Storm of Terror: A Hebron Mother’s Diary, by June Leavitt, Ivan R. Dee
The Settlers (film), by Ruth Walk, First Run/Icarus Films 2002
Welcome to Heavenly Heights, by Risa Miller, St. Martin’s Press
Jewish settlers who make their homes in the territories conquered by Israel in the Six Day War live in the eye of the Palestinian/Israeli storm, yet their own voices are but rarely heard. A new memoir, novel and documentary film have gone far toward filling that silence.
June Leavitt, author of Storm of Terror, is an American Jewish woman who grew up in secular, upper middle class Long Island, left for the University of Wisconsin with a trunk full of new mix n’ match clothes, then found herself floundering into the drug culture. Today she is an ultra-Orthodox mother of five who lives with her husband and children in the Jewish enclave of Kiriat Arba near the West Bank Palestinian city of Hebron.
Storm of Terror is the intensely personal diary of her life during the first year and a half of the new intifada which erupted in October 2000. Passionately convinced of the Jews’ historic right to live in the whole biblical Israel, the author relates the relentless chronology of trauma and death in which neighbors and friends in her tight-knit community have been attacked in fields, cars, busses, and in their own beds.
In Leavitt’s powerful honest narrative she agonizes about watching her own children on the firing line; “[My daughter] said that at school her friends are busy writing their own eulogies…Whoever says they are not frightened is telling a lie.” She reveals herself not only as a determined ideologue but as a complex struggling human being.
As a child of the 60s Leavitt avails herself of yoga, bioenergy healing, meditation and even tarot cards in her quest for equanimity in the midst of horror. Yet she is candidly on the extreme fringe of the Israeli political spectrum, describing with almost Utopian nostalgia the friendships between her children and nearby Arab families before the peace process “put up barbed wire between us and the Arabs.”
Even more extreme are the handful of Jewish families who live in the Tel-Rumeida quarter in the very heart of Hebron. The Settlers, a documentary film directed by Ruth Walk, achieves an intimate portrait of these hard-line zealots seemingly oblivious to the 120,000 Palestinians who surround them. This compelling documentary shot over three years from 1999 into the Intifada makes no editorial comment, but shows how beside each settler Israeli soldiers guard and protect their every step.
Most telling are fervent religious celebrations held on the eerily empty streets of Hebron, when the Arabs are all locked away in their homes by an army curfew imposed so that the Jews may dance in the streets.
Even when bullets penetrate their children’s bedrooms, the mothers are adamant to stay put, viewing themselves as the moral phalanx of the Jewish struggle. On a hilltop they lead their toddlers in reciting the Psalms of David amidst the background rumble of war.
Risa Miller’s picaresque novel Welcome to Heavenly Heights tracks an Orthodox woman who gives up her suburban American life to move with her family to a fictional settlement on the West Bank. Were it not for its political setting, the novel could be an examination of the disorientation met by any uprooted immigrant. But Miller’s heroine has to contend with the paradox of being expected to feel at home in a strange new society where even the ingredients of children’s lunches and the way to mop floors take getting used to. Miller’s eye for Israeli details and sharp character observation weave a wry tale about displacement and belonging.
None of the settlers in these works ever questions the importance of her life choice or the righteousness of her mission, a mission to which she commits both heart and flesh. Neither the books nor the film will change anyone’s assessment of whether to label these driven people as courageous heroes or pernicious villains. But by demystifying settlers, they deepen understanding of the determination and fervor which makes them tick.
Helen Schary Motro an American lawyer and writer living in Israel, is a columnist or the Jerusalem Post.