Girls at War
How a group of teenage believers could reshape the Israeli-Palestinian struggle
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.”
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