An Outpost of Earthy Environmentalism

Noam and Tehila Cohen live in an ecological home in an eight-family settlement in the middle of the Judean desert

There were so many flies buzzing around Noam and Tehila Cohen's "ecological" house in Neve Erez this summer that sitting in the living room became almost unbearable. But they refuse to consider putting up a screen or anything else that might block their desert view.

"A screen blocks the world," declares Noam. So they are looking for other creative solutions.

Noam and Tehila Cohen.Emil Salman

"If we take advantage of the fact that flies are drawn to compost, and if we screen off the compost, that will solve the problem," says Noam.

His wife adds: "Once we had a lot of frogs, which ate the flies. But the fly population is exploding, due to a cycle related to climate change. Having too many of them around is unecological."

So long as they don't have a definite solution, Noam confesses, "sometimes I go crazy and spray them with K400 [poison]." After some thought, he adds, "K400 does not really work. It is an ego boost, allowing us to think that we beat them. It's satisfying to see so many dead flies; the satisfaction lasts half an hour."

Neve Erez overlooks the Judean desert. It was established without construction permits or proper planning. According to Talia Sasson, a state prosecutor who compiled a report on settlements for Ariel Sharon when he was premier, it was partially built on private Palestinian land. The Jewish enclave took root more than a decade ago, before Sharon's pledge to the Americans in March 2001 that no more outposts would be built. If the outposts are ever evacuated, many will come before Neve Erez.

Jewish residents in the area take pride in Neve Erez. This secular ecological community helps them rebut allegations that Jewish settlements are radical and religious, and that settlers are violent toward the Palestinians.

The Neve Erez residents, for their part, do not like being defined as secular.

"We are a settlement that loves creatures, the creator and creation," says Noam Cohen.

This enclave has a small population - only eight families. It plans to expand to 15.

"The right people need to be found, people who have a dialogue with the earth. Many people came, but couldn't strike roots," says Cohen, 43.

He is one of the community's founders, and the only one who has remained in the enclave. He grew up in Jerusalem; after completing his army service, he tried to establish isolated farms in Halutza and Hebron, but these attempts failed. He came to the Judean desert in 1999.

"Politics were not the motivation, but they also did not stop us from coming. I saw this as something good to do on my journey," Cohen explains. He met Tehila, and the two moved to the outpost, where their two children were later born.

Their ecological home was built in parts.

"The house's foundation is a trailer home," Cohen says. "I bought the trailer, which didn't have interior walls. During the first two years there were a lot of evacuations from [West Bank outposts], but I kept adding things to the house, as the need arose. There is no air conditioning, but the house has great ventilation. On its northwest side, the direction from which the wind and rain come, the roof hangs over the wall, and that funnels cool air toward the house's entrance. In a normal home, air is confined, so it has to be cooled; here there are holes near the ceiling, and the warm air rises and escapes. All in all, the house has wood, metal, cinder blocks, mud, and glass. The floor is made out of broken cinder blocks."

Cinder block in an ecological home?

"It's better to use a load of cinder blocks than to transport mud from Yemen."

Water is recycled and used for irrigation, and there is no water in the bathroom. The toilet, in fact, is a bucket, and the family members cover their waste with wood chips, and then move it to the garden, where it is composted into fertilizer.

"Flushing the toilet with drinking water - that's abnormal," says Noam. "Do you see any animal in nature that expels its waste into drinking water? A person uses 150 liters of water a day, and 40 percent of that goes to the bathroom."

The Cohen family devotes much thought to saving. Pomegranates, for instance, are wrapped in newspaper - the couple laughs at people who throw away newspapers and then purchase paper to wrap food and other items. "I'm telling you, save money. Use less, work less," Noam says.

They say they're not environmental fanatics.

"Ultimately, our very existence harms nature," Noam says. "We build a road, no problem; but that harms how the ground absorbs water. Our house damages nature, but you have to try not to do harm. In our region there is too much Bedouin grazing; this kills many types of flora and animal life. On our hilltop, we are repairing what we can. Grazing is done in a measured way here. We don't view ecological commitment as a form of self-denial. Instead, we do it for our own benefit, here and now. If the human race were not so so swinish, there would be enough for everyone."

Near their house is Khan Inbalim, a tent structure owned by the family, where they host events (all of them ecologically conscious, of course ). The facility hosts bar mitzvahs, and on Thursday evenings it functions as a pub. Signs in the Khan's bathrooms explain compost procedures. Some guests are amused by the setup, but some people adamantly refuse to come to events at Khan.

The Cohens also tend to fruit and olive groves. And Noam has a musical group that writes its own songs and performs them around the country; he also gives drum lessons. Next on the agenda is the establishment of family-run bed-and-breakfast, and Noam is also converting a goat pen into a dwelling for visitors seeking an ecological experience in nature.

In the meanwhile, a young couple with an infant daughter have come to live and work with the Cohens. The father is doing the wiring for the B & B, and his wife is helping on the administrative and publicity end of the business. They receive very little money for their labors, but get a place to sleep - in the goat pen. The pen does not deter them; before they joined the Cohens, they lived in an old van, which is now being used as a synagogue at the outpost.

After a visit of two hours, which include iced coffee (organic, of course ) and beer served by my hosts, it is hard not to fall in love with this pastoral site. Only the scattered Bedouin serve as a reminder that this idyllic home is in the most disputed region in the Middle East.

The Cohens say they learned much from the Bedouin about building in the area.

"They are connected to the earth. We turned into a people of the book," says Tehila. But there are still tensions with the Bedouin.

"The relationship combines respect and suspicion, because we are in a conflict," she says. "There are clear borders with the Bedouin, in terms of our boundaries. But we have a relationship. I make cheese, and buy goat's milk from the Bedouin. It is their nature to live with the earth. They don't preserve, they don't plant; they use the ground, and then continue onward."