In 'Moderate' Jewish Settlement, Signs of Extremism Rear Their Ugly Head

Two young men from Ma'aleh Adumim were recently detained as part of a crackdown on suspected Jewish terrorists. But residents are convinced: if bad apples have grown in their midst, it is not because of what they get fed here.

Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
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Manmade lake at entrance to Ma'aleh Adumim, August 2015.
Manmade lake at entrance to Ma'aleh Adumim, August 2015.Credit: Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

MA’ALEH ADUMIM, West Bank – Norman Derovan has many reservations about the quality of education his daughter received at the religious high school here. Of one thing he is sure, though. “She didn’t get any terrorist indoctrination in the classroom,” says the 60-year-old stockbroker, who moved with his family to this Jewish settlement on the outskirts of Jerusalem five years ago. “We’re not raising any radicals here, as far as I know.”

Earlier this month, as part of a crackdown on suspected Jewish terrorists, three Israelis were put under administrative detention. One of the three was Mordechai Meyer, the 18-year-old son of American immigrants who live in this settlement. The detention followed the firebombing of a Palestinian home in the West Bank village of Duma, in which a baby was burnt to death and his father later succumbed to his wounds.

Over the past weekend, the army issued administrative orders against nine other Jewish terrorism suspects, one of them a juvenile whose name was not released for publication, but who is also from Ma'aleh Adumim. The boy was ordered to stay out of Jerusalem and other parts of the West Bank and to stay home at night under house arrest.

As Jewish settlements go, Ma’aleh Adumim is one of the biggest, with more than 40,000 residents. It also has a reputation for being among the more politically moderate.

As Shelley Brinn, a longtime resident, who grew up in New Jersey, notes: “In the past, when there’ve been right-wing demonstrations against the government for not expanding construction out here, I know that the organizers were disappointed with the low turnout from Ma’aleh Adumim.”

The reason for that low turnout doesn’t surprise her. “You just don’t have the type of political activists here that you tend to associate with other places over the Green Line,” says Brinn, referring to Israel’s internationally recognized borders.

Two hometown boys arrested on suspicion of involvement in terrorist activities would be the talk of the town in most places, and might even prompt some soul-searching, but not here. Not because residents of this sprawling settlement overlooking the Judean Desert take such allegations lightly. Rather, they are convinced that if bad apples have grown in their midst, it is not because of what they get fed here.

“Some of the kids here who are very identifiable as having certain forms of ideology – that’s not something they’re getting in the schools here,” says Zev Shandalov, an immigrant from Chicago who teaches at a religious boys’ school here. “My conjecture is that it’s coming from friends of friends.”

Zev Shadalov. 'That’s not something they’re getting in the schools here.'Credit: Judy Maltz

A city, not a settlement

Rachel Cohen Yeshurun, who moved to Ma’aleh Adumim in 1999 from Montreal, is also inclined to blame outside influences. “Many of the religious families here send their kids away to boarding schools, and some of these schools are in remote settlements. So that could be where it’s coming from. This is not an extreme place. It’s a city like any other.”

A city like any other is how many here like to think of Ma’aleh Adumim. A city and not a settlement. So please, they ask politely, do not call us settlers.

Like many here, Cohen Yeshurun was drawn to Ma’aleh Adumim because it was more affordable than nearby Jerusalem. “I guess you could say I was an economic settler,” she says.

It was housing affordability that attracted many of the original residents of Ma’aleh Adumim, mostly secular Israelis from Jerusalem, who began moving here in the mid-1970s. More recently, the city has become home to about 4,000 Russian-speaking immigrants and about 1,200 English-speakers.

Cohen Yeshurun. 'This is not an extreme place. It’s a city like any other.'Credit: Judy Maltz

The neighborhood of Mitzpeh Nevo, where the family of Mordechai Meyer lives, has been a particular draw for English-speaking residents in recent years. According to Nefesh b’Nefesh, the organization that handles immigration and absorption activities from North America and the United Kingdom on behalf of the government, about 40 percent of the residents in this neighborhood are English-speakers.

These new immigrants tend to be more ideologically motivated than the original residents, notes Eli Wizemski, the Ukrainian-born aliyah coordinator at the municipality. “About 95 percent of the English-speakers are religious,” he reports. “And clearly it’s not only the cheaper housing that draws them because housing here isn’t as cheap as it used to be anymore because of the government moratorium on construction (owing to international pressure). I would say that the English speakers coming here are religious Zionists of the moderate wing – not extremists.”

Wizemski, who often accompanies prospective immigrants on tours of Ma’aleh Adumim, says those who ultimately decide to settle here are the best proof of its mainstream character. “The more politically extreme, those who are motivated by the desire to settle the Land of Israel, they prefer places like Efrat,” he reports. Which is why he believes that if Jewish terrorist cells happen to be taking root here, the seeds have come from elsewhere. “All the people I talk to about this say they are sure it came from the schools these boys attended, which weren’t here, and they’re also sure didn’t come from the families either,” he says.

Still, he adds: “I believe that if the security forces puts someone under administrative detention, they must have a good reason. They don’t arrest people for nothing.”

Wizemski. 'They don’t arrest people for nothing.'Credit: Judy Maltz

It is late afternoon, yet Wizemski is still unable to pull himself away from the computer. He is trying, albeit with marginal success, to accommodate all the demand for housing among prospective new immigrants. “There is definitely not enough supply to satisfy them all,” he says.

Derovan, who moved to Ma’aleh Adumim from Los Angeles, lives in the same neighborhood as Mordechai Meyer’s family. The boy’s father, notes Derovan, is a familiar face at Birkat Moshe, the local yeshiva that combines Talmudic studies with military service, and which his own son once attended. “I see him there every day helping those kids who come from America and need help with their Hebrew,” says Derovan.

Asked if he was shocked to learn that the son of such a well-respected family had been put under administrative detention, Derovan replies: “I guess. I don’t know if shocked is the right word, though. I mean I don’t know the kid personally.”

Like many here, acknowledges Derovan, he hasn’t spent much time pondering the issue. “It’s not something that people are talking about a lot,” he says. “At least in the synagogue, where I go everyday, it hasn’t come up for discussion.”

If local residents are taking the recent arrests in stride, surmises Shandalov, it’s because they know it could happen as easily anywhere else. “If you take a random sample of 40,000 people anywhere, you will find thieves, molesters, pedophiles and drug-abusers among them, as well as those whose ideology is not exactly in concert with what’s considered middle-of-the-road.”

Derovan. 'It’s not something that people are talking about a lot.'Credit: Judy Maltz

Brinn, who says she wasn’t shocked by news of the recent arrests, concurs. “We’re not talking about 10 or 100 people detained,” she says. “In any city, you can have one or two.”

50 synagogues alongside four non-kosher grocery stores

Targeting prospective English-speaking immigrants, the Nefesh b’Nefesh website boasts that Ma’aleh Adumim combines the best of big city and small town life, taking note of its “enclosed mall and several strip malls,” “breathtaking desert view” and location just “20 minutes from downtown Jerusalem.” There is no mention of the fact that it happens to be situated in disputed territory or – far more trivial, perhaps – that it has no movie theaters.

Residents here love to talk about its diversity, the fact that religious and secular, old and young, Russian-speakers and English-speakers, Ashkenazim and Mizrahim, all coexist harmoniously. As Wizemski notes: “I like to tell prospective immigrants that this is the one place in Israel where you’ll find 50 synagogues alongside four non-kosher grocery stores.”

But diversity would seem to end at the ballot box, as the results of the last election suggest. Almost 50 percent of the residents of Ma’aleh Adumim voted for the ruling Likud party, more than twice the nationwide rate, in the March 2015 election, with much of the rest of the vote going to parties even further to the right. The center-left Zionist Union took barely 5 percent of the vote here, less than one-third of what it achieved nationwide.

But because people happen to be right wing doesn’t make them advocates of terrorism, says Shandalov. “I personally am very right wing,” he says, “but I don’t care how right wing people are here, and there are many, you won’t find even a scintilla in favor of burning down churches and killing innocent people.”

Like many here, he is outraged by Israel’s use of administrative detention orders, which allow a person to be arrested without being told what he is suspected of or what evidence there is against him. “And I hold the same position whether it’s Jews or Arabs who are put under administrative detention,” he says. “If there are suspicions that they did something, unless it involves revealing state secrets, then either charge them or tell them ‘have a nice day.’”

Shandalov then pauses a minute before adding: “This may not sound politically correct, but I guess I don’t have the same passion for this issue when it involves a member of the Islamic Jihad as when it involves a Jew.”

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