Liberals turn right: U.S.-born settlers fight for turf as peace looms

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EFRAT, West Bank — At the Pizzeria Efrat hang posters of the New York Marathon, Idaho ski resorts and Hawaiian tourist traps. English and Hebrew mix equally, and both are likely to be spoken with an American accent.

Of the 125 or so Israeli settlements that dot the West Bank, none is more American than Efrat, an attractive town on rocky hilltops less than a dozen miles south of Jerusalem. One-fourth of its 7,000 residents are American immigrants who live in comfortable pink-tinted stone houses topped with red tile roofs.

But Efrat's placid suburban appearance is deceiving. The Israeli-Palestinian peace process is bearing down on Efrat, making the town's future uncertain at best. Palestinians say Efrat, along with the rest of the West Bank, belongs to them.

Angry and confused, Efrat's Americans fear Israel's government may abandon the town as part of a final peace settlement — forcing them to evacuate their homes, or leaving them to fend for themselves in a Palestinian state hostile to Jews. The prospect has turned Efrat into a bastion of right-wing opposition to the peace process.

The irony is that Efrat was once among the most liberal of Israeli West Bank settlements, a town known for its open-minded approach to Orthodox Jewish practice and well-publicized efforts to achieve peaceful coexistence with neighboring Palestinian villages.

The lesson of Efrat is that it's one thing to be a middle-class liberal in New York or Los Angeles, but quite another to be a Jewish settler in the West Bank.

"People always talked about compromise," said Yehuda Susman, 31, who grew up in Teaneck, N.J., and has lived in Efrat for three years. "But no one really understood what that meant, until now, that compromising might mean giving up our homes or putting up with a Palestinian state."

Efrat's American residents are being forced to confront a side of themselves they might never have faced had they not acted on their religious belief that God ordained the West Bank to be Jewish land — forever.

Many now say they're prepared to aggressively pursue civil disobedience in an effort to save their homes. A few say they can see the situation becoming so heated that, should Israeli soldiers be ordered to forcibly evacuate them, they might even take up arms against other Jews.

Chana Zeller, an ex-New Yorker who was once so taken by the non-violent principles of Mahatma Gandhi that she moved to India in the 1960s, says of Efrat, "I'm so angry that if I'm forced to leave, I'd blow everything up before I went peacefully."

Efrat has already lost one brush with the peace process. In January, after Arab protests drew international attention and threatened to halt the negotiations, the centrist-left government of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin stopped the town from building 500 new apartment units on land a neighboring Palestinian village also claimed.

Since then, Israel has committed itself to slowly extending Palestinian authority in the West Bank. Among the towns Israel has agreed eventually to turn over to Palestinian control is Bethlehem, which stands astride the main road linking Efrat to Jerusalem. (A new road that would bypass Bethlehem is under construction.)

Earlier this month Israeli police scuffled with several hundred settlers from Efrat and elsewhere, arresting about 40. The settlers stoned and tried to overturn a patrol car that tried to block their attempt to expand the town anew by placing a trailer home on an adjacent hill.

About 100 settlers, most from Efrat, slept in tents and prayed at a new, unauthorized encampment north of the town this past Shabbat, on a hill named Givat Dagan. The site, originally desginated in Efrat's master plan for expansion, overlooks the Arab village of Artas near Solomon's Pools. Israeli soldiers watched, and about 20 Jewish and Arab protestors demonstrated.

The dominant media image of the Israeli settler is of a gun-toting zealot who takes every opportunity to show his disdain for Palestinians.

Until now, Efrat's image had been closer to that of Judy and Baruch Sterman, a middle-class, thirtysomething couple from New Jersey.

While guns are visible in Efrat — the entrance to the town is manned by a guard with an automatic weapon — the Stermans are not armed.

The couple — she's from Teaneck, he's from Passaic — moved to Israel eight years ago and are the parents of four boys, ages 1 to 7. He's a physicist who designs lasers for a firm near Tel Aviv, more than an hour's commute to the west. She teaches adult Bible studies part-time in Jerusalem.

They came to Efrat infused with Zionist idealism and with the comforting knowledge that a dozen couples they've known since their New Jersey high school days had already made the move.

"We came here because we felt we wanted to be a part of Jewish history. In 50 years, history books won't remember what happened in Teaneck," said Baruch. "This is where it's happening, and to live on land that is historically Jewish counts even more."

The Stermans are just the sort of Jewishly committed, thoroughly modern couple that Shlomo Riskin, Efrat's chief rabbi and a transplanted New Yorker, had in mind when he helped found the town in 1983. At the time, Israel was anxious to expand its hold on West Bank land, and living in Efrat looked like a safe bet.

Efrat was founded on the site where Hebrew Scripture says Abraham first sighted Mount Moriah on his journey to offer his son Isaac as a sacrifice to God. Mount Moriah later became the location for Judaism's two holy temples and today is the site of Islam's Dome of the Rock mosque in Jerusalem's Old City.

At night, standing in the Stermans' backyard, Jerusalem's lights can be seen twinkling in the distance.

"From here, a terrorist could pick off any part of Jerusalem with a Katyusha rocket," said Baruch.

In New York, the 54-year-old Riskin — who in 1965 marched in Alabama with Martin Luther King Jr. — turned the Lincoln Square Synagogue on Manhattan's Upper West Side into a leading center of Modern Orthodoxy, the liberal wing of Judaism's most traditional branch. His weekly column of biblical commentary is published in the Jerusalem Post and in Jewish papers throughout the English-speaking world.

In Efrat, Riskin cultivated an image of reaching out to Palestinians.

"We've worked hard to develop a reputation for fairness toward our Arab neighbors," said Riskin. "We go to each other's weddings and, unfortunately, funerals as well. I do not believe in subjugating people who do not want that."

But that image was severely damaged by Efrat's attempt at expansion earlier this year, and by Riskin's campaigning these days against the peace process.

Yet Riskin and Efrat's other Americans still speak of Palestinian rights. Some even say they understand why Arabs might view them as oppressors. But they also insist the West Bank is Jewish land and the Palestinians must never gain full political control over the area.

"Arabs also have the right to continue living here," said Itamar Marcus, a children's book writer. "But where Arabs are not living — and Efrat started on an empty hilltop — these areas are still historically part of the land of Israel and we have the right to it. The Arabs expect too much."

Others disagree.

"I used to think the people in Efrat were different from other settlers until they tried to confiscate land," said Ghassan Andoni, a Palestinian who was among those who demonstrated against Efrat's planned expansion. "But when I saw how they and this Rabbi Riskin behaved, I realized that the difference between them is really small.

"Their liberal side is not really sincere. It might reflect old experiences, but it's not part of them anymore."

Rabbi David Rosen, interfaith director for the Anti-Defamation League in Israel and a peace-process supporter, was also critical.

"When you live in the situation that they do, you can't be a liberal," Rosen said. "It's ridiculously naive of them to believe they could do this sort of thing in the West Bank."

Riskin, however, insists he has not changed — it's the world around him that has changed.

Sitting in the Efrat office of Ohr Torah Institutions, a network of religious educational institutions he directs, Riskin said he believes "even more" in human rights now.

"But this land is too small for a separate Palestinian state. It's a prescription for war, and I don't want to commit suicide — that's also an ethical value," he said.

When Efrat was founded, "It was unthinkable that Israel might one day consider giving up this community, and we're not going to leave here. `Turn the other cheek' is not a Jewish ideal.

"To the victor belongs the spoils if the victor is moral," he added. "For the immoral loser, there can be no spoils."

Yossi Baumol, once a McGovern anti-war Democrat from Brooklyn, N.Y., where he grew up "very liberal Orthodox," lives in Efrat and runs an organization that promotes Jewish land ownership in the Muslim quarter of Jerusalem's Old City.

Standard political language, he said, has no place in Efrat.

"The normal way of thinking is that nationalism and capitalism are right-wing because they're about thinking about yourself, and universalism and socialism are liberal or left-wing because they're about caring for others," said Baumol, whose family was among the first to settle Efrat.

"That's false because it leaves out an important religious element for Jews that changes the entire equation, and that's the issue of the Land of Israel and God's promise of it to the Jewish people.

"Judge me as you will, but if you want to understand me, understand that."