August 4, 2010
Settler, Warrior, Healer
In many ways, Ron Jager is your typical religious settler who made aliyah from America to live out the Zionist dream. With a short beard, laser-sharp eyes and a sturdy frame, he looks the part of the diehard Zionist from the Bronx, where, in fact, he grew up. So how did this tough guy turn out to be a “kumbaya” promoter of Jewish-Palestinian cooperation in, of all places, the West Bank?
When Jager arrived in Israel in 1980, at the age of 22, he already had two college degrees: a bachelor’s in psychology from Baruch College and a master’s in clinical social work from Yeshiva University.
He put those skills to work when he joined the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and fought in the Lebanon War of 1982. His fight was to treat soldiers in the heat of battle who were experiencing trauma, like from seeing the bodies of their best friends mutilated by shrapnel.
“If you don’t get to them right away and send them back to the war zone, the psychic damage can be permanent,” he told me the other day as we were riding through the hills of Samaria.
Jager treated hundreds of soldiers through three wars over 25 years. He had a proven technique. First, he took care of the soldier’s physical needs: a hug; then a shower, coffee and a meal; and then a little sleep.
Only after that would he begin treatment. He would start by helping soldiers remember why they were there in the first place — about their responsibility toward their children, their family members, their fellow Jews. This would take the focus away from their immediate pain by putting the trauma in a larger and meaningful context.
Once that larger context was established, he would convey the soldiers’ accomplishment to boost their sense of self. “Not every soldier sees frontline combat,” he would tell them. “You have to earn it. You’re here because you can be here.”
The final step was the traditional debriefing or retracing of the events leading to the trauma to help them “take control” of the events.
Usually within a day or two, the soldier would return to the combat zone.
After 25 years in the IDF, Jager retired in 2005 with no idea what to do next. On a whim, he followed up on an ad from Haifa University recruiting for an MBA in “Jewish-Arab Cooperation.”
He ended up holed up for two years with 18 Israeli Arabs, six Palestinians and 10 Jewish leftists.
“I was used to shooting at Arabs, not studying with them,” he said.
During their travels for overseas conferences, his roommate was an Arab. They had endless late-night conversations. They didn’t change each other’s views, but one thing did change in Jager.
“I think the whole experience made me more pragmatic,” he said, “more conscious that we need to come up with solutions.”
So what did he do next? After graduation, he jumped into one of the toughest places on earth to find solutions: the West Bank, where he’s been a longtime resident. He became strategic adviser to the Shomron Liaison Office, an independent NGO whose mission is to put a human face on the settler movement.
I know what you’re thinking — good luck. But listen to this: They’re making some progress. Jager and David Ha’ivri, the office director, have managed to develop a good rapport with the global press, including even The New York Times, whose reporters they’ve taken on several tours of the region. Their secret, he says, is to focus on humanitarian issues, not politics.
“We tell them that no matter what happens politically in the future, there are human needs that will always be here, like water conservation and sewage,” he said. “So we show them what we are doing to help our Palestinian neighbors in those areas, thanks in large part to the scientists at Ariel University [Center of Samaria].”
Lately, they’ve been petitioning officials from the U.S. Consulate office in East Jerusalem to help fund joint cooperation projects with the Palestinians in areas such as firefighting and emergency response. Jager says he has surprised more than a few U.S. officials and reporters when he tells them how Jewish settlers who are paramedics will rush to the scene of an accident to rescue Palestinian victims.
“When the police call us after an accident, they don’t tell us whether the victims are Jewish or Palestinians.”
Of course, it’s not all rosy. Palestinians, for example, have refused Israeli offers to treat their sewage because they think their water will be stolen. So the scientists at Ariel are developing new, simplified techniques for sewage treatment that the Palestinians can handle and maintain themselves.
The list of projects for joint cooperation is endless, he says. But he knows it will be an uphill battle to convince the world that Jewish settlers are not just impersonal “obstacles to peace”; that there is more to gain by talking about warming relations than freezing construction; and that given the possibility that Jewish settlers may stay on one day as part of a Palestinian entity, it’s not a bad idea to begin planting the seeds of co-existence.
Uphill battle or not, who better than an expert at dealing with trauma to lead the way?