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  1999-01-08 Ma'ale Michmash


Fighting the Philistines: Settlers of Ma’ale Michmash feel at home on a biblical (and modern) battleground

San Diego Jewish Press-Heritage, Jan. 8, 1999

By Donald H. Harrison

Ma’ale Michmash, Disputed Territories (special) -- It’s not new that there is a dispute over this town about 10 miles northeast of Jerusalem.  Such disputes date back to the times of the Bible. 

For example, I Samuel 13 relates to us how Saul’s forces were routed by the Philistines here, causing Saul such despair that he violated the instructions given to him by the Prophet Samuel and nearly disqualified himself from becoming Israel’s first king. Isaiah 10:28 notes how this town later fell to the Assyrians on their march to Jerusalem. Later still, we learn from Ezra 2:27 that when the Jews were permitted to return from the Babylonian exile, 122 men returned to Michmash.  And, I Maccabees 9:73 relates that the town served as a base for Jonathan the Hasmonean following his defeat of Bacchides. 

Today, my wife Nancy’s cousin--Yehuda Ernst--is among a group of 150 Jewish families who live in this community carved into the hillsides within view of the Arab town of Mukhmas. Currently serving as chairman of the town’s council, Yehuda thinks of his Orthodox community’s present situation in near biblical terms. 
Just as the ancient Philistines tried to conquer ancient Israel, so too does Yehuda believe that modern Palestinians are determined to push the Jews out of the entire land of Israel. 
“The fight for Jerusalem and Tel Aviv is here,” he says. “If we won’t fight here, we still will have to fight for Tel Aviv, but in Jerusalem. Now we are fighting for Tel Aviv here. So I am here.” 

While the fate of the West Bank settlements may depend on the final stage negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians under the Oslo Accords, Yehuda says he is confident that Ma’ale Michmash will remain under Israeli sovereignty.

Settler and daughter

He said that the town was built in 1981 on a “bypass road” created under the Labor government’s Allon Plan to permit Israelis to transit the territories without having to go through existing Arab villages. Thus, he said, the town is expected to be protected regardless of which Israeli party is in power. “But we are worried, yes; we are concerned that Palestinian soldiers will be on our border,” Yehuda said.  “Everyone is afraid.” 

Yehuda has lived with his wife, Einat, and four children ages 5 and under in Ma’ale Michmash for several years in a house he built largely with his own hands. On his commute to his telecommunications business in Jerusalem, he passes the Tomb of the Prophet Samuel. 

The Ernsts previously had lived in a small apartment in Jerusalem, and Yehuda said ideology was only one reason why they decided to build a home in Ma’ale Michmash.  He said he could not dream of affording such a spacious home in Jerusalem or in other Israeli cities. 

Wasn’t Einat worried about taking a young family to the territories, where there is the possibility of political violence? I asked Yehuda.  He replied that if anything, Einat was even stronger ideologically on the question than he is.  If Einat had her druthers, he said, she would live in the small Jewish settlement in Hebron. 

As chairman of the town council, Yehuda says his principal preoccupations are providing for the community’s security, expansion and education. 

Several years ago, a neighbor of Yehuda’s--an English Jew named Danny Frye--was stabbed to death by an Arab who had climbed through a window of his house in the middle of the night.  The intruder, who previously had commuted from Mukmas to work in Ma’ale Michmash , had been “suspected by his friends to be a collaborator with Israel and he wanted to show them that he was not, so he came in...and killed this guy and wounded his wife,” Yehuda said. 

“Danny defended and saved his wife--he was a good, strong guy, Danny, a marathon runner.  He pushed the stabber into the wall and asked his wife to run away.  She ran away; he died.” 

The intruder was followed to Mukmas, arrested, and jailed as a terrorist, Yehuda said.  “I think he is now still in jail, unless they released him the last time they released terrorists.” Danny’s widow, meanwhile, remarried and “recently gave birth to twins.” Around Ma’ale Michmash there are numerous memorials to Frye, including one security overlook named Mizpe Danny. 

The death of Frye made the settlers realize they could not be complacent about security, Yehuda told us. Almost immediately a fence was built  around a portion of the settlement, but Yehuda was among those arguing against completely encircling Ma’ale Michmash with fencing. 

“It gives you false psychological protection,” he explained. “You think that you are protected but if someone really want to do damage, really wants to hurt you, the fence won’t stop him... 

“The Army wants to build a fence, but it wants a fence 30 feet from the last house,” Yehuda continued. “So a fence would actually close us from getting bigger. And there is a very known way of living here in the area. When you do a fence, the nearest Arab will come to live near the fence. If you do a fence, they come and live by it. But if there is no fence, they don’t know where to put their house.” 

Since Frye’s death, guard duty is taken more seriously by the residents, and Yehuda says other security measures, which he does not want to discuss publicly, also have been implemented.  “We won’t get caught again with our pants down,” he said. If a terrorist tries again to enter the settlement he said, “he probably will not get out alive.” Like many settlers, Yehuda constantly carries a pistol  concealed within his clothing. 

More houses are being built in Ma’ale Michmash to accommodate other settlers, Yehuda says. With a construction program now underway, the settlement’s population soon is expected to more than double with an additional 175 families living in a new neighborhood and 60 more families residing in temporary housing known as caravans. Yet another 300 homes are planned for construction at the Mizpe Danny overlook. 

The demand for housing long ago exceeded the supply, lending credence to Yehuda’s assertion that notwithstanding hostile neighbors who live outside the town, the lifestyle within settlement towns is viewed by many Israelis as quite attractive. 

“My kids can leave the house alone and go to the playground, and they can walk to school alone,” he said.  “And we don’t have to worry about them playing on the street on Shabbat because there are no cars.” 

Uriel, 5, is Yehuda’s and Einat’s oldest child.  He attends an intermediate grade between kindergarten and first grade in which he learns to write and to pray. Soon, he will enter first grade in which he will begin a program to memorize the entire Torah. 

Though this seemed remarkable to Nancy and me, Yehuda said a child who learns the entire Torah by rote is not so remarkable. “He will be a regular kid who knows the whole Torah,” Yehuda said. “He also will know algebra and English” as well as many other subjects before he completes his schooling.  “He won’t grow up as a disconnected kid from the world. He will learn everything, but he also will get more Jewish knowledge.” 

His son, Elad, 4, is in an upper kindergarten class, and his daughter, Tehila, 3, is in a lower kindergarten class. After Elad was born, his parents decided to take him to the old synagogue in Jericho for the brit milah ceremony. It was just before that ancient city was handed over to the Palestinian Authority, and Yehuda wanted to make a statement about the city’s Jewish character. So Elad’s circumcision became an item of news in the Middle East. 

The youngest child is Ayala, who is 2. She goes to a nursery school which also is located within the settlement. 

Yehuda believes that were any fellow Jews to visit him and his family at Ma’ale Michmash, they would soon forget about the stereotype of a settler being a “mishuganah  with a big coat and a big gun,” and realize instead that, though they take measures to protect themselves, they are just like their neighbors in Jerusalem or Haifa. 

While the town abides by Orthodox rules concerning the Shabbat, what people do in their own homes is their business only, Yehuda says. And unlike at some stricter settlements, he said, non-Orthodox Jews also are welcome in Ma’ale Michmash. “Nancy can go with pants; you can go without a kippah,” he said. “We are religious but we are very open minded.”