This is the first in a series of travel vignettes of Wajahat Ali, a Pakistani-American Muslim journalist, lawyer, and writer who writes about politics, the Muslim-American cultural experience, creating tolerance through cultural understanding, and building a multicultural coalition of the willing. Ali travelled throughout Israel and the West Bank and visited various settlements in the summer of 2017, spoke with the people, and recorded his impressions.
Part 1 — The Settler Perspective
Ariel Open for Business
I never expected to see controversial American Evangelical Pastor John Hagee’s name emblazoned on a massive sports and recreation complex while driving through Ariel, the fourth largest settlement in the West Bank. His was only the first of many American names on buildings that I saw while visiting this expansive “city” with nearly 20,000 residents. There were the usual stunning landscapes, beautiful homes, pristine basketball courts, red tiles, and eclectic kosher restaurants I’d seen in other settlements. But Ariel was unique in that it was officially given the status of a “city” in 1998 and is home to Ariel University, established in 1982, with over 15,000 students and 300 faculty members.
Hagee, in addition to being the founder and senior pastor of the San Antonio, Texas megachurch Cornerstone, also runs an organization called Christians United for Israel. The Christian Zionist organization has over two million members and donates generously to Ariel. The pastor is warmly embraced despite his 1999 sermon in which he said God had allowed the Holocaust to happen so Jews would return to Israel. In July 2018, via satellite link, Prime Minister Netanyahu addressed the crowd assembled in Washington, D.C. at Christians United for Israel’s annual conference and said, “Thank you for always standing with Israel. You are truly among our greatest friends in the world. I cherish that friendship, and I cherish your solidarity.”
In the Christian Zionist narrative, the realization of Jewish longing hastens the return of Jesus. Unfortunately, Jews and Muslims don’t fare so well in the next chapters. But why worry about the nuances of Armageddon when convenient, mutually beneficial political alliances can be made? Debates over eschatology can happen after swimming in an Olympic-sized pool and then swapping hummus recipes in a refreshing Jacuzzi. Those amenities are included in the state-of-the-art complex that bears Hagee’s name, a small token of appreciation for his loyalty.
I hoped to stop, take a tour, wash my feet in the tub and then pray somewhere in the sports complex as a symbolic “thank you” to Pastor Hagee for his rich history of anti-Muslim sentiment and hysteria. Hagee, who also has made many colorful remarks about women and LGBT people, once said, “200 million Islamics believe they have a command from God to kill Christians and Jews.” Since then I have always tried to find an “Islamic,” but they have eluded me. The search continues.
However, Avi, our American-born guide and resident of Ariel for 13 years, was punctual, reminding us that we were already late to our meeting with Ariel University’s Chancellor. Avi Zimmerman, a tall, serious man in glasses with a deliberate voice and droll sense of humor, looked exactly like Stephen Merchant from the hit British TV show The Office. He picked me up from a nearby restaurant where a colleague was a casualty of his own curiosity, nursing the consequences of eating a fried burrito. Meanwhile, the rest of us indulged in kabobs and fresh salads, moaning loudly after each delicious bite that actually tasted like vegetables and not the genetically modified, unblemished but tasteless produce normally found in American supermarkets.
Avi, an Orthodox Jew, had moved to Ariel for the diversity. He felt culturally stifled in the homogenous religious community of Alon Shvut, part of the Gush Etzion bloc of settlements. “We were looking for a diversified Israeli community with different kinds of Jews,” Avi said explaining his decision to move. “We found it in Ariel.” He brought along a few friends who moved for the same reason, explaining that this is a new trend amongst some Jews who believe that Orthodox and secular communities have to stop living separately. He said young professionals move to Ariel for jobs and academic opportunities, which makes sense considering Ariel University is a large employer in “Judea and Samaria,” the biblical term used for the West Bank. Another portion of the population consists of young adults who move back to Ariel to live near their parents, “uncommon in the US, but very common in Israel,” observes Avi.
In the city of Ariel, Avi is a minority within a minority. Only 15% of its residents are Orthodox and less than maybe 5%, like him, are American. However, Avi felt more like a foreigner in his hometown of New Jersey, which he jokes is “very close to the U.S.” He moved to Israel 23 years ago. In 1991, a freshman in high school, he knew he belonged here when he read a short paragraph in a World History textbook about his people. “Jewish people have a place in the pages of a history book,” he said, amazed. His father, also born and raised in America, was simultaneously entertaining the aliyah (return to Israel) itch. The family visited Israel that summer and, upon returning, Avi, stubborn and rebellious, knew he’d make aliyah as soon as he finished high school. His parents moved just two years after him. Since then, he has served in the IDF, studied at Hebrew University, and worked as an occupational therapist in Jerusalem.
Currently, he’s the executive director of American Friends of Ariel. The 501(c)(3) nonprofit was established in 1991 with a threefold purpose: 1) to develop resources for “humanitarian projects in Ariel,” 2) to “educate and provide information about the City of Ariel” to visitors, the press, and the public and 3) to “establish relationships and partnerships with domestic and international cadre of supporters.”
“The international cadre of supporters” includes many influential heavy hitters. In addition to John Hagee’s community, Ariel relies on financial support from American billionaires like Sheldon Adelson and Michael Milken, the latter “the junk bond king” who was convicted of six felonies and paid $600 million to settle the biggest fraud case in the securities industry. Avi says it’s his brother, Lowell, who is more active in Ariel, and a “close friend of ours.” Lowell’s investments and support have earned him the label “Ariel’s celebrity” on the Friends of Ariel website. Lowell was visiting Ariel in the Summer of 2017 for a ceremony just a week before Sheldon Adelson arrived to inaugurate a new medical science building along with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Avi proudly says that the eventual medical complex will serve both Israelis and Palestinians alike.
A hardliner when it comes to Israel, Adelson believes “there’s no such thing as Palestinians.” He was also the largest donor to President Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and owns Israel’s most read paper, the free daily Israel Hayom. His family foundation has given over $410 million to Birthright trips that bring American Jewish youth to Israel, free of charge. Avi says Adelson will have given Ariel at least $25 million “when it’s all said and done.” Five million for the pre-med program and twenty million for the medical program when it’s fully approved.
“Why is Adelson so invested in Ariel?” I asked. Avi believes it’s because Adelson is a very strong Zionist, and also because “he wanted to be sure that the Israeli government is not going to compromise on the permanent status of Ariel as part and parcel of Israel.” Avi clarified himself, assuming Adelson simply “wanted to make sure his investment was a sound investment.”
Hearing all this, I was amused by the rich irony of American citizens donating to Friends for Ariel. You can give money to strengthen and enhance settlements in Israel and then receive a tax deduction by the U.S. government that considers those very same settlements illegal under international law.
Interview at Ariel University
As we neared the security gate of Ariel University, Avi showed me a shopping center, gas station, and medical center all under construction. He said the city could easily grow to accommodate 100,000 people if it weren’t for building freezes that have plagued the settlement for decades. That may have been an overstatement given that settlement activity has certainly not ground to a halt.
Ascending the steps to our meeting with the Chancellor, I kept mentioning the word “settlement.” “I don’t like the term ‘settlement’ altogether, [although] this would be considered a settlement bloc,” Avi said. A settlement is a “derogatory term” to Avi. It means something “ephemeral, transient . . . here one day and gone the other.” He said by calling it a settlement, you can disengage and remove it like Israel did with the settlements in Gaza in 2005. And then “it disappears.”
However, when you call it a city? “It’s not so easy.”
The growth of Ariel and surrounding settlements is likely going to create a 4th settlement bloc, a cluster of Israeli colonies that essentially annex Palestinian territory in the West Bank. There were only three settlement blocs set out in the Oslo Accords, which plunges the territorial “dagger” deeper into the Palestinians.
Avi considers Ariel to be a “game changer,” unlike Shilo, where the motivation of the early settlers was mostly for religious or heritage purposes. He says Ariel is a “consensus city,” which means if there’s ever a Palestinian state, then there are certain areas Israel will insist on retaining as part of Israel “no matter what,” including Ariel and the Gush Etzion bloc. However, critics of the settlements and many on the Israeli left challenge that bold assumption. Regardless, the advocates of Ariel are doing whatever they can to ensure their city will be a necessary player in that discussion and not just a bystander.
We finally arrived five minutes late to the air-conditioned meeting room waiting for Yigal Cohen-Orgad, whom Avi described as Ariel University’s “driving force,” now serving as its Chancellor. I politely declined a colorful, fruity green “ice pop” and carbonated beverages. Wearing a loud pink shirt covering his grandfather belly and brushing clouds of white hair on his head, the nearly 80-year-old Yigal slowly shuffled in. Yigal briefly shared his thoughts on the Kurds and mentioned a Jewish scholar, an expert on the Quran, who wrote a book about the Quran’s approach to Jerusalem. He offered to find a copy and give it to us.
Yigal sat down and began unwrapping his ice pop. I was told I had limited time with the Chancellor and assumed, correctly, that our interview would last as long as it took him to finish slurping his popsicle. Now, one would think a Chancellor would spend most of the interview talking about his university, its curriculum, its faculty, its periodicals and so forth. Maybe mention it was founded in 1982 and has around 600 to 900 Arab students, predominantly Palestinian citizens of Israel? Or voluntarily bring up how they’re responding to repeated boycotts by Israeli academics who refuse to support it because it’s built in the West Bank? Or perhaps pivot to how the University is supported by American donors though Friends of Ariel University, another 501(c)(3) non-profit registered in America, asking for $5,000,000 to provide over 70 research fellowships?
Nope. Instead, we spent all of our time discussing security.
Born and raised in Tel Aviv, Yigal joked that his teachers used to say his English was “PE” — “either poor English or Palestinian English.” After leaving the paratroopers due to an advanced age, he joined the IDF headquarters planning department. “Why did we decide to build Ariel here? – of all places on a hill that the Arabs refers to as ‘Jabal Al-Mawt,’ the hill of death,” he asked rhetorically.
He slowly took a bite of his popsicle. I waited for his answer.
“To sum it up in one sentence: we can’t afford to rely on the goodwill of our neighbors vis-a-vis our security survival after 140 years of experience with ups and downs being attacked by our neighbors.”
After the 1967 and 1973 wars, Israel concluded that it needed to have several strongholds on this road, which is now Route 5, to protect it from potential attacks by Jordan and other Arab forces from the East. He said this explains why Ariel sits nearly in the middle, “as a very good wall,” between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River. Adjacent to the Palestinian city of Salfit surrounded on three sides by a fence, Ariel is shaped like a finger extending into the West Bank. For Palestinians, though, it’s like a middle finger stabbing them in the eye and eating land needed for the establishment of their state. Yigal simplified it for us: “To sum it up in one sentence: we can’t afford to rely on the goodwill of our neighbors vis-a-vis our security survival after 140 years of experience with ups and downs being attacked by our neighbors.”
He took another bite from the popsicle.
Like every other settler I met, Yigal insisted that nothing existed here when he helped to found Ariel in 1978. “It was rocks and rocks and rocks.” They had to use jackhammers to break the rocks to build his private home, back when, according to him, the hills were barren and there were no settlements. Palestinians living around Ariel reject those claims and say the land was private property, grazed upon regularly by Palestinian livestock and forcefully taken over by settlers.
Yigal maintains that there was no religious motivation for him to come to Ariel. “I, for religious reasons, am not ready to sacrifice my life or my children or my brother, etc, etc, etc, etc. [But] for security? For survival? Yes.”
However, when asked to prove his claim, he asserts Biblical rights. He goes back 2,500 to 3,000 years “before Muslim conquest of Palestine,” but always comes back to the trauma of World War II and the Holocaust. The physical erasure of millions of Jews and a history of being persecuted, surrounded by enemies, is enough to convince Yigal that Jews have to “secure our future, first of all, for defense considerations.” He added, “I feel very well — by the way — by building our future at the same time we are securing our long-range future. I already have 24 great-grandchildren,” said the beaming grandfather.
I gave a “Mashallah!” in response.
I asked Yigal what he thought about fellow Jews, both Israelis and Americans, who have recently become some of Ariel’s loudest critics. In 2016, around 1,000 Israeli sociologists decided to sever ties with Ariel University since “it is not located in Israeli territory.” Yigal admits they are “people of good will” and of “moral considerations,” but asserts that ultimately they are all ignorant about their “facts.” He concludes their naïvete and ignorance will encourage aggression against the Jewish people in the long run. He cites the rise of Communism after WWII and how each country kept falling like a domino prompting Bertrand Russell, the famous British philosopher, to conclude that it would be better to “be Red than dead” — better to surrender to save lives instead of engaging in bloodshed. Yigal admires the sentiment but favors the approach of Truman, “not a hero, not a fighter,” but a man who stood up and fought back. Yigal narrates Truman’s interior monologue saying, “we can’t afford to give in more and more and more because it’s going to end up with Communists all over the world.”
For Yigal, it seems that Palestinians were no longer hostile Arabs, but also the modern avatars of anti-Semitic Russians, Nazis, and Communists.
I said Palestinians would love to live in a community like Ariel. “Wonderful,” he replied. “I am for it.” He was excited about the construction of the Palestinian city Rawabi near Ramallah that is being built “under our [Israeli] allowance.” The bold experiment is being developed by wealthy Palestinian entrepreneur Bashar al-Masri, who lives in the United States, but is originally from Nablus. Rawabi is supposed to be a modern city with infrastructure, technology, family-friendly activities, shopping malls, and housing for up to 40,000 people. Naturally, it is criticized by both Palestinian and Israeli activists. The former say the entire enterprise helps normalize relations with Israel and is a mirage in the desert, ignoring the brutal realities of the occupation. Meanwhile, some settlers see it as infringing on their land and have threatened to build settlements around it.
Actually, as an aside, we visited Rawabi a few days later and did a ten-minute drive around this modern oasis. Indeed, it was very impressive. It was also very quiet and very empty, filled with tall lonely apartment complexes waiting for visitors that would one day — inshallah — arrive.
Why not just invite Palestinians to live in Ariel, I asked? “Why build more potential tension within Ariel?” he asked in response. Yigal used an analogy between the Turks and Armenians. “Let’s say you have an Armenian town, would you say it’s important to put in the middle of this town thousands of Turks? [Can one] live next to the other?”
In Turkey or Armenia, I’d probably say no. But, I was asking him about Israel.
With his popsicle almost finished, he offered his solution for peace. He believes eventually there will be a complex system of contracts between Israel and Jordan, which will absorb the Palestinian population. “I don’t want to run the daily life of Palestinians,” Yigal said.
I was waiting for the “but” to drop.
“But” he added, “I have to be the one who insists to be the one who decides how many brigades of tanks are located on the Jordan to prevent any attack from the East.”
Ideally, Yigal hopes that “there would be more and more Rawabis, but also more Jewish settlements.”
Because, after all, “there are barren hills,” he said, slurping the remaining part of the popsicle, licking it clean, signaling the end of our interview.
Part 2 of this article covers the Palestinian perspective.