Hitchhiking Through the West Bank Is 'A Profound Political Statement'

On the occupied road: hitchhiking has waned in the United States, but in Israel it is still common among young people, especially in the West Bank

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Hitchhiking at Yarkon Junction, earlier this year.
Hitchhiking at Yarkon Junction, earlier this year.Credit: Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad

At 12:15 P.M. on Thursday, three teenage girls walked up to the bus station at Yarkon Junction on the side of Route 5 leading east to Ariel and the northern West Bank. One stood by the roadside and waved her hand to hitch a ride. The other two sat on the sidewalk, resting on the large knapsacks they carried.

The one waving her hand wore long jeans with a brown skirt on top of them, a checked flannel shirt and well-worn Blundstone shoes. A few minutes after they arrived, so did Bus 86 to Ariel, but they didn’t board it.

Next, a white commercial van with Israeli license plates and Arab passengers stopped, and a man who was waiting at the bus station got in. The van’s occupants and the girls ignored each other completely and the van drove off.

Two cars then stopped to offer a ride. The girl spoke with the drivers from a few meters away, waved in thanks and indicated that they should proceed on their way. At that point, I approached and asked permission to ask some questions for this article.

Where are you going?

“To Leshem, in western Samaria.”

Do you always hitchhike?

“Yes. There’s no other way.”

You aren’t afraid?

“No. We’re careful, we won’t go with just anyone. I’ve lived there for five years already. I’m completely used to it. It’s a good feeling. That’s how we travel.”

Israelis hitchhiking near the settlement of Ofra, in the West Bank. Credit: Eyal Vershavski

Do people pick you up even during the coronavirus?

“Yes. It’s harder, but people from our area will take us.”

Will you all get in a car together or are you willing to split up?

“They are my guests. They don’t know where to go. So we’ll only go together.”

How long do you usually wait here?

“Around half an hour. It’s no big deal. Someone will take us, don’t worry.”

Five minutes later, all three got in a car – a small gray Hyundai with a man driving. They squeezed into it with their knapsacks on their knees and waved at me, smiling at my worried expression, as they drove off.

Leshem is a religious settlement in the western part of the West Bank, next to the settlement of Alei Zahav. Around 400 families live there. To get there from Yarkon Junction, which lies around three kilometers east of the pre-1967 armistice line, you have to drive east on Route 5 toward Ariel and then south to Peduel and Alei Zahav. The trip takes around 15 minutes. To the north of Leshem is the Palestinian town of Rafat, and to the west and east are the Palestinian towns of Deir Balut and Kafr a-Dik.

During the hour or so I spent at Yarkon Junction, eight people – five women and three men – picked up rides. During this time, three buses to Ariel stopped at the junction. Four people got on – all Arab men.

Hitchhiking is alive and well

Jack Reid's book looks at the history of hitchhiking in the United States.Credit: The University of North Carolina Press

I had thought there would be little chance of meeting hitchhikers at the height of a raging pandemic, when the army has been forbidding soldiers to hitchhike for years and when everyone knows it could be dangerous. I was wrong.

Judging by the conversations I held to prepare this article, whose initial, temporary headline was “The Death of Hitchhiking,” hitchhiking has changed since the far-off days when I hitched my way around the country – but it’s still here. Many Israelis still hitchhike regularly. My impression of an end of an era, which I got from reading articles and books about hitchhiking, mainly in the U.S., was wrong.

The roads have changed, the number of cars is growing every year and everyone has a cellphone. But hitchhiking is still an essential and even popular means of transportation.

Members of several kibbutzim in the Galilee, the Negev and the Golan Heights told me that many residents, mainly the young ones, still hitchhike, but it’s kept under the radar. Parents try to drive their children and pick up neighbors’ children to reduce hitchhiking, and they talk about it as little as possible. The main thing is to make it go away.

Noa Ginat, a counselor at a pre-military academy in the Negev, said that students are forbidden to hitchhike, but that it’s hard to enforce this, since some of them live far away – in the Golan, for instance.

“We’ll make sure they have a way to get home by bus, but perhaps we also don’t talk about it enough,” she said. “In the army, the conversation about this issue is much more thorough.”

Everyone I spoke with told me to talk to West Bank settlers. And indeed, in contrast to the hesitancy or outright bans in the army, pre-military academies and kibbutzim, all my conversations with West Bank residents showed that hitchhiking is very common, especially among young people.

There, nothing is under the radar. On the contrary, the feeling in this region is that hitchhiking is even a way of making a statement. There was pride in the tone of these conversations.

File photo: A man tries to hitch a ride.Credit: VERSUSstudio / Shutterstock

All the settlers said there’s not enough public transportation, and therefore there’s no choice. But I had the impression that beneath the surface, there was something more – a statement about freedom of movement.

This wasn’t said explicitly. But implicitly, what I heard was something like the following: “This is our way of showing self-confidence, a feeling of ownership, a lack of fear. This is our home, and therefore, we’ll travel how, when and where we please – including by hitchhiking.”

In the past, one could find clear evidence of this. In 2014, immediately after the kidnapping and murder of three young hitchhiking yeshiva students (Naftali Fraenkel of Nof Ayalon, Eyal Yifrah of Elad and Gil-Ad Shaer of Talmon), Daniella Weiss, formerly a prominent spokeswoman for the settlements, wrote on the Arutz Sheva website: “The enemy is jealous of the free movement and the life force of the many young people who travel easily and confidently from place to place.” A student at the Alon Moreh yeshiva wrote at the time in an opinion piece on the Walla news site: “Hitchhiking is no problem. Hitchhiking testifies to a healthy and helpful society.”

1 A.M. in Kedumim

Chen Galon Klein is a resident of the settlement of Yakir, which number some 450 families. She has five children, and says, “Hitchhiking is how teenagers travel here. There’s no choice. I don’t like it, but we’ve become accustomed to it. It’s impossible to use public transportation when there’s a bus twice a day. The problem is especially difficult, because we have to travel among the communities in the region. During the period of the coronavirus, people stop less, because everyone, including me, is afraid to let people get into the car, but it’s a fact that they still stop. My oldest son, who’s 15, hitchhikes a lot. I still don’t let the second one, who’s 13. He’s angry about that.”

How does it work?

“There’s an organized hitchhiking station inside the community and another one outside, which I like less. People stand there every morning, not only students, who are traveling to Jerusalem or to the center of the country. The problem is not leaving, and not in the morning. My problems begin when my older son returns at 1 A.M. from one of the communities in the area. We drive the children a lot, but it’s impossible to control everything.

Jack Kerouac. The author turned hitchhiking into a new religion. Credit: AP

“Recently I allowed him to hitchhike in the evening from Kedumim to here and I asked him to inform me the moment he gets into a car. I was terribly worried. There are lots of discussions and explanations here about how to hitchhike properly, what to avoid, when to get into the car and when to refuse. We deal with it endlessly and there are also parents who totally forbid it. I don’t know how.”

Has it changed since you grew up as a teenager in Yakir?

“Yes, definitely. We were wilder. We hitchhiked all over the country. It has declined significantly. Our fears have been transferred to the teenagers. I don’t think that they would plan a trip today based only on hitchhiking. The traumatic event in which the three boys were kidnapped and murdered was a formative event, which increased awareness of the danger of hitchhiking. But the fact remains that they do it.”

Do people pick up hitchhikers more, or less, nowadays?

“Due to the coronavirus, much less, and the kids are terribly upset about that. They even prepared an information campaign in the community, begging the drivers to stop more. But it’s not only the virus. The settlement has grown and expanded. We no longer know everyone. In a small community, everyone will stop. Today, there’s less intimacy and therefore less willingness to stop. Hitchhiking is something intimate, which requires a lot of trust. In general there’s trust here among the residents of the region, but if you don’t recognize the son of your neighbors – it’s not a given that you’ll stop.”

Yaron Rosenthal of Kibbutz Kfar Etzion served as the head of the Kfar Etzion Field School for many years. Today, he is the kibbutz’s business manager. He says that many people hitchhike in the Gush Etzion area and that he’s in favor of expanding the use of carpools, which he says are hitchhiking, for all intents and purposes.

“There’s no normal public transportation here,” he says. “Even when there’s a bus, it stops everywhere and takes ages. Hitchhiking to Jerusalem will take 20 minutes. On the bus, it would take over an hour. I often stand at the bus station and if someone stops for me before the bus comes, I’ll gladly get in. That’s how I grew up and it seems natural to me. I have fears about security and about sexual assaults, but the trips are actually safe. There are also traffic accidents every day, and people don’t stop traveling because of them.”

What’s the solution?

“If the State of Israel wants to solve the traffic problems it has to invest in ride sharing and congestion charges and not by widening the roads. That’s the future of hitchhiking, and today we all have the technology that makes it possible to do that simply and safely.”

Bob Dylan in Sweden, 1966.Credit: Hasse Persson/EXP / TT NEWS AGENCY/AFP

After the conversation with Rosenthal, I joined a Facebook group with 22,000 members dedicated to hitchhiking. Run by Shiran and Shaked Goldstein, It was started five years ago and offers rides without having to go to a hitchhiking station. Participants offer rides to others or ask for a ride for themselves. At the moment, a user named Raphael is offering “For those who are quick to decide, I’m going in half an hour from now from Nahariya to Netanya. You’re invited to join.”

Another poster, Daniela, wrote: “I’m looking for a ride from Tel Aviv to Be’er Sheva on Saturday night.” Some of the participants mention that they’ll gladly share in the expenses of the trip. If this is what the future of hitchhiking looks like – it’s well-organized, but less romantic. The sense of wide open spaces suffers when your ride picks you up from home.

America vs. the hippies

Adventure and romance star in three new books about hitchhiking, which were published in recent months in the United States. All of them are about the end of an era. Hector Tobar’s book is called “Last Great Road Bum,” and he recounts the amazing story of Joe Sanderson, who in 1962 left his home in Illinois and hitchhiked all over the world for years. Another book, by anthropologist Patrick Laviolette, is called “Hitchhiking: Cultural Inroads.”

The third and most interesting is the book by historian Jack Reid, “Roadside Americans: The Rise and Fall of Hitchhiking in a Changing Nation.” Reid explains the history of hitchhiking. He explains the rise of the trend from the 1920s, when cars conquered America. An interesting equation was created at the time – the number of those who wanted to hitchhike was equal to the number of drivers who were willing to pick up strangers. Many Americans, explains Reid, believed in one another at the time. The trust evaporated over the years. A study conducted by the University of Chicago in 1972 discovered that 46 percent of the respondents believed that one could trust strangers. In 2018, only 31 percent thought so.

Hitchhiking’s peak arrived in the early 1960s and continued into the late 1970s. The desire to get to know the continent, the glamorous halo surrounding long trips, the need of many young people to go out and wander – are all described in detail in the book. During those 20 years, according to Reid, there was public empathy for youthful adventures. Hitchhiking was perceived as an important component of those adventures. Jack Kerouac’s book “On the Road” powerfully fueled this passion. Kerouac turned hitchhiking all over the continent into a new religion. The believers waved their thumbs enthusiastically.

Reid tells about famous hitchhikers such as Bob Dylan, who hitchhiked from Minnesota to New York in the 1960s (years later, he changed his story and admitted that he had traveled by bus, with a ticket he bought), and future president Ronald Reagan, who hitchhiked several times as a young actor, from New York to Hollywood and back.

A young American man hitchhiking in 1966. Credit: Sam Saunders

The waning of hitchhiking in the 1980s was a result of social change, but the main reason was related to the economy and to engineering. The highways changed. At the exits from cities, there are now huge interchanges rather than simple junctions, where it was easy to stop a car. Added to that was a sense of alienation, a growing fear of strangers and a loss of intimacy. Another reason was that years of economic prosperity and a significant reduction in car prices enabled many young people to buy their own cars.

Reid says that hitchhiking provides much more than a means of transportation. Its most solid foundation is social interaction. It provides a one-time opportunity for conversations with strangers.

I tried to think how to explain the Leshem and Yakir teenagers’ love of hitchhiking in light of Reid’s explanation. Several hours later, I got in touch with the publisher of Reid’s book and sent him an email. He happily replied. I briefly explained the meaning of “settlement” and “settlers” and why they, of all people, hitchhike. I asked whether he could compare them to fans of hitchhiking in the U.S.

He found that interesting, and several days later he replied as follows: “Perspectives of hitchhiking in the United States and Israel’s West Bank share some poignant similarities, but also some key differences. Hitchhiking reached its height in the United States during the 1960s and ‘70s. During this period, people associated the practice with a variety of meanings. For some, hitchhiking was simply a mundane way to get from one place to another when they had no other option. Others, however, romanticized the act of hitchhiking—framing it as a thrifty ticket to worldly experience and adventure ... Many hitchhiking in Israel’s West Bank today seem to view the practice in similar ways.”

Did it have a political aspect in America?

“Hitchhiking, with its promise of free, untethered, and spontaneous mobility—offered youths of the time the ability to maintain a largely nomadic existence while living out the values of the hippie (or freak, as many self-identified) lifestyle. In effect, soliciting rides became closely connected to an increasingly politicized counterculture and its goal of forging a more natural and authentic society—one that sought to upend the Protestant work ethic and conventional sexual and gender norms. Still, this movement’s rejection of traditional American values fueled resentment among a wide swath of Americans. Many viewed a long-haired young man or woman in hippie garb hitchhiking as a political statement. To critics, these irresponsible wanderers were undermining the nation’s political stability and moral fabric.”

And how do the hitchhikers in the territories look to you?

“Settlers who hitchhike in the West Bank today are making an even more profound political statement. By brazenly standing along the roadside and flagging rides from other Zionists in these disputed territories, they are staking a claim of ownership and belonging in the area ... Today, hitchhiking is a marginalized form of mobility in the United States. Few Americans are willing to risk their personal safety by flagging a ride or offering a lift. Still, there are some exceptions. Inverting the settler dynamics in Israel to a degree, hitchhiking is still somewhat common within the Navajo Nation and other pockets of indigenous lands in the United States. Limited public-transit options and a tighter sense of ethnic identity and familial kinship have allowed the practice to continue, especially among older generations who are known to hitch rides to visit family or attend a high-school basketball game in a nearby town.”

Is there a similarity in the government’ attitude?

“Israel’s government/military built hitchhiking shelters along major roads. The U.S. government never did this ... Americans were resistant to the government creating regulated hitchhiking spots--with many seeing it as antithetical to the spontaneous and unstructured nature of hitchhiking. I would argue almost all hitchhiking is done for some combination of thrift, expedience, and necessity, though sometimes these ideas are paired with a sense of romantic adventure. ”

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