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by Carol Iannone


On a trip to Israel years ago I had the opportunity to meet face to face some settlers in the West Bank, a young American couple who had been educated in the United States, married, become orthodox, and made aliya. They were living in the West Bank settlement of Shiloh, seven or eight miles north of Ramallah, where they were raising their young and expanding brood of children. As I was preparing to go to Israel the settlements were the last thing on my mind, if they were on my mind at all. The West Bank seemed remote, unreal, something from another world, unconnected to the Israel I was eager to see. The names and phone number were passed on to me by a friend's mother, however, and I dutifully pocketed them. My West Bank visit turned out to be the highlight of my time in the Holy Land.

I was travelling with a very small, loosely organized tour which allowed us a lot of free time. When I announced that I planned to go by bus to visit some American Jews now living in Israel near a place called Ramallah, my fellow tourists jumped at the idea. Before I knew it they had hired a car and driver for very little money. When the Arab driver realized more exactly where we intended going, however, he upped his price considerably. He had misunderstood the name of the destination, his brother explained in his better English. Ramallah is a much farther location from Jerusalem than the place our driver originally understood us to be asking about.

Later on we realized that the trip was also a little dangerous. This was in the early nineties, after the first intifada had ended but before the "peace process" had begun, and even longer before Satan had perfected suicide bombing as a means of killing and maiming innocents and enlisting so many Muslims in his cause.

Indeed, it was relatively peaceful in Israel in those days, and I remember having no fear. There was always some reminder of tension in the background, though, which might surface now and again. I swam happily at the beach at Tel Aviv, for example, but the friend I was traveling with had promised her father that she wouldn't. There had been an incident or two of Palestinian militants (were they called that then?) outboarding in from the ocean and causing harm.

Moreover, when our normally affable and agreeable tour director heard of our plans, he expressed rather uncharacteristic disapproval. Those West Bank settlers were the problem in Israel, he said, they were the fanatics who would make peace with the Arabs impossible. I had vaguely heard this line of thought and wondered if I was about to meet some wild-eyed descendents of the Maccabees.

We passed through that rugged countryside, austerely beautiful and mostly empty but for the occasional Palestinian village that seemed crowded with children and men, for whom the passage of our vehicle was a matter of interest. As a precaution at one point, our Arab driver removed his sunglasses, worn characteristically mostly by Israelis drivers, he said.

When we finally arrived at Shiloh, I was startled out of the absorption of the drive by the sight of a modern housing development, a gated community set on a hill, neat and groomed, red, white, and green, if memory serves. (What was I expecting? tents?) As modern as it was, however, and as ordinary, there was something extraordinary about its placement against the emptiness of the landscape, something dreamlike about the way it stood shimmering in the open, sun-filled air.

Our hosts' home was small and spare, but light, airy, and well equipped, recognizable as new development housing anywhere, except for the rifle propped in the corner of the kitchen. I marvelled at the thought of people like me living in modern houses in a modern country needing to defend themselves from mortal harm.

We spent a couple of hours there. I don't even remember thinking or saying anything very much; there was just a pervasive contentment. So far from being belligerent fanatics hysterically claiming their entitlements, this couple possessed modesty and humility, and conveyed a sense of quietness and assuredness and peace.

All the while, though, I was being quietly dazzled, by the sun, the air, the special luminosity of the light. I felt a sense of privilege, in a way, to see Jews living as Jews in historic Israel and in my time-young people from my own country, in fact, such as I might have met once in a college classroom, but fulfilling their destiny in their ancient homeland.

And I felt strangely at home there as well. The land of the Bible is my country too, I felt. There is even a Shiloh in America, where men also staked their lives on their vision of nationhood.

It was one of a number of moments in my life which I remember as a kind of bliss, when all of life makes sense, when anxiety dissolves, when everything takes on a calm clarity that one could never have attained by trying for it. It was a variation on something that Willa Cather suggests, that the most beautiful moments come when you are hardly aware that they have arrived, that it's the unplanned fulfillment of our undirected desires, desires we scarcely knew we had, that we cherish most.

Later, I thought about that day and felt I had seen the best part of Israel. As long as they are there, I thought, Israel will never lose its soul, never become just another modern democracy given to hedonism, consumerism, and gradual self obliteration. They are people willing to sacrifice, take risks, live in the midst of a virtual desert, realizing the vision they have for the land they love, making real the word on which it is built, and, in a way, keeping the Holy Land for the rest of us. They are a sign that our Western civilization, built on the Judaism and Christianity that began there, is still thriving.

They must endure the opprobrium of the world, of many of their fellow Jews and Israelis, and evidently even of erstwhile allies and champions. But they are living for something larger than themselves and they make Israel larger by their living of it, in more ways than one. Whatever happens, I believe that nothing can remove the spirit of those people from that place.

Carol Iannone is editor-at-large of Academic Questions, the journal of the National Association of Scholars. Contact her at

This article was submitted January 25, 2006.

Carol Iannone writes, "I received an email from a woman [who read this essay] who had also had the same kind of experience. She went with a group called Honest Reporting and was just taken with the kindness, intelligence, and dedication of the settlers she met, who, by the way, are doing important work that could benefit everyone, in perfecting methods for dealing with Down Syndrome children and children with severe learning and behavioral problems. The world should know more of this!"


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