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Through Settlers’ Eyes

For many, it is all about affordable housing – not religious zeal

Two years ago, Gedalia and Yocheved Meyer decided to move. With their seven children, they were living in Telshe Stone, a fervently Orthodox Jewish community a few miles west of Jerusalem. They loved how the neighborhood celebrated the Sabbath and the support its tight-knit residents gave to new mothers and others in need. But the community was a bit too religious for their liking. Everyone dressed and spoke alike, they complained. And the community was too involved in what was taught – and what was not taught – in the local schools.

“We were seeking a place with more open social attitudes,” said Mr. Meyer, an Orthodox rabbi who is writing a series of books on spirituality. “At the same time, we wanted a place where we could be religious.”

The Meyers were drawn to Jerusalem’s aura of holiness and ethereal beauty. But houses were exorbitantly expensive, both in the city itself and the suburbs that extended westward toward Tel Aviv. In the end, the couple decided to make what they called “a leap of faith,” given the political uncertainty that hovers over the region. Rather than stay inside the Green Line, the internationally recognized borders of Israel prior to the 1967 war, they moved to the West Bank, to Ma’ale Adumim, a settlement about five miles east of Jerusalem’s municipal border.

“Affordability was definitely an important factor,” said Rabbi Meyer as he gave a tour of his spacious but modestly furnished 2,750-square-foot home. His front yard boasts a fish pond, while a rear terrace provides a sweeping view of the reddish brown Judean hills that give Ma’ale Adumim (“reddish hues”) its name.

“We were also drawn to the mixed religious and ethnic community where everybody gets along,” added Mrs. Meyer, a technical writer.

“Being in Judea and Samaria is a fringe benefit,” Rabbi Meyer continued, using the biblical terms for the area more commonly known as the West Bank. “Look, I’m not a political extremist, but I believe Jews should be able to live anywhere in the world, including all of the land of Israel.”

“What we were really looking for was quality of life,” Mrs. Meyer said. “We’re very happy here.”

On a clear day in Ma’ale Adumim you can see the mountains beyond the Jordan River. The settlement lies along the ancient route from Jerusalem to the Jordan Valley, and the ground on which it is built is mentioned in the Book of Joshua as belonging to the tribes of Judah and Benjamin, Jacob’s sons.

Ma’ale Adumim was established by 23 Israeli families in 1975 and was recognized by the Israeli government two years later by Prime Minister Menachem Begin.

Though built outside the Green Line, it is not included among the settlements that any subsequent Israeli government has ever publicly considered dismantling. Many Israelis believe the settlement, and others, are vital for the country’s defenses, part of the buffer zone that Israel built up after the 1967 war with Egypt, Jordan and Syria.

“We are the gate to Jerusalem from the Dead Sea and Jordan Valley,” said Benny Kashriel, the settlement’s mayor, who has pushed the settlement’s expansion during his three successive terms in office. “If we weren’t here, the Palestinians would string their villages together all the way to Jerusalem.”

Meanwhile, Palestinian advocates insist that international law requires that the settlement, like others in the West Bank, be dismantled. And they dismiss Israeli security concerns as unjustified, given Israel’s undisputed military preeminence in the region.

Today, 32,000 Israelis live in Ma’ale Adumim. Most of them work in Jerusalem, a 20-minute commute. And like the Meyers, most of them were drawn to the relatively inexpensive housing. In Ma’ale Adumim, thanks to generous government subsidies, a three-bedroom apartment costs about $150,000, while in Jerusalem it can cost more than twice as much.

The settlement boasts two shopping malls, hospitals, swimming pools and tennis courts as well as a $2 million Peace Library. There are also 100 companies and small factories in an industrial zone inside Ma’ale Adumim. There used to be a Burger King, until an international boycott forced the multinational company to withdraw its branches from settlements in the Occupied Territories. A local burger shop replaced it.

The air is clean, the schools are among the country’s best and the crime rate is low. “This city is so quiet that it has only one traffic light,” said Jacob Richman, a soft-spoken internet consultant who runs the city’s unofficial web site. Like the Meyers, Mr. Richman said he “wasn’t specifically looking to live in a settlement” when he moved to Ma’ale Adumim 16 years ago. “I was looking for affordable housing very close to Jerusalem with a lot of green spaces.” What has kept him here, a bachelor surrounded by families, is the community spirit, he said.

He enjoys the Purim parades when children and some adults dress up in costumes to celebrate the holiday commemorating an ancient Jewish victory. “We [also] had a snow day where they imported snow from Mount Hermon,” part of the Golan Heights that Israel won from Syria and continues to occupy. “People move here, like it and tell other people,” Mr. Richman said. “They find it an attractive place to live.”

Mayor Kashriel said he is most proud of the “harmony” among the diverse mix of residents in Ma’ale Adumim. About 40 percent consider themselves Orthodox or fully observant. The remaining 60 percent either consider themselves secular or attend synagogue but also drive on the Shabbat (Sabbath). Most of the residents are Sephardic Jews, who trace their origins to Arab countries. The Ashkenazic Jews, who hail from Eastern Europe, are a minority. Unlike other such communities, there is no “turf fighting” in Ma’ale Adumim, the mayor said.

“Most of our residents are religious and political moderates,” Mayor Kashriel continued. “Most are young couples not long out of the army, living on a low income and looking for low taxes and good facilities.” Most voted Likud in the last election, but are not “fanatic right wing,” he added. “Twenty-five percent voted for Meretz or Labor, left-of-center parties. We’re not a place for extremists.”

Barring a peace agreement with the Palestinians, Ma’ale Adumim’s future will remain uncertain, its residents admit. “We do have concerns that Ma’ale Adumim could be uprooted, but we try not to think about it,” Mrs. Meyer said.

Many residents take comfort that the settlement will lie on the Israeli side of the country’s new and expanding security wall, which, though it diverges from the internationally accepted border, may someday divide Israel from a future Palestinian state.

For years, Mayor Kashriel and other supporters of an expansionist Israel have sought to implement the controversial E1 building plan. The plan, which won government approval under Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, calls for the creation of 3,500 housing units on 3,250 acres of land that abut Ma’ale Adumim. The construction would link Ma’ale Adumim to Jerusalem, making it all but impossible for the Palestinians to annex East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state, since it would be cut off from other Palestinian territories. Thanks to United States pressure, development has been put on hold for more than 10 years. But now work is being done on a main road linking the area to the Jerusalem-Jericho highway. A police station is also being built.

Mayor Kashriel believes E1 is essential to Ma’ale Adumim’s security and is “vital to Israel.”

“E1 sits above the road to Jerusalem,” he said. “During the second intifada, Palestinians shot and killed a priest driving in a car. They thought, because of his black clothes, that he was an Orthodox Jew. The Palestinians have a lot of guns. They will make our lives miserable.”

Others believe that the implementation of E1 will not make Israelis safer, but rather make a peace agreement with Palestinians more unlikely and further endanger Israelis.

Along with the security wall, E1 would effectively divide the West Bank in half, said Amos Gil the Israeli director of Ir Amim, an Israeli-Palestinian organization that opposes the E1 plan. “This means that a contiguous Palestinian state will not be able to exist alongside Israel,” he said. “If these projects are completed, even moderate Palestinians will be unwilling to sign a peace agreement with Israel. What would they gain from it?”

It was natural after Israel pulled out of Gaza last summer, abandoning settlements, that the residents of Ma’ale Adumim gave more thought to their future than at any time before.

“Settlements will be uprooted,” said Amir Cheshin, a secular, sixth-generation Jerusalemite who moved to Ma’ale Adumim 24 years ago. “Let’s be honest. There will be a price for peace.” But Mr. Cheshin said Israel should not withdraw unilaterally, as it did in Gaza. “You cannot make peace without talking. Any pullout should be done within the framework of peace with our neighbors.”

Mr. Chesin, a 61-year-old retired army officer, said he would never physically resist a pullout order, as some Israeli settlers have threatened. But he would want adequate compensation.

Others in Ma’ale Adumim draw different lessons from the Gaza withdrawal.

Had the Gaza settlers “not created so many little mini-utopia settlements, and instead built a settlement bloc [like Ma’ale Adumim], they might still be here today,” said Shelly Levine, a 20-year resident and local real estate manager. “I’m not concerned at all,” she said. “You can’t move this number of people.”

Mrs. Levine was driving past the neighborhood, called Zero-Seven, she helped develop, a mix of high-rises and apartment complexes. “I don’t think any Israeli really thinks of Ma’ale Adumim as a settlement,” she said.

Of course, whether or not they were just looking for a good deal, the residents of Ma’ale Adumim are nonetheless part of a larger religious, political and cultural puzzle that has yet to be solved. But meanwhile, life goes on.

Rabbi Meyer works on his book. Mrs. Levine plans her next deal. And Ayela Hevroni, a 38-year-old mother of three, watches her toddler run around a Ma’ale Adumim playground, the likes of which cannot be found in Jerusalem. “We came for the children,” she said, declining to venture whether her children would be able to live here through adulthood. “For the children, this is Gan Eden,” she said – the Garden of Eden.

Jerusalem-based journalist Michele Chabin has written for USA TODAY, National Catholic Register, Jewish Journal and ONE. Kevin Unger is a freelance photographer based in Jerusalem.

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