An Israeli settler makes his case

Ilan Greenfield speaks to a group of visitors from Central Reform Congregation, including Anna Navarro (left) and Rabbi Susan Talve.

By Richard H. Weiss, Special to the Jewish Light

As a recent visitor to Israel, I found it impossible to find my footing as a well-intentioned Jewish-American. 

If you care about the security of Israelis, the right to feel safe as they carry on their everyday lives… 

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If you care about the plight of the Palestinians…their right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness…

…Well, the two seem irreconcilable given the current circumstances.

So it was at once refreshing, disconcerting and a little frightening to find a man who has found his footing…in a settlement. Even if your own views differ with Ilan Greenfield’s concerning settlements — maybe even 180 degrees — it would be hard for you not to like this man. He is articulate, charming and passionate. His worldview is orderly and logical. And he holds the high ground.

Greenfield lives in Kfar Adumim, a village of 350 families high on a hill in a home that provides a commanding view of both Jerusalem, 12 miles to the east, and the city of Jericho, now under the Palestinian Authority, just a few miles away. 

Greenfield is a publisher by trade and quite successful. His Gefen Publishing House, Ltd. with offices in Jerusalem and Springfield, N.J. publishes some 25 original titles in Israel each year, ranging from biblical commentary to children’s books, from Israeli historical novels to Holocaust memoirs, from multi-language dictionaries to Haggadot. 

He displays no angst when it comes to balancing the Israeli need for security against the rights of Palestinians. None whatsoever. Greenfield believes he has a God-given right to live in Kfar Adumim, though his settlement and others established in the West Bank (or Judea-Samaria as he prefers) are considered by world authorities to be in occupied lands. The Israeli government’s position is that the territories are “disputed,” not occupied.

Many people, of course, also recognize that this land was seized in a war made necessary to keep Israelis safe.  

But the Fourth Geneva Convention bars occupying powers from settling their own populations in occupied land. And the settlements have long been seen by U.S. administrations as an obstacle to a two-state solution that some believe could bring a lasting peace to the region. 

A family’s journey

The debate about settlements has gone on for decades now. Kfar Adumim was established in 1979. The Greenfields, then a family of four, moved there five years later when there were 70 families. Since then the number of families have increased 500 percent. It is the expansion of settlements that is also a growing concern.

When Greenfield and his wife, Caryn, first laid eyes on their new home and found themselves surrounded by a group of thriving families — secular, Reform, Conservative and Orthodox, young and old living harmoniously — well, said, Greenfield, “I thought the messiah had come.” 

To be sure Greenfield’s family had come a long, long way. His father, Murray, was born in the United States and could be considered a post-Holocaust hero. He was a seaman who helped bring thousands of Jews from Europe to Palestine in 1947, facing many obstacles and dangerous passages. His mother is a Shoah survivor. Born in Czechoslovakia, Hana Lustig was sent to camps all over Eastern Europe. She would later publish a book about her experiences. 

After getting established in Israel, Murray Greenfield attracted crucial foreign philanthropy and investment to the young state. Greenfield also worked to rescue Ethiopian Jewry and aided in resettling Russian immigrants.

Beyond his public service, Murray Greenfield built a successful art export business, established Gefen Publishing and raised his three children in an upper-middle class section of Tel Aviv.  All three of his children served in the military and all of Ilan’s four children have as well. “This is what it is like in Israel,” Greenfield said proudly. “If you want everything to work in this country, you have to give of yourself.”

National service has a profound leavening effect on society, he said. “The army gives everyone a common denominator. It makes all of us equal no matter where you came from. In the end, we have all done our share.” 

Though Greenfield owns up to being considered “right wing” in many respects, he takes a more liberal view when it comes to religion. He likes to use a term “reservodox” for the people in his village. If you are Reform, Orthodox or Conservative doesn’t make any difference, he said. “The question is what do you do with it. Are you a mensch?” 


A focus on Jewish identity

It’s clear that as Greenfield stands before his guests from Central Reform Congregation that his main focus is on Israeli society, more than on the Palestinians. He is concerned that Israel is losing its Jewish identity. That focus is in sync with many other Israelis who talk much more about social issues and the economy than making peace with the Palestinians. Our group was there in late July before the uprising in Gaza, which certainly got everyone’s attention. Still the election results earlier in January seem to indicate that the voting turned less on issues of war and peace than internal disputes. 

One of those disputes concerns whether the ultra-Orthodox should be required to be in the military or perform some form of national service. Greenfield says he often picks up hitchhikers. Before allowing them in his car, he asks whether they have served their country. If they hem and haw or say no, “I say goodbye and drive off.” 

In many ways, Greenfield has the Palestinians and the dispute over settlements in his rearview mirror as well. 

For him it was never a question of whether Jews had the right to settle in the West Bank. “You have to read history,” he said. “We have more than 2,000 years of Jews being here all the time. What people can say is other people have rights, but they can’t say that we don’t have rights. 

“This is just one more neighborhood,” he says of Kfar Adumim, “one more town in our homeland.”


The view from Greenfield’s home

Greenfield sees a lot of hypocrisy when it comes to outsiders’ concern for the Palestinians. He said strictures on the lives of Palestinians come because of the violence they perpetrate against Jews or because those who are non-violent don’t rein in the most radical elements.

Greenfield said the world hears only when injuries and fatalities occur, but he says there are many other provocations that create no world outcry. Even when a bombshell causes no physical injuries, Greenfield, says, “the children here cannot sleep at night, they pee in their beds and they have problems the rest of their lives,” he said. “That’s just one bombshell. 

“If that’s what happened in your country, you would go to your president and say, ‘What the hell is wrong with you?  

Bring the tanks in and get them out.’”

Still, Greenfield points out, it’s not as if Jews and Palestinians are constantly at each other’s throats.  “There’s a city down there,” he says pointing from his deck. That’s Jericho. We don’t bother them. We have no problem with them living there. Why should they have problems with us living here?”

I asked Greenfield if he would move if a peace treaty were brokered that meant removing the settlements. “I would put up a fence, barbed wire, concrete barriers,” he said. “In my mind, I would do everything but shoot. I couldn’t see myself shooting an Israeli soldier. We have to abide by our democracy. Our role is to fight in a democratic way.” 

Greenfield and his family are among the founders of a leadership institute for youth. Ein Prat’s mission, according to it’s website, is to bring together Jews of many perspectives to forge and sustain a Jewish identity for generations to come. 

Rabbi Susan Talve asked Greenfield if he could ever see a day when he might bring the people from his institute together with Palestinian leaders to create a brighter future for all of their children. “You will never hear that from me,” he said. “We are not there. Let them take care of their own issues.”

From his deck you can see miles and miles into the desert, into what Greenfield calls the “the land of the Bible.” 

What is hard to find on the horizon is a glimmer of hope that everyone in that land can live together in peace.