The View from the Gush

Gush Etzion is an area that is home to a number of Jewish settlements and is replete with historical significance. In addition to its two large cities, Beitar Illit and Efrat, there are many other communities – including the chareidi settlements of Maaleh Amos and Meitzad – that are under the jurisdiction of the Gush Etzion Regional Council. That council is headed today by Shlomo Ne’eman, who won a surprising victory in the recent elections. This week, following the murder of Rabbi Raziel Shevach Hy”d in the Shomron, I asked Ne’eman for his view on the situation. His answer was unequivocal: “We must fight terror in every possible way – politically, economically, and militarily, just as America did after the attack on the Twin Towers, and as Putin did when a Russian plane was downed.” He also shared his dream of building a chareidi city in Gush Etzion.

Shlomo Ne’eman is the head of the Gush Etzion Regional Council. He is an affable, pleasant, and highly refined individual. In the Knesset, he spent many years at the side of Minister Ze’ev Elkin, whom he served as a devoted aide; the two were always together. What is interesting about Ne’eman is that he associates with the secular Likud party, yet his views and ideology would make him feel at home in the most religious sector of the Bayit Yehudi party – or even, according to some, in Agudas Yisroel.

In the most recent elections for the office of head of the Gush Etzion Regional Council, Ne’eman decided to run, despite the odds against him. Naturally, he received the blessing of his longtime boss, Ze’ev Elkin, but he quickly demonstrated that he had become a “big boy” in his own right. He received the approval of the gedolim and befriended the leaders of Maaleh Amos and Meitzad, the chareidi settlements in Gush Etzion, and he won the election. His deputy is Yoel Silver of Maaleh Amos.

Gush Etzion is considered part of the “territories,” but it is not located in the same area as other settlements. While other settlements are accessed via Kfar Saba, Ariel, and Emanuel, Gush Etzion is located near Kever Rochel, the Tunnels Road, and Beitar Illit. That doesn’t mean, though, that it feels safer, or that the area is any less prone to violence.

Gush Etzion includes a group of Jewish settlements south of Yerushalayim, between Bais Lechem and Chevron. The Gush has been a region of great significance in the country’s history, and the heroism of its residents occupies a place of prominence in Israel’s history books. Today, the settlements of the Gush have a combined population of about 70,000 residents. The large cities of Gush Etzion – Efrat and Beitar Illit – are independent municipalities and are not under the auspices of the regional council. The more well-known settlements in the area are Maaleh Rechavam, Karmei Tzur, Emek Ha’Elah, Alon Shvut, Har Etzion, Neve Daniel, and Tekoa.

The area under the council’s jurisdiction is bordered in the north by Yerushalayim and the Binyamin Regional Council and in the south by the city of Chevron, Kiryat Arba, and the Har Chevron Regional Council. On the west, it extends to the Judean Mountains, Emek Ha’Elah, and the Mateh Yehuda Regional Council, and it is bordered on the east by Nachal Tekoa and the Judean Desert. The area under the council’s jurisdiction spans about 69,000 dunams. According to the official statistics of the State of Israel, the annual growth of Gush Etzion is greater than the average for the rest of the country.

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Following the terrorist murder of Rabbi 1Raziel Shevach Hy”d, I spoke to Shlomo Ne’eman to solicit his take on the episode. Rabbi Shevach was murdered on the road leading to his home community of Chavat Gilad, and I asked Ne’eman if he could identify the location.

“It is in the Shomron,” he replied.

Is it anywhere near Beitar Illit?

“Not at all,” Ne’eman said. “If you are traveling by car, you would drive toward the city of Shechem. The place where Raziel Shevach was murdered, as far as I am concerned, is in the very heart of the country.”

Where is Karmei Tzur, the settlement where you live?

“It is near Chevron. I live further away.”

Did you know Raziel Shevach personally?

“I didn’t know him on a personal level. I had met him and spoken to him, but we weren’t acquainted beyond that.”

Are the Jews of Gush Etzion living in danger?

“I wouldn’t define it in that way. I would say that the lives of Jews everywhere in the world will always be in danger, as long as there are people in the world who are seeking to murder any Jews they can find. As long as those people continue to exist, then I would feel that the lives of all Jews are in danger. It would not be correct to say that the danger exists only for us, the Jews who live in the settlements of Gush Etzion. In fact, the opposite may be true, since we are prepared for the dangers. Our settlements may be more carefully guarded and secured than any other place in the world. We walk around with our own weapons. It may be true, though, that the roads are more dangerous; that is very problematic. But I would not define the situation by saying that we are in danger. We live here, and we are proud to travel these roads and to live in this land.”

Have you ever been in a situation of personal danger?

“Possibly. I may never know what the Arabs were plotting.”

But you never saw the danger?

“I have seen it. They have thrown stones at my car, and even a Molotov cocktail.”

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Shlomo Ne’eman was born in Communist Russia and raised in an environment where Yiddishkeit was virtually unknown. He discovered his Jewishness only at the age of 13, an experience that he considers miraculous. He lived a clandestine Jewish life until he was 17, when he immigrated to Israel. Since that time, he has committed himself to working for the benefit of the Jewish people. “I decided to do what a Jew needs to do,” he said simply. He was very active in kiruv within his own sector, and he participated in founding several dati leumi organizations and schools.

Ne’eman once said, “The path to light passes through this country. The road to a Jewish person’s self goes through this land. It is impossible to understand, to connect, or to do anything significantly Jewish in the Diaspora without a connection to this country. The Jewish people has experienced its rebirth in this country, in this generation – and that means that we have work to do.” That, in essence, is his general philosophy on life.

You grew up in Russia?

“Yes. I grew up in Birobidzhan, which was part of the autonomous Jewish region of the Soviet Union.”

You were born into a religious family?

“No. Not at all.”

Yet today you are a ben Torah.

“True. That is truly a miracle. I wanted to live as a Jew, and gradually, step by step, I progressed in that direction. Ultimately, I went to yeshiva and was fortunate enough to become acquainted with Yiddishkeit. I was drawn further and further into it, and today I feel very fortunate.”

Which yeshiva was that?

“Yeshivas Har Etzion.”

That yeshiva is in the Gush, in Eretz Yisroel.

“Of course! There was nothing for me in Russia. Any Jewish activities were part of an underground.”

You came to Eretz Yisroel at the age of 17. How did you become involved in politics?

“I don’t consider myself to be involved in politics. I am serving the Jewish people. I always dreamed of serving the Jewish people. Most of my years in the world of chinuch revolved around that outlook. Being mekareiv the Jews of the Soviet Union was part of my goal of serving the klal. Even today, in my capacity as the mayor of the Gush Etzion Regional Council, I consider myself to be serving the public.”

I remember that you worked closely with Ze’ev Elkin for many years.

“That is correct. I met him even before I came to Eretz Yisroel. We have known each other for 27 years. I feel that he is a dedicated Jew, and a yorei Shomayim in a deep sense. We have a lot in common. He, too, considers himself a servant of the Jewish people.”

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Since the year 2000, Ne’eman has served in a variety of public and educational positions. He was a shliach of the Jewish Agency, and he rose in the ranks within the agency until he became the director of its formal Jewish educational system and its division for Jewish education in the former Soviet Union. And, of course, he worked for many years as the closest aide and senior advisor to Ze’ev Elkin, who served as a member of the Knesset and the chairman of the coalition, and who has served as a cabinet minister both in the current government and in the previous cabinet.

On February 14, 2017, Shlomo Ne’eman was elected to serve as the head of the Gush Etzion Regional Council. The previous mayor of the council had resigned, and elections were held to select his replacement. When Ne’eman announced his candidacy, it seemed peculiar. When he was elected, it came as a great surprise. Characteristically, he had worked quietly to amass support. As part of his election campaign, he developed connections with the two chareidi communities in the Gush, Maaleh Amos and Meitzad.

Maaleh Amos is considered a chareidi settlement. One of the founders of the settlement was Rav Uri Zohar, who was concerned about the future of baal teshuvah families. One of the earliest residents of the community was a yungerman by the name of Aryeh Deri. The rov of the settlement was Rav Hillel Zaks zt”l. That took place in 1981. The very first nucleus of the community consisted of families from the yeshivos of Shvut Ami and Aish HaTorah. Today, Maaleh Amos is a completely chareidi community.

The settlement of Meitzad was founded in 1984 by families from the Diaspora, mostly from America. The residents of the town are bnei Torah, and the town includes a Talmud Torah and a Bais Yaakov school. Some of the local children attend schools in Maaleh Amos or in Beitar Illit. The settlement is known as the home of Yeshivas Nachalas Yair, a yeshiva for bochurim who have experienced difficulties in ordinary learning frameworks. The yeshiva operates under the aegis of Rav Yitzchok Lupoliansky and has been highly successful.

You were supported by the chareidim in the election.

“That is correct. The chareidi population of Gush Etzion offered me a lot of support.”

I heard that you are trying to repay them by building a chareidi city in the Gush. Are you encouraging chareidim to settle in Gush Etzion?

“Absolutely. I do want to build a chareidi city. We have two chareidi settlements: Maaleh Amos and Meitzad. They are small settlements, but they have the same amount of land as the city of Beitar Illit. I would like to build another city on the same scale as Beitar Illit, or perhaps even larger. I think that it is very important for Jews who serve Hashem to settle here and develop the land. In my opinion, that is something that should be at the top of the priorities of the chareidi public in their quest for housing. We have an advantage that others do not have: We can build a city from scratch. When a new city is built, we can take into account the needs of the chareidi public at the earliest stages of construction. When you begin with a blank slate, there are things that you can create that are not possible in the neighborhoods of Bnei Brak or Yerushalayim. You can also decide from the outset on the character of the city, which will avoid the types of struggles that are constantly taking place in a city such as Beit Shemesh. My goal is to create a city like Beitar Illit or Modiin Illit, which were built for the purpose of serving the chareidi community. I feel that the chareidi public – which is a strong, solid, and talented sector of the populace – can contribute significantly to us, and we can benefit them as well.”

You are speaking with great enthusiasm about building a city, but isn’t it true that there is a building freeze in all the settlements?

“We will build,” Ne’eman asserted. “Since Trump was elected, there have been many new building permits. Our government is a right-wing government, and they want to build. The obstacle to growth, unfortunately, was the previous American government, but I think that we will now be able to build. With your permission, I would like to add a thought to my call to the chareidi public to join us in the Gush. I have discovered something about the chareidi community: When they decide to do something, they succeed. They do not give up. And the community has a rapid rate of growth.”

You are speaking like a visionary, but there is no construction taking place right now!

“Nevertheless, I repeat: We will build. There is no doubt that the current president will interfere much less than Obama did. It may take time, but we will build. It is impossible to stop a nation that has returned to its land. We are here, and it is a decree from Shomayim for us to be here. Anyone who tries to prevent construction in Eretz Yisroel will suffer as a result; that is what happened to Obama and his cohorts. The current regime will have to decide if it wants to interfere with us and to suffer harm, or to help us. But even if they choose to interfere, they will not succeed in stopping us. They will not succeed in preventing us from building homes and communities. Hashem has already decided to return us to Eretz Yisroel, and anyone who tries to prevent that will be harmed.”

Do you believe that Chavat Gilad will be approved as a legal outpost in the aftermath of the murder?

“I have no doubt that efforts will be made to legalize it, on a level that has not been attempted before. You called me a visionary; I am glad that you didn’t say that I am a dreamer. I don’t know what will happen; I am not a novi, but it is clear that there is a great desire to legalize Chavat Gilad today, and that the efforts are being made. The community is located on privately owned land that was purchased by a Jew for its full price. That Jew was Moshe Zar. The community is named for his son, Gilad, who was murdered there. And this week we suffered the loss of another victim, Rabbi Shevach Hy”d. Apparently, it wasn’t enough that Jews had to pay money for the land; they also had to pay a price in blood.”

Is there no way to put an end to Arab terror?

“It is possible, but the government has to make the decision to do it. There is a difference between maintaining a conflict and defeating the enemy. For the time being, the government has merely been engaged in a conflict, but that approach must be changed.”

Do you have a grievance against Netanyahu for this approach?

“I don’t know if I would call it a grievance, but I feel the same way about the Knesset, the cabinet, and all the decision makers in this country. They must change their attitude and their approach. It is time to decide that we must defeat the enemy.”

How?

“Through every possible means – militarily, economically, and politically.”

Through war? By bombing them and killing them?

“We are not murderers. If you kill an enemy who is attacking you, it doesn’t make you a murderer. That is a very important distinction. We kill, but they murder. We must defeat and subdue them; we must cause them not to want to kill Jews.”

How can we do that?

“We have to make sure that it will not be worthwhile for them. In the current situation, when Raziel’s murderer is captured, he will receive a salary for the rest of his life for killing a Jew.”

Then should we put him to death?

“If it is possible, then that is certainly what should be done. He should be killed, instead of being placed in a hotel that is disguised as a prison. If he does go to prison, then he should be made to suffer there. He should suffer for the fact that he took a life. And his family should suffer as well. Their home should be destroyed, and they should be deported. They should be made to suffer for the fact that their son killed a Jew. After all, this is not a random act of a person who temporarily gave in to a violent urge. This was a premeditated at of murder committed by a terrorist who grew up in an atmosphere that encourages murder. He came from a home, a village, and a family where he was raised to murder Jews. That is a phenomenon that must be stopped.”

Shouldn’t we be concerned about what the world will say?

“The world will understand us. When the Twin Towers were destroyed in Manhattan, the Americans fought back against the terrorists without concern for how the world would react. When one of Putin’s planes was downed, he opened fire without taking even a moment to consider the impact. Do not be afraid of that. It is simply that we are too concerned about what the world will think.”