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Israeli Woman Describes Journey From Criticizing Settlers To Becoming One


This week, we're exploring what prompts people to change their minds. NPR's Emily Harris has been bringing us stories from Israelis and Palestinians whose views have evolved even as they're entrenched in a long-running conflict. Today - an Israeli who changed sides on the question of what to do with land in the West Bank, land Palestinians seek for a state of their own.

EMILY HARRIS, BYLINE: Israel Zionist founders probably would've approved of Tamar Asraf's childhood, Jewish but modern, secular. Judaism was part of her Israeli identity, more than a religion.

TAMAR ASRAF: We always celebrated Passover and the rest of the Israeli holy days, but, you know, not going to synagogue, not praying, not keeping the food kosher.

HARRIS: Israel was young. It was contemporary, but built where Jewish history began. Israel infused Asraf with purpose.

ASRAF: Since I was a baby, you know, the message was - we're here to stay, and we have to do everything to protect this land.

HARRIS: And as a teenager in the 1980s, she thought the best way to protect Israel was to give up land - Israeli control of the West Bank specifically - as part of a potential Palestinian peace deal. She joined a left-wing youth group and became an activist. Part of her soundtrack of that time was the Israeli ballad "You And I."


ARIK EINSTEIN: (Singing in Hebrew).

HARRIS: The song's message is simple - you and I will change the world.

ASRAF: This youth group - it wasn't a big part of my life in time, but it was a big part of my life in shaping my identity. We were demonstrating for a peace agreement and demonstrating to give back the occupied territories. Back then in Israel, we had enough with wars. I had friends who lost their fathers. I had friends who lost their brothers, and I felt like the settlements are the worst thing that can happen to Israel. Because of them, we don't have peace.

HARRIS: Israeli settlers were building homes in the West Bank. Some moved to cement Israel's claim on the land. Others felt it was their biblical destiny. In her secular suburb near Tel Aviv, Asraf had never met a devoutly religious Jew. She befriended some when she was in the army, and one Hanukkah she heard them sing all six verses of an 800-year-old Jewish song. It goes like this.


UNIDENTIFIED ARTIST: (Singing in Hebrew).

HARRIS: Asraf knew only one verse.

ASRAF: And I felt really upset because I said, you know, my people has been singing it for years, and I don't know it. I only know the first verse.

HARRIS: Later, she came upon a group of Orthodox Jews circled around a braided candle with their hands raised toward the light.

ASRAF: And I was standing there shocked. And I went to the head of the groups, and I asked him, isn't it forbidden to worship idols in the Jewish tradition? And he said, of course, and I said so why all of the people raised their hands towards the fire? And he said, you don't know what is Havdalah? And I said, no. He said this is something that every Jew does every week in the end of Shabbat, in the end of the seventh day. I felt so embarrassed. I felt shamed.

I can say it was the minute that I decided that's it. I want to study Judaism, not wanting to become religious, not wanting it to be a part of my life. I just wanted to learn.

HARRIS: Asraf calls this the first step in a journey. Her faith deepened. Her worldview and her local politics began to change. She soon saw all the land including the West Bank as given by God to the Jewish people from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea.

ASRAF: It works like this - you get more connected to yourself. You get more connected to your private roots, then you get more connected to your national roots. Now, it wasn't that I was not connected to the land when I was secular - I was - but Judea and Samaria were not in my mind as a part of Israel.

HARRIS: Judea and Samaria are the biblical names for the West Bank. At this point, Asraf found herself somewhere completely unexpected. She went from despising settlers to becoming one.

ASRAF: I think the first time I was driving here - after moving to live here - and I've heard in the radio that settlers did so-and-so. My first reactions were, oh, those settlers, such bad people. And then I said, oops, I live here. What does it mean?

HARRIS: What it means to her lies in the stunning view from her home high on a hill in the central West Bank.

ASRAF: The whole Jewish history is right underneath us. And we get to see Tel Aviv, we get to see the sea, so you get to see the whole land of Israel.

HARRIS: With her move, Asraf did much more than just cross a line on a map; she accepted a worldview that her secular family members did not understand.

ASRAF: My father is asking me, great, you see the history, you see the Bible, you see the holy land, but you don't see the Palestinians. What about the Palestinians? The first time I was arguing, and the second time he asked, I said, you're a right. I don't see them. I went to our spiritual leader here in our community, and I've asked him, do we have to see them? And he said, of course, of course, we do. They're a part of this land, and, like we've been taught in the Bible, we have to take care of them but, of course, not to forget that this is our homeland.

HARRIS: Asraf's change of heart and mind reflects a trend in Israel. Settlements have tripled in population since she moved to the West Bank in the mid-1990s, and the religious Zionist political movement she supports has grown in popularity and power. Like its leaders, Asraf backs the idea that most of the West Bank should officially become a part of Israel, not a Palestinian state.

ASRAF: Every time I tell my child take the garbage out, you know, he's walking on the land of our great, great fathers, and I think this connection is so strong.

HARRIS: Asraf's own grandfather criticized her move to a settlement, but she told him she was inspired by his pioneering spirit to build Israel from scratch. Asraf has become the spokesperson for her growing settlement called Eli. Her message now - the biblical land of Israel is not up for negotiation. Her mission is for other Israelis to follow her change of mind. Emily Harris, NPR News, Eli. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

International Correspondent Emily Harris is based in Jerusalem as part of NPR's Mideast team. Her post covers news related to Israel, the West Bank and Gaza Strip. She began this role in March of 2013.
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