Jewish Settler Women Ask to Be Seen as Individuals Not as Fanatics

In a series of personal monologues, they hope to define themselves free of media stereotyping

Yehudit Lavie, a mother of nine from the religious Jewish settlement of Alon Moreh near the West Bank town of Nablus, removes the papier-mache mask of newspaper headlines from her face. She steps forward on a dark stage to tell her personal story.

Ms. Lavie belongs to a theater group formed by settler women who are performing their play, ''Mirkam'' (''Textures''), at Jewish settlements throughout the West Bank and at venues in Israel.

The 15 actresses in the play dress in black and utilize a stark format to symbolize what they perceive as unjust vilification in the Israeli media and the public at large.

The settlers believe that their presence on land they regard as part of Biblical Israel is crucial to the survival of the Jewish state. Before the 1992 election, when the Labor Party defeated the right-wing Likud coalition after 17 years in power, the nearly 135,000 Jewish settlers were widely regarded as heroes.

The signing of the 1992 Israeli-Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) peace accords, which mandate a phased hand-over of the West Bank to Palestinian rule, changed all that, and the settlers have been at the forefront of the campaign to derail the peace efforts of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's government.

Initially, protest concentrated on civil disobedience and non-violent demonstrations and vigils.

But the most recent agreement will extend Palestinian autonomy to six major West Bank towns, and settlers are worried about the prospect of meeting Palestinian police on the roads connecting their modern hilltop settlements to Israel.

Their political rhetoric has become increasingly virulent, and recent demonstrations have culminated in violent clashes with security forces. Some settlers have engaged in vigilante-like action against Palestinians.

Recent polls show that a majority of Israelis are willing to give the peace process a chance and oppose the settlers' actions. Mr. Rabin has called settlers a social, economic, and security '' burden.'' The Israeli press widely portrays them as religious fanatics who will stop at nothing.

Lavie felt she needed to tell her own story. ''Because I am a settler, people know about me only through headlines, demonstrations, and violent confrontations,'' she said in an interview.

''Mirkam,'' a sort of settler ''Chorus Line'' consisting of 15 monologues, is the first attempt by settlers to present themselves as individuals with their own unique stories to the Israeli public.

The theater group grew out of a drama workshop for religious women at the Jewish settlement of Kedumim in the northern part of the West Bank, which the settlers call Samaria.

Tzippora Luria, a performer and arts critic from the settlement of Ofra who directs the drama workshop, says she was moved by the responses when she asked the women to prepare autobiographical monologues.

''I was amazed at the openness and intimacy of their stories and the simplicity with which they spoke about their moments of crisis and despair, their personal moments,'' Ms. Luria told the Monitor.

Luria immediately recognized the material as original and set about connecting the women's individual stories into a play. They needed little persuading and were not even fazed by the condition, set by the religious authorities, that they could perform only in front of women.

''The laws of modesty limit what we can do in front of men, but I do not find them inhibiting,'' says Orna Maimon, a mother of six. ''If men were in the audience, I would feel less free to express myself,'' she says.

The monologues in the play reflect a mixture of themes universal to women, like balancing career and family, as well as those peculiar to life in isolated rural settlements - like daily logistics and security.

But some also reflect the intense personal dramas like those of two sisters who landed on different sides of the Middle Eastern divide.

Ruti Romem came to Israel from England as a young tourist seeking adventure. She married a religious Jew, became the mother of seven, and now lives in a West Bank settlement.

Her sister, Naomi, visited Egypt at the same time Ruti set out for Israel. But, unlike the Biblical Ruth and Naomi, the two women found different lands and different people.

Naomi today wears the veil of an observant Muslim Arab, while Ruti covers her head according to the laws of modesty for religious Jews.

The sisters, so close in their childhood, no longer find any common language.

While the actresses in the play strive to break free of the masks that they believe society imposes on them, they tend to stereotype others. Palestinians are invariably portrayed as vicious terrorists who murder innocent children. Secular Israelis are projected as self-centered hedonists devoid of ideology or values.

''Yes, of course, the performance is both personal and political,'' explains Osnat Klangel, one of the settler women. ''I can't get away from that. The settler movement is part of my life.''

But some Israelis feel that this combination of ideology and individuality is forced.

''They say that they want to tell their personal stories, but they talked a lot about themselves as a group,'' says Shula Dagan, a secular Jew from Tel Aviv who saw the play. ''And all the stories had a political twist, so it was hard to identify with them.''

''I guess that, in some ways, I have put the mask on myself, too,'' Ms. Klangel says.

Yehudit Lavie agrees, but she reverses the emphasis. ''Of course, we have a sense of mission,'' she says. ''But we also wanted to be heard as individuals - not only as settlers.''

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