Before we moved to Israel, I’d barely heard about Gush Katif, knew anyone who lived there, or ever visited the place itself. We moved the day of the disengagement in 2005, when all that changed and Gush Katif hit the headlines.
I’ve moved around a lot as a young teenager and young adult, and I still remember from that time just how horrible transient, temporary living is. So when we were still camping out in our new house in Israel, surrounded by boxes, seeing the pictures of people being forcibly removed from their homes really touched a chord.
But it appeared we were in the minority. At that time, where we lived, there was very little sympathy for the people of the Gush. To this day, I don’t know why. Maybe people bought the line they were being spun about the communities in the Gush being an ‘obstacle to peace’. Maybe they believed it was a sacrifice worth making for the greater good. (always easy to say that, of course, when it’s not you doing the sacrificing). But we also detected quite a distressing undercurrent of the Gush evacuees somehow ‘deserving’ what they were getting.
Six months after the disengagement, I signed up for a ‘tour’ round the main communities, mostly to satisfy my own curiosity and also to see with my own eyes what had happened to these ‘messianic fanatics’ and ‘rabid settlers’.
I was shocked by what I saw. In March 2006, people were still living in hotel rooms or the guest wing of kibbutzes, with 4, 5 and 6 kids crammed into one room; some had moved into their ‘caravillas’ in Nitzan, and discovered that most of their belongings had melted or broken in the packing crates that had been sitting in the scorching desert sun in the Negev.
Other ‘camps’, like the self-named ‘Ir haEmuna’ were almost too shocking to describe. The living conditions were absolutely terrible; tiny, decrepit trailers with large families somehow managing to keep their dignity, community and faith alive, against all the odds. Meanwhile, the people of Elei Sinai had spent the cold, wet, Israeli winter living in tents by the side of a motorway.
I came back and tried to tell a few people about it. Most people weren’t interested – and some were so dismissive of the gush katif people’s plight that once again, I was enormously shocked and discomforted.
Why so dismissive of other people’s suffering? Why the cruelty? Why the attitude that almost nothing was too bad for the former settlers of Gush Katif. I couldn’t work it out. To be honest, I still can’t, particularly when most of the people expressing these sentiments pride themselves on being observant jews.
In the year that passed since, I have struck up a relationship with some of the families formerly from the Gush. I have gone to visit them on a regular, if not frequent, basis, and seen them struggle to once again, keep their dignity, community and faith alive, when most people would have been crushed by everything that has happened – or failed to happen – a long time ago.
We are fortunate enough to be quite close to Rabbi Lazer Brody (www.lazerbeams.net), so when Rabbi Brody went to talk at the Ein Tsurim community centre a few nights ago, accompanied by a group of musicians, we went along to cheer him on.
If you’ve listened to any of Rabbi Brody’s CDs, or visited his website, you’ll know that Rabbi Brody’s main thing is to always emphasise the positive, stay hopeful and do a lot of praying that Hashem will turn bad situations around for us.
As he himself says, it’s not always easy to get people to ‘hear’ that message when they live in gorgeous homes, have gorgeous families, and nice jobs.
But the crowd in Ein Tsurim were potentially a particularly tough sell, because this is a bunch of people who have lost everything; who have very little hope left – and who have already prayed their hearts out.
The clip here will give you an idea of what I’m on about:– it’s from just before the hitnakut, and it really made me cry.
Nevertheless, around 40 people turned out to hear Rabbi Brody speak. They were mostly the older crowd; the people who had successful businesses, but who are now officially classified as being ‘too old’ to find work – so the government isn’t counting them in the unemployment stats for Gush Katif, and they long since ceased being eligible for unemployment payments.
In my previous visits to ein tsurim, I hadn’t realised how many Sephardim there were there, but there was a real mix of people from Tunisia, Morocco, France – and of course, a few from the States and even one woman from the UK that made aliya 36 years ago.
On the wall, there was a picture by someone called something ‘Fhima’ that caught my eye, as that’s my maiden name. The lady next to me explained that this man had moved to Israel from marakech, morocco (so he probably is a relative…) and had lost his wife 4 years ago in the Gush, and is now raising his kids alone.
There are lots of stories like that; stories of quiet loss and dignity in suffering – and gratitude to Hashem despite it all. Really uplifting stories.
The Rav spoke from around 8.30 to about 11 – which is an amazingly long time to hold anyone’s attention, particularly on a week night – but he had a rapt audience.
Can you imagine telling people who don’t have anything to look forward to that it’s a ‘mitvah gedola’ to be happy always? Or that the crowd would respond positively to this message and really take it to heart?
It’s a testament to just how extraordinary the people of Gush Katif are that this is exactly what happened. They ‘heard’ the message that so many of us, with so much more to be grateful for, simply don’t, can’t or won’t.
These are not ‘rabid settlers’; they are not ‘messianic fanatics’, or any of the other names that the Israeli press in particular loves to sling at them.
I’ve spent a lot of time with them now, and they are amongst the best, most sincere jews I have ever met in my life. To go through so many challenges, to have so many other jews ignore their plight, mock them or actively hate them – and to still be able to get up and sing about loving the Jewish people and G-d, and clinging on to their emuna – that is something else.
We’re trying to raise £10k for the community in Ein Tsurim, to help them to pay for small things like a few communal activities, including purim parties, the Rav’s talk and other things that while they don’t sound very important, are actually the ‘glue’ that is continuing to stick that community together.
To date, with G-d’s help and the generosity of some very special people, we’ve managed to raise: £1,368.
I know everyone has a lot of expenses; I know there is a lot going on etc etc.
But it’s not really about the sums of money, it’s more about sending a message that other Jews care what happens to them. If you can help even by giving a tenner, the koach it would give to this community would be enormous.
If you can’t give money at the mo, then feel free to write a message of support in the comments section, and I’ll make sure to pass it on to them. Even better, if you are in Israel over Pesach go and visit them for yourselves, and see with your own eyes that they are kind, lovely people, and they deserve to be treated so much better than they are being.
I know from past experience that the expellees are not a popular subject with many people. But Gush Katif stopped being about politics a long time ago. Now it’s about people who are suffering, and whether we as Jews are going to sit on one side and ignore it, or actually make even a tiny effort to let them know that we are thinking about them and want to try to help.
To help Ein Tsurim:
In Israel, you can send a cheque directly to:
Keran Yochanan (the name of the charity)
C/O Anita Tucker
D.N. Ein tzurim
In the US, you can make a donation to the Central Fund for Israel, and just mark it to go to Ein Tsurim.
Central Fund for Israel
980 Sixth Ave.
New York, N.Y. 10018
Please clearly mark the cheque as going to Ein Tsurim, as the fund services a lot of different charities