Young Israeli settlers go hippie? Far out, man!

Last week's annual 'End of Days' music festival highlights how a new – and militant – hilltop generation embraces the counterculture symbols of the 1960s American Left.

Joshua Mitnik
End of Days festival founder Yehuda Leuchter (l.) played the keyboard during the concert Thursday.
Joshua Mitnik
A Israeli settler girl strummed a guitar Thursday at the End of Days music festival in Bat Ayin, West Bank. Her mother said the family attends year after year because the festival is a compilation of Jewish music.

Situated just outside this contoversial Jewish settlement in the West Bank, the hilltop stage was dominated Thursday by a Star of David, an olive tree, and musicians who mix blues licks, reggae rhythms, and messianic refrains from Jewish liturgy.

The annual "End of Days" festival – which bills itself as a "place of light and unity, inspiration and calm" – has become something of a mini-Woodstock in the settlements, with meditation groups, religious study sessions, and a crowd dressed in colorful flowing clothes.

Staged on a wooded slope amid the ruins of Mesuot Yitzhak, a Jewish settlement captured by Jordan in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, the festival is evidence of how the young hilltop generation, despite a reputation for militancy and ideological fervency, has embraced many of the counterculture symbols of the 1960s American Left.

"When whole world turns on the television, what do they see? Fighting and politics," says Yehuda Leuchter, the festival founder who hops as he plays keyboard with his head wrapped in prayer shawl. "We're trying to bring rock 'n' roll and good vibes for the Land of Israel and for the whole world. That's what this is all about."

In addition to roots and folk music, the young settlers have pushed heavily into organic agriculture and eco-awareness, and dabbled in Asian accessories and philosophies. While they are more worldly than parents who had no Internet access when they established the settlements, they are less pragmatic and potentially more rebellious against the state.

"We're the new hippies. We are connected to the land. We are spiritual," says Yishai Fleisher, a radio host at the settler radio station Arutz 7 who attended the festival two years ago.

Rejecting 'Western' culture

Expounding as if he had just digested the ideas of Henry David Thoreau's Walden, Mr. Fleisher says that the new generation of settlers rejects the consumerism and promiscuity of "Western" culture. But for all the talk spirituality and universalism, it has not made them more sympathetic to the aspirations of their Palestinian neighbors for sovereignty.

"You can't have peace and love without understanding first the essential ethos of the Middle East, and that is that people only respect you when you stand your ground. That is not only a message to the Arabs, but to the US and foreign powers who want to impose things on us," he says. "The kind of hippie that I'm talking about is Abbie Hoffman. We stand up to aggression."

Clashes predicted

The young settlers came of age on the front lines of the largely nonviolent resistance to Israel's 2005 evacuation of settlements from Gaza. Disillusioned by older leaders for urging them to avoid confrontation, many predict clashes that if Israel's government ever makes good on a promise to the US to clear out unauthorized settlement outposts.

Recently, settlers at more ideologically fervent settlements like Bat Ayin have adopted a policy of vigilante retaliation for hilltop evacuations or Palestinian attacks. Some of Bat Ayin's residents clash with nearby Palestinian villagers, and several years ago a cell was convicted in an Israeli court for plotting to blow up a Palestinian school. That said, Bat Ayin is also one of the centers combining Jewish learning with eco awareness.

"Everyone says that we're all about war, but people just want redemption," says Benny Landau, a solo guitarist from the settlement of Kiryat Arba who described his family of four as drifters. Before toasting to the hilltop outposts, he described his musical influences as "anything that opens up my horizons."

End of Days is also the name of keyboardist Mr. Leuchter's band, which fuses jam rock, reggae, and spiritual tunes from Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. He and six other siblings run the festival as a memorial to their father, and say the purpose is to draw concert-goers from all over the country. The family said 1,600 attended the 10th annual festival last Thursday.

"The Jewish people are a very diverse and fractured society," says saxophonist Shaul Judelman. "Right now the crucial thing for both the Jewish and the Palestinian people is to make peace among themselves. It's a big enough challenge talking to our brothers before we go talking to our extended families."

A more earthy ethos

The embrace of a more spiritual, earthy ethic is part of a wider trend among tens of thousands of Israeli youth who spend months in India dabbling with Hinduism and drugs after finishing Israel's mandatory, three-year Army service.

"In the past 20 years we've been in a value crisis," says Assaf Meydani, a political science lecturer at the Academic College of Jaffa. The young generation looks at the pragmatism of their parents' generation, and sees it isn't going anywhere, and is puzzled. So they have to adopt another solution. In this case, the solution is spiritual solution."

Back at the festival, Rabbi Raz Hartman, with wild hair curls, led a study session in which he riffed on the meaning of faith: "[It's] like a farmer that plants in the ground and believes that afterward the bounty will come."

While waiting to go on stage, bassist Yaakov Lefcoe of the band Yood – a Jimi Hendrix-influenced trio whose name is the Hebrew initial for God – speculated on the lax security. "If anything happens at Bat Ayin, there's always a reprisal," he says.

Elsewhere, men hopped in rhythm to bass vamps that could have been culled from Sly and the Family Stone. But in an apparent respect for a traditional ban on mixed dancing, they were not joined by female concert-goers.

Arrayed around the main stage, salespeople in clothing stalls hawked organic diapers, "redemption clothes," parenting guides, and baggy skull caps knitted to look like the headgear associated with Rastafarians.

"It's funny when you walk into a settlement in [the West Bank] and you hear Bob Marley," says Judelman. "It's music that expresses a search for freedom, holiness, righteousness, and redemption. Isn't that what Israel is all about?"

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