the gang blocked one of the roads to prevent the Israeli security forces from demolishing—for about the 10th time—illegal homes erected at Gilad Farms. Lenny was proud, but his wife was exhausted. “You have to go to police, court, lawyer. She’s burnt out. She wants a normal life,” he said. “But the Arabs won’t let us!” He threw up his hands.
On Purim, I went back to see Roni and Moriya. The celebration of the holiday was already in full swing, with music and drinking, and neighbors coming in and out. The families were determined to celebrate hard in the wake of the Fogel family murder: “Remember Amalek, what he did to you coming out of Egypt.” That was the Shabbat lesson at school, Roni told me.
Who was Amalek? I asked.
Any enemy of the Jews—the Amalekites, the Arabs, the Nazis, the Palestinians, even the desire to do evil, she said. What Amalek has is azut hakodesh—nerve, maddened by the holy spirit. “Even though Amalek knew that we are the chosen people, they fought against us,” said Roni. “That is why we need to destroy them.”
How? Azut hakodesh. It takes nerve to rebuild the Temple. “We learn about the Temple which you usually don’t learn at Ulpana,” said Roni giggling—after all she is still a teenager, and it is embarrassing to brag about your school. You can see YouTube videos of Ma’ale Levona girls exercising azut hakodesh, protesting down Highway 60. They’re posted in blogs with entries like: “As we drove back home to Shiloh we saw dozens of young women marching on the road. No surprise that they are students in Ulpana Ma’ale Levona, who are legendary in their love of the Land of Israel and lack of fear in the face of government persecution.”
This Sabbath they had a special party to celebrate Purim, the azut hakodesh of Esther and Mordechai—and to overcome the murder of the Fogel family, said Roni. “All the girls were drunk with happiness,” and she giggled again. They sang Hasidic songs and repeated sayings like, what’s mine is yours, and what’s yours is yours. “Meaning everything belongs to everyone. It’s like an uplifting of the spirit,” she said. She was becoming inspired by the memory of the euphoria, inspired by the friends gathering for Purim—their neighbor from Kazakhstan wearing a tall Central Asian felt hat, playing Jewish songs on his flute, the children dancing around the table, Lenny telling “Jews don’t learn from history” stories about the 1954 Bedouin ambush on a bus of Israelis in the Negev around Purim. Roni was on a roll, as she poured out her love for her school and her world.
“They really want the Temple to be rebuilt,” she told me. “You see girls who weren’t friends hugging together and crying together, girls crying for the Temple, crying over things they’d done, and they’re really drunk with happiness. And the Rabbanit was shouting, ‘Shma Yisrael,’ and other verses, and everybody repeated after her, shouting. And in Safed, they just all yell. We all yell for God to hear us. There’s a lot of happiness, Hashem hears our prayers. Girls lay on the floor and cried. Girls came up to me and said, ‘Hug me,’ because on Purim there’s a virtue and blessings come true, so the girls were blessing each other. We bring mishloach manot and there was a feast, food and drink. I was crying because of this [the Fogel family]; the rabbi’s wife said something that reminded me of what happened. She said that Hashem should keep his bad tidings in heaven, and girls were praying that Hashem brings about redemption. God punished us because we probably don’t do what he wants. I think we need to do revenge against the Arabs. And we don’t do nothing, our army. But I’m not blaming the army, I blame the government. They’re stupid.”
After visiting Moriya and Roni, I had someone from the Yesha Council call Rav Gadi to see if he’d meet with me. Still no. He said he’d had a reporter from Haaretz at the school and it’d done them no good. They’d also seen a 2002 piece I did on a Hamas suicide bomber in the New York Times Magazine and decided I might be a Hamas sympathizer. But it soon became clear that even the Yesha Council officials had disagreements with Ben Zimra. Despite the fact that a brother of his sits on the council (or perhaps for that very reason), Ben Zimra had little patience for their establishment ways. They kept asking me: Why are you focusing on him? What about the other ulpanas?
A few days after Purim I drove up Highway 60 to Elon Moreh to see one of Moriya’s best friends, Tzuriya, who’d just graduated from Ma’ale Levona. I was with Dina, a 24-year-old from the city of Ariel who was translating for me. She’d come with me to the Purim party at Roni and Moriya’s, and was a bit stunned by the extremism she’d seen—by the end of Purim, the two sisters were singing Dov Shurin’s violent hip-hop song “Down With Arafat” and Roni was telling a story about going with her mother and Moriya to one of the junctions and seeing an Arab mother there. “We spat on each other and then fought,” said Roni, before adding that this happened a lot.
Ariel, where Dina grew up, is a far less rugged place. Many people moved there for inexpensive, pleasant housing. It even has a university. But while they had Arabic lessons at Dina’s school, they were never taught the other side of the story. “So we don’t know why we are fighting,” she told me in the car. As we curved past the old minarets of Hawara, Dina remarked how pretty they were. Dina’s father has a supermarket and, until 2000 and the Second Intifada, Arabs worked there. He still worries for them, finds them jobs, and gives them money, she said. “I have Arab friends. We work together at H&M in Jerusalem. But we never talk politics.”
We drove in silence for a while. Soon there was not a car in sight. And there were no more settlements. The road snaked up through the hills and the Palestinian villages. I could sense that Dina was apprehensive. She’d never been this far north. After a while she said, “There are too many Arabs here, but if we find a way to get along and as long as they realize it’s our country.” Her thought trailed off. She seemed tongue-tied, confused, torn by different sentiments and not sure which to adhere to. Finally she said, “I’m sure what Roni is doing is good for us. It helped us. The government realizes people will do everything it takes to keep our houses.”
The car kept climbing until we came around a bend and there, perched on a mountain top, was Elon Moreh, one of the first places Gush Emunim settled in the West Bank, and today the most isolated. Fir trees and radio towers: That’s what you see from the road.
We found the house of Roni and Moriya’s friend Tzuriya, at the edge of a cliff overlooking Nablus and the Tomb of Joseph. In every direction are Palestinian towns and villages. We climbed down steep steps to get to the house. Inside felt like a Flemish renaissance painting—the simplicity, the light, the paint brushes and fresh eggs on the fridge, and the face of Corrine, Tzuriya’s mother, wearing a scarf wrapped tightly around her head. Corinne was cradling one of her younger children, and she had an uncanny radiance about her. “You don’t come here because it is just nice,” Corinne told me, looking at the mountains out the window by the dining table. “You feel. You believe it. It gives you power.” What’s it? The ancestors, the Bible, the building. Corinne’s father was Polish, hidden in Paris during the war. Her mother was Tunisian. She was born in Amsterdam, and knew little about Judaism as a child. Though I’d come to meet Corinne’s two Ma’ale Levona daughters—Tzuriya, the graduate, and Netzer, who is in Roni’s class—I was lured in by their mother.
Corinne is enamored by history, by everything she was bereft of in Amsterdam, where she remembers seeing the imprints of absent mezuzahs on once-Jewish homes. She’s moved by the persistence of her settlement’s founders, how they tried eight times for permission to build where Abraham and Jacob walked, how they lived in caravans with no electricity, 10 families. “You see,” she said pointing to the other hilltop houses, “they are all the pioneers and now they’re grandfathers. Whenever we get permission to build, we build.” She came in 1991 with 300 families. There was one shop. There was violence. It was purposeful.
“Every year people like us come who want to start again. Young couples.” In fact there was building all around her. A digger behind the house. Trucks moving earth. The workers are Asian or Jewish. No Palestinians. The money comes from the Amana Foundation, which is connected to the Yesha Council and the State of Israel. You can’t get electricity without the support of the state. “When Obama said you have two months to build, the rule was if the house has a foundation you don’t have to stop the building. So we did it so fast,” she said, and stepped outside to find her son.
I stayed talking with Tzuriya, who was sitting at the kitchen table with her knees pulled up to her chin. She’s 19 with a green-and-silver nose ring and dried-blood-colored nail polish. She was doing her National Service—Rav Gadi does not believe girls should be in the army—as a guide at a farm in the Jordan Valley for kids with drug and alcohol problems. She missed her school, she told me, particularly the monthly cleansing rituals, and sometimes she went back for them. They seemed to go like this: The lights go down. The candles are lit. Someone plays the piano and sings. Girls who feel they experienced a miracle will share it to spread the word. Others confess. They cry, repent, rejoice. The music intensifies. The girls dance, harder and harder, reviving, replenishing the spirit. It can go on all night, particularly before Rosh Hashana. By morning every girl is free of her emotional mess, rejuvenated, joined to each other, and filled with God.
Every activity, in fact, is in the service of God. Math and grades were not so important, she said. That was why she’d chosen the place—its spiritual emphasis. “Ideals are part of our daily routine. The principal is a true believer and he passes it on to us. They sponsored buses to Gush Katif so we could protest and speak our mind.” She loved that the girls at the school were known for their idealism and noise. The place also toughened her up. You feel the cold and the rain, but everyone had to survive it together, even the teachers.
Tzuriya’s younger sister Netzer said she loved the dramas and their therapeutic benefits. “We learn to express what we have inside in acting,” she said. The students write plays bringing biblical stories to bear on their lives. “Like Queen Esther isolated in the palace as a Jew. We acted her conflict going to the king and feeling she represents her whole people. How did she know God will help her?”
They did a play about Roman rule, when every young girl had to have sex with Caesar the first night. “When Yehudit got married she took off her clothes in the wedding and everyone was shocked,” said Netzer. “ ‘Now you are shocked? What about all the nights with the Emperor?’ she asks everyone. “We show how women’s courage moved the men to act.”
I began to hear a pattern from just about every girl I met—the drama, the cleansing, described with an incantatory glow, the passion for fighting. It seemed Rav Gadi had invented a vaccine for teenage doubt, angst, and despair. He’d left nothing out. Is there any age so susceptible to the eroticism of spirituality married to a political cause?
“They even prepare you for life after school,” said Tzuriya. “Half the girls in my school are already married.” She laughed. “It’s known in our Ulpana that you get married early.” When they get pregnant, the girls leave school to prepare for motherhood.
Tzuriya’s mother, Corinne, walked back in. “There’s a flock of birds in the sky,” she said, and everyone stopped to watch them fly over the valley in the gray light. We could see fireworks in the valley below from a wedding in Nablus.
I asked Tzuriya if she’d ever had any interaction with Palestinians that wasn’t hostile. Corinne answered, “We don’t feel hate. Some people are going to Hawara [the Palestinian village down the road]. They have interaction.”
“It’s wrong,” countered Tzuriya. “Why should we support them if they are our enemy and massacre us? We shouldn’t talk to them.”
Do they teach about Arabs at school?
“No. In my class one girl didn’t have a brother. One didn’t have parents because of the terrorism,” she said. “It’s not all about the hate. It’s a different reality we are born into, so the hate came with the reality.”
And there it was. A reality for this generation spawned by an ideological plan that unleashed a collective experience of murder and revenge that is now embedded in the communal DNA. A senior I met at Ofra’s high school named Shachar was eerily articulate about exactly what defined this generation of girls. “Our life has more meaning than kids brought up in America,” she said. “We are brought up not to waste our time. We can’t go on Facebook at school. We volunteer in our free time because what matters is not me, it’s the nation,” she said. Politically too they were fairly united. “Two states, two lands is not an option. This land is ours. We don’t close our eyes to the fact that Palestinians are living on the other side of the fence. But our parents come from the United States. We grew up in this situation. It’s more burning for us.”
Tzuriya was 9 when the Second Intifada began and the family was then living on the other hill by the tall cedars. One night seven years ago, at the end of Passover, her father went out to play basketball. She and her mother and siblings heard voices speaking Arabic. Then shooting. Her father slipped back into the house. The settlement defense sirens went off. “The terrorists killed the family who lived behind us. The father, grandfather, mother, big brother,” Tzuriya remembered. One daughter and one son hiding under the table survived. “Every little thing that happens here scares me,” Tzuriya told me. “Even a noise.”
But when Corinne offered the kids the option to move to the city, none of them wanted to go. Corinne and her husband, who was a Moroccan/Iraqi Jew born in Jerusalem, had created a tightly bound unit. Her husband played guitar in a band and in the evenings the family told stories and sang songs to his music. “The people living here are different,” Corinne explained. “It’s not good to say, but you learn to be strong. My little boy was in the school with the little boy who was killed. He was frustrated. He didn’t know how to deal with it. You tell what happened. And you tell that, look, we believe that they are now in hands of God. And we need to carry on.” And so the murder is domesticated into the epic biblical narrative. “We are growing a generation that knows what it wants. They are strong.” This one, she said of Tzuriya, she’s a fighter. Her second daughter is at another school studying to be a nurse. Netzer is another fighter.
There were still fireworks in Nablus and I asked her what they would do with all the people living there.
“The only way we can live together is if they are put on trucks and taken away,” said Corinne, carrying the dishes to the sink. “They have 22 other countries. Why do they want Israel?”
As Tzuriya walked us to our car she spoke to me for the first time in English. She was nervous: “You will write something bad about our Rabbi?”
I had no intention to write good or bad, but I did want to meet the man. The next day around noon, Gillian and I wended our way around the hill toward Ma’ale Levona. Near the settlement, the road zigzags to make access more difficult. A Palestinian man and boy, who might have been father and son, were working in the fields below. We got to the checkpoint by a patch of forest and a soldier waved us through past the long blowing grass, a toy stroller left on the sidewalk, a scooter, an old couple walking their scruffy German shepherd along the edge of the hill.
We met Miriam and her friends in their cement caravans, each of which sleeps around six. There are rows and rows of them, like in an American trailer park, surrounded by cedars and stones, with naked light bulbs illuminating the interiors. Miriam was in her senior year, and seemed completely unaware of her beauty. In a long flowered skirt, balloon trousers tucked into desert boots, she was one of the passionate warriors, anti all falsehood—Holden Caulfield with faith. She kept Turkish coffee cups and a belt of high-caliber gun cartridges by the sink. She’d taped her watercolors above her bed, next to a black-billed, green bird that she had carved on a branch. A poster of the iconic green-eyed, red-scarfed Afghan girl from a 1980s National Geographic hung behind a door. The girls had no idea where she was from, but they loved the photograph’s intensity.
Though her generation is hooked into social media, like many of the settler youth, Miriam consciously resisted it. “It’s an illusion,” she said of Facebook. “People tell you they love you but it’s on the computer!” “The culture that surrounds you today—TV, music videos, movies—makes a distance from your character,” Miriam explained. “You are not yourself.”
For her, and her classmates, Ma’ale Levona is the anti-Facebook. Everything is embodied: Girls sleep, sing, pray, study, fight, throw rocks, love, hate—all together, in the flesh. Every activity is saturated with passion and authenticity. “The teachers feel you here,” she said bucking her chin, and clucking her tongue, a gesture to signal “you know what I mean?” Sometimes, she said, students even slept at their teachers’ homes. Miriam is fourth of nine children, thank God. “Write that,” she said. “It’s fun to live with so many boys. A lot of fun and happiness.”
Miriam could have been the spokeswoman for the school. The school dramas, she said, the whole process leading up to the performance, that was the essence of Ma’ale Levona. They are all based on biblical stories—“our roots.” Her favorite was the play they did about Michal, the daughter of a king, who chose to marry David, who was an ordinary man at the time. She was torn between the rules of her family and her feelings. One day she laughs at David as he expresses his love of God by dancing on the cupboard much the way Rav Gadi’s girls do. She is punished for her ignorance with infertility. And when she finally gives birth to a child, she dies. “You see?” said Miriam shaking her head intensely. She fell silent.
We went outside to the edge of the mountain to look down at the Palestinian village below. Miriam said that the evacuation of Gush Katif for her was such a painful slap in the face that she had trouble even holding an Israeli flag anymore. She wanted to fight the police again like she’d done four years ago when they came to demolish Hal Khivi outside Elon Moreh. Why? “Feelings,” she said, pumping her fist. “I thought building was the solution,” she said. “I still do.”
The muezzin on the hillside was calling to prayer. Soon after, Miriam got a message on her phone. Bomb attack in Jerusalem. “You see what they do?” she cried. And then over the loudspeaker, a voice called out, “Dear girls, we are going to say the psalms because of the big explosion to pray for the injured.” Within 45 minutes, a gang of girls, including Roni, was gathered at the bus stop, headed to Shiloh junction to throw stones at Palestinian cars, and shout, “Death to the Arabs.”
I still hadn’t heard from Rav Gadi, so the next day I drove to visit Tali Haas, who teaches English at the school. Tali lives in Ofra, at the end of a quiet street of white stone houses and red tiled roofs with her husband and five children—“a small family,” she said, laughing. I asked her to describe the philosophy behind the school. Working for God with a lot of joy, she said. No despair, no desperation in the world—the teachings of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov. Gadi and Nurit, she told me, deliberately accept girls who are weak in academics but are “good human beings.” “We have girls who don’t study for three years, who have ADD, ADHD,” she said. “But we almost don’t kick out girls. Gadi and Nurit believe they can help them, and that otherwise they’d end up in the streets.”
This sounded familiar. At Roni and Moriya’s I’d met a young woman who went to the school the year they opened. She’d had a terrible childhood, bounced back and forth between divorced parents neither of whom wanted her—“evil stepmother, dark fairy tale childhood” she said. She had no money and never went home on weekends like the others girls. Rav Gadi and Nurit, she told me, let her essentially live there. She’s taught herself photography and music and connects to people with the uncanny ability of a horse whisperer. The school, she told me, saved her.
Seen in this context, the school is an evangelical antidote to Jerusalem’s Ben Yehuda street, where on Thursday nights you can see what I saw: dozens of yeshiva boys and religious girls in flowing skirts and suede boots, trawling the cobblestoned street, looking like Woodstock throwbacks—pupils dilated, hair matted, guitars on their back, wobbly on their feet, reeking of alcohol. Some I met had no idea where they’d sleep that night or what they’d do the next day. They were lost. This is a regular Thursday night happening.
Ma’ale Levona costs 1,000 shekels a month, a sum that many families cannot afford. The state helps with fees but not much; Ben Zimra would lose some of his freedom if he took too much money. As for the early marriages, yes, it’s true, said Tali. In the last group of students she taught, she had around seven who got married and then stopped coming to school. “We say we don’t encourage it, but the principals were so happy when it happened. So it’s a mixed message.”
As for Tali, so what if it was a rough school and many of her students refused to learn English out of ideological principles? Tali was tough too, and tried to teach them English anyway, using the lyrics of Michael Jackson and Duran Duran, despite Rav Gadi’s disapproval. Her girls would graduate with strong personalities, loving God, and knowing how to do many things at the same time, like having 10 kids and contributing to Jewish life and the life of their communities. Gadi and Nurit themselves are full-time educators and had 10 children. The other English teacher has 10 kids, teaches at two schools, and works as an ambulance driver; they all joke about Tel Aviv mothers who have one child and a dog.
For their part, it is also no wonder that natives of Tel Aviv express the fear that it’s not Israel that occupies the West Bank but the West Bank settlers who are now annexing Israel, as they pour more concrete and have more children, who are taking key positions in the army, government, and civil administration, which controls everything here from electricity to water to schools. The settlers embody an essential conflict at the core of the state of Israel. The government acts like an erratic parent to its recalcitrant children, the settlers—sometimes berating and even beating them, other times adoring and financing them, for their messianic faith. The longer I stayed, the harder it was to determine who is using whom: the government that allows the expansion of settlements while hoping to use the radicals as a bargaining chip in future negotiations with the Palestinians, or the radicals themselves, who offer the State of Israel the choice between civil war or abandoning them and their children to life in a Palestinian state.
“Most religious people are not individuals,” Tali told me. “We don’t just want our work and money. We have a different agenda, thinking of Israel and our people.”
I’d asked the girls in their caravans what they do for entertainment. They said they read Hasidic tales, play cards, paint, hike, and go to Ramat Migron, a hilltop where teenagers hang out. You have a hilltop youth movement too? I asked. They nodded and burst out laughing. So in the afternoon we all piled in the car—Moriya, Gillian, and another girl from the school—drove past the gas station and the Shiloh vineyards, up to a scrappy little settlement of trailer homes called Migron. When we couldn’t drive anymore, we got out and began walking through the wind and weeds across the fields of poppies and wildflowers to a pasture of old olive trees overlooking a quarry, another settlement, and a Palestinian village.
Suddenly, from out of a flimsy shack, emerged a girl named Bat El. She looked like an indigenous creature of the forest, or blue lagoon—languorous thigh-length hair, languorous speech, languorous movement. She was, she told me, 14 years old and living here on her own. “God sent me to the school,” Bat El said.
Not long after, though, Gadi apparently expelled her, she said, because she was rarely showing up.
Inside the shack were a few mattresses for the other girls who slept here—some from Ma’ale Levona, some from elsewhere. There were gas canisters, dirty pots, bags of noodles and cookies, Camel cigarettes, contact-lens solution, religious calendars and books. A few hundred meters across the meadow stood a similar shack for the hilltop youth boys and further down toward the edge of the hill was a three-sided wooden structure where they kept cooking supplies and a burner. Sometimes they had a generator. Most of the time they made a fire.
“It was only going to Ma’ale Levona that I got politicized. Before I didn’t know anything.” She said the school used to be a lot more free, but that Gadi is more careful now because so many girls were getting arrested. “Before Shin Bet went after him,” she said, guilelessly, “he took girls to Hawara. Now he worries he’ll be shut down.” So the girls go on their own. Bat El told me that she’d been arrested so many times that her parents just send a fax now to the police station instead of coming to pick her up.
What was she doing living out here?
Is it legal?
“No. That’s what the government says, but for us what the Torah says is more important.”
What made her decide to live here?
“I love the place, the girls. It’s Israel. We should be everywhere. The Arabs build houses everywhere. It makes the land theirs. We should do it.”
A child of God, Bat El had found her own Woodstock—one made even more alluring by the imminent threat of violence. There was a swing on an old olive tree. A mangy dog with tics the size of beetles that frightened the living daylights out of her. For water the hilltop girls had to make their way back down the road to the gas station and fill up plastic bottles. They had no electricity. She pointed to the shack where the boys slept. Total separation of the sexes, she said. Pieces of wood and aluminum were flung about, remnants of the last time the police had ripped up the place.
Soon, a few other girls from Ma’ale Levona arrived. For each of them, hiking up to the hilltop outpost was a political act, but it also had the feeling of a simple teenage hang-out—someplace far away from adults. A bright articulate girl from Ramat Gan near Tel Aviv had also come along. Her name was Lea Kop, and she was a web activist and disciple of Daniella Weiss, the old Gush Emunim member who grandmothers the Bnai Akiva youth movement. She’d photographed most of the evacuations and expulsions and posted the albums on the web. “Wherever there’s an atmosphere of destruction, we need to change the intention and expand. It’s the program of the hilltops,” she told me.
Apparently the government and the Yesha Council had nearly convinced the families of Migron proper—those 15 to 20 trailers where we’d left the car—to relocate to a settlement closer to Jerusalem. This place was too close to Ramallah. When Daniella Weiss got wind of the plan, she sent out her troops. It was a humiliation tactic: A 14-year-old girl can live outside the fence but you cannot?
“We say, ‘Don’t be afraid to go beyond the fence,’ ” Lea explained, her enormous green eyes inflamed with fervor and pride. “It’s strange to say it, but you look at Arabs and they are not scared to go anywhere, to hitchhike anywhere. They go around the whole area freely without fear. Why is that?
“I think it starts with fences,” she said, answering her own question. “The moment you are in the fence you feel what’s in the fence belongs to you, and outside the fence is not yours. Now we go everywhere and Arabs are scared. Why? Because they see we are not scared.”
They have a system set up so that if anyone sees a convoy of police vehicles coming to destroy their shacks, they send out SMS to the youth. And the youth come to face down the police. I asked her what her parents think about her being here.
“They are scared,” she said. “But I explained to them I am not here for myself; I am here for the people of Israel. So I have no choice whether to be here or not. I’m obligated.” Her parents, she said derogatively, are state people. They follow the law. “I think if there are clashes between the laws of Torah and the laws of the state, I will allow myself to violate the laws of the state.”
Bat El was lying in the grass. The birds were singing. A soft wind was blowing. Another girl was inside the shack smoking and studying for an exam. This was every rebel teenager’s paradise—nature and a cause.
In the end, Rav Gadi refused to meet with me, and I decided not to push it by showing up at his office. After all, it was his work—the girls—that were the most interesting thing to me about Rav Gadi. He was, I was told, particularly upset that Gillian and I had visited the dorms, and that the girls had agreed to pose for photographs. When the girls heard of his wrath, they called us every day to make sure I wouldn’t say anything bad about him or say that he encouraged them to do illegal things. “I didn’t mean that someone organizes us to do civil disobedience,” one of the girls said. “It’s our decision.”
I went to see Roni once more before I left. When I asked her what her biggest wish in life was, she told me proudly: Nikama, to take revenge against the Arabs. There was going to be a March at a place near Itamar, she told me. “We’re going to build something there,” she said. “We want to show the Arabs we’re not afraid of them.”
Who will go? I asked her.
“Everybody who wants to,” she said. “All the kids in my age group, we have power. We are not married. So we can do something. When I marry I’ll have kids, I won’t have time to do things like this. So now I have to.”
Photographs by Gillian Laub.