Opinion

I Detest My Sister's West Bank Settlement. That's Why I'm Going to Live There

I’ve embedded with troops in Iraq, in a nursing home and a psychiatric asylum: now, I’m going to embed myself in Dolev. This is why

Members of the settler hilltop youth rebuild a structure demolished earlier by Israeli troops in the West Bank outpost of Maoz Esther, near Ramallah. May 2009
AP/Sebastian Scheiner

In 1982, my sister Maniou, eight years older than me, moved to Israel from Amsterdam, where we were both born. I was 11 at the time. She studied psychology at Bar-Ilan University, got married, changed her name to Ma’anit, moved from Ramat Gan first to the Jerusalem suburb of Mevasseret, then to Kfar Darom (a settlement in Gaza that was evacuated in 2005) and then to Dolev, a religious settlement in the West Bank.

When our father passed away in 1991, my sister was eight months pregnant with her fourth child and she was living in Kfar Darom, where I had visited her several times. She was not allowed to fly anymore, which is why my father was buried in Jerusalem. Our mother wanted to be buried next to him, so both our parents are buried in Jerusalem, even though they never moved to Israel. (She passed away in 2015.)

My sister has seven children and, by now, I believe 12 grandchildren - I lost count.

Border police stand guard after a shooting attack, near Dolev settlement, West Bank. June 19, 2015
Reuters

Although we both grew up fairly traditional (kosher food, going to synagogue on Saturday and Jewish holidays), my sister became more and more religious, and I less and less. She had always been an ardent member of the religious youth movement Bnei Akiva; I was sent there as well, but I was too much of a loner to feel at ease among those youth movement enthusiasts.

As a child we were quite close, but we grew apart the moment I lost interest in Judaism and Zionism. My sister keeps begging me to come and visit her, but I have tried my best to avoid visiting her in Dolev as much as I could.

Since she moved there in the late 1990’s, I have visited her on family occasions, such as the bar mitzvahs of my nephews. In 2001, visiting for one such bar mitzvah, my non-Jewish girlfriend wasn’t allowed to stay over Shabbat at my sister’s house: She was asked to go back to Tel Aviv. My mother begged me to remain, alone, for the ceremony, and I gave in to my mother’s plight. My girlfriend was on the beach in Tel Aviv, I was in the synagogue in Dolev.  

But to me this was a watershed moment - I’d betrayed myself and my principles. I would never do it again, your values are not mine, I told my sister over the phone: "You and your husband are plain racists."

Even when my mother was buried in Jerusalem, I decided to stay in a hotel there rather than staying over in her settlement. I spent two or three daytimes at the shiva in Dolev, before going back to New York, where I have been living since 1995.

The last time I saw my sister was in the early summer of  2016 when I visited the territories and Israel - Breaking the Silence had invited me to contribute to a book marking 50 years of the occupation.

One afternoon, I took a taxi from East Jerusalem to Dolev; the Palestinian taxi driver told me that he often went there to bring and pick up people who had to go to Jerusalem. My sister and I played ping-pong. I didn’t tell her the reason I was visiting the region. Then I went back to East Jerusalem.

On the one hand, I believe my sister genuinely longs to see me; family is important to her. On the other hand I believe she wants to save my soul.

She wants me to get married to a Jewish woman, to have children. Her husband has told me several times that, even if you are not religious, at least you could produce Jewish children. Procreation was, he has told me, the purpose of life.

So I have decided to go and visit my sister this December and to live in her settlement for a couple of weeks. To be embedded with her, so to speak.

A Palestinian man walks in the Bedouin village of Khan al-Ahmar in the occupied West Bank July 6, 2018
\ MOHAMAD TOROKMAN/ REUTERS

This wouldn’t be my first time being embedded. I was embedded with Dutch and German troops in Afghanistan in 2006, 2007 and 2011, and with American troops in Iraq in 2008 and 2009.

The concept of being "embedded" could also be transferred to other subcultures and professions, I decided. So, in the last few years, I was embedded with psychiatric patients in an asylum; I worked in the dining car on Swiss trains, and in a hotel as a chamber maid (boy). A few years before my mother passed away I was embedded with her: I moved in with her, and recently I was embedded in a nursing home.

I am already thinking about the question I want to explore, if not answer, during my stay in Dolev.

The settlement where my sister lives reminds me of a prison. It’s a place I detest deeply, for reasons both political and personal.

But if push comes to shove, could I live there? What do my sister and I still have in common? Will we end up playing ping-pong together in order to avoid real and painful discussions? Is my relationship with my sister inherently bound up with where she’s made her home? Can I separate them? Doesn’t she want them to be inseparable - love me, love my settlement?

Do we need family?

How did we reach such different conclusions about ethical and political values, having both been brought on the shared history of our parents? Our mother, born in 1927, survived the Nazi concentration camps. Our father, born in Berlin in 1912, survived the war in hiding in the Netherlands; he claimed to be a Wehrmacht deserter.

And although my mother, especially, emphasized the need to continue the Jewish religious tradition - my father despised religious leaders of all sorts and almost never set foot in a synagogue - both my sister and I were raised with humanistic values.

The West Bank settlement of Mitzpe Kramim near Ramallah, 2012
Michal Fattal

We were educated in equality, there was no fundamental difference between Jews and gentiles, that science and culture (especially German culture) were in the end more important than the Torah. Both of my parents were German Jews and they wanted very much to pass on their love of German culture.

But what future will my sister’s children face? My sister went to university, she speaks several languages – and her children (with one exception) speak only Hebrew, and they didn’t go to university. I would call this downward social and intellectual mobility.

Who are the people living there in Dolev? How much community do we need? Can I ever understand the appeal of nationalism, or even of nation-states?

Is my sister a victim or a protagonist of an extreme form of identity politics and paranoia? Can I relate to her own certainty in both politics and religion? And to her claim that she understands certain things better than I did and do?

Is living in Dolev, a West Bank settlement, going to change me?

I don't know whether I will find answers to all these questions - and what other questions will arise that I can't even imagine or enunciate right now. But I have committed to living, temporarily, inside these perplexing issues rather than avoiding them, which would have been far more comfortable.

When I write here again, after my time in Dolev, it will be up to the reader to decide if I interrogated my new surroundings, and my discomfort, enough.

Arnon Grunberg is the author of the recent novels "Good Men" and "Birthmarks." As a reporter he has been embedded with, among others, Dutch and German troops in Afghanistan and American troops Iraq, in a nursing home in Flanders, with a fire crew in The Netherlands and is about to travel all 50 U.S. states to explore God, love, work, race and punishment. He was born in Amsterdam and lives and works in New York. Twitter: @arnonyy