In the yard of the Oz family in the Galilee community of Atzmon, amid the fruit trees (figs, almonds, feijoas, lemons, pomegranates, clementines, olives) and the dense herb garden (aloe vera, sage, rosemary, lemon verbena), lies a bare, fenced-off patch of ground. This dead area was not neglected deliberately. It was dug up by wild boars that roam the village at night looking for wet roots to suck on, in the wake of long years of drought. To protect themselves against the boars, the majority of Atzmon’s residents put up high fences, in some cases electrified.
Israel Oz, formerly an organizational consultant, now a writer and board director for various pension funds, differs from his neighbors in his views of how to deal with the boars. His approach is guided by his objection in principle to being entrenched behind walls; that, he says, is one of the ills of the “chosen communities,” as he calls them, the villages that are scattered across the Misgav Regional Council, in northern Israel.
Recently he moved from Atzmon to central Tel Aviv. He rarely visits the Galilee home where his wife, Dorit, a psychotherapist and family and couples counselor, still lives. It’s possible that the house will soon be put up for sale. That will be the finale to a 34-year-chapter of his life.
“I’m already emotionally disconnected from this place,” he told me last week, during a rare visit to the Atzmon dwelling. Perched on the slope of a hill, it overlooks the endless green of Segev Forest and, in the distance, a thin strip of blue – the coastline between Acre and Haifa Bay. “It’s not that I don’t have feelings for the house, for what’s enshrined in it, for the experiences and the memories,” Oz continues, “but the [Misgav] villages themselves are too highly charged for me.”
He arrived at the decision to leave six years ago, when the Atzmon council initiated an amendment to the regulations for admitting new residents. The new clause would commit the members of the community to a “Jewish-Zionist way of life.” The change was not confined to Atzmon, but came on the heels of a series of similar initiatives sponsored by other communities in the regional council, situated south of Carmiel. The trigger was a petition submitted to the High Court of Justice a decade ago by a couple from Sakhnin, an Arab city in Galilee. Their request to buy a plot of land in nearby Rakefet, one of the Misgav locales, was rejected by the admissions committee.
In the wake of the petition, the High Court issued an interim injunction ordering that a lot be set aside for the couple. Not long afterward, additional Misgav communities, including Mitzpeh Aviv, Manof, Yuvalim and others, sought to make residence in them conditional on an expression of loyalty to the Zionist vision – in other words, effectively to block the entrance of Arabs.
In Atzmon, the proposed amendment won a majority, but was not formally approved because it failed to get the required 75 percent of the residents’ votes. Still, that was no consolation for Oz, who had fought the initiative. “About 70 percent voted in favor, which is a dramatic majority, far from marginal. I took it as my failure,” he says.
Oz, who is today 67, started to edge his way out. At first, he split his time between Atzmon and Tel Aviv, but gradually the city became the center of his life. He could have made do with a quiet transition explained by practical considerations: the desire to be close to children and grandchildren who live in the Tel Aviv area, the wearying long trips between the Galilee community and the Mediterranean city. But his defeat in the vote, and his disappointment in the place where he’d spent half his life, demanded a public reckoning.
The result of this is “Strangers,” a recently published novel (“Hayu Lezarim,” in Hebrew), which recounts the love between a widower and a widow: Yossi, an expert in information security, and Jihan, a Haifa-based, Christian-Arab architect. Their relationship is forged against the backdrop of Yossi’s residence in a fictional Galilee community, Mitzpeh Ahim. So distraught are its residents at the exceptional relationship that they organize a public discussion about “the need to reformulate the moral basis on which the community’s life is based.” Riding the waves of suspicion and hostility, the village’s militant leadership initiates a revision of the regulations, under which the community defines itself as “Jewish-Zionist” in character. “Villages with a mission,” Oz calls them.
“Whether they are intended to take over land in Judea and Samaria, to develop the Negev or to Judaize Galilee, these settlements were established as a mission of the Zionist project,” he explains. “I wanted to explore the dilemma of these small, closed communities through a test case of a widowed couple, and in the course of writing I found many points of resemblance between the communities. All of them display a type of domineering arrogance, stemming from the very mechanism by which you decide who will be allowed to enter and live among you. It’s like ‘The finest to the air force’ – you are accepted or not accepted, and those who are accepted have a feeling of being chosen.”
‘It was a nightmare’
“Strangers” is Israel Oz’s second novel. In 2012, he published “The Last Assembly” (in Hebrew), which dug into the bleeding wounds of the kibbutz enterprise, focusing on the exclusion of women rooted in the culture, despite to the egalitarian image of the kibbutzim.
Oz, who has three children and five grandchildren, was born in Kiryat Ono. His parents were Holocaust survivors: His father escaped from the Lodz ghetto to Russia and joined the Red Army; his mother endured Bergen-Belsen and Auschwitz. He grew up on the boundary between Ramat Gan and Bnei Brak, was an officer in the combat engineers and went on to study economics and sociology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
The first Galilee chapter in his life began following his marriage and a lengthy trip abroad, when he was appointed director of the municipal community center in Kiryat Shmona. After the birth of their first child, a daughter, the family moved to Jerusalem, but in short order began seeking an escape hatch.
“As an activist in Peace Now, I felt that the city didn’t allow me to live in it,” Oz says. “The way people spat in our faces during demonstrations was the proof. We made the decision to move after the demonstration in which Emil Grunzweig was killed [in 1983].”
The family happened to visit Atzmon on a trip to Galilee and decided to stay: “It was a dream for us, like living in New Zealand. So we went through the whole insane process of the admissions committee, and we were accepted.”
Oz has a vivid memory of that event. “It was a nightmare,” he recalls. “The conversation was mainly about ‘What will you contribute to us?’. So I dredged up fire-breathing speeches about what I’d contribute. Even after you’re accepted, and you move in, a year later you come up for a vote, which will decide whether your admission is final. So, for a year you walk around with a feeling of being in an audition, your head in the ground, not saying a thing in order not to make anyone angry.”
Oz and his family passed the audition and became full-fledged members of Atzmon. There were families, however, that were asked to leave at the end of the trial period. One such case generated Oz’s initial doubts about the community. “You have to understand: People relocated, moved their entire lives life here, and after a year they’re kicked out. That totally shocked me. I went from door to door and asked, ‘Why are you expelling them? How are they different from you?’ Nothing helped.”
In what way were they different? Were they Mizrahim?
“No. Mizrahim [Jews of Middle Eastern origin] aren’t accepted in the first place. There are practically none in the Misgav communities, only a few here and there, just to show that they exist. With this couple, there was just a wave of talk against them. The husband was a bit too religious – he sometimes conducted prayers in the synagogue, or organized events relating to Jewish tradition – and all kinds of tales were told about his wife. That story made me feel terrible.”
Apart from that episode, Oz tried to avoid confrontational situations. In any case, he had no time to get mired in the village’s internal politics. For about three years he was chief of staff for Finance Minister Avraham Shochat in the 1992 government of Yitzhak Rabin (“The most riveting, and in the end most disappointing period for me”). Afterward, he established an organizational consultancy firm and spearheaded a privatization process in about a dozen kibbutzim (“a process of change and recovery,” in his words).
Betwixt and between, Oz tried to contribute his share by assuming public posts in Atzmon, including membership on the admissions committee. “I often felt uncomfortable there,” he relates. “I admit that I, too, fell into the trap. Because there are six-seven candidates for every place in the village, and you’re the one who has to choose, you end up deciding people’s fates. Nowadays the candidacies are almost irrelevant, because parents pass membership on to their children. In many communities it’s a closed caste. Where did this distorted notion of the ‘continuing son’ came from? This is state land, you know.”
What kinds of reasons do the committees cite for rejecting people?
“You don’t really have to give a reason – no minutes are taken. If we decided no, then it was no. The rationalizations are along the lines of ‘They don’t have two cars, so they’ll have a hard time getting along here,’ or, ‘It’ll be hard for them to make a living,’ ‘The relations between them don’t look good,’ or ‘Did you notice that he spoke the whole time and she was silent?’ There’s no end to it.”
But the deep crisis Oz suffered was not engendered by his revulsion at the classification process: It was the initiative to amend the regulations at the beginning of the decade that “pushed me out,” he says, and elaborates, “I understood that I wanted to live in Israel, not in a Jewish-Zionist community. I don’t see myself as disconnected from Israeli society, and I have no interest in living inside a bubble that defines itself in a way that removes me from it. At that time it was still an inner decision. I didn’t complain about anyone, I didn’t give interviews and I didn’t raise a banner.”
Oz channeled his protest into the new novel, whose climax is a tempestuous members’ meeting about revising the admission regulations. The advocates of revision resort to aggressive, militant rhetoric, with comments such as, “Where will we draw the line between Christians and Muslims?” and “Let them go live in [the nearby city of] Carmiel.”Afterward, Yossi finds graffiti on the concrete path leading to his house: “Only Jews live here.” That, too, draws its inspiration from a real event. In 2013, the inscription “No loyalty – no citizenship” was sprayed on the house being built in Rakefet by Fatana and Ahmed Zabidat, the Sakhnin couple who went to court after their request to live in that community was rejected on grounds of “social incompatibility.”
At around the same time, Oz came across another instance of nationalism in a nearby community. “A couple who are friends of mine wanted to rent a room to students – an Arab couple from Haifa,” he recalls. “A small group from the community objected, a furor erupted, name-calling on the social networks, a meeting of the local committee was called to consider whether to rent to them or not. In the end, the students themselves decided to drop the idea. They told me, ‘We had pity on them [the owners of the house]; we couldn’t bear to see what they were going through.’ My friends also left in the wake of that case. Two years later, mediation between them and the community enabled them to return, but they’ve remained outsiders there.”
The nationalist rhetoric in the Misgav Regional Council, where a high percentage of residents in its 35 communities vote for center-left parties, did not emerge in a vacuum. In 2011, the Knesset enacted the admissions committees law, which enshrined the right of “community settlements,” as they’re called, to reject people on grounds of “incompatibility with the social life in the community.” Even though the text of the law also prohibited discrimination on grounds of race, religion, sex, nationality, disability, personal status, age, parenthood, sexual proclivity, country of origin or political-party affiliation, its opponents argued that it contains vague and generalized criteria that will in practice allow for discrimination. Human rights groups, including Adalah – The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, petitioned the High Court of Justice against the legislation. In 2014 the court, by a vote of 5-4, rejected the petitions on the grounds that the issue was “not ripe” for a decision.
This effectively authorized the filtering of membership applications in community settlements situated in the Negev or Galilee and have no more than 400 households. Concomitantly, the classification procedures were standardized. In the first stage, the candidate appears before a “get-acquainted committee.” If the committee forms a favorable impression, the candidate is referred to an external assessment institution. Its recommendation is sent to a regional committee, only two of whose five members are from the community in question, and that committee decides whether to accept the family.
The High Court defeat also spelled the end of “Misgav’s Future,” an organization of local residents who campaigned against the admissions committee law. Oz and I began our visit to the Misgav area in the community of Manof, at the home of Prof. Nimrod Luz, head of the sociology and anthropology department in Western Galilee College, who was one of the leaders of the Misgav’s Future project.
“What riled me at the time was the intolerable disparity between the way people here perceive themselves and the way they behave in practice,” Luz told us. “A person can think whatever he wants in his head. We are all racists, we all like living with people who resemble us, that’s all legitimate. I also have no problem with people saying, ‘We are fascists, neo-Nazis or Judeo-Nazis.’ That really doesn’t interest me. What does infuriate me is the veneer of the pioneering ethos, the ideology.
“Look at this house,” he continued. “It’s a bourgeois home. I have two cars parked in the yard, and the last time I held a hoe was when my wife asked me to pick sabras.”
Luz launched his public activity in 2009, after the general assembly of Manof approved new regulations that required members to commit themselves to “the values of the Zionist movement, Israel’s heritage and the settlement of the Land of Israel.” Another clause asserted that “the community marks the Jewish commemorative days and holidays.”
“I remember an argument I had with one of the supporters of the regulations, a classic left-wing voter, one of those who will shout ‘equality’ at every opportunity,” Luz said. “His arguments were, ‘You want to let Arabs in here,’ or ‘You’ll see that they’ll end up building a mosque.’ Just so you’ll understand the level of the phobias. As though the Arabs in Sakhnin were rubbing their hands and plotting how to screw the Jews of Galilee.”
Oz, too, encountered similar allegations. “The conspiracy was said to be that it wasn’t just one or two couples who wanted to buy a plot, but that they were the vanguard,” he notes. “That in fact this was an organized, managed move, behind which was Adalah, with the support of the PLO. Insane stuff.”
At the same time, Luz believes that the focus on the national element in the discourse is a mere distraction. “Don’t take it to a place of a Jewish-Arab dialogue, that’s bullshit,” he asserts. “The Arabs have long since understood that it’s pointless for them to submit their candidacies. The admissions committees have rejected mostly Jews over the years.”
Oz agrees. “The easiest thing is to talk about Arabs,” he says, “but the Jewish-Zionist clauses are the cover story for a filtering mechanism that allows people to replicate themselves.”
Alongside the official refusals, Oz says, there are hidden mechanisms of exclusion: informal advance conversations about filtering the candidates, delay and evasiveness in replying, heaped-up bureaucratic hurdles and the like. “I know a woman who submitted an application to be accepted to Misgav on three separate occasions,” he recalls, “and each time she was told, ‘the list is already closed.’”
For his part, Luz gets up and shows us the ultimate proof of the potency of these mechanisms: the Misgav telephone book. “Go over the names of the families,” he suggests, “90 percent are Ashkenazim.”
‘I can’t compete’
It takes us some time to leave Manof, because the heavy iron gate at the entrance takes quite a while to open, courtesy of a resident coming in at the same time. “That’s the worst thing,” Oz rails against the sliding steel structure.
Arriving in Atzmon, we immediately enter Menash’s grocery store, the village’s nerve center. The store is empty, which is what you’d expect at midday in a bedroom community, but Menash, who himself lives in Haifa, says that things aren’t great in general, because many of the new families prefer the cheap shopping centers in Carmiel and even in Sakhnin. From Menash’s perspective, the thin trickle of buyers is a symptom of the collapse of solidarity in the community.
“I can’t compete with the big chains, even though I have lowered my prices significantly,” he says. “People don’t understand that if they don’t buy milk and bread here from time to time, their children won’t have a place to buy a popsicle on the way home from school. The new families couldn’t care less. My lease is up in another three years, and to tell you the truth, I’m thinking of leaving.”
In the clubhouse of the youth movement Hanoar Ha’oved (Working Youth), a woman in a hijab is washing the floor – who said there are no Arabs in Misgav? Opposite is the village office. People come up to Oz in the street, compliment him on his novel. They’re general compliments, moderate in tone. If they’re outraged at the book’s description of the Jewish settlement project in Galilee, they won’t let that be known publicly, still less in the presence of a journalist. That would violate the sacred community code: Don’t wash your dirty linen in public. The criticism, then, sometimes passes through a passive-aggressive filter.
We go on to the Atzmon members’ club. “This is where it all happens,” Oz says, gesturing at the empty space, referring to the fraught assemblies that took place here at the beginning of the decade. By the way, last February the supporters of the revised regulations – which failed to get the necessary majority in the original vote – found a bypass route, in the form of a declaration titled “Vision for the Community,” which is separate from the regulations (at least for now).
The “vision,” which passed with an overwhelming majority, states that the “public life” in Atzmon will bear a “Jewish secular character, in a community that promotes values of tolerance, human dignity, mutual responsibility and reciprocal relations between the members.” Another clause adds that the locale “maintains the values of the State of Israel in the spirit of the Declaration of Independence and the values of Zionism in all its shades.”
“What’s the range of the ‘shades’?” Oz wonders. “From where to where?”
According to Ran Nofer, a psychotherapist and group moderator who is a central activist in the initiative for change, “the idea was to articulate the values of our community in a positive mode, to define who we are and how we want to be, especially with regard to our children. In addition, it’s important to define a vision for a small community, because the public character in small, closed communities can be undermined, unlike in big cities where it’s harder to do that.”
In contrast to 2011, when the amendment with the required loyalty oath was under discussion, Nofer relates, the approval of the vision concept did not polarize the community or stir up the same emotions. The proof: Eighty-eight percent of the residents of Atzmon voted for it. The broad support was achieved because in this case the document is essentially declarative and not legally binding. Revisions in the formulation also played a part. The addition of the words “public” (“It was important for us to make it clear that we are not dealing with what people do in private, but with the values of the village’s public space,” Nofer explains) and “secular” (“to ease things for those who had difficulty with just the word ‘Jewish’”) placated most of the opponents.
Still, it’s impossible to escape the impression that the purpose of the document is to exclude Arabs.
Nofer: “That’s the question that always comes up: ‘Tell me, you don’t want Arabs?’ I try not to fall into that trap but to talk about the public space. I have an opinion about whether I want Arabs to live in my community, but it’s not relevant, because there is no clause in the law that prevents an Arab from living in a community settlement. I got involved because it was important for me to have the Jewish and Zionist character given expression. For example, for the flag to be hung at the entrance to the village on Independence Day and for our society to mark Jewish-Zionist holidays and commemorative dates.”
Erez Kreisler, who was head of the Misgav Regional Council for 15 years and was Oz’s neighbor in Atzmon until not long ago, also agreed to respond to Oz’s allegations. When I spoke to him by phone this week, he told me that, “the Misgav community settlements are a startup whose advantages immeasurably outweigh their shortcomings. When I came to the area, in 1989, the image of Galilee was that of an enfeebled, wretched, even dangerous region. The Misgav communities established themselves in the region like an anchor of stability and excellence that projects across the whole surrounding area. If it were not for the consumer strength of the Misgav residents, Carmiel would not have developed as it did. Take, for example, the cultural center in Carmiel, where half the subscribers are from Misgav. Without them it would not have survived. Not to mention the development of the Bedouin villages within Misgav and the [independent] city of Sakhnin.”
But when a couple from Sakhnin wanted to live in Misgav, they were hounded unmercifully. That is not exactly life together.
“You are looking at it simplistically. I want to see someone from hamula A move in with hamula B [referring to Arab clans]. Straight off they will burn his house. I am in favor of life together, but on the basis of some sort of structure and framework. To create an infrastructure like that takes generations. We took a step in that direction, for example, by establishing a bilingual school at [Kibbutz] Eshbal. But I want to take you back to the events of October 2000, which pretty much shattered that fantasy for many Misgav residents [referring to protests and disturbances by Galilee Arabs, which resulted in 13 of them being shot to death by police]. Let me remind you that they tried to burn some of the Misgav villages.”
In fact, Kreisler, too, recently left Atzmon for Tel Aviv (“for work and family reasons, not because of criticism of the community,” he emphasizes). But the buyers he found for his house, a model Jewish couple, were rejected by the village’s absorption committee on the usual vague grounds of “social incompatibility.” Kreisler had to find alternate purchasers. Nevertheless, he defends the process: “Harmony and social cohesion are important in a small community, and I think that it’s reasonable and logical for filtering to take place on the basis of transparent criteria.”
“The depiction of Atzmon in [Oz’s] book, as it’s reflected in Mitzpeh Ahim, does the village an injustice,” Kreisler sums up. “It hurt me personally and did Atzmon a disservice. I regret that.”
I asked Oz what he thinks the logic behind the existence of such communities is. “Let’s deconstruct it,” he replied. “The settlements [in the territories] have a political purpose. The original purpose of the kibbutzim and moshavim was to demarcate the borders of the State of Israel, and today they are the major workers of the land – an aim whose worth cannot be overestimated. The community settlements were established to Judaize Galilee. They succeeded in that, by driving [physical] wedges between the Arab communities. Misgav is expanding horizontally, whereas the Arabs are made to build vertically.”
Then what’s the difference between the Misgav Regional Council and a regional council in Samaria?
“No difference. Same same, except for the endless resources the state pumps into the settlements.”
What about the ethos of Arab-Jewish coexistence that some settlers talk about proudly. Is this a similar situation in Misgav?
“That’s the biggest bluff. I once spoke with a senior figure in Gush Etzion [Etzion settlement bloc, in the West Bank], who lives in the heart of the Gush Etzion junction, which is all concrete barricades and fenced in. He’s explaining to me how the Arabs have it good with them, they earn a living, and if you asked them, they would prefer to stay with us. And he really believes that. So, yes, in Misgav, too, the adjacent Arab population is a very significant supplier of labor and services: construction work, gardening, etc. Apart from that, most of the residents are completely cut off from the Arab communities around them.”
Leaving the territory of the regional council, we enter the nearby town of Arabeh and stop at Abu Samer’s hummus place. Oz mentions this place in his novel, claiming, through the character of Yossi, that it has “the best hummus in the country,” an assertion validated by Jihan who delights in the “hummus with chickpeas, the warm falafel and the thinly sliced salad.” In the restaurant, Oz pulls out a copy of “Strangers,” opens it to the page with the hummus scene and hands it to the waiter.
“Well, bro, did I give you good publicity?” he asks the waiter a few minutes later. The waiter mumbles something unclear. “They don’t understand, it’s amazing how they don’t know how to read here,” Oz says, in the wake of the waiter’s indifference.
The characters in Oz’s novel speak in a similar linguistic register, and sometimes they seem to be speechifying. For example, when Avner, one of Yossi’s few allies in the community, says in despair, “If here, in an Ashkenazi-bourgeois-liberal-center-left village, an absolute majority voted for racist regulations, then it’s a lost cause, the country is going to hell. Everyone’s a settler, and everything is permitted to Jews who suffered, and what’s happening here in this community is proof that a true left never existed in Israel.”
In general, the impression sometimes seems to be that political urgency, and not poetic momentum, is the engine that drives the plot narrative. Oz doesn’t necessarily dispute this analysis. “Israeli literature misses the target by not dealing with the bleeding wounds of Israeliness,” he avers. “People write about the flowers in the garden and not about the garden of predators – the zoo – that is our society.
“In my opinion,” he continues, “silence is not an option, so I see writing as a type of commitment. To turn the spotlight on a place like Misgav, which is a microcosm of Israeli society, and say: Look what’s happening here. And these aren’t the militants of the right, not the settlers, not [the extremist group] Lehava and not Bibi’s factionalism. They are you.”
Oz constantly emphasizes Jihan’s Christianity, not least by having her exclaim “Jesus Christ!” throughout the novel. Oz: “I didn’t choose a hijab-wearing Muslim woman who’s a maid, but a Christian from Haifa, a successful academic. Just like us! That’s the type of woman that the man [Yossi] connects with, so why don’t people accept her?”
In other words, you find the connection between a Jewish man and Muslim woman too extreme. Maybe your enlightenment also has its limits?
“No. I did a great deal of soul-searching, and Jihan changed her attitude during the writing. I think that if she were a Muslim, the waves of hostility around her would be so powerful that the relationship would not survive. The book would have had to end at page 40. Precisely because of her class traits and because she’s a Christian, a clash is created between the most credible relationship and the most unbelievable reality [of their not being accepted as a couple]. After all, it’s clear that we hate the Muslims.”
That’s the point. In the Israeli dialogue, there’s a deeply rooted distinction between the Christians, who are “the good Arabs” and are considered successful, secular and aspiring to social involvement, and the Muslims, who are perceived as weakened, fanatic, dangerous and so on. Doesn’t the book validate that stereotype?
“I can’t really tell you. The potential for the existence of an affair between a Jewish man and a Muslim woman seems poor to me, and my commitment was to the story’s internal logic and the cornerstones that would allow it to develop. I’m afraid that if she were a Muslim, her fate would be similar to that of the protagonist in Dorit Rabinyan’s novel ‘All the Rivers.’ After all, if [Education Minister Naftali] Bennett had read her book to the end before disqualifying it [for reading in high school], he would have discovered that the Israeli wet dream in which the Arab drowns in the sea is realized there.”
Our last stop is the Misgav industrial park. The word “park” suits the site – it’s not gray and rusting, like most industrial zones. Agricultural plots are scattered between the factories, in front of which purple bougainvillea splurge and meticulously trimmed lemon trees grow. This handsome park overlooks the valley in which Sakhnin lies, squeezed between the headquarters of Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, the military contractor, and the communities of Yuvalim and Eshbal. “Look at how tens of thousands live in dense concentration in Sakhnin,” Oz says, pointing, “and you saw how those in Misgav live, in contrast.”
Not “those” – you.
“My address is listed in the Interior Ministry as Tel Aviv, I have a Tel Aviv parking sticker, in local elections I vote in Tel Aviv, and I pay my property tax to my friend Ron Huldai [mayor of Tel Aviv].”
You can’t erase 30 years so easily.
“You’re right, erasing is impossible.”