I was studying the light when the settlers came.
There was the white gossamer light swirling upward from the valley and the liquid radiance pouring down from above. Early morning, white and blue. “And God said, Let there be a partition within the water, and let it divide water from water. So he made the partition and divided the lower from the upper waters, and he called it heaven.” I was watching the mingling of the lower and the upper lights and wondering at what point any particular photon might find itself either above or below, and know it, which seemed to be something confusing and playful that I know from inside.
Then they came, two of them on horseback, along with their herd and their furious sheepdogs, and shortly afterwards two more followed. One of them was Elchanan, whom the activists know well. The other was a sullen teenage boy. They were dark and menacing as they approached us. They live in the illegal settlement ironically named Angels of Peace. Guy says its real name is Angels of Death. It looks like all the others: a jagged conglomeration of metal bars and temporary sheep-pens sprawling over the hill just south and east of Ein Rashash. I didn’t see any angels as we drove past it.
They came this morning for one and only one purpose—to harass the Palestinian shepherds and drive them off their lands. It’s a daily routine. These settlers have nothing better to do, and they seem to love the Wild West get-up and whatever goes with it. It makes them feel as if they were men. Sometimes they gallop into the midst of the goats and sheep, flustering them and scattering them over the rocks. At other times they drive their mini-tractor into the herd. Anything to drive the Palestinians crazy and make them want to leave. Maybe it’s fun doing that. Today, the sullen boy at times loses patience and spurs his horse into a gallop, downhill, uphill, in circles. Elchanan remains largely impassive in the saddle.
So we take our stand between the Palestinian herd and shepherds—they can’t be older than 12 or 13—and the dark settlers on horseback. There are four of us: Guy, Sarah, Shirli, and me. Every time the settlers push forward toward the shepherds or the goats and sheep, we rush to intercept them, to head them off. It feels a little foolish. Time slows. I think: They also serve who only stand and wait. Two, maybe three hours pass like this in a game of Chinese Checkers played with human tokens. After a while we find ourselves on the last ridge overlooking the valley; the sheep are chewing furiously, oblivious of danger, and the settlers are a few feet behind us, waiting, bored, as are we.
No words pass between us. Really, there is nothing to say. Each side knows the other and despises it. These are religious settlers, and those who know them from earlier encounters say they share the standard settler belief that God gave the Land to the Jews (all in capitals, and all the land) and with the gift came the right to expel everyone else, or to destroy them, as Joshua did to the Canaanites, not all that long ago. What’s three thousand years to a religious settler? Belief is a paltry and often wicked thing.
Not every day does one get a close look at rarified evil, routinized hate. I watch the sullen boy. He looks lost, out of place. Long ringlets of hair hang from his sideburns. Elchanan, chubby, long reddish beard, the main boss in the settlement, is mostly fussing with his phone. He takes pictures of all of us, who knows what for? Eternity. I think eternity has passed long ago. But for now, if we give way, or move from our post, even for a minute, the shepherds will certainly be driven off, or worse.
Unlike the sullen boy, I know I’m in the right place this morning. A live partition. A weary witness. A remnant left over from long ago, when Jews were Jews. A bitter chunk of text. Light from the valley is pouring through me as it pours endlessly into the rocks, the thorns, the mud, the goats. The shepherd boy on his donkey plays with his cellphone. Someone from the tent he calls home is telling him that soldiers and police have come to Ein Rashash. “Police?” he says. Yes, police. Maybe the settlers called them in.
And then, when forever ends around noon, the black horsemen ride off.
We wait a while more to make sure they’re really gone. Silence soaks the green slopes. The white hills of sand and lime on the other side of the Jordan River look so close you could touch them.
There’s no place like Ein Rashash. “And He called it heaven.”
text: david shulman © 2019