When Ardie Geldman and his wife bought a car in Bethlehem, back when Israelis still flocked there to shop at lower prices, they struck up a friendship with the Palestinian car salesman that lasted a decade.
When the couple took their car back to service it, the salesman would return it to their home in the nearby settlement of Efrat – sometimes with a bouquet of flowers for Mrs. Geldman.
While such relationships have largely been suspended due to the Palestinian uprisings and Israel’s heightened restrictions on Palestinian movement, many Israeli settlers still interact with Palestinians who work on their homes or at supermarkets like the Rami Levi down the road. That may come as a surprise to foreigners who come to see the towering cement walls, covered in Palestinian graffiti about apartheid and oppression, that form part of the separation wall Israel built after the second Intifada began.
For such tourists, Israeli settlers may seem like faceless interlopers trespassing on justice. So Geldman carved out a niche for himself, first as a member of the Efrat municipality and now as an independent speaker, to explain the narrative of the more than 300,000 Israelis who live in the West Bank – or Judea and Samaria, the biblical names they prefer to use because they allude to the Jewish people’s 3,000-year-old ties to the land.
“I’ve always believed in what I considered to be fairness as a personal value that I uphold, and I think that these people – many of them – are not getting the whole story. They’re being told lies and half-lies,” he says, estimating that their itineraries are “97 percent biased in favor of the Palestinian narrative.”
Sometimes, when a group heads back to the bus after an hour or hour-and-a-half with Geldman, a few linger behind and thank him under their breath for telling a part of the story they’re not hearing from anybody else. “To me, that makes it worth it,” he says.
On a recent morning, he hosted a small group of Canadians at his home, explaining his story and answering their questions over coffee and tea.
He and his wife were raised in secular Jewish homes in the US, but both became religious as young adults and moved here in the early 1980s with their infant. They were one of the only homes on this dead-end road then (the population of Efrat has since grown from 1,000 to 10,000). He recounts the days when Palestinian laborers would come in and use their phone or their bathroom.
“But unfortunately those neighborly relations have come to an end,” he says, speaking the day after an 18-year-old Israeli soldier was fatally stabbed by a Palestinian teenager on a public bus in Israel. “Because we don't know if some strange Arab might have a knife in his hand and do to us what that guy from Jenin did to the Israeli soldier sleeping on the bus.”
One of the visitors asks: If Efrat became part of an eventual Palestinian state, would he and his wife stay?
“We wouldn't stay, we'd never want to live under Palestinian rule,” Geldman says, although he knows of a “leftist” settler who says he would remain. “That said, that's never going to happen, I don't think. It's like saying, what if Chicago went back to the Chippewa Indians?”
While some have drawn unfavorable parallels between Israel and America’s treatment of local populations, at least the Jewish people have an ancient tie to the land they are accused of illegally occupying, Geldman says.
“What is legitimate and illegitimate in world history?” he asks, mentioning the case of Australia as well. “People are calling us illegitimate whose entire continents were stolen.”