On the day that I made aliyah to Israel, a nice couple with a teenage daughter stood behind me in the line at JFK Airport, preparing to drop off our bags. I began a conversation with the girl, who looked just a little bit younger than I, hoping she would be the first friend I would make during my aliyah journey. I learned that her mom and stepdad were making aliyah together, and she is in college in the U.S. The four of us talked as we stood in line for the three of us to sign our documents that would officially make us Israeli citizens.
The couple told me that they were moving to Neve Daniel, a settlement in Gush Etzion, where I had spent a Shabbat in 2013. Neve Daniel is a largely English-speaking and Shabbat-observant community, close-knit, and with many young kids. Oh yeah, and it’s technically over the Green Line, meaning it is considered a “settlement.”
We hear plenty about settlements from a political perspective on the news, but what I have found (now that this is my third Shabbat in this community) is something quite different from what I expected. Before visiting for the first time, most people (myself included) expect a dangerous area inhabited by extreme right-wing families who make Bibi Netanyahu look like Gideon Levy. I expected that their motivation for moving to a settlement might be connected to their belief that the land was given to Jews by God, or that Israelis should inhabit the land so that it will guarantee its Israeli identity in future land swaps.
This weekend in Neve Daniel, I again found out how wrong I had first been. My Shabbat hosts, the married couple I met in line at JFK, are extremely down to earth, and so is the rest of the community with whom I have met. If you were dropped in Neve Daniel without knowing it is a settlement, you would have absolutely no idea. Many chose to live there because it is safe (it’s a gated community with guards and security 24/7), it truly feels Jewish and family-oriented, it fits many people’s lifestyle with a variety of synagogues, and it has a fabulous view, with parks aplenty. It has an amazing vibe, and quality of life there is high.
The first time I visited, a well-known figure in the community told my group that Neve Daniel has very good relations with their Arab neighbors. Many of the people building the homes are Arab, and they prefer to work in Neve Daniel where wages are higher than they would earn working in their own neighborhoods.
During Shabbat dinner, we discussed what it is like to live in a settlement. Our hosts reminded us that even though Neve Daniel is a settlement, it is not a disputed land by most standards. When we hear about peace negotiations that may lead to a future Palestinian state, we usually hear that the West Bank and Gaza may become the future Palestinian land “with mutually agreed upon land swaps.” The reference to land swaps means that there are some parts of Israel that are largely Muslim/Arab and would theoretically be considered part of a future Palestinian state. Likewise, there are parts of the Palestinian territories that are largely Jewish/Israeli that would theoretically be considered part of the Jewish state. Neve Daniel is exactly the type of place that this “land swap” idea refers to. In fact, our hosts reminded us that after visiting Neve Daniel, President Jimmy Carter said this particular settlement is “not one that I can envision ever being abandoned or changed over into Palestinian territory. This is a part of settlements close to the 1967 line that I think will be here forever.”
Our host couple both work from home, even though Jerusalem is only a “14-minute drive away” without traffic. The woman is an online writing teacher whose clients are home schoolers, mostly from the U.S. She recalled that while she lived and taught in the U.S., there would sometimes be tense times for Israel, during which some of her Muslim students would drop the course, and then when the tension subsided, they would ask to be added back into the class. When she told the family of her students that she was moving to Israel, she had a couple more families drop again. And after some time, they too would ask to be admitted back to her online classes.
After spending my third Shabbat weekend in Neve Daniel, I am surprised to say that I truly identify with the values that attract Jews to areas in Gush Etzion. My experiences with the land, vibe, and residents there have enabled me to better understand the people behind the headlines—those who have chosen to live (and welcome me into their home) in a settlement.
Eliana Rudee is a fellow with the Salomon Center for American Jewish Thought and the author of the “Aliyah Annotated” column for JNS.org. She is a graduate of Scripps College, where she studied international relations and Jewish studies. Her bylines have been featured in USA Today, Forbes, and The Hill. Follow her aliyah column on JNS.org, Facebook, and Instagram.