Amid Controversy, Jewish Settlers Speak Out

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EFRAT, Israel - President Barack Obama has called for a total freeze on all construction, including natural growth, in Israeli communities in Judea and Samaria, known as the West Bank.

Such a freeze would disallow residents to add a room onto their home or prevent their children from building a home of their own in the neighborhood.

The Jewish community of Efrat in the Gush Etzion area of southern Judea, Israel's biblical heartland, is such a community.

Efrat, which was established in 1980 and is home to some 10,000 residents, is located between Bethlehem and Hevron.

Marty and Yael Gardner, their children and dog, Trey, live in Efrat. The Gardners made aliyah (immigrated to Israel) from America.

"Before we came, we decided we needed to come back to our homeland where are roots are," Marty Gardner told CBN News.

"Especially here [in Efrat], where everybody really knows each other," his wife, Yael, added.

"We're like a small family, just in the neighborhood, and they [the children] can go around and do whatever they want and we don't have to worry," she said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's administration insists that Israeli communities in Judea and Samaria, known as settlements, should be able to expand just as any normal town.

But Efrat is one of the communities caught in the middle of the controversy and the Gardners and their neighbors might have to leave their homes to make way for a Palestinian state.

Like Any Normal Community

Efrat Mayor Oved Revivi says his town is like any other normal community.

"So basically if you look outside your house wherever you live in the United States, you see the same view as you'll see here," the mayor said.

"Maybe here the view is much nicer. The air is cleaner, but basically there's greenery, there's parks, there's kids, and we have all the facilities to look out for ourselves," Revivi said.

So what is it that makes these settlements controversial?

Radio host and activist Eve Harow says the Jews' attachment to this area began with Abraham and continues right up to the present day.

"The settlements are simply Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria," Harow said. "If Jews can't live in Judea, which is where the term comes from, then where can we live," she asked.

"Aside from the thousands of years attachment to this land and Jews having always lived here, a good century before Israel was declared an official state, Jews were coming here and building up institutions, paying taxes, planting trees and orchards, draining swamps and putting up all the institutions," Harow said.

"We were ready for a state before we had it, but way before the Holocaust ever happened," she said.

'Nothing Short of a Miracle' 

Harow views the return of the Jewish people to the land of their forefathers as miraculous.

"The fact that the Jews are still existing; that we came home to our ancient homeland to the places you read about in the Bible, like Shiloh - pronounced Shee'loh -, Beit El [and] Hevron; the fact that we're speaking our ancient language again and still reading from the ancient texts and raising our children in the way our forefathers raised theirs is to me nothing short of a miracle," Harow said.

While some argue that the settlements are an obstacle to peace and need to stop building and growing, Efrat's mayor disagrees.

"I think anybody who knows the history slightly longer than the term Barack Obama has been in office understands that Israelis have not been the obstacle to peace," the mayor said.

"I'm sure that if any governor in the United States would have said 'no Jews can build in my state,' he would have been accused of racism. Yet I, as a Jew, am telling this to my people and that's a very problematic situation to put the people of Israel under," he said.

Peaceful Coexistence

Mayor Revivi says the residents of Efrat live peacefully with the surrounding Arab villages.

"We've got three villages just outside our city. We insisted on not having a fence between us. Why? because we believe in good relationships with our neighbors. When they need a doctor, they know to phone me and ask me for the best doctor I have in my city, where we have a very high ratio of doctors per capita, in order to give them [the best] treatment," he said.

Even if a Palestinian state is established, the question is why can't Jews still live there?

"What kind of double standard is that if there's going to be peace," Harrow asked.

"I lived in America. It's a Christian country and as Jew, I had my rights. I was never afraid that someone was going to hurt me because I was a Jew. So if there's going to be peace here, then why can't I just stay, just as there's an Arab minority with Israel?" she asked.

Fearing for America

As a Jew and as an American, Harrow worries about the Obama administration's push to restrict Jewish communities. She fears not so much for Israel, but for America.

"I really do believe that God blesses those who are good to the Jewish people and does the opposite to those who don't and I'm very afraid for America - that it's taking the wrong turn at this critical juncture," she said.

Meanwhile, the Gardners are planning to stay in the land of the Bible.

"Cause we love it. It's perfect. Our kids are happy. We have jobs here. It's where we want to be," Yael said.

"This is our home. As a father always wants his children to come home in the end, God is saying 'come back home. It's time to come back home,'" Marty said.

*Originally Published June 23, 2009

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