I write this from Kedumim (in Israel, all the road signs called it Qedumim. Inside the Green Line, it was written Kdumim. I’ve always seen it spelled Kedumim, so I’ll stick with that.). Kedumim is beyond the pre-1967 borders of Israel, in what is now called the West Bank, or the Occupied West Bank, or Judea and Samaria, depending on who you’re talking to. It was founded after the 1967 Six Day War, when Israel unexpectedly won a staggering victory against a coalition of Arab nations, tripling its size in six days and, for the first time, taking the West Bank from Jordan.
Kedumim was founded by Israeli Jews, people we would now call settlers, who bought the land from Palestinians or seized land owned by Palestinians who had fled in the war, and built a walled settlement. Today it has a population of over five thousand, making it one of the largest Jewish settlements in the West Bank, and by extension all conquered territories (Jewish settlements in the Sinai were bought out in 1980 as part of the peace treaty with Egypt, Jewish settlements in Gaza were bought out in 2006 as part of the unilateral disengagement with Gaza, Jewish settlements in the Golan were legalized as part of the annexation and unification of the Golan Heights). Included in those five thousand settlers is a significant section of my family.
My great-grandfather Isaac Kreisler fled Lvov in 1933. The rest of his family would die in the liquidation of the Lvov Ghetto in 1942, and he would settle in then Mandatory Palestine with three daughters, Rachel, Tzipora, and Shoshana. Following the War of Independence in 1948, Tzipora moved to America, followed by Shoshana after a stint in the Sorbonne. Rachel would eventually move to Kedumim. Shoshana is my grandmother, so most of my relatives in Kedumim are second cousins.
It’s a very odd feeling, being in a place used so often as a talking point. It’s all very well and good to talk about demanding the Israeli settlers leave the West Bank, or talk about ending new settlements, but it’s another thing entirely to be there and see the hand-painted signs surrounding the highway that runs past Kedumim with phrases such as ‘Am Yisrael Chai’ (The People of Israel Live), ‘Artzenu’ (Our Land), and ‘Yisrael Beitenu’ (Our Jewish Home). The day I arrived, there was a mass demonstration by the settlers after two IDF soldiers died in the West Bank, in Ramallah, bringing the end to one of the most violent weeks in the West Bank in five years, with multiple stabbings, terrorist attacks, and violent riots. The settlers closed off the highway, waved Israeli flags, sang the national anthem, and demonstrated for an hour. They were watched by several bored-looking IDF troops, who lazily indicated to oncoming cars to turn around and look for a detour.
It certainly doesn’t feel like an occupied territory most of the time, in Kedumim or the surrounding areas. For the most part it feels like Israel, with the same style of architecture, security checkpoints, and Hebrew signs as Tel-Aviv, or Herzlia. The Palestinian villages nearby are some of the wealthier ones, and cater to Israelis with Hebrew signs advertising lower prices on vegetables or phone repair. Moments come that break this peaceful picture, of course. Leaving the West Bank to go to a museum in Israel, we pass through the vast wall that separates Israel from the West Bank. We slow to a stop, a soldier probably three years older then me holsters his gun and peers inside and waves us through, and we drive on past. Nearby I can see a pair of IDF officers running bomb scanners through a car while the owner checks his phone. On the way back in, I notice the signs which I missed driving in at night: “IT IS FORBIDDEN TO TRANSFER ANY MOTERIZED VEHICLES TO THE PALESTINIAN AUTHORITY FOR ANY REASON”, “IT IS FORBIDDEN TO BRING ANY FIREARMS IN OR OUT OF THE TERRITORY- the classic euphemism for the West Bank- “WITHOUT A LAWFUL PERMIT AND DUE PERMISSION”, “IT IS FORBIDDEN TO TRANSFER FUNDS TO THE PALESTINIAN AUTHORITY WITHOUT DUE PERMISSION”.
The West Bank is divided into three categories, “A”, “B”, and “C”. In “A” zones, the Palestinian Authority has full responsibility for all sectors of government, barring Israeli security concerns. In “B” zones, the authority is split. In “A” zones the Israeli government has full authority. Kedumim, and the all the highways in the West Bank, are “C” zones. The terrorist attacks are usually in “A” zones. The Palestinian Authority is incredibly lax, verging on complicit, in counter-terrorism activities, as compared to the Shin Bet, the Israeli version of the FBI, and the IDF, which rigorously protects the “C” and “B” zones.
The two of them are omnipresent throughout my stay. The day after I arrive, they hold Kabbalat Shabbat, Friday night, services on the highway, as part of their anti-terrorism protests. IDF troops block off the highway on either side of them with Jeeps and APCs, and soldiers patrol the thirty-minute service. Mercifully, the longer Saturday services are held indoors, in Kedumim’s synagogue.
Overall there is a strange sense of normalcy out here. Kedumim is large by settlement standards, so while things may be different in the Jordan Valley, or the Outer Judean Hills, here it feels like a normal small town. Reuven, my father’s cousin, gives me a tour of the area, pointing out the shul, the school, the preschool, his friends houses’, the stores, and the one restaurant. Nothing feels out of place or abnormal. From his house, we can look out to the nearby Palestinian villages, where Reuven points out the nice cars and well-painted houses. Look, he says, they have it good here, better then they have it in Lebanon or Jordan . By any measure that is true, though a seasoned activist will quickly retort that they would have it even better if they were not under an apartheid occupation by a racist ethnostate, and by the word apartheid the conversation would have fallen apart.
I once read an essay by Micheal Chabon in which he lamented two results of the Holocaust, the death of Yiddish and the death of his extended family. He described how his Irish friends would (paraphrasing from memory) “Return back to their homeland now and then, and slip into Gaelic and sleep in crowded rooms with indistinct second cousins thrice removed…” He was lamenting how he had been denied that, and he spent a good portion of that essay imagining a Yiddish speaking Jewish world in Eastern Europe without a Holocaust, potentially tens of millions strong and spread over multiple countries that he could return to every few years, and see the old country and his distant relatives. He may have been denied that opportunity, but for me, a generation below him, it is entirely different. To a certain extent that has been reclaimed for me, in Hebrew, of course, and to a lesser degree, but I do have such a branch out here that I occasionally return to, distant relatives and friends of friends who live clumped together and take me to dinners at all of their houses. The difference is that the Kreislers of Lvov lived there for, as far as we can tell, over half a millennia. The Kreislers of Boston are seventy years old, the Kreislers of Kedumim forty. There is no sense of permanence here, no sense of this being my ‘Old Country’ in anything but a biblical and national sense.
I’m sending this earlier than usual because for the next week, I’ll be in Gadna. Gadna- picture JROTC, or perhaps boot camp, for a week. It’s supposed to emulate the army, in an effort to encourage us to make Aliyah, a necessary component of which is IDF service. My Israeli guide, my madrich, described it as acting, “You pretend to be soldiers, they pretend to be officers, it’s all good.” He reassured us by saying it was nothing like actual boot camp, much gentler. He would later describe to us, emotionlessly, his time in Gaza in 2014, describing how he watched his friends die under Hamas fire and IEDs and how the time there “temporarily turned me from a human being into a man with a gun- and nothing more.”