The Romance of Gush Etzion

By Aryeh Tepper
Friday, September 3, 2010

The modern return of the Jewish people to their homeland succeeded thanks to the extraordinary tenacity of pioneering individuals who, in a dangerous environment, created new communities from scratch. One such community, or rather series of communities, is the Etzion district—in Hebrew, Gush Etzion—located along the ancient mountain route between Jerusalem and Hebron. The first three communities built by Jewish settlers were completely destroyed by Arabs. The fourth still stands today. 

The initial effort took place in 1927, when a group of religious Ashkenazi and Yemenite Jews from Jerusalem purchased land from local Arabs approximately 15 miles south of Jerusalem and seven miles southwest of Bethlehem. The settlement lasted only three years before it was uprooted during the 1929 riots in which Arabs massacred the Jewish community of Hebron.

The next attempt was mounted in 1934 on the ruins of the first. The community, named Kfar Etzion, or Etzion Village, was wiped out during the Arab riots of 1936-39.

A third group tried again in April 1943, the same month in which the Jews of the Warsaw ghetto began their uprising. By 1947, four settlements numbering 400 souls had been established, including a religious kibbutz with the name Kfar Etzion. On November 29, 1947, the UN assembly voted to partition the land of Israel into two states, one Arab and one Jewish; the Jews accepted the plan, while the Arabs rejected it and went to war. In the ensuing months, Gush Etzion came under heavy fire from the Jordanian Legion and in March 1948 it fell. The Jewish settlements were completely destroyed.

More than 150 Jews died defending Gush Etzion, including 80 men from Kfar Etzion alone. Their wives and children, now widows and orphans, had been evacuated to Jerusalem in the days leading up to the hostilities. But many of the children grew up faithful to each other and to the memory of their fathers' sacrifice. After Israeli forces re-conquered the area in the June 1967 Six-Day War, these children, now young adults, went about rebuilding Kfar Etzion.

Today, the Etzion district numbers 19 different communities, including two urban centers. It has also become one of the most important centers in Israel, if not in the entire Jewish world, of modern Orthodoxy and religious Zionism.  Adin Steinsaltz, a popular rabbinic figure and the author of a monumental translation of the Babylonian Talmud from Aramaic into Hebrew, has founded two religious schools in the area.  Aharon Lichtenstein, an internationally recognized expert in Jewish law and thought, heads a renowned yeshiva, Har Etzion. In Efrat, Shlomo Riskin, founding rabbi, has been a pioneer of women's education and of outreach to evangelical Christians. Also located in the area is the Siah yeshiva, a hothouse of post-modern and existentialist Jewish thought and scholarship.

Gush Etzion's intellectual vitality is expressed, among other ways, in a number of intriguing political positions. In the late 1980's,  Yehuda Amital,  who until his recent death served with Rabbi Lichtenstein as co-head of the Har Etzion yeshiva, was instrumental in founding a center-Left, religious-Zionist political movement aimed at countering religious extremism; in the mid-1990's, he also functioned as a kind of national unifier in the difficult days after Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by a fanatic religious Jew.

To take a more radical example, Rabbi Menahem Fruman of Tekoa is a peace activist, albeit of an unusual kind—one who argues for religion as an integral element of any dialogue with the Arab-Muslim world; putting his money where his mouth is, he counted Yasir Arafat as a friend and has established contacts with members of Hamas. It should also be noted that Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman lives in Nokdim, a settlement across the valley from Tekoa. While they are, in a sense, neighbors, it would be an understatement to say that Lieberman and Rabbi Fruman live in different worlds.

These days, the name Gush Etzion is liable to come up in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Even though the district as a whole lies on the "wrong" side of the Green Line, its west side is on the "right" side of the separation wall, and it is generally assumed—at least outside the Arab world—that the west-side communities will remain part of Israel in any  agreement. If history is any guide, there is reason to believe that, for the foreseeable future, Gush Etzion will need to be defended by force of arms. And if one can imagine a scenario in which Gush Etzion Jews will once more be uprooted—both Tekoa and Nokdim, on the "wrong" east side, are rumored to be on the chopping block—one may also venture the prediction that, some day, their descendants will return yet again.  

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