Surrounded by seven young children, Yehuda Richter tells me over Shabbat lunch how he decided to move from Los Angeles to
Elon Moreh, a settlement on the outskirts of the place Jews call Shechem and the Arabs call Nablus.
He was 14 years old and playing basketball with some black guys in the La Cienega neighborhood near Fedco (RIP), some 25 years ago.
"Are you a Jew," a black player asked him.
"Man, you guys are bad!" he said, meaning "good."
Then the black guy recounted how some Jew boy was roughed up at a neighborhood pinball joint. The following Saturday night, some brawny Jews from the Jewish Defense League (JDL) visited the joint, punched some noses and knocked over a few tables, saying, in so many words, "Don't mess with the Jews."
It was the first time that Richter felt distinct pride to be a Jew. Then he went to hear a lecture by Rabbi Meir Kahane, founder of the JDL, at Beth Jacob Synagogue, and immediately became his disciple.
Out of the blue, Richter sings, a la John Denver, his own "Elon Moreh" anthem, his long black beard and payes swaying:
"Hotzei Shomron [Samaria Divide], take me home, to the place I belong."
Richter certainly didn't belong in Los Angeles, the city where I, too, was born and where my parents still live. Nor would Kahane, were he still alive, fit in so well at most Los Angeles shuls. Kahane's political party, Kach, was banned in Israel in 1988 for anti-Arab views that were widely denounced as racist. It was listed as a terrorist group by the FBI and U.S. State Department. In 1990 Kahane was assassinated in New York by an Arab affiliated with a terrorist organization.
These days, many residents of Elon Moreh, a natural habitat for Kahane followers and sympathizers, feel more threatened by the Israeli government than by Arabs. At any moment the government could choose to end their way of life by forcefully evicting them from this spot, just as it did with the settlers in Gaza. Located near major Arab population centers in the West Bank, Elon Moreh is the heart of the storm.
Elon Moreh was practically empty during last summer's Disengagement (or "expulsion," as they call it here) because most residents were out protesting. The Israeli army recommended terminating the hesder status of the Elon Moreh yeshiva, which combines Torah and military study, which would prevent it from receiving financial subsidies and service reductions for its students. Its rabbi had called upon soldiers to refuse Disengagement orders.
But the rest of the community is on shaky ground with the authorities as well. During the Sukkot holiday, police searched cars randomly, including school buses.
Community members call it harassment and collective punishment in the wake of attempts by settler youth to set up a tent on a deserted hill adjacent to Elon Moreh, an illegal outpost, according to the government. The youth were no contest against the police, who came to knock down the tent, but it did cost the security forces a few punctured tires.
The police say the checks are routine -- to ensure proper licenses and permits.
Residents aren't buying it.
"They came in here looking for trouble," says Pinchas Fuchs, who directs Friends of Elon Moreh. "They wanted to arrest a couple of the kids who they claimed were involved in who-knows-what-where. They decided to take it out on us."
It is Fuchs, a New Jersey expatriate, who is hosting me for Shabbat. Fuchs looks like a Jewish Santa Claus, with a white beard and warm blue eyes. I can imagine Jewish children sitting on his lap during Chanukah, while he asks "Were you a good Jew this year?"
He takes me to the hilltop and explains to me that this settlement was officially and legally established in 1980 on barren slopes overlooking the heart of Shechem. Then he shows me where the Jewish people were born. He must have given the speech to visitors hundreds of times, but his enthusiasm makes it seem as though he has just discovered the biblical valleys the day before.
God promised Avram the land in Genesis 12, he explains. Later in the Bible, Jacob purchases a "portion of the field" in Shechem; Dina, Jacob's daughter, gets raped by the city's namesake -- the rape is then brutally avenged by her brothers; Joseph is sold into slavery and also buried in Shechem. (The place regarded as Joseph's traditional burial site was turned over to Palestinian police after a violent outbreak there at the start of the second intifada. Palestinians then ransacked the site. An American-born Elon Moreh rabbi was found murdered not far from it.)
"This is where the Jewish people encamped when they entered the Holy Land," Fuchs says, arms wide open to the expanse of the hills, its valleys spotted with Arab homes and buildings. "That's Mount Eval and Mount Grizim, where the children of Israel had to choose between the blessings and the curses. That's where archaeologist Adam Zartal discovered an altar dating to the time of Joshua."
Not far away from where we stand is an Israel Defense Forces base overlooking Shechem to monitor Arab activities.
Elon Moreh is home to some of the most ardent religious Zionists. It started with 12 seed families and has grown to more than 250 clans. The architecture and lawns remind me more of suburban Los Angeles than crowded Tel Aviv. There are many two-story homes, a lot of trees and parks, but with an atmosphere and terrain that can never be duplicated anywhere else.
There is a feeling among the settlers that, to the Israeli government, they are guilty unless proven innocent and that due process doesn't apply to them. A 21-year-old about to start medical school was charged with attempting to burn tires on a road and sentenced to two years.
"Look how much time and effort they put into arresting these poor kids blocking roads when there's all this corruption in the government," Fuchs says.
Los Angeles' own, Richter, was sent to administrative detention during the Disengagement on suspicion of various anti-Disengagement "crimes," but released after five days.
"Really they didn't want me to be around for the Northern Shomron expulsion," said Richter, an active protester.
Fuchs suspects his phone is tapped; he sometimes answers, "Good morning, everyone."
Everyone can't help but wonder if the government is preparing their own expulsion.
"We're all aware of it," says Fuchs' curly-haired, 24-year-old daughter, Nurit, who teaches autistic children in Jerusalem. "But we're not going to make it easy."
Fuchs' 28-year-old son, Bentzi, a counselor for troubled youth in the Golan, opens a pamphlet listing activities religious Zionist teens are running all over the country to infuse Israelis with a Jewish identity, the lack of which they believe is the cause for the country's turmoil and a willingness to retreat from the biblical heartland.
Fuchs would be happy to go back to pre-Oslo days when Judea and Samaria were under Israeli rule.
"We had a fantastic situation until 1992," Fuchs says. "We weren't buddy-buddy with the Arabs, but it was live and let live. We had school buses driving through Shechem every day. Many would like to go back to that situation, but it's too hard now."
Time, however, does not appear to be on the settlers' side. Demolitions and expulsions are slated for parts of settlements in Hebron, Elon Moreh, and Amona.
At the Tapuach Junction, construction has mysteriously begun to alter traffic flow near the mountains of the blessings and the curses.
"They're getting ready for the next expulsion," says a hitchhiker I pick up on my way out
"How so?" I ask.
"They're making a crossing so they can limit traffic, as they did for Gush Katif," she says.
The Israel Defense Forces respond that workers are constructing an improved vehicle passageway to improve security inspection without delaying drivers. But the settlers are very suspicious.
As I leave the community, I can't help but feel energized by the pride of the people I met. But I also couldn't help but feel increasingly sad that Israel is turning into a country where you're treated as a criminal if you love too passionately your people, your heritage, and your history.
On the way home near the Hotzei Shomron road, I shut off my new Madonna CD, and begin to sing: "Hotzei Shomron, take me home, to the place I belong."
Orit Arfa is a writer living in Tel Aviv. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.