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September 1, 2015 | 17th Elul 5775

Standing guard

Galilee Diary #440, May 5, 2009

Marc J. Rosenstein

Asher did not dispossess the inhabitants of Acco or the inhabitants of Sidon, Ahlab, Achzib, Helbah, Aphik, and Rehob. So the Asherites dwelt in the midst of the Canaanites, the inhabitants of the land, for they did not dispossess them.
     -Judges 1:31-32

We have been running a series of two-day seminars for participants in pluralistic pre-army preparatory programs ("leadership academies") that have become popular in recent years (a year of intensive study and service between high school and the army). The seminar consists of a day exploring and studying Yodfat, where the Jews fought to the death in the first battle of the great revolt (67 CE), and a day in Zippori, where we signed a surrender agreement before the revolt started. The focus is on understanding the values implicit in these two responses. The two days involve hiking, meetings with archaeologists, text study in situ, simulations, an encounter with an actor representing a character from the period, etc. Seeking a cheap place for groups to camp near Zippori, we found our way to the hilltop outpost of Joel Zilberman, who was happy to give us a place in return for the kids' listening to his story and helping him with shifts of guard duty over night. And it is an interesting story, which I heard along with the kids in the first of our groups to visit, last week:

Joel, a twenty-something who recently finished his army service as an officer in a combat unit, grew up on Moshav Zippori, where his family are farmers, raising cattle on grazing lands they lease in the area. He attended a pre-army preparatory program before the army, and came out imbued with idealism and the desire to "make a difference" in Israeli society, to rebel against the materialistic mainstream. He became drawn into the ongoing struggle of his family and neighbors against rustlers and land-usurpers from the neighboring Arab villages. These local gangs have been a constant nuisance for years, and there was a feeling that the police were either uninterested or incompetent to deal with what had become a serious economic issue. Taking a cue from the history of the area – where the famous land-watchman Alexander Zeid stood against vandals and rustlers in the 20s and 30s – Joel set up a camp on a hilltop and began to let the marauders know that someone was watching, reporting license numbers, taking a stand. He is a charismatic speaker and blends together the rhetoric of old-time Zionism, Jewish philosophy, and social change; soon he had started a movement of volunteers who set up land-watch patrols like his in various hotspots around the country. The kids I was with were happy to sign up for their guard shifts; another group's counselors refused the invitation to stay there, feeling they were participating in a political manipulation.

Indeed, the journalists of the right have given Joel very good press: they see him as the embodiment of good old-fashioned Zionist pride, holding on to the Jewish land for Jewish people, as over against the decadent post-Zionists who seem afraid to take a stand against Arab aggression. Others see him as a vigilante wrapping himself in a patriotic flag. Or maybe he is just a citizen taking responsibility for his own property. It does seem to be true that the police are remarkably uninterested in crimes of property - or maybe they're just underfunded and understaffed; add to this an explicit policy of staying out of Arab villages, even to enforce traffic laws. Thus, it is possible to understand frustration, and a sense of injustice, on the part of the victims of this reality. Is this an Arab-Jewish conflict, or a failure of Israel to maintain the rule of law in a fair manner? Is this new movement vigilantism or an expression of a high ideal of self-sacrifice for justice? Standing there on his windswept hilltop, watching a magnificent sunset over the pastoral lower Galilee, it was hard not to be moved by Joel's commitment and ability to articulate it – but it was also, for me at least, impossible to ignore the whole complex of difficult questions raised by his words and actions.

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