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Anthropological notes on Gush Katif


									                               Anthropological notes on Gush Katif

                                     Gerald F. Murray, Ph.D

    I have been a “practicing anthropologist” for the past three decades. As of today (June 15,
2005) I have been living in Ganei Tal – one of the oldest moshavim in Gush Katif – for a grand
total of about two weeks. Anthropologists traditionally live a year in a community – or at least
six months – before daring to write anything about the community. However Moti Sender, the
website manager of, has asked me to share with him and the readers of his website some
anthropological impressions of Gush Katif. At the risk of getting drummed out of the
anthropological community, I have agreed to share initial impressions on the website. I will do
so in a series of brief essays and reaction papers on different aspects of life encountered here.
Obviously readers must interpret anything that I write as the evolving impressions of a
newcomer, not the conclusive findings of in-depth anthropological research. . There is a well
established tradition of anthropological research within Israel. Most anthropology done in Israel
is cultural anthropology, and most anthropologists deal in one way or another with Israel or with
matters judaica in the diaspora. I am particularly nervous in front of Israeli colleagues writing
about “their country” having been here only two weeks. I will keep generalizations to a

    In this introductory piece, Moti has asked me to explain first what brought me to Ganei Tal.
Actually I was supposed to be in Haiti this summer, the country where I have done most of my
anthropological work. But Haiti is going through a period of unprecedented violence and chaos,
a type of turbulence that I decided to avoid. “So you go to the Gaza Strip to seek serenity? Are
you nuts?” Many friends have made some observation to that effect. Actually the initial intent
was simply to visit Israel to prepare a course on the Anthropology of Judaism. The Center for
Jewish Studies at my university (the University of Florida) gave me a grant to prepare such a
course. I decided to use the grant to visit Israel.

   When making plane reservations and thinking about the Anthropology of Judaism, it occurred
to me that Mea Shearim, the Kotel, and Safed will be there for the foreseeable future. But the
religious moshavim of Gush Katif? Maybe yes. But maybe no. Many residents are convinced
that the Ribono shel Olam will nullify the decree that would expel the residents and destroy the
communities.. But a Ph.D. in anthropology endows one with no insight into the working of
supernatural forces. Given current national plans and international pressures for the creation of a
Judenrein Gaza, I had to assume as an anthropologist that the moshavim of Gush Katif, are an
endangered religious species, The latest version of the decree identifies August 15, 2005, as the
onset of the expulsion.

   Thus I decided to come here first. And at any rate, for someone interested in Judaism as it is
lived out in Israel, there is nowhere in the arets where one can see more dramatically than in
Gush Katif the clash between Judaism and Islam on the one hand, and between the interaction of
Judaism and secular Israeli politics on the other. Some three decades ago, a secular political
apparatus headed by Yitzhak Rabin first issued the call to establish a Jewish agricultural presence
on the barren and uninhabited sand dunes of southwestern Gaza.

   Many readers may raise their eyebrows at my use of the term uninhabited. “Parts of crowded
Gaza uninhabited? Get serious.. What kind of revisionist pseudo-history are you peddling?
Gaza was and is teeming with Palestinians….” I myself was a bit skeptical when first told that
the region had been uninhabited before the arrival of Jewish farmers. Anthropologists are
acutely aware that the myth of the “uninhabited wilderness” is a standard colonial fiction.
   But in this case the skepticism was off-target. Let me repeat. A secular government in the
mid-1970s invited, urged, and pleaded with Jews to consider uprooting themselves from their
current lives to cast agricultural and personal roots on stretches of uninhabited sand dunes in
southwestern Gaza on which Egyptian authorities had forbidden settlement and which the
Palestinians of Gaza themselves labeled as cursed land. Many of the people whom I have
interviewed learned of this opportunity in official newspaper advertisements. Most (but not all)
those who answered the call were religious. The community of Kfar Darom in central Gaza had
already been reestablished (it was already mentioned as a place of Jewish residence in the 1940s)
and served as the first temporary residence for those who would come eventually to Ganei Tal.
They later moved to Katif for a year which is in Southwestern Gaza and only a few kilometers
from the eventual site of Ganei Tal. From there they helped build the tiny houses in which they
would live (for most they would be starter houses, as people would invest, with their own capital
and bank mortgages, in more adequate homes for their growing families.) With the help of
technicians from the Ministry of Agriculture they also began their first hothouses (most had never
farmed). Wells were drilled for water, electricity installed. Let it be pointed out: both homes
and hothouses were purchased, and the residences were and are billed every month for water and
electricity. There was no free lunch. And for those interested, there were no full time talmidei
chachamim, uzis in one hand and gemaras in the other, living on public tsedakah. Those who
answered this call were for the most part religiously observant, but from the “knitted kippah”
rather than from the charedi world. To gain access to the moshav, you had to agree to be a
farmer, and build your farms and homes on treeless, grassless, birdless uninhabited sand dunes.

   And an equally secular state apparatus under Arik Sharon is now some thirty years later doing
a sudden political about-face. Those same farmers, mostly religious, though of different degrees
and traditions, whom for decades Sharon called the heroes and defenders of Israel, are now
suddenly being demonized as “religious extremists” or “religious fanatics”. Why? They refuse
to baa like obedient sheep, refuse to abandon homes, farms, and stores, and refuse to be herded
passively onto government-supplied buses to be dumped off with their children into destinations
yet unknown and unprepared.

   The linguistics of the situation is anthropologically fascinating. A few days ago Palestinians
lobbed lethal mortars from Khan Yunis into the hothouses of Ganei Tal;, about a half kilometer
from where I am staying. Three people were killed– two Palestinian workers and a Chinese
worker. The long-distance assassins are generally called “militants” in the lexicon of English
speaking journalists, at least those of the Associated Press. . Apparently under strict
lexicographical instructions from editors, the same English-language journalists label the targeted
Jewish farmers dodging the mortars as “religious fanatics” or “extremists”. Do I exaggerate?
Check out the AP dispatches for the last three months and observe the systematic uses of
“militants” (a glorious word) and “fanatics.” With few exceptions, the statistically overwhelming
tendency is to reserve the honorific term “militant” for Arab speakers. Their Hebrew-speaking
targets in southwestern Gaza, in contrast, are called “extremists” and “religious fanatics”. I
checked that out while still in Gainesville, Florida, long before knowing I would be here on the
Gaza strip.

  So to make the long story short, I began exploring the possibility of coming not only to Israel,
but also to the moshavim of southwestern Gaza. I googled Gush-Katif and immediately came
upon Moti’s I downloaded the maps and the information on the different
moshavim, as well as on Nave Dekalim, the urbanized administrative center. Is there anywhere
for an outsider to stay? No info was given on that matter. A young Chabad Rabbi in
Jacksonville (not far from Gainesville) called his in-laws in Kfar Chabad, who called R. Yigal
Kirshensaft, the Chabad shaliach in Nave Dekalim. I was given his phone number and in broken
– and I do mean broken – Hebrew tried to explain to him what anthropology was and why I
wanted to go to Gush Katif for a month.

    Is there anywhere to stay? He said he’d check. I should first email him in Hebrew (he is
monolingual in Hebrew) and explain what I want to do. Email him in Hebrew? Was he
serious? Most of my anthropological fieldwork has been done in Spanish and Haitian Creole.
My Hebrew was and is rudimentary, learned mostly from sifrei kodesh.. I can wax eloquently
about the yitsiat mitsraim and the kriat yam suf, but have a harder time talking about toothpaste,
towels, and rental-car insurance. Explain Anthropology in Hebrew? Forget it. I nonetheless
tried. I learned that Windows XP has a Hebrew font and a button to click for right-to-left
directionality. So I typed my first email in Hebrew, about five sentences. It took only four
hours. I closed my eyes, made a brakhah, and clicked the send button, Within an hour a response
comes back from Rav Yigal congratulating me on my Hebrew. It worked…. My messages got
transmitted to Moti-the-webmaster in Ganei Tal, and Moti put me in touch with Abraham
Yitschaki and his family in Ganei Tal who have an empty in-law apartment. Lodging: solved.

   There was a doubt about whether outsiders would be let in at this period. The people I talked
to by phone in Israel outside of the Gush said that an outsider in a rental car would not be let in.
Moti and Abraham Yitschaki said there would be no problem. I believed them. On arrival in Tel
Aviv I went to the Budget Rent-a-Car counter, unsure of whether insurance would be valid in
Gush Katif. (It is null and void if the renter drives into Palestinian areas.) I waited for an
employee with a kippah on his head and rented the car from him. “Is the insurance valid in Gush
Katif?“ He told me hotly, the insurance is valid in any community that is part of Eretz Israel.
“Isn’t Gush Katif still part of Eretz Israel?” he asked me. “Absolutely” I sheepishly answered.
Ergo….. So the lodging was solved, the car rental was solved.

   Would the authorities really let an outsider drive in? After spending a day with a fellow
anthropologist at Tel Aviv University, I nervously drove to the Kissufim crossing, the place
where all traffic enters the southern Gush, wearing no orange, but expecting to be stopped and
rudely turned back. The soldiers must have been on coffee break. Cars were driving in without
stopping. I did the same, pretending that I knew where I was going. I really didn’t. I had to
stop twice to ask directions from soldiers. I wanted to be sure that I was heading to Ganei Tal,
not to Khan Yunis or Gaza City. .

    In short I found myself in Ganei Tal, being received warmly by a wonderful family.
Anthropologists are not supposed to write – at least as anthropologists -- about hashgachah pratit
min hashamayim and things of the sort. In this series of articles I will generally avoid theological
propositions. I will make anthropological statements about the doings of humans, not theological
propositions about the Creator and His plans for Israel or Gush Katif. Rabbis, not
anthropologists, are licensed to deal with those matters. But I did sense with gratitude that some
special invisible strings had been pulled to permit me to enter this very special place at a very
special time in Jewish history.

  Moti has asked me for a daily anthropological reaction to some aspect of life in Gush Katif to
post on Unsure of my ability to meet a daily deadline, I answered bli neder. I will
share with Moti and the readers of the English part of his website my reactions to different
aspects of life in Ganei Tal, choosing a different topic each day. And I remind the reader: I am
giving preliminary anthropological reactions, not solid, proven anthropological findings. I hope
these reaction pieces will be of some use in presenting an honest anthropological picture of the
special way of life that has evolved over three decades, as barren sand dunes have been converted
into gardens.

    The name of the community where I live, Ganei Tal (“Gardens of Dew”) is a beautiful symbol
of the achievements of this particular subgroup of Homo sapiens. And in the final analysis,
humans, their achievements, and their follies are the central subject matter of anthropology. And
as is so often the case, human achievements are damaged or destroyed by the follies of those in
power, when the exercise of their power is divorced from human wisdom and/ or human


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