Here’s the Polaris, parked next to the farm’s vehicles. Is Omer Atidiah using his off-road vehicle to threaten the Palestinian workers who are trying to build a new village across the way from him, as we were told? Is this what he uses to drive off shepherds and left-wing activists who dare to get too close to his farm? Who, actually, are Omer Atidiah, the bane of the area, and his wife Naama, founders of Einot Kedem, aka Omer’s Farm? This is a settler outpost in the Jordan Valley that even the office of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories admitted had been built without authorization and permits – in a word, illegally.
On July 17, we told the story of the Palestinian village that is being built nearby, with financing by an association of farmers from the Jericho region, and about the terror Atidiah is striking into them. The view from the Palestinian side shows Israeli apartheid in all its ugliness: communities of Palestinian shepherds clinging to the surrounding hills, in indigent wretchedness, and opposite them the vast expanse of Omer’s Farm, verdant, flourishing, defiant.
A few days later, an email: “I am Naama Atidiah, owner of the farm, wife of Omer Atidiah. So, it’s nice to meet you. We don’t know each other. When I read your article I saw a great deal of incorrect information (for example, about thefts and threats by us against them, which is absolutely not our thing). I felt the negative energy and thought: Interesting, who is this Gideon? Interesting whether the truth is important to him, and if he would be ready to meet and speak to me. I’m a very nice person, sociable, even quite pleasant. And I thought, how nice it would be if we could all have coffee and a piece of cake, talk about life happily, and succeed to conduct a riveting and fruitful dialogue between us – instead of alienation, remoteness and negative thoughts.
“I was very curious about who this person is who seeks truth and justice and betakes himself to the southern Jordan Valley to serve up truth to the rest of humanity. I imagine that a journalist is a person who is motivated by truth, justice, caring and inquisitiveness. Because the subject is truly hot, full and bursting, the nicest thing would be to meet and talk. After all, we are brothers. There’s a terrific café in Mifgash Habika” – a rest stop along Highway 90 in the Jordan Valley.
We met a few days later. The person who served the smoothie at the café was armed with a pistol. Our lengthy conversation moved between Naama’s shifting religious faith and her right to the land on which she’s living. I told her she’s living on stolen land, and she giggled. She said one must not cook a kid in its mother’s milk, and I asked why one should cook a young goat at all. She struck me as a woman who is looking for her answers in the spiritual realm – make love, not war – and is fleeing as far as she can from politics, in a place where politics can’t be escaped. She preferred to talk about love, I about war.
We arranged to visit Einot Kedem two weeks later.
Peacocks roam freely in the yard, a vase in the family’s home displays their feathers. It’s a large country house with a spacious living room and a wooden verandah overlooking the desert landscape. The Atidiahs have seven children. Yardena Arazi is singing on the sound system, an aroma of incense wafts through the living room. There are a few religious books on the shelf. Also a copy of Ayn Rand’s “The Fountainhead” and some other volumes, but not many.
Naama, 36, grew up in a religious-Zionist home in Ramat Gan and waited tables in Tel Aviv; her father is a physician who immigrated from South Africa, her mother is a personal trainer. Omer, 44, grew up in Moshav Ein Yahav in the Arava desert, in the south. He served in the Israel Defense Forces ultra-elite Sayeret Matkal special-ops force and in the Paratroops commando unit and became religiously observant. Now only the remnants of religion are evident in the two of them.
The couple’s firstborn, Akiva, 15, is no longer a child. He left school in the sixth grade in favor of homeschooling and has worked on the farm ever since from morning to night, wearing mud-stained farmer’s clothes, driving an all-terrain vehicle, consulting with his father about how to repair a cracked pipe. Six of the couple’s seven children were delivered in home births.
The farm is huge, covering more than 2,200 dunams (550 acres). One reaches it via a new asphalt road that they themselves paved; there’s no fence and no gate. Mangoes, dates and olives, a flock of 550 sheep and bleating lambs. They bought a used reaping machine from Moshav Kfar Yehoshua in northern Israel. Advanced agriculture with an unlimited water supply. Two wading pools and one “Garden of Eden,” where we’ll go later.
There are 17 young people here who didn’t manage in various other frameworks, some of them former ultra-Orthodox or “hilltop youth” from the West Bank, the rest from around Israel. Devora, from Betar Ilit, a Haredi city in the West Bank, has been here for two years. And there is also Nevo, who served in the army and comes from the Kfar Ha’oranim settlement, who’s here with some friends to learn how to establish an agricultural outpost. Their goal is to create one on top of the ruins of an old abandoned Jordanian fortress in the Palestinian village of Al-Jiftlik in the Jordan Valley.
Some of the young people here are doing a year of volunteer service, before going into the army; among other places, they come from Moshav Nehusha, from Petah Tikva and from the settlement of Alon Shvut. The farm also has 10 hired hands, all of them Jews. The synagogue is not in regular use, the grounds of the farm are well tended and pleasant; the vivid green stands out against the background of the surrounding yellow desert. “To give is to receive” is the inscription on the wall of the young people’s dining room – they are just now returning by tractor from work in the date palms grove.
The Bedouin shepherd communities of Rashidiya and Ras al-Auja lie to the west. To the east are two military monuments, to the victims of the air force helicopter crash that killed 54 soldiers in 1977, and to the fallen of the Haruv commando unit. Two posttraumatic stress disorder victims of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, from Haruv, which trained here before the war, work and live on the farm.
We went to the so-called Garden of Eden to talk. Behind the family house the couple has set up this “recollection area,” a designer fusion of a vacation resort and an ashram. Shamanic cacao ceremonies and song circles; spaces for prayer and for solitude; 12 stones taken from the allotments of the 12 Tribes, arranged in the shape of a chariot; a wooden gate with a painting of two cherubs and a flaming sword on it – like the gate to Paradise – and a mud hut that is called the “red tent.” It’s here that Naama intends to bring women during their menstrual period, for relaxation and contemplation. Her dream is to bring Palestinian women from the area here, too. “The Multi-Orgasmic Couple” is the title of one of the few books on the shelf.
Naama is the driving force behind the spirituality here, with an enthusiasm that can sweep up certain people. Omer wears a threadbare blue shirt that belonged to his father, who was killed two years ago in a fall from the roof of his home in the Arava, shorts, high-topped shoes and high-voltage charisma. It’s very easy to fall under the spell of these two; the mangoes they grow are also sweeter than honey.
“The idea is to heal the fraught soil of this land,” Naama explains, a small Star of David earring thrust into an earlobe, a scarf carelessly wrapped around her head. Now is the time to talk about this land – the plundered, stolen land.
After being discharged from the IDF, Omer worked for a couple of years in Sde Bar, a youth farm near Herodium (Herodion), the ancient site in the Judean Desert in the West Bank. There, he says, he first learned the story of the settlements. “In Ein Yahav we thought there was only us, and if there were others – what were they good for.” He began dreaming of establishing a farm at the age of 12. Now he understood that he would establish it in the occupied territories. In the meantime, he also became religiously observant and studied once a week at Netiv Bina Yeshiva in Jerusalem.
In 2004, Atidiah says, he was approached by the Land Settlement Department of the World Zionist Organization, which offered him some land from a military base and property that had been relinquished by the settlement of Yitav. These are Waqf lands which Israel expropriated as “state domain,” basically just a cover for dispossession and settlement.
Atidiah received the geographic coordinates of the property from the Land Settlement Department, he relates, and went on a jeep excursion to see the place that would become his home. On the trip he also met the woman who would become his wife. He made tea with fragrant oxeye, an Arava herb, and served it to Naama. The white wedding took place here a few months later. At first the couple lived in a tent. Naama waitressed in a café in the trendy Basel Square area of Tel Aviv and came down for weekends.
Omer started to build a farm. His father, Micah (Mimi), one of the founders of Moshav Ein Yahav, and a well-known figure in the Arava, worked with them closely and supported them financially.
Once a battalion commander who was on reserve duty in the area arrived at the farm and refused to shake Micah’s hand. “I don’t shake hands with settlers,” the officer said, and the father wept.
“Suddenly I understood that we were entering a different situation here,” Atidiah says now. “Suddenly I felt a wall. I understood that I was getting into a power struggle and that I had to take a side. Dad said: When we founded Ein Yahav everyone supported us. But that won’t happen here; think again. I can’t bear the thought that people don’t shake hands because of a viewpoint.”
Not because of a viewpoint – because of deeds, I told him. “The deeds were very pleasant. Connecting to the soil. We did not expel anyone. It was practically pastoral.” In Atidiah’s eyes there is no difference between Ein Yahav and Einot Kedem.
“My mother asked me: What are you going to do here? I replied, I am going to build a beautiful place here. Dad went to Ein Yahav and I came here. I want to continue Dad’s path. Mom asked: What is there for you? I said that when they came to Ein Yahav, they could also have asked that question. The Green Line was no big deal for me. I didn’t grow up in a political home. I signed an agreement with the Land Settlement Department, one shekel per dunam per year, for 49 years.”
The land is almost free, building on it is forbidden. Atidiah invoked Jordanian law, which allows construction of one farming hut on every 10 dunams, but he of course did not build farming huts but an outpost with multiple structures – all illegal.
“Don’t get me into political matters. We don’t have a political approach. I am not expelling any Arab and I don’t intend to let anyone expel me,” he says.
Is there equality here? “Equality is a problematic word. Is there equality between women and men? I believe that in another 10 years, we will see a more equal form of life here. We came here to conditions far worse than every Bedouin has here – and we succeeded.”
You are feigning innocence. You have a state and an army behind you. “At first we had to flee from the army. The Bedouin are different people. It’s a different culture.”
Do you have a single non-Jewish friend from the area? “That’s part of our goal here.”
Gradually Atidiah abandoned the sweet talk and became a little more extreme. He termed the activists of Ta’ayush – an Arab-Jewish partnership organization – anarchists. What makes them anarchists? They once shouted “terrorist” at him.
For its part, Ta’ayush says that Atidiah has expelled Palestinians shepherds by force and threatened them with a weapon many times. The couple deny all claims of violence.
Last week, attorney Tawfiq Jabareen filed a petition against the defense minister and the IDF, requesting a decree nisi ordering the evacuation of Omer’s Farm, in the name of the Muslim Waqf in Jericho, the land’s owner. Atidiah says he has nothing against the building of a Palestinian village opposite his farm – the reason we visited here a month ago – other than the fact that it damages the mountain. Jews are also damaging mountains, I told him. They’re afraid of you here.
“That’s one of the obstacles to arriving at a dialogue,” he says. “It’s like when people are afraid of a woman who is very feminine, or of a man who is very masculine. It’s forbidden to be here? Just as I won’t prevent anyone from living on a particular plot of territory, just as my father fought on behalf of the Bedouin in the Arava – so too we don’t want to kick out anyone or be kicked out ourselves. We are not at war.”
Afterward I thought about the farms owned by whites in South Africa, and how pleasant it must have been to visit them – as long as you didn’t look around you.