Teenagers living in the settlement of Otniel in the south Hebron Hills are fond of black humor. One joke has it that the local hevra kadisha, the burial society, is offering a special deal – two for the price of one. They joke that the regular greeting in the streets here these days isn’t “How are you?” but, “May Heaven comfort you,” and that the first thing you ask upon meeting a kid from Otniel is “Father or mother [killed]?”
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The morbidness isn’t surprising. Otniel has been hit by numerous lethal terror attacks over the years, two in recent months. In January of this year, a Palestinian teen walked to Otniel from one of the nearby villages, entered the home of the Meir family, on the edge of the settlement, and stabbed the mother, Dafna Meir, to death in front of her daughter. On July 1, while driving on the road to the settlement, the Mark family came under fire. Michael Mark, the father, who was the principal of the renowned Yeshivat Beit Va'ad L'Torah, the hesder yeshiva (an institution that combines army service and Torah study) in Otniel, and a key figure in the community, was killed. His wife, Hava, was seriously wounded.
These latest murder victims from the settlement, which was founded in 1993 and is home to 150 families – 850 individuals – join a long list of others. The first was Otniel’s chief rabbi Amiram Olami, who was shot and killed in November 1994 as he drove past the Beit Hagai settlement. Just one month later, four Otniel yeshiva students were killed when two terrorists disguised as Israel Defense Forces soldiers managed to enter the school’s dining hall and shoot them. The list goes on.
To get to Otniel, we were advised to take the less dangerous route: Rather than passing through Hebron, we were told to approach from the south, via the Meitar checkpoint, a few dozen kilometers northeast of Be’er Sheva. Even on this route, via Highway 60, the drive to the isolated settlement is a bit nerve-racking.
In Otniel there are houses, synagogues and a preschool. For all the rest – work, shopping, entertainment and the like – one has to leave the settlement. It’s hard not to think of how the residents make that kind of trip every day, perhaps several times a day.
Just after the entrance to the settlement, on the slope of a hill, is a new sign announcing the name of the neighborhood “Jabal Miki,” named for Michael Mark. The late rabbi is widely described as having been an inspirational figure, someone who devoted himself to his family and to education. The same is true of Dafna Meir. In interviews and articles following their murders, their grieving family members spoke of their good relations with their Palestinian neighbors, and stressed their hope that the terrible events would not affect this closeness.
Such talk of hope and the absence of calls for revenge or for accelerated settlement construction – a demand that is often heard from residents of other settlements in the wake of terror attacks – are of a piece with Otniel’s image as the “leftist settlement,” or, at least, as a peace-seeking settlement influenced by the unique spirit of the hesder yeshiva there.
The Otniel yeshiva was founded in 1987 by Rabbi Olami and Rabbi Benny Kalmanson, both students of the late Rabbi Shimon Gershon Rosenberg – better known by the acronym of his name, as Rav Shagar – as a place that sought to bring a new spirit into the yeshiva world. The yeshiva’s website, for example, announces that, “It is our belief that the next generation of Jewish leaders must be deep and multifaceted individuals. In light of this, we have designed a curriculum that strives to intensify and expand Torah studies, while developing independent thought.” The yeshiva’s alumni, many of whom now work in creative fields, describe it as a place that nurtures individualism rather than preach a specific ideology, and as a place where the intellectual work is intensive.
Talking with several prominent people from the community, you see that they genuinely see themselves as people of peace, and desire to be seen as such, including by those who object to Israel’s control of the occupied territories. The ongoing threat to their lives puts them to the test, they say, but they truly believe that peace can only exist in a common space. Not through separation, but through ongoing interaction between populations.
But just what do they mean in Otniel when they talk about cooperation? There is more than one answer to that.
Since his wife was killed, 10 months ago, Natan Meir has become a widely recognized figure in Israel. He has been interviewed numerous times and a documentary that followed his family in wake of Dafna’s murder was shown on television. Our first visit to Otniel began in his home, in the living room where his wife was stabbed to death.
Natan Meir, 40, grew up in Jerusalem and is a graduate of the Otniel hesder yeshiva. He met Dafna during his military service. After his discharge, they returned to Otniel as a married couple, but did not plan to stay there long-term. They rented a house there at first but within a few months, says Meir, they’d fallen in love with the people there and decided to buy it. He describes the people who captured his heart there as “simple folks, in the best sense of the word, who have a clear and pure way of seeing things, who are devoted to truth, who want nothing else but to do good in this world. After the recent tragedies, there has been talk about the amazing people of Otniel, the people who became legends [after their deaths], Dafna and Miki. And there are plenty of people here who are still living and breathing, and they’re all legends.”
Natan and Dafna had four children: The eldest, a daughter, is now 18. Two years ago, they decided to take in two younger foster children. Dafna herself had come from a broken home.
Dafna worked as a nurse at Soroka Hospital. She also counseled religious women on matters of fertility, sexuality and family planning. Natan works at the Bnei Akiva Yeshiva for Environmental Education, in the nearby settlement of Susiya. He also opened a clinic a few years ago to help people who are addicted to pornography. “I still don’t call myself a therapist, I’m still learning,” he says modestly. Since the murder, he has drastically scaled back his work at the yeshiva, and has suspended his work in the clinic. “I’m still running an orphanage here full-time,” he says with a sad smile.
Natan Meir: The settlements are the key to peace. All the unreal talk about a written peace agreement – to me it’s like that awkward expression to ‘make love.’ Love isn’t made. Love arises, it comes into being.
I ask him how he would characterize the residents of Otniel, and to explain why he calls them legends. “We’re people of peace in the clearest sense of the word,” he replies. “It also has to do with the rabbi of the settlement, Rabbi Re’em Hacohen, for whom peace is paramount. There are no quarrels in the synagogue and hardly any in the community. The people here have a boundless capacity for patience and acceptance. We also have good relations with our Palestinian neighbors, despite the heavy price we’ve paid over the years. We believe in this friendship more than anyone else believes in it.”
How does that fit in with the fact that the place itself is politically controversial?
“I am not in a politically controversial place. I personally know hundreds of Palestinians. For some of them – in a time of trouble, I would be the first person they’d call. They don’t see us as a problem and don’t want us to leave. It’s their leadership that doesn’t want us here. I’ve learned from talking with them that the two-state solution is the most racist solution possible, because it means that there would be one poor state and one rich state here, and we all know which would be the rich one and which would be the poor one. And that means separation based on ethnicity alone between the economically strong Jews and the economically weak Arabs. We also see what’s happening around us when you try to give democracy to people who don’t want it.”
You came to live here out of a desire to actively live in coexistence with the Palestinians?
“No. I came here because of the yeshiva, but the settlements are the key to peace. All the unreal talk about a written peace agreement – to me it’s like that awkward expression to ‘make love.’ Love isn’t made. Love arises, it comes into being. The same with peace. I know the way of life of the Palestinians who live near me. People who live in Tel Aviv and in a lot of other places in Israel don’t have any idea of it. You can’t create peace when you live completely separated from each other. Unfortunately, the ‘quasi peace accords’ of Oslo increased the terror, because they created separation. Before the Oslo Accords, the Otniel dentist was an Arab from Dahariya. Since the Oslo Accords, we haven’t been able to go to him. This isn’t peace. It’s a technical agreement for separating populations.”
Meir adamantly believes that it is the Palestinian leadership and some of the Israeli leadership that are wrecking the natural peace process. The Palestinian leaders, chiefly Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (aka Abu Mazen), are the main inciters. He’d like to be rid of Abbas, he says.
Who would you like to see in his place?
“We’re so captive to the Western paradigm that says a leadership has to be put there. Forty years ago, there was no leader, and you could still walk around the casbah in Nablus and in Hebron without any problem. Not because there was a mighty Israeli army there, but because there was an understanding, that we were in the midst of a process of some kind. Think about Syria for a moment. The Alawites had power, and that was fine for all the rest, even though they are a very small percentage of the population in Syria. And since the wonderful democratic idea came in, there’s no longer much of a tyrannical Alawite government, but just run-of-the-mill genocide.”
Do you also feel that Israel’s democracy is unnecessary?
“What I’m looking for is not always what the other side is looking for. The Arabs I know aren’t interested in power, it doesn’t speak to them. They’re okay with being under Israeli rule. We Jews have a different nature. We have to be in power, we have to voice our opinion and change it every couple of hours. It’s possible to understand that it’s different, and not run around shouting ‘racism’ because you have something and he doesn’t. Who said that democracy was good for them?”
But right now there is no equality and it’s impossible to say that the Palestinians live as well as you do. On the way here, we passed the checkpoint and we saw the lines of cars. The Palestinians wait hours to get into Israel and you don’t.
“True, the situation today is very bad, because a pressure cooker was created here. Even if 80 percent of the population wants to live with us in peace, 20 percent is ready to kill us, literally. One of them was here in this house. And we need tools to deal with this. The Jews who live in Judea and Samaria obviously are not threatening the lives of people who live in Tel Aviv, so they pass through the checkpoints more quickly. It’s a practical matter. But the Palestinians have to be screened, because some of them are not on their way to work, some of them have other intentions. Be patient. In 50 years, things will look different.”
“The most significant thing we can do to stop the terror is to make sure that every house in Judea and Samaria has running water in the faucets. I also think there should be more construction in the settlements, but that doesn’t have much to do with it. If there were running water in all the Palestinian villages, they’d be a lot happier living with us. I want there to be more correlation between my life and their life.”
And amid all this, how do you understand what happened to you?
“What happened to me is a result of the mistakes that were made. The cardinal sin of Israel's governments in recent years is that they aren’t sufficiently developing all of Judea and Samaria. It’s the result of the conflict and of Oslo and of the endless attempts at separation and of the incitement by the Palestinian leadership. This is what led a 15-year-old boy who got angry at his father to go and murder a Jewish woman. It’s horrifying and it’s sad; for me it’s the most terrible tragedy. I had an amazing life here. There was an unbelievable love in this house, and now she’s gone forever. To live without the woman with whom I shared such an incredible love – it’s very, very hard, but it hasn’t blinded me to the overall picture.”
How do you explain the difference between the reactions of the people who live here in Otniel to those of Hebron residents following the murder of Hallel Ariel [in June 2016], for example? Her family went up on the Temple Mount and called for more settlement construction. You said how much you hoped that your Palestinian neighbors wouldn’t be afraid to come offer their condolences during the shivah [mourning period]. Is the difference just random?
“It’s not random. But there’s a place for what the Ariel family said too. I also think that it’s a huge disgrace that the only place in the country where a Jew is not allowed to pray is on the Temple Mount.”
Natan Meir: The Arabs I know aren’t interested in power, it doesn’t speak to them. They’re okay with being under Israeli rule. We Jews have a different nature. We have to be in power.
So what made you decide to say something else?
“It wasn’t a conscious decision. That’s what we came out with, and the same thing happened with the Mark family. Even when I speak passionately about the Temple Mount, like other settlers do, I never forget for a moment that the most important thing is love. That’s the side that we choose to highlight, and that’s the path that we believe in. I was taught that you don’t dispel darkness with sticks. You dispel it by bringing more light.”
It’s hard for me to believe that you don’t have some less harmonious moments. It doesn’t sound human.
“You’re right. I get angry sometimes. But for the most part my anger is directed only at God, and he’s great enough to handle it, and my faith is great enough for me to continue believing in him even though I’m angry at him. This is my relationship with God. But I’m not willing to forgo this life. I’m not going to stop living my life in full. I don’t see anything more important to focus on, aside from spreading love all the time, everywhere. Even if I had this horrible tragedy happen that took away my own private love.”
Natan Meir believes that the Jewish people have a unique role to play in the world. And he does not think that this belief is in any way racist or condescending. “It’s written in the siddur [daily prayer book]: You chose us from among all the peoples, you loved us, you wanted us, you sanctified us with your commandments. Sanctity and separation. We were set apart and told that we have another role. Does that mean that I’m better? Not at all. It means that I am more obligated. Racism, as I understand it, is to discriminate against someone and say he doesn’t deserve to have something just because of his race. To say that someone is more obligated or has a certain character – that’s not racism.”
Death as an option
Michal Nagen has lived in Otniel for 20 years. She was born and raised in Jerusalem, and is the daughter of Uriel Simon, a leading figure of the religious left who was one of the founders of Meimad, a left-leaning religious movement,. She is married to Yaakov, a rabbi and teacher at the Otniel yeshiva who is active in organizations that promote interreligious dialogue, and organizes regular meetings with Palestinians from the surrounding villages. The couple has seven children. Nagen also heads the Tzahali pre-army program for girls on Kibbutz Masuot Yitzhak. The program is intended for religious girls who are enlisting in the IDF.
Michal Nagen: One of the biggest tests is raising children here. I’m taking from them a more protected kind of childhood in which you don’t have to become so closely acquainted with death.
Nagen is one of those people who instantly exude warmth and friendship. She has a gentle and humorous manner of speaking, and you find yourself wanting to keep asking her more and more questions. When we enter her house, she offers us grapes from the garden, and our photographer, Kobi Kalmanovitz, asks if they have had ma’aser taken. When I ask for an explanation of the term and its practical meaning – a biblically based tithe that requires the throwing away of a portion of the harvested grapes – Nagen explains the difference between a holy space (merhav shel kedusha) and a profane space (merhav hulin). The concept of “space” will recur often in our conversation. “A lot of religious life has to do with holding back, with what you don’t do. You don’t touch the fruit without remembering that there is another dimension in your life,” says Nagen.
The “holy space,” as she calls it, characterizes life in Otniel and exists, she says, among the people, within the community, and between households. “It’s not like Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) society, which separates itself from the world. We are in the world, and the question is where you hold a discourse with what’s beyond that. I think that one answer is to be found in the understanding that God directs reality, that he is present. He leaves us signs along the way, and we try to interpret them. The understanding is that we don’t see everything, but that we have a purpose, which we gradually discover. It’s an attempt to ask how I live my life day to day and at the same time work on my moral virtues, on my connection with other people, how I don’t give up on the space of learning Torah. Life in Otniel comes with very difficult challenges, and I think the people manage to resolve it with love.”
“When you say ‘everyone,’ you’re getting into the realm of dreams. It’s not everyone or always, but there is a spirit. It’s a decision that a lot of people made for themselves individually, and it assumed a critical mass: They try hard not to become hardened, they try to be gentle and responsive and loving, not to be in conflict. At Dafna’s funeral, somebody took me aside and asked me to tell him the truth about her. I said, ‘What you just heard, that was the truth.’ If you look at it from the outside, it’s like rocky ground – the rain washes away the sand and only the stone is left. So the people who are left here are the ones who can take it. We’re no different than anyone else. You’ve got a random group of people who are ready to live far from Be’er Sheva and close to the world of Torah. But it’s having been put to the test that made us this way.”
How would you describe the test?
“To me, one of the biggest tests is raising children here. I’m constantly asking myself what I’m giving them and what I’m taking from them. I’m taking from them a more protected kind of childhood in which you don’t have to become so closely acquainted with death. As a mother, I know that children have to grow up with joy. That’s our biggest commitment to our children. And here the challenge is how to grow up with joy amid a reality of ongoing mourning.”
Nagen knows that no one is forcing her to live in a place of ongoing mourning, and says the question of whether to stay or leave comes up nearly every day. “We came here because Yaakov is connected to the space here with every fiber of his being. Here in Otniel a very Eretz-Israeli interpretation of the Torah is being written, and Yaakov is a part of that. He leads the dialogue with the Palestinian sheikhs within spaces of real peace, because peace is made with your neighbors. In Otniel there is a very conscious attempt to find a peaceful path. Not that there aren’t some people here who are looking for a more rightist attitude, but it’s not a radical place. There’s an outstretched hand, not a fist.”
Nagen readily acknowledges that the original reason for establishing Otniel deep in the territories that were conquered in the Six-Day War is not some uncontainable desire of the residents to live so close to the Palestinians, peacefully or not: “The national-religious person hears a frequency that talks about the deep connection to the Land of Israel. You hear it less when you live in an urban space, and more when you live here, with grapes that grow in your garden, and the neighbor’s sheep grazing in the meadow. Otniel was established to take these parts of the land and block the possibility of a territorial compromise. Now half the people think that the only way is a compromise for peace and the other half think that it is holding on to the Land of Israel that will bring redemption. The former won’t bring peace and the latter won’t bring the redemption.”
Does the right’s version of redemption really involve coexistence? It seems to envision either the Arabs somehow magically disappearing or else just accepting our rule over them.
“I think that the world today is showing us that the vision of coexistence isn’t happening. Even in Europe. People can live in peace with others who are like them. When it comes to people who are different from you, some accord has to be reached.”
That’s why there is talk of separation. If the differences between the cultures are so great, then why this pretension to live together and be partners? The chances of success are close to nil. Both sides would have to change very drastically to be able to really live together from cradle to grave, in every possible space. So what’s the meaning of this fantasy being nurtured by the people here in Otniel?
“I’m with you, totally. But my public also understands that a return to the ’67 borders is no less of a fiction, because we are living much closer to and mixed in with the Arab locales in this land than within the ’67 borders. You could say: As it is, we’re in this space together. Let’s make the best of it.”
Nagen again cites the principle of increasing interaction with the other side. She finds ruling over another people immoral. In terms of daily life, she’d like to see a shared medical center and a shared grocery store, but not a school. A school, she says, is supposed to help a child forge his or her identity, and this has to be examined. By the same token, she also wouldn’t have her children attend a school designated for a mix of secular and religious students. “For me, being religious is the right way to live and that’s how I want to raise my children. But I want people to understand that this project that’s called the State of Israel and the Redemption of Israel will only happen when we’re all together, religious and secular. This encounter is a challenge that requires preparation. People have to be able to meet and to talk without losing sight of themselves in the process.”
Nagen wants the secular world to understand that the people of Otniel don’t live there because they take some kind of pleasure in the occupation, or out of a lack of sensitivity to others. “Just as I need to develop sensitivity in order to understand your world, you have to do the same in order to understand my world. To try to develop a sensitivity for the language of tradition, for a love for the way things used to be, for my deep desire to be like my parents. Otniel today may have the ability to foster this sensitivity.
Michal Nagen: We’re not here to die, we’re here to live. Every person knows that he’s going to die. Maybe in Otniel it’s something you take into account more.
“What Natan Meir is showing, along with Racheli Frenkel, the mother of Naftali who was kidnapped and killed at the Gush Etzion junction [in 2014], and with the parents of Shira Banki, who was murdered at the Gay Pride parade [in Jerusalem last year], for example, and with many other people – is that it’s possible to live in profound sorrow and with love. Not with anger. This is a lofty, fantastic, new human concept in many ways. It doesn’t have to rely on a religious identity, but on a very deep and highly developed human identity.”
Is it possible that this willingness to absorb pain is part of what attracts the people who live here to this place?
“We’re not here to die, we’re here to live. Every person knows that he’s going to die. Maybe in Otniel it’s something you take into account more. You try to live a better life, a more focused, proper life. We’re very ordinary people but we understand something essential about life and death. Death is an option, so life has to be seized. If you choose to do something, it should be worth giving it your all.”
Tempering the discourse
The idea of a joint school with the Palestinians is favored by Levi Weinstein, a graduate of the Otniel yeshiva and a father of five who works as a drama therapist. He came back to the settlement with his family two years ago. “I think a joint school could be a tremendous project. But it would only work if it’s a religious school. Judaism doesn’t have the same kind of complex relationship with Islam as it does with Christianity. Islam is a monotheistic religion that has a lot of similarities with Judaism. Both are law-based religions.”
Yet Weinstein is aware that most of his fellow residents would reject such a school idea outright. “People are very sensitive when it comes to education. We had some contact with Keshet and Meitarim, organizations that work on joint religious-secular education, and some people were extremely wary even about that. And then here you’ve also got a fear of Arabs. Even with all the interaction there is. People like to talk about how the Palestinians come to pay condolence calls. But these same people would be afraid to put their children in such a school.”
In a quieter tone, and more as an aside, Weinstein and others in Otniel also mention other sides of the ostensibly peace-loving community. “After the suspects in the murder of the family in [the Palestinian village of] Duma were arrested, there were some scary things being said, and we called a meeting of all the residents,” says Weinstein. “No one supported the killing, but there were some people who said they didn’t trust the Shin Bet or other authorities, and that they didn’t have a negative view of the so-called hilltop youth.”
Weinstein says that at Michael Mark’s funeral, there was a small group of young people who tried to put up a sign that called for revenge. He and some of his friends hastened to remove it, and got into a shouting match with the youths, whom he says he didn’t know. “It was very upsetting. The family didn’t want it, and we told them to take it down, and we nearly came to blows. I know that these kids were hurting over what happened, but it was very hard.”
Eyal Alfiya, one of the rabbis who teaches at the local yeshiva, says that part of the institution’s role is to temper the discourse within the community, including when more extreme aspects pop up. “Our job, the job of the teachers at the Otniel yeshiva, is to present the positive, constructive position, without attacking or criticizing or insulting. It’s just the right way to have a dialogue and communication,” he asserts.
In the yeshiva’s beit midrash, or study hall, one finds a very wide range of religious young men – to judge by outward appearances, at least. Kippahs of different sizes, hair of varying lengths, someone going around barefoot, someone else talking about the doctorate he’s completing in philosophy. One student is said to be openly gay and feels comfortable enough at the yeshiva to talk about it. There’s a piano in one of the classrooms. And several alumni say that one of the high points of the year is the settlement’s famous Yom Kippur service, when religious girls from all over the country come to watch from the women’s section the emotional prayers of the yeshiva students, who cry, sing and even dance. Yes – in Otniel they also dance on Yom Kippur.
‘No shame in being foolish’
Rabbi Benny Kalmanson, one of the two founders of the Otniel yeshiva, who today heads it jointly with Rabbi Re’em Hacohen, was born in Haifa in 1957. He has six children, and is a historian of modern Europe and a music historian. More than 20 years ago, after Rabbi Olami was killed, he moved from Psagot to Otniel. He explains the original concept for the yeshiva: “I admit that what we had in mind was a bit pretentious – something like the havurot [circles] of kabbalists in Safed, or the Hasidim. The idea was to adopt the structure of the havura that thinks together and parcels out topics and discusses them. We created a place here where there’s no shame in being wrong or foolish.”
Kalmanson cites another important aspect of the yeshiva – its defiance of the norm at many religious institutions that say that religious piety cannot coexist with broader cultural horizons. At Otniel, they believe the opposite is true. “The experience of knowledge makes us God’s servants all the more,” he says.
Kalmanson’s wife, Yochi, is the sister of Michael Mark. Mark was not just a relation, but also Kalmanson’s close friend, and his colleague in running the yeshiva. “I may be smiling, but it hurts,” Kalmanson admits. “And can I say that it hasn’t made me a weaker person? It has. We’re not Supermen. People who don’t know any better think that since we have ideals, we have no weaknesses or feelings. But we do, just like anyone else.”
Another trait of the yeshiva, also mentioned by many past students there, is the strong connection there between cognition and emotion. Kalmanson explains how this ultimately reaches politics as well. “In some parts of the religious world, there’s this idea that if you’re intellectual – you’re cold. It’s just not true. It is possible to have a combination, as Rabbi Nachman [the Hasidic master] taught, too. I think this also leads to great tolerance. Don’t get me wrong, you’re in a place that is very pious, with a very intense atmosphere of faith and prayer and worship. But when it’s broader, all kinds of things can happen – like this year when Rabbi Yaakov Nagen was a guest lecturer at Al Azhar University in Cairo.”
Kalmanson says that the development of this kind of broader political thought at the yeshiva helped bring about the change that occurred when the National Religious Party was transformed into Habayit Hayehudi. The first testing ground of the party’s new incarnation was in Otniel, where a number of forums discussed its future. “But if you’re looking to find a strong branch of the political left in national-religious society here, you’ll be disappointed. We’re very happy that there is tolerance here, but it’s still on the level of a curiosity. And one has to recognize that the national-religious nature of the country is here to stay.”
You’re not afraid?
“Sure I’m afraid. But we’ve chosen a certain faith and path, and we’re ready to pay the price. And another thing – I’m not sure it’s worthwhile being in constant fear of dying. You have to beware of the flip side of that too, of fear that causes us to die while we’re still alive. Rabbi Nachman said that the world is like a very narrow bridge. Whichever side we turn to, we’ll lose something. We have to walk on the knife’s edge. And he says, the most important thing is not to give in to fear at all. Not to allow yourself to be manipulated by fear.”