Canada and the World

UNDER SIEGE

Religious fervour brought thousands of Jews, some from Canada, to the Israeli-occupied territories. Are they heroes—or dangerous zealots?

ERIC SILVER July 16 2001
Canada and the World

UNDER SIEGE

Religious fervour brought thousands of Jews, some from Canada, to the Israeli-occupied territories. Are they heroes—or dangerous zealots?

ERIC SILVER July 16 2001

UNDER SIEGE

Canada and the World

Religious fervour brought thousands of Jews, some from Canada, to the Israeli-occupied territories. Are they heroes—or dangerous zealots?

ERIC SILVER

When clinical psychologist Ruby Wolbromsky sets out on the 15-km drive from the Jewish settlement of Efrat to see patients in Jerusalem, there are several things he must keep in mind. Place the hands low on the steering wheel so they won't be cut if a rock shatters the windshield. If something hits the battered van somewhere else, stay calm. Remember that so far this year three neighbours, a man and two women, have been shot dead on this new blacktop highway. “Every minute, every day,” says the Montreal-born Wolbromsky, “I worry about whether I’m being a responsible parent in exposing my kids to the risks of living here.”

A deep sense of commitment to the Jewish state brought the Wolbromskys, like thousands before them, to Israel’s dangerous frontier. “The Holocaust would not have happened had there been an Israel,” says Wolbromskys wife, Lynda, a slim, 43year-old executive with a high-tech company. “There would have been a place for the Jews.” And, as the daughter of a woman who survived the Holocaust, she says she and her husband were making a stand for all Jews when, in 1987, they moved with

their two children to Efrat, on Israelioccupied territory that is coveted by right-wing Israelis as part of their ancient homeland. “We’ve chosen,” she says, “to take responsibility.”

Back then, fighting was virtually nonexistent around the town of 7,000—a cluster of stone-fronted, red-roofed villas that looks like a California suburb. Cherries, apricots, plums, almonds and grapes grow in the Wolbromskys’ garden, which has a gas barbecue, a hammock and a raspberry bush imported from Quebec. “It seemed like the best of both worlds,” says Lynda. “It was suburban in the way we grew up with, and

at the same time it was in Israel.” Now, hardly a day passes that the Wolbromskys, who have five children, do not question their decision to come. Since Sept. 28, 2000, more than 600 people, including 121 Israelis, have died in what has become known as the the second Palestinian intifadeh. The settlers’ villages have become the front lines in the increasingly deadly battle, leaving the Wolbromskys continually exposed to danger. Their van has been hit four times by large rocks, and has been fitted with shockproof plastic side windows, although the windshield is still glass. “You hear this boom,”

Ruby Wolbromsky says as he recalls how the van was previously hit, all the while searching the road ahead for signs of danger. “Your heart skips a beat. If it shatters your windshield, you’re blinded for a few seconds. You have to try to maintain control of the car and your body.”

To some Israelis, the settlers are heroes, religious nationalists who have set out to “redeem” the Jewish homeland—often at the expense of local Pales-

tinians—as a first step towards the coming of the Messiah. The first settlements, near Hebron, a city holy to both Jews and Muslims as the burial place of their common ancestor, Abraham, were built on land taken by Israel from Jordan in the Six Day War in 1967. Despite international condemnation, the number of Jewish villages continued to grow across the disputed region as successive governments, left and right, offered cheap housing and tax breaks to attract families to

the new towns. They now number 146, with about 200,000 people living nervously in armed camps amid three million Palestinians.

They hardly have the support of all Israelis either. Peace campaigners see the senders as dangerous extremists—right-wing shock troops pushing back the borders of Israel. And they denounce the settlements as a major stumbling block in the way of a comprehensive agreement with the Palestinians. Opinion polls, meanwhile,

consistently show that nearly 40 per cent of Israelis would support the dismantling of some of the villages under a comprehensive peace plan.

“The setdements are a great security burden, a grave political difficulty and a moral evil,” says Janet Aviad, a leader of the Israeli activist group Peace Now.

They also remain one of the flash points for Arab-Israeli hostilities. In late June, as the violence increased,

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell met with Israeli and Palestinian leaders to negotiate a so-called coolingoff period, during which both sides promised to stop fighting for seven days in the hopes of restarting peace talks. But the death of a Jewish settler last week near Sussia, a settlement south of Hebron, helped reignite the violence and raised serious doubts over whether Powell’s objective will succeed. The settler, Yair HarSinai, 51, the father of nine children, was shot in the head at close range and repeatedly stabbed as he took his sheep out to pasture. His friends described him as peaceful, but Palestinian authorities said he was often in confrontations with Arab farmers and shepherds over water and grazing rights.

As it has in the past, the Israeli army retaliated by bulldozing Palestinian homes. Before departing for Europe, where he was to meet with a number of leaders, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon used HarSinai’s death to criticize Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. “There is no ceasefire,” said Sharon, a hardliner. “Arafat never instructed [his people] to stop the terror.”

In Efrat, Lynda Wolbromsky tries desperately to preserve the semblance of normal family life in the face of the continuing hostilities. “If we want to take the kids to Jerusalem just for fun, we think twice,” she says. “We try to stuff more into it when we do go.” Some friends who live elsewhere are too fearful to visit them. “I don’t even ask them anymore,” says Lynda. But the Wolbromskys persist, venturing out to see a movie, shop, eat in a restaurant, visit a doctor.

Yet their son Amiad, 13, travels on an armour-plated bus when he goes to play little-league baseball in Jerusalem. His

mother worries about what might happen to him in the city, where there were two car bombings in May. Gila, the Wolbromskys’ 18-year-old daughter, is taking driving lessons; Lynda is already fretting about what might happen on the road. “I don’t go out so much now,” says Gila. “I’m more aware of danger.”

It is a common precaution—with disturbing consequences. Ruby Wolbromsky says the people of Efrat are showing

signs of depression which, he adds, is the result of anxiety and fear. “People here are less vibrant now, less spontaneous, less available to their spouses and their kids,” says Ruby. “I force myself to party once in a while, I break into a dance with Lynda, I pick up my kids and swirl them around. I get together with friends at the weekend and take out a bottle of rye whisky.”

Efrat doesn’t feel like a community under siege. The barbed-wire security fence that surrounds the settlement is rusty and broken. The schools are on summer vacation, but kids, like the Wolbromskys’ youngest, eight-year-old Yigal, go to day camps. To pass the time, his brother, Ariel, 16, a talented amateur carpenter, built a wooden pergola on their back porch. He sports a dark-blue Montreal Canadiens Tshirt as he and his sister Kiri, 11, listen to a Dire Straits CD in the living room of their four-bedroom home.

But death has left its mark on the children. Amiad brings out his grey baseball shirt. It has “Kobi” and the number eight

THE SETTLEMENTS REMAIN A FLASH POINT FOR VIOLENCE

stitched on the sleeve, in memory of Ya’acov (Kobi) Mandell, who played in the same league and was murdered on May 9. “I was really mad when I heard he’d been killed,” Amiad says. “The kids in school cried.” Amiad’s father belongs to a local emergency team of security officers and social workers. One of their jobs is to break the news to families when someone is killed. Ruby spent a day counselling Kobi Mandell’s parents and he says he found it difficult to act as a detached professional. “Losing a child who is bludgeoned to death by rocks the size of a soccer ball and trying to imagine what your son goes through in the last minute of his life is worse than any hell I can imagine,” he says.

Like other Canadian, American or British immigrants to Israel, the Wolbromskys can leave the terror behind anytime they wish. But would they leave the West Bank if an elected Israeli government decided to evacuate settlements in exchange for peace? Ruby says yes—conditionally. “I would move, but I would want it to be accepted by the Arab world, and the whole world, that after we’ve pulled back, if those guys dare to harm any Israeli citizen, we will respond in any way we feel necessary.” Meanwhile, Israel has erected steel and concrete shields along strategic stretches of the road from Efrat to Jerusalem. And Wolbromsky continues to make the dangerous journey to see patients, nervously scanning the road ahead, driving with his hands on the bottom of the steering wheel. EH]