I’ve embedded with troops in Iraq, in a nursing home and a psychiatric asylum: now, I’m going to embed myself in Dolev. This is why
In 1982, my sister Maniou, eight years older than me, moved to Israel from Amsterdam, where we were both born. I was 11 at the time. She studied psychology at Bar-Ilan University, got married, changed her name to Ma’anit, moved from Ramat Gan first to the Jerusalem suburb of Mevasseret, then to Kfar Darom (a settlement in Gaza that was evacuated in 2005) and then to Dolev, a religious settlement in the West Bank.
When our father passed away in 1991, my sister was eight months pregnant with her fourth child and she was living in Kfar Darom, where I had visited her several times. She was not allowed to fly anymore, which is why my father was buried in Jerusalem. Our mother wanted to be buried next to him, so both our parents are buried in Jerusalem, even though they never moved to Israel. (She passed away in 2015.)
My sister has seven children and, by now, I believe 12 grandchildren - I lost count.
Although we both grew up fairly traditional (kosher food, going to synagogue on Saturday and Jewish holidays), my sister became more and more religious, and I less and less. She had always been an ardent member of the religious youth movement Bnei Akiva; I was sent there as well, but I was too much of a loner to feel at ease among those youth movement enthusiasts.
As a child we were quite close, but we grew apart the moment I lost interest in Judaism and Zionism. My sister keeps begging me to come and visit her, but I have tried my best to avoid visiting her in Dolev as much as I could.
Since she moved there in the late 1990’s, I have visited her on family occasions, such as the bar mitzvahs of my nephews. In 2001, visiting for one such bar mitzvah, my non-Jewish girlfriend wasn’t allowed to stay over Shabbat at my sister’s house: She was asked to go back to Tel Aviv. My mother begged me to remain, alone, for the ceremony, and I gave in to my mother’s plight. My girlfriend was on the beach in Tel Aviv, I was in the synagogue in Dolev.
But to me this was a watershed moment - I’d betrayed myself and my principles. I would never do it again, your values are not mine, I told my sister over the phone: "You and your husband are plain racists."
Even when my mother was buried in Jerusalem, I decided to stay in a hotel there rather than staying over in her settlement. I spent two or three daytimes at the shiva in Dolev, before going back to New York, where I have been living since 1995.
The last time I saw my sister was in the early summer of 2016 when I visited the territories and Israel - Breaking the Silence had invited me to contribute to a book marking 50 years of the occupation.
One afternoon, I took a taxi from East Jerusalem to Dolev; the Palestinian taxi driver told me that he often went there to bring and pick up people who had to go to Jerusalem. My sister and I played ping-pong. I didn’t tell her the reason I was visiting the region. Then I went back to East Jerusalem.
On the one hand, I believe my sister genuinely longs to see me; family is important to her. On the other hand I believe she wants to save my soul.
She wants me to get married to a Jewish woman, to have children. Her husband has told me several times that, even if you are not religious, at least you could produce Jewish children. Procreation was, he has told me, the purpose of life.
So I have decided to go and visit my sister this December and to live in her settlement for a couple of weeks. To be embedded with her, so to speak.
This wouldn’t be my first time being embedded. I was embedded with Dutch and German troops in Afghanistan in 2006, 2007 and 2011, and with American troops in Iraq in 2008 and 2009.
The concept of being "embedded" could also be transferred to other subcultures and professions, I decided. So, in the last few years, I was embedded with psychiatric patients in an asylum; I worked in the dining car on Swiss trains, and in a hotel as a chamber maid (boy). A few years before my mother passed away I was embedded with her: I moved in with her, and recently I was embedded in a nursing home.
I am already thinking about the question I want to explore, if not answer, during my stay in Dolev.
The settlement where my sister lives reminds me of a prison. It’s a place I detest deeply, for reasons both political and personal.
But if push comes to shove, could I live there? What do my sister and I still have in common? Will we end up playing ping-pong together in order to avoid real and painful discussions? Is my relationship with my sister inherently bound up with where she’s made her home? Can I separate them? Doesn’t she want them to be inseparable - love me, love my settlement?
Do we need family?
How did we reach such different conclusions about ethical and political values, having both been brought on the shared history of our parents? Our mother, born in 1927, survived the Nazi concentration camps. Our father, born in Berlin in 1912, survived the war in hiding in the Netherlands; he claimed to be a Wehrmacht deserter.
And although my mother, especially, emphasized the need to continue the Jewish religious tradition - my father despised religious leaders of all sorts and almost never set foot in a synagogue - both my sister and I were raised with humanistic values.
We were educated in equality, there was no fundamental difference between Jews and gentiles, that science and culture (especially German culture) were in the end more important than the Torah. Both of my parents were German Jews and they wanted very much to pass on their love of German culture.
But what future will my sister’s children face? My sister went to university, she speaks several languages – and her children (with one exception) speak only Hebrew, and they didn’t go to university. I would call this downward social and intellectual mobility.
Who are the people living there in Dolev? How much community do we need? Can I ever understand the appeal of nationalism, or even of nation-states?
Is my sister a victim or a protagonist of an extreme form of identity politics and paranoia? Can I relate to her own certainty in both politics and religion? And to her claim that she understands certain things better than I did and do?
Is living in Dolev, a West Bank settlement, going to change me?
I don't know whether I will find answers to all these questions - and what other questions will arise that I can't even imagine or enunciate right now. But I have committed to living, temporarily, inside these perplexing issues rather than avoiding them, which would have been far more comfortable.
When I write here again, after my time in Dolev, it will be up to the reader to decide if I interrogated my new surroundings, and my discomfort, enough.
First up, assure your hosts you aren't spying for an anti-occupation human rights group. Second tip: Don't take off your coat
The article upset my sister, as it did, apparently, other Dolev residents. She texted me saying that she felt that I was mocking her by writing that I had lost count of her grandchildren. And the line about her husband saying the least I could do was to "produce Jewish children" saddened her as well. She and her husband had told me several times that we humans are on earth to procreate.
In fact, my sister has told me more than once that she was praying every day that I would find a Jewish wife, to which I answered that if she insisted on praying for me, she could at least pray for something I’d like to receive, for example: the Nobel Prize. But she refuses to pray for something she considers mundane and not very important. That’s fine with me; no Nobel Prize, just a Jewish wife and children, after all, there are far more severe punishments God could dole out.
And I understand that reading in a newspaper or on a website about conversations you've had with your brother can be an awkward experience. Although there was nothing in the article that we hadn’t spoken about in person, the fact that other people could now read it, and, above all, that it was printed in an Israeli newspaper, made her very uncomfortable - I had shamed her.
Even though I believe that it is inevitable for friends, acquaintances, family members and neighbors of writers to eventually end up in their books and articles, in one way or another, that obviously doesn’t mean that everything is permitted in the name of art or journalism.
For her, I revealed too much of what we'd spoken about, but I also hadn't revealed to her enough about myself. She felt I was misusing the intimacy that she believes belongs to family, and family alone.
My sister was especially saddened by the fact that I had forgotten to mention the positive sides to our relationship. My answer - that there was no space for it - was a bit too flippant. She wanted to know if I had planned to visit Dolev to spy for the anti-occupation NGO Breaking the Silence, since I’d accepted an invitation from this organization a couple of years ago in order to travel openly to the occupied territories. That trip was something I hadn't told my sister about; she read it for the first time in Haaretz.
On this, I had to break the bubble of a burgeoning conspiracy theory: We all need our enemies, but we should not turn this need into absurdity. Breaking the Silence doesn’t need spies, and more explicitly, doesn’t need me as a spy.
On a rainy day in December, Hannukah had started a few days earlier, I met my sister and her husband in a Dutch old age home in Herzliya, outside of Tel Aviv, where my sister’s mother-in-law lives.
We reached a compromise: I can write about my sister, "but only positive things," and she added: "I don’t want to be famous, promise me, don’t make me famous."
Fame requires much more than an article, but as agreed, I’ll start with the positive things and I’ll try to end with them as well.
My sister has a sense of humor, she is warmhearted and extremely hospitable, she is a settler and a wonderful person at the same time.
After our mother passed away in 2015, my sister and her husband welcomed a non-Jewish friend, who had spent years caring for my mother, and her son into their house. The phrase uttered many years before, that goyim have a soul but that their souls are closer to those of cats and dogs, have never been repeated. And besides, my current (non-Jewish) girlfriend is crazy about cats, so (I assume) she would not take any particular offense to such a remark.
To break the ice, my girlfriend, Roos, sent an email to my sister ahead our trip. To break the specifically interdenominational ice, Roos explained that she wanted to convert to Judaism, under the auspices of a Reform synagogue in New York.
For my sister, Reform Judaism is what the Pope was to Luther: devilish. But to my surprise my sister appreciated the effort, and she told me that my girlfriend’s email made her cry from joy. I guess my sister felt that she was respected instead of being rejected, and that, finally, she was being seen.
After a short conversation with my sister’s mother-in-law, we drive to Dolev, where my girlfriend and I are allowed to share a bedroom, something I had not expected at all. In fact, I had told my girlfriend: "Shared bedrooms, and no kissing, no touching, consider yourself a nun."
The house is extremely cold and not very clean – my sister has other priorities, so this is not meant as a criticism. It is merely an observation. My longing for a warm and more or less clean house is bourgeois – but this rather small and mundane detail makes me realize that besides political and ethical issues, that there are also practical ones: how can you survive in such a cold house?
For a start, simply don’t take off your coat.
It’s easy to ignore the political divide. At the beginning of the 21st century, the bus from Jerusalem to Dolev passed through the Palestinian city of Ramallah, an occasional stone might hit the bus, which added to the slightly intrepid sense of entering a frontier zone some people considered dangerous.
Nowadays, thanks to new bypass roads built for settlers, the other, the Palestinian, has become almost completely invisible. He is not there and he is never mentioned, only when there’s an attack, which happened during my visit there. My sister would say: "You see, this is why there will never be peace."
Shortly before the beginning of Shabbat, my sister tells us, we are allowed to do what we want as long as we keep those Shabbat-illicit activities to our room - in the rest of the house it’s Shabbat. No phones, no computer; yes - eating, singing, praying, talking.
Again, very generous of her, and much more than I had expected.
In my conversations with my sister I try focus on our past, which seemed to me more fruitful than political discussions about the present and future. However, even here controversy loomed. I’m surprised how much she identifies with the so-called "second-generation" - children of Holocaust survivors - and when she tries to include me in this group, I cannot remain silent.
"I don’t consider myself a victim," I say, "and my identity is much more complex than that. The examples you give for why you are first and foremost second generation are so unconvincing that they become almost cliché. You cannot throw away food. Well, I know quite a few people who cannot throw away food, and they are not even Jewish, let alone second generation, they’re just stingy."
Her husband tells us that, according to the Torah, all Jews should live in Israel. To him, Zionism is just an extension of the Torah. To me, Zionism was an attempt to prevent the physical destruction of the Jews in Europe. Madagascar, Uganda, Palestine, whatever, safety first.
I still daydream sometimes of a Jewish state in Bavaria, which historically would have made sense, and wouldn’t it be wonderful to visit the Jewish state and go to the Oktoberfest at the same time? But alas, too late for Jewish settlements in the German mountains. History took another turn.
On Saturday evening, another inhabitant of Dolev, a mathematician, comes to my sister’s house to talk to me. My article had made him angry.
He thinks that I believe that all settlers are uneducated, stupid, religious zealots, and he tells me that I was ungrateful to my sister by writing such an article.
During the conversation, a divide between my brother-in-law and the mathematician emerges. Although his political opinions are influenced by his religious beliefs, the mathematician hardly mentions the Torah, he even speaks about the Palestinians with some sympathy: "I can see their hardships," and he tells us that he can imagine living somewhere else than in Dolev.
There is not one settler, he insists, there are so many different settlers. "But Haaretz and you made a cliché out of us."
After he leaves, my sister and her husband stop mentioning him.
But my brother-in-law emphasizes how important classical music is to him, especially opera. Torah first, of course, but classical music second. More positive news from the settlements.
The less you know about your enemies, the easier it is to project all your fantasies on to them. The closer you come to the other, the more you see the vulnerabilities, the paradoxes, the contradictions
Some years ago, a cultural historian wrote in a Dutch newspaper that land-grabbers should not complain when they get killed.
His remarks were triggered by the killing of a family of settlers in the West Bank. My written response was that I wasn’t sure that, despite all our differences, it could possibly be true that my own settler sister should not be allowed to complain if somebody tries to murder her for being a land-grabber.
A few years later, I attended a Jerusalem Day March, marking the post-1967 "unification" of the city, together with members of the right-wing religious youth movement, Bnei Akiva (I used to be a member of Bnei Akiva in my teens, without much enthusiasm).
The moment it became clear to the celebrating marchers that I was a journalist working for the "foreign media," I was basically branded a traitor and pushed out of the march.
Most of the enthusiastic young marchers refused to talk to me; only a young man who called himself "an official spokesman" was willing to engage in conversation with me. It turned out to be not much of a conversation.
No matter what question I asked him, his response was: "Could you tell me why you are a self-hating Jew?"
Sitting in my sister’s kitchen in Dolev, and drinking Nescafé, I think of these two events. More specifically, I think about the certainty with which some people know whom their enemy is.
In the past my sister had called me a "self-hating Jew" as well, but those days are gone. We are much more polite to each other nowadays. We love each other, reluctantly on my part, but I’m the youngest, it’s the privilege of the younger sibling to love reluctantly, teasingly.
Ironically enough, in the Netherlands, some members of the extreme-right have the habit to call me a self-hating Jew as well.
Whenever I write an article arguing that there is not much difference between Islamophobia and anti-Semitism, whenever I declare that the insistence that all Muslims are terrorists is more or less the same rhetorical trick fine-tuned by Hitler claiming that all Jews are Bolsheviks or capitalists, or capitalists and Bolsheviks at the same time, because with Jews everything is possible, those readers will call me a self-hating Jew.
Many of these people writing me angry emails urge me to visit a certain neighborhood in The Hague, in the Netherlands, where lots of Muslims live, and to walk around there with a yarmulke on my head. I’m quite sure they themselves have never been to this neighborhood, and most likely they’ve never met anybody with a yarmulke on his head either. It seems that, among certain people, the old saying that the enemy of my enemy is my friend, is very much alive.
My sister knows who her enemies are. First of all, she hates the Germans, even though our parents were as much German as they were Jewish, and they both very much identified as German Jews.
Our parents resented the Dutch Jews for how they had half-heartedly welcomed and treated the German Jews, before and after the war. My father proudly announced, over dinner, especially during Jewish holidays, that German culture was the best culture in the world. He didn’t do this so much to provoke, rather he genuinely believed that German literature and philosophy were superior to any other literature and philosophy.
My sister was raised bilingual, Dutch and German, whereas with me my parents didn’t bother - they only spoke Dutch to me. It is a miracle to me how one can be loyal to one’s parents while ignoring such an important part of their heritage.
I consider myself both Jewish and German, even though I’ve never lived in Germany - the German mountains feel more like home than the hills around Dolev. This is something I won’t tell my sister, because then she would call me a self-hating Jew again, or maybe even worse.
At her kitchen table I realize something else. None of her children have even so much as tried engaging with me in conversation about religion or politics. Except for one instance - with her youngest daughter Rinatya, when she was in Amsterdam to visit her grandmother, and I had taken her to the Anne Frank House, she said to me: "How can Jews live here?"
I answered: "Despite everything that happened, Jews can live here and they live very well here."
For my nieces and nephews, politics and identity are not something you talk about, at least not with me. To them it all appears to be obvious - identity, Israel, or the question where Jews are supposed to live. There’s no need to discuss it relentlessly, and they’re not tempted to convert those who haven’t seen the light yet.
To some of them, kashrut is more important than politics. When my nephew Tuvya was in New York and he visited briefly my apartment, he even refused to drink a glass of water. I had to put the water in a plastic cup.
Besides the Germans, my sister also considers the Arabs to be an enemy, although she hardly mentions them. Before the second Intifada, a Palestinian from a nearby village came to Dolev to sell vegetables. My sister speaks almost fondly of him. "He would sell vegetables on credit," she says, “but then he stopped coming, because other Palestinians would have killed him.”
The invisible enemy appeared in the past as a kind greengrocer - but, of course, this man was the exception. Her husband tells us: "When we lay down our arms, we will all be killed. When the Arabs lay down their arms there will be peace."
The love object and the enemy have something in common. The less you know about them, the easier it is to project all your fantasies on them.
I strongly believe that you should talk with everyone. That is not to say that enemies don’t exist, I’m not naive, but talking to anyone means to learn something, and to realize that your fantasies are often not very accurate. The closer you come to the monster, the more you see that the monster looks very much like yourself.
Back in 2009, I was in Baghdad to write about the aftermath of war – it was really still more of an ongoing war than an aftermath. I had hired private security, friendly Iraqi guys with guns who insisted that I should wear a flak jacket. I had remained silent about my Jewish background, and to be on the safe side, I went by the name of "Arnold."
One evening, we were eating lamb in a restaurant, one of the guys said to me: "I know you are Jewish, but I couldn’t care less about the Palestinians. We have our own problems. And you know, Jews, Christians, Muslims, we all believe in the same God. The real problem are the atheists, they are pigs."
I smiled and I appreciated this remark. But I didn’t tell him that I was a kind of atheist. Silence can be golden.
My sister would not make that difference, Germans, Arabs, Muslims, enemies. But she is willing to treat my non-Jewish girlfriend with all her kindness as if she were already family. The closer you come to the other, the more you see the vulnerabilities, the paradoxes, the contradictions.
My sister and I ready ourselves to go to Jerusalem to visit the graves of our parents.
Although my sister is only eight years older than I am, at 55 her health appears to be deteriorating. She is deaf on both sides – she wears hearing aids – and she has problems with her teeth. On Shabbat, she refused to change the battery of her hearing devices, even though her husband had told her that it was probably okay to do so.
"The most important thing for me is to be a good person," she says.
"So, being good," I answer, "means being deaf for half of the Shabbat?"
She ignores this. "What’s the most important thing for you?" she asks.
"To be a good writer," I reply.
During my stay in my sister's settlement, I learnt (again) that emotional blackmail is a Jewish tradition for the ages. But I also realized that her political views weren't the real barrier standing between us
Both my parents are buried in Jerusalem. My father mainly for practical reasons: my sister was about to give birth to her fourth child when he passed away in Amsterdam in 1991, and she was not allowed to fly. So we flew with my father’s body to Israel. My mother wanted to be buried next to her husband.
Neither had ever shown great interest in being buried in Israel, it just turned out that way. That’s not to say that both my parents didn’t otherwise feel warmly toward Israel, but you can also have very warm feelings for a person without moving in together.
My sister had invited my mother to spent her last years in Dolev, the West Bank settlement where she lives, to which my mother always said, "When I’m really old I’ll move in with you." But she postponed her belated aliyah until it was too late; she passed away in 2015.
And during the last years of her life, when she was living with two caregivers from the Philippines in her house in Amsterdam, she never mentioned going to Dolev anymore. When push came to shove, she preferred her caregivers and her own house to active bodily Zionism.
After my mother fell ill in 2010, my sister visited her for a week once a year - reluctantly, I would say. Of course, my sister had her work, her children, grandchildren, but I always felt that there was unspoken anger that my mother, despite all her promises to spend the last days of her life in the Holy Land never could bring herself to live in Dolev.
Also, my mother had changed a bit during the last years of her life. She had always kept more or less kosher, though she loved German pastry and, to her, all German pastry was kosher. During her last years, however, she suddenly took a strong liking to non-kosher sweet and sour candies. When my sister would come over, my mother asked me to hide the non-kosher candies, which says a lot about the relationship between them. My mother was slightly fearful of my sister’s warmhearted, but also severe and pious gaze.
Also, my mother used to say: "I didn’t tell your sister that you fly on Shabbat, it would make her so sad."
My sister loves family, but the family, as all other Jews, have to come to Israel to see her, they have to make a step in her direction. During my days in Dolev she remarked a couple of times that it was so difficult for her that I hadn’t shown more interest in her children all those years.
Emotional blackmail is a Jewish tradition for the ages. It would not even come to mind for me to tell her that it was slightly upsetting to me that she hadn’t shown more interest in my books. As a matter of fact, not one of her children has, as far as I know, ever read my novels, even though a few of them have been translated into Hebrew. I believe that my books are forbidden in my sister’s family, which is not something I complain about. Censorship can also be a compliment.
Standing near the graves of my parents, I hear my sister talk to them in Dutch. Suddenly I see her as a child again, and perhaps besides all the other things that make her who she is, settler, believer, child psychologist, she is above all a child.
A bit like Oskar in Günter Grass’ novel "The Tin Drum", somebody who refuses to enter the treacherous world of the adults. On this level I can relate to her, can laugh with her, can feel the same benign competition I felt four decades ago, even though I would not want to talk to my parents through their graves. I’m too self-conscious to do that, I don’t want to be ridiculous in my own eyes.
After the visit, we go to a restaurant in Jerusalem where she picks up the bill, against my wishes, and I realize that her political views are not the barrier standing between us. Yes, I still believe that settlements are an obstacle to peace, but then there are many other obstacles. In my opinion, the settlements are unjust, however, we probably face a plethora of even more urgent injustices in this world.
What’s standing between us is more fundamental and goes beyond religion. To me, the world and humanity are fundamentally broken - and there is no way out of this brokenness, there is no real healing, there won’t be a future with a complete and unbroken world, there is no messianic solution not for our politics or for our religious lives.
To me, the acceptance of this brokenness, of tragedy and uncertainty, is fundamentally ironic, you know that you are standing in quicksand, and by recognizing the imperfection of all our attempts to attach meaning to our lives, you accept that your own attempts may be misguided or unsuccessful.
The human comedy is not only a bloody, but also an ironic, comedy and by recognizing the clown in yourself you don’t have despise other people’s clownish behavior anymore. And you can live with this brokenness, you can even live well with it.
When I was 16, in Israel, I took my sister to a movie that had made a deep impression on me: "Betty Blue", directed by Jean-Jacques Beineix. Without doing it proper justice, it’s a movie about a struggling writer and a young woman who nowadays would’ve probably been diagnosed with a borderline personality disorder, and their amour fou.
My sister despised the movie and to this day she speaks about it in horror. The depiction of tragedy, even if it’s a beautiful depiction, prompts in her a visceral feeling of disgust. Yes, she appreciates stories of Holocaust survivors and their children, but somehow the Holocaust managed to have a happy ending: the birth of the State of Israel.
I’m not so sure about that happy ending. And above all, I don’t need a happy ending.
And there’s one more thing that separates us. Voluntary assimilation has been part of the emancipation process of all minorities: I’m very much in favor of that. To my sister, assimilation is more or less the Holocaust of the Jewish soul.
Before we drive back to Dolev we visit the Western Wall; my sister wants to show the Kotel to my girlfriend. Afterwards my sister is disappointed that the Wall didn’t make a bigger impression on my girlfriend. My girlfriend whispers in my ear: "To be honest, I’m more in awe with an average kitten than with the Wall." I understand this. Nietzsche, Freud and Joseph Roth left a greater impression on me than the Torah did.
One of the last evenings in Israel I spend in a bar in Tel Aviv with an acquaintance of mine, the Israeli author Nir Baram. He tells me half-drunk and in jest: "You still care about this country. We are beyond that." As if you can only care about Israel when you don’t live there, which does make sense to me. Disengagement and detachment are viable and often necessary survival strategies.
It was of course a joke, but there’s always more to a joke. Yes, I still care; often my feelings consist of shame and disgust, but I do care. Even though it seems even further beyond the bounds of possibility for me to believe in the nation state, any nation state, than belief in God.
My opposition to nationalism, to the insistence that humans should always identify as members of this or that community, means that it’s not only with my sister I part ways. There are many people, like some of my friends in the Netherlands, who believe that my antipathy to nationalism is snobbish, elitist and maybe even dangerous. And perhaps they are right, probably it’s elitist to believe that you don’t need the nation-state, that you are above tribalism.
But states and tribes are abstractions, they don’t break their ankles, they have no heartbreak, they don’t know what comic relief is.
The humanistic cliché that we should love mankind has been sufficiently discredited. But how can you care for the people around you if you refuse to care for individuals that don’t belong to your tribe, your group, your state, how can you care if you believe that the monster is always the other, how can you care if you don’t see that the enemy is also living inside you.
If you accept the concept of us against them, of perpetual war, you just don’t care.
Arnon Grunberg is the author of the recent novels "Good Men" and "Birthmarks." As a reporter he has been embedded with, among others, Dutch and German troops in Afghanistan and American troops Iraq, in a nursing home in Flanders, with a fire crew in The Netherlands and is about to travel all 50 U.S. states to explore God, love, work, race and punishment. He was born in Amsterdam and lives and works in New York. Twitter: @arnonyy
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