This article appeared in a slightly different form in the August 2005 issue of Moment Magazine.
We are on our way from Jerusalem to Netzer Chazani, a Jewish settlement in the Gaza Strip, to meet Roz and Paul Schneid at their farm. They have lived there, growing flowers, lettuce and tomatoes in sand in huge hot-houses for the last 27 years. If the Israeli government’s Disengagement Plan goes through, as most Israelis believe it will, the Schneids are set to be deported, forcibly if necessary, in August, 2005. We want to know what they are planning to do, and how they feel about the radical political changes that are sweeping over the country like tidal waves. I am the first journalist Roz and Paul have agreed to speak to since a very traumatic experience they had with Thomas Friedman of the New York Times several years back, when he interviewed them and later wrote what they felt was a very distorted and negative piece in which he compared their home to a “castle” amid the poverty-stricken Arabs of Gaza. I look around at the very modest little house, the kind the Jewish Agency built for new immigrants thirty years ago, and ask:
“When did you move out of the castle?” They laugh.
We have known each other for over thirty years, having met in the spanking Jewish Agency apartment blocks that sprouted like mushrooms in the hills of Jerusalem during the years following the Six Day War. Like us, the Schneids were newly married American immigrants, religious Jews who had been raised to view Israel as their rightful home, the place where their religion and culture and history could finds its most authentic expression.
Roz, 58, was born and raised in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Her mother, a professor of business education in Southeastern Massachusetts University, and her father , a high-school guidance counselor, sent her to public schools and Zionist youth groups like Young Judea. Roz, who graduated from Barnard with a degree in Latin, says she picked her major by simply going down the alphabetical listing and choosing the least objectionable subject (“A, archeology, no. B, botany, no “When I got up to “L” I said ooh, that sounds nice. Which is the way I make most of my decisions,” she laughs wryly). What she really wanted didn’t require an academic education: “When I was nine I saw a movie in Young Judea which had a kibbutznik with a hoe in one hand and a pail in the other, wearing short shorts and walking through the fields. That was me.”
Paul, 60, was born in Manhattan, part of a large Rabbinical family on his mother’s side. His father, an accountant, was still mobilized at the time and was working as a paymaster for German prisoners of war, who went on strike to protest having to receive their pay from a Jew.” The general said: Fine.
Either take the money from Schneid, or don’t take it at all.” He attended modern Orthodox Day Schools like the Yeshiva of Flatbush and the Hebrew Institute of Long Island, crossing over to a more conservative all-male yeshiva for high school. He graduated Yeshiva University with two Masters Degrees, one in math and one in Jewish History. He also became an ordained Orthodox Rabbi. When Paul was still in college, his parents decided to leave America with his two sisters and settle in Israel. “Barry Goldwater was nominated for the Republican Party. My parents decided that was it. They moved to Israel without ever having been there.” Paul made plans to join his family there when he graduated college.
The couple’s first meeting in 1966 was inauspicious. Volunteers at the Jewish Theological Seminary following the fire that damaged hundreds of rare volumes, they sat together for hours one Friday separating the soaked pages of Maimonidies. When Paul announced that he had to get home in time for the Sabbath, Roz, who was not yet observant, glared at him. What was more important? she demanded. Saving this rare book, or keeping the Sabbath? They left separately, hoping dearly never to run into each other again. As fate would have it that hope wasn’t answered. Barely a year later, Paul was hired to replace Roz as head of the waterfront in Camp Yavneh. When Roz’s plans to visit Israel fizzled because of the Six Day War, she asked for her old job back. Instead, she was hired as Paul’s assistant. Luckily, they didn’t remember each other and wound up falling in love. They were married in Israel in 1968, giving Roz’s family their first trip there.
They returned to America, but soon made plans to leave permanently. Roz was 22 and Paul was 24. Eventually, they landed in Jerusalem, as did we. I remember those days, after the Six Day War. The raw neighborhoods full of building materials and the smell of new paint. The rides to Arab villages to buy fruits and vegetables and household items for bargain prices.
The friendly interchanges with Arab workers, who we gave boxes of American candies and who graciously reciprocated with huge bunches of grapes from their home orchards. We were all so young. We landed on the soil of the Middle East with our heads full of ideals and preconceived notions about Zionism, building the land, sacrificing ourselves to see a Jewish country grow that would be large and strong enough to gather in its arms any Jew anywhere threatened with hatred or violence. Never again would there be a St.Louis bobbing the seas full of helpless victims who could find no safe harbor willing to take them in.
Like the rest of us Western immigrants, the Schneids soon found white-collar jobs:Roz taught English (which she says she hated) and Paul found work as one of the editors of the Encyclopedia Judaica, later becoming the head of Keter Publishing House’s Judaica department. Their lives soon fell into a busy routine. But something was missing. “We were living life by rote,” Paul remembers. Roz, especially, needed more to feed her restless pioneering spirit.
At first they didn’t want to go too far afield from Jerusalem; didn’t want to get their hands dirty.
They joined a communal settlement named Moshav Elazar in Gush Etzion founded by other American immigrants who were trying to develop industries based on computer technology. But that soon fell apart: “The problem was everybody had a degree. Everybody knew everything,” Paul remembers. But they took something important away from that failed experience, the fact that they had managed to cultivate the Moshav’s most beautiful garden. “So we thought, maybe there’s something there,” Roz remembers.
They looked north, to Israel’s beautiful, green Galilee. “But when we went to the Jewish Agency, they told us: ‘Don’t go there! All the settlements in the Galilee are failing.’ So instead, they looked South. Their friends Anita and Steve Tucker were already living in Netzer Chazani, one of the first ten families sent by the Jewish Agency to settle what at the time Israel considered strategically vital Jewish outposts in the Gaza Strip known as Gush Katif, annexed by Israel when Egypt lost the Six Day War. The land was no prize. Acres and acres of sandy, infertile soil with no infrastructure.
“Anita was trying very hard to start a school there, because her kids were traveling really long distances every morning. But they needed twenty-one kids to get the funding. So they asked us to register our four to help them out.” Even though they were all pre-schoolers, Roz registered them all, including the one she was still pregnant with. “But then, on the way home, we thought: “This is really not very honest. If we’ve registered our children here, we should live here. So, we thought: Why not? It was as good as anywhere else. We ‘ll live there until it’s not good anymore.”
“That was twenty-seven years ago,” Paul says. “We were given two dunams of land and a little three bedroom house.” They were the twenty-second family in the entire area. Everything was covered with sand. In fact, on their first visit, their car got stuck in a dune. The Jewish Agency hired an expert in experimental hot-house farming, an immigrant from New Zealand, to teach them what to do with their land. “He didn’t speak a word of Hebrew, so he taught me all he knew, and I translated it into Hebrew and taught the others. An d this is how I became the big expert on growing tomatoes,” Paul laughs. In time, Paul even volunteered to teach the Palestinians in Gaza the same farming methods. They repaid him by stealing his equipment.
It was a good life, despite the fact that they rose at seven and went to bed at two or three in the morning, “In publishing, you are always on some cut-throat deadline. Everybody is always yelling. Here, all I have to do is argue with plants. And they don’t argue back.”
Roz admits she loves it. “It’s what I always wanted to do,” she says. It hurts her that she doesn’t have energy for a home garden.
“We’re getting older ,”Paul admits. He looks tired.
The disengagement has come at a particularly inopportune time for Paul Schneid. This past February, he was diagnosed with colon cancer.
He has already endured one operation, chemotherapy and radiation to reduce his tumor. He had more surgery in June, and then five months of chemotherapy. Earlier this year, he had a hip replacement. He doesn’t look like a farmer, with his medium build and Rabbinical beard. His friendly blue eyes that light up when something amuses or angers him, are bloodshot.
Economically, farming has had its ups and downs. “We once picked 35,000 flowers in one day and got such a low price, we would have made more money if we hadn’t grown them at all,” he remembers. “The flowers were terrible,” Roz agrees.
“Every year, the biggest crop was always ready just as I was doing my Passover cleaning. And every year, we almost got divorced over it! But then there was the year that one week’s worth of cherry tomatoes, some six tons, just happened to come to market at the highest prices, making them a windfall equal to two years profit.
Paul was one of the first to grow organic cherry tomatoes and strawberries in Israel. And all of Gush Katif is known for its bug-free greens, especially prized by Orthodox Jews who otherwise need to carefully hand-check every leaf. Europe, which used to be the main market for Israel’s agricultural exports, recently considered laws heavily taxing produce grown in Jewish settlements. Before that, there was an unofficial boycott. Paul, who was once in charge of planning all organic hot-house growing in Israel for Agrexco, Israel’s produce exporting union, has long stopped growing for export to Europe. “I don’t want to deal with them, “he says, without rancor. When I compare farming to gambling in Las Vegas, Paul shakes his head. “In farming, at least God is involved. You put the seed in the ground. He decides what will come of it.”
I look around me. It’s a small, welcoming house, nothing at all like the luxurious one-family Mediterranean villas that have been sprouting up all over Israel for the last decade. The furniture is lived-in and comfortable, a few chairs, a couch, a coffee table.
The sign on their front door is chipped, and the door itself could use a coat of varnish. The Schneids, it is clear, have not spent their lives making money, but spending it modestly to raise their large family. The walls are decorated with family pictures of the couple’s eight children and 13 grandchildren. They have seven sons and a daughter. Five are married. Five of their sons are in the army, four of them holding high ranking posts as career army officers. Their only daughter, Naomi, is a gynecologist at Soroka Hospital in Beersheva. She is married to a general practitioner, and the mother of three. The Schneid’s children live in places like Jerusalem, and in small settlements in the Southern Hebron hills. Their two youngest are still in yeshiva, the same one attended by all their brothers: Netiv Meir in Jerusalem, one of the most prestigious in the country.
How do their children feel about the disengagement, especially the ones in the army? “Some of them are angry. One wants to quit the army. And another one thinks it might be good,” she shrugs. That none of their children wants to take over the hot-houses, is fine with Paul and Roz. “We want them to do whatever makes them happy. Besides, I don’t need their help running the hot-houses. I can do it myself.
I can hire workers. The hot-houses are my pension. It’s all I’ve got.”
The hot-houses are a three minute drive from the house. Ever since an ax attack against a farmer by one of his Arab workers, the hot-houses have been separated by barbed wire from the residences of Netzar Chazani. The dull, grey plastic stretched over metal frames look like plane hangars that could hold an entire air force. There are hundreds of them, each filled with parsley, or mint, or spinach or tomatoes, all growing in sand under the hot sun. The sight that awaits us when we pull back the grey plastic sheets weighted with wood to keep out the insects, is breathtaking. We are suddenly in a green oasis, acres and acres of ripe, full lettuce ready for picking; fifty-six thousand of them in one hot-house alone.
Paul has five such hot-houses together with his partner, where plants are watered and fed by sophisticated drip irrigation systems that seem nothing less than miraculous. He leans down and picks a few, cutting off the dark roots, and removing a few leaves, saying a special prayer. According to Biblical law, all produce grown in the land of Israel must have tithes set aside for the poor. While some Rabbis have said that these laws don’t apply to Gush Katif, Paul disagrees. He quotes the verse from Genesis; “And Isaac dwelt in Gerar many years. ” He points outside. “This is Gerar. This is where our ancestors came from. ” I imagine how many thousands of tons of fresh produce are growing in this spot, how many tax dollars they bring in and how, come August, it will all be destroyed.
Paul walks ahead, bending down to examine a whole new area of seedlings that have just been planted. Is he continuing his work, regardless?
“It’s not going to happen,” he repeats, as he has each time I broach the subject. Roz, who is involved in the local school, echoes his sentiments. “We are planning our curriculum for next year. Nothing has changed.”
A strong breeze makes the metal frame shake. Paul looks up sharply, disturbed. “It’s only the wind, honey,” Roz assures him. I too feel a shiver. We are all alone, surrounded by acres of deserted hothouses, our only companions the silent growth all around, in a place where just over the fence, terrorist groups train, bomb factories produce mortars and suicide belts, and horrible tragedies have become part of daily life. No man, woman or child in Gush Katif, whatever the age, has been given immunity. Less than a year ago, all of Israel was shocked by the murder of Tali Hatuel and her four little girls. Tali, who was in her ninth month, was forced off the road five minutes from where we stand. Two terrorists approached the car, and one by one, shot her and her little girls in the head at point blank range. I ask them about what it’s been like all these years, dealing with the security problems, and why they put themselves through it.
“When we moved here, there wasn’t even a question. Arab caravans with camels passed by our front door every day. There were no fences at all. The Arabs in Khan Yunis even opened up a mini-market that carried kosher food for us. My daughter got her first glasses in Khan Yunis . We bought our vegetables there, had our car fixed, hired our workers there. We were good customers, good neighbors. The Bedouin used the dried- out tomato plants for building their huts and for animal feed, and at the end of each growing season, we’d help them to load the plants onto our tractor and we’d transport it out to their tents. One year, the woman asked if Roz could come along. So we all went.
When we got there, we unloaded the plants and she invited Roz in she said I couldn’t come because her husband wasn’t there. She had a breakfront full of the cleanest cut glass, in the middle of all that sand,” Roz remembers. “When we gave back Yamit to the Egyptians (the King David accords between Sadat and Begin in 1979) all the Bedouin were given cards telling them which side of the border of Rafiah they were on Israeli or Egyptian. She got the Egyptian side, and was heartbroken. One day she came to me and asked if I would let Paul take another wife. She offered us her daughter. That way, they’d be able to stay near us.”
“But for some reason, Roz didn’t think that was a good idea,” Paul says dryly.
“Days before the evacuation, they brought us huge boxes of candies for the kids and they cried and cried and cried. Now our workers are terrified that they are all going to be fired if the disengagement takes place. ”
Who are your workers, where do they come from? “They’re our neighbors,” he gestures to the houses just beyond the wall put up to keep out sniper fire. Gush Katif’s settlers give employment to thousands of Gazan Arabs. Paul employs seven. But how does he know who to hire, after all? The hot-houses are so soundless, so isolated? “We hire members of the same families. A brother, a cousin, of someone who has been a good worker. They are also screened by the army, who has to give them work permits. Off the record, Paul also tells me a story which indicates that the Israeli army has precise intelligence on every terrorist working out of Gaza.
When did the real security problems begin? “It was 1986. One of our neighbors was shopping in the Khan Yunis shuk when he was stabbed in the back. It shocked everyone, because it happened just out of the blue.” Shortly after that, the Schneids and the rest of Gush Katif’s Jewish settlers stopped shopping there. The peace accords between Israel and Egypt and the expulsion of Jewish settlers from Yamit led to a deterioration in relations between Arabs and Jews in the area. “We had to take turns being watchmen, because we were afraid of terrorist infiltration.
People from Yamit would say to us: When are you moving? Or, Why are you building since obviously you’re next? I thought it was a joke.
I guess for us Yamit was like what Gush Katif is for the rest of the country: it was way down South. It was far away.
Every year, security worsened: A farmer was axed by his worker. A few years later, this same man’s wife was shot in their car when the couple was on their way to a wedding. Two years ago, the settlement’s Rabbi was in his car with his wife and six children, when terrorists opened fire. Three hundred shells were found outside the pockmarked car, but only one penetrated. “It went through the back of the Rabbi’s seat and through his heart.” Paul’s voice breaks. “He was a great Torah scholar.”
And then there was the time when their eleven year-old son went out the back door and ran back in, shouting: “They’re shooting at me!”
“So Roz told him: ‘Go out the front door,’ Paul shakes his head. Only two months ago, Roz went out to clean her front porch. Paul was in the synagogue saying his morning prayers. When she came back into the kitchen and sat down to drink her morning coffee, the sky suddenly opened up, raining big globs of dirt on the kitchen window. By the time she realized a mortar shell had fallen in their front yard, it was all over. It’s amazing how you can learn to live with almost anything, they tell me. How it doesn’t lessen at all your resolve to stay. “I’m upset that for each person that was killed, we haven’t established another settlement. That should be our answer,” Roz says.
I am trying to understand how a Barnard graduate and the former editor of the Encyclopedia Judaica can continue living in a place where they are surrounded by axe-wielding murderers, people who shoot you in your car, and fire mortar shells at your house without any conscience or humanity.
“You are sitting here in the middle of all of this. What are you thinking?” I ask them. She takes a while to answer me. “The Arabs can do whatever they want to do, but it won’t change the fact that this is my land and I’m living on it. I’m not talking personally. I mean it’s my nation’s land. It ‘s land that was given to the Jewish people, and we have every right to be here.”
“Somebody’s got to do it,” Paul says thoughtfully. Do what? I ask him. “Hold the line. Otherwise, where does it end? Do we give them the West Bank, and then the Golan, and the Galilee, and Jerusalem and Haifa? Because that’s what they are asking for. Look, the book of Genesis starts with: ‘And God created the world.’ Land belongs to God. We can’t tell Him who to give it to. He’s given this land to the Jewish people. We can’t give it back. He won’t let us. That’s why there isn’t going to be any disengagement.”
How do they feel about their government, and their fellow Israelis, many of whom are actually rooting for this to happen, and some of whom would like them to suffer the maximum penalty for what they are doing? “I think they’ll mellow,” Paul says. “They’ll see they are not thinking the right way. And if the disengagement does happen, it’s not going to make things better for our people. At some point there will come a time when people will look up and realize they’ve made a mistake. I think we owe a big vote of thanks to Arik Sharon,” he says with irony. “Who else could have prompted hundreds of thousands of Israelis to take to the streets to support Gush Katif? Nothing else could have mobilized people that much, making them search their hearts and stand up and say: This is what we want. This is what we love. This is what we are willing to do.
He’s brought out the best in our people. ”
I try to get them to talk practically. What if the soldiers come and put you in a van and take you out of here? Has anyone been here to talk to you? To explain things? Tell you your options?” They shake their heads. “But we get great offers in the mail. ‘Build your dream house in Manara [which is on the Lebanese border] with a free dunam of land!’ Roz laughs. “We are not consciously prepared to do anything to help the disengagement, ” Paul says. “But if they come to take us, if they cart me away, I’m not going to fight anyone. I’ll go.” Roz explains that each family has paid in a thousand shekel (about $300) to a group of a hundred lawyers who are working mostly pro-bono to stop the disengagement through the courts. “We’re are not doing anything. They are doing it all.” Although the Schneids are reluctant to talk about money, the general sentiment of settlers is that the compensation the government is offering will impoverish most of them. For example, it will pay for the loss of their hot-houses, but not for their produce or business revenues.
Considering most settlers have invested their lives in setting up these businesses, it will leave them with nothing, especially since most are nearing retirement age. The government is also offering to pay settlers $750-$1000 per square meter for houses, depending on the quality of the building, and another $80,000 for the land itself. At these prices, most will find it difficult to replace what they’ve lost.
Another plan – to move the community en masse to Nitzanim – a lovely spot on the coast near Ashkelon, has piqued the interest of more settlers, who are heartbroken at the idea that the special community they have built through the years will also be destroyed. Almost half have signed on to be part of it, but the government is threatening to take the offer off the table if more settlers do not agree. So far, people like the Schneids are adamant in their refusal to cooperate in anyway in the loss of the life they have come to love.
Paul and Roz are set to accompany us to the army checkpoint which marks the entrance to Gush Katif. As we drive, we pass the beautiful synagogue, and the dorms of the yeshiva students, and the just-completed community center – empty of furniture because there is no funding, nor is there likely to be. We pass the group of 27 homes put up by Arik Sharon when he was Minister of Housing.
He did it in one night, just before the signing of the Oslo Accords, Roz tells me. We pass the beautiful wooden house donated by the community to serve as a rest and recreation area for soldiers protecting the community, a place where they can take a can of coke from the fridge, or have some coffee and cake, supplied daily by the community’s grateful families. It is named in the memory of Tali Hatuel and her four girls.
I hold my breath as we take the road out. It is an ugly place, Gaza. The fields and trees which once lined the sides of the roads have been uprooted since they were used for cover by snipers targeting settlers. The houses near the road have been bulldozed, following their use in terrorist attacks. The place is full of army camps, watchtowers, army vehicles, and soldiers. And still, I don’t feel safe. On the side of the road, an Israeli flag flaps in the wind, marking the spot where the Hatuel family was murdered.
If the disengagement takes place, nothing will mark the spot where all these things took place. The sand will blow, covering the spot where all the blood was spilled, and politics will continue, the Arab – Israeli conflict entering a new stage, with more demands and counter-demands; more terrorist attacks and more efforts to prevent them that will no doubt involve the continued death of innocents.
As we stop at the checkpoint before leaving, I embrace Roz and wish her well. “Whatever happens, I’m not worried about myself, ” she tells me.
“We’ll get along. We’ll get a pension. We’ll rent a house. We’ll manage. It’s not me I’ m worried about. I’m worried about the Jewish people. I’m worried about the future of this country.”
In the car on the way home, I think about the way the Schneids have lived their lives. Their pioneering spirit, their beautiful family, their sons in the army, their daughter the doctor. I wonder if in August, Paul, weak from chemo, will be manhandled by Israeli soldiers and put on a truck together with Roz. If their house will be bulldozed with all the family photos; if their hot-houses will be destroyed with the crops still in them; if the synagogue which lost its rabbi will be blown up by Israeli troops; if bodies of terror– victims who lived and died and were buried in Gaza will be disinterred and transferred too.
And suddenly, I too, am worried about the future of my country.