Hitchhiking in Gush Etzion
Hitchhiking in Gush Etzion Flash 90

Dr. Nehemia Stern, a young researcher based in Jerusalem, weighed in on the kidnapping of three Israeli youth in a conversation with Israel National Radio's Israel Beat podcast.

To download the full podcast click here

Dr. Stern's dissertation was part of his PhD work in Religious Studies and Ethnography for Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. The newly released First Flowering of Redemption: An Ethnographic Account of Contemporary Religious Zionism in Israel is quite probably the first serious anthropological study of its kind. It covers such subjects as dress, music, dance as well as aspects of daily life including hitchhiking.  

"Sometimes we have a very naive view of culture," Dr. Stern told Israel Beat. "For example we think that Chinese people do this, or French people do that. But really things are far more complicated, especially in areas of religious and ethnic conflict."

In regards to media bias, he added, "a researcher should be suspicious of generalities. The media has an image of what a Jewish nationalist ought to be. They don't differentiate between Religious Zionists in Havat Gilad and Religious Zionists in Haifa. This is misleading and part of what I wanted to do is critique this kind of generalization."

One of the subjects covered in the thesis is under the heading "Hitchhiking and Ritual Ambiguity in the Daily Lives of Jewish Religious Zionists in Israel." The following is Dr. Stern's brief overview of his research and how it applies to the current kidnapping crisis:

Is Hitchhiking in the Judea & Samaria Dangerous?

Dr Nehemia Stern

All of Israel is now praying for the safe and speedy return of our kidnapped sons, Naftali Frenkel, Eyal Yifrach and Gil’ad Shaar. The three boys were abducted Thursday night by Hamas terrorists while hitchhiking from Gush Etzion to the Southern Hebron Hills. The practice of teenagers hitchhiking in Judea and Samaria (an area that is no stranger to violence) has raised many questioning eyebrows. In a televised statement Saturday night, Emily Amrousi, journalist and neighbor to one of the affected families, sharply criticized those who would implicitly cast a shadow of blame onto the teenagers themselves for hitchhiking in such a ‘dangerous’ area at night. 

At the same time my Facebook feed is now awash with Israelis of all stripes openly debating the dangers of hitchhiking along roads that bear such a violent history. Some are claiming that the culture of hitchhiking among religious Zionists is inherently dangerous, and ought to be stopped immediately. Others are saying that riding a bus in Israel also comes with its inherent dangers, and if so where to draw the line? Some have pointed to how essential it is for drivers to stop for fellow Jewish hitchhikers and offer them rides. After all, who would want to say that they passed these three boys and did not offer them a ride, and thereby possibly saving their lives? 

I spent two years researching and writing a PhD dissertation on contemporary religious Zionist life in Israel. I devoted a chapter (and later a published article) on the topic of hitchhiking in Judea and Samaria. As an ethnographer and social scientist, I have learned that what is truly at ‘stake’ in life is often revealed at moments of tension and crisis. In other words, something needs to ‘happen’ before people openly talk about that which is truly important to them in life. 

The vast array of responses to the kidnapping that occurred over the weekend points to the truth of this statement.   People are not just debating the pros and cons of entering into cars with strangers. They are also debating the meanings of and the risks that are attached to living in the Land of Israel. I once remember hitching a ride from the Gush Junction to Jerusalem with a middle aged man and his approximately 8 year old daughter. This was back in 2011 right when Gilad Shalit was released. The two were listening to the radio anchor talk about how releasing terrorists for prisoners may serve as an incentive to further kidnappings. I heard the little girl who was sitting in the front seat say very innocently, “it would be so easy to take me, I’m so small. They’d just have to throw me into a sack”. Her father took his eyes off the road for a moment and responded “it’s not that easy”.  

In truth, I doubt the father had any real idea of how easy or difficult it may be to kidnap his small daughter. He was trying to set his daughter and perhaps himself at ease. The question though points to the personal struggles of parents who raise children in Judea and Samaria.  

So Is Hitchhiking Dangerous? 

To answer this question, let’s start at the beginning.  

Firstly, hitchhiking is a necessary part of life in Judea and Samaria. While Israel has a very extensive bus system, public transportation too and from many settlements can be infrequent. People have to hitchhike to get around. As a researcher, I often had to arrive at study sessions or communal events, at a specific time. There were few busses, and like many Jewish settlers in the area, I found hitchhiking (alone, and many times at night) to be my only option.  

I quickly found out that while hitchhiking for many teenagers is almost a rite of passage, very few people actually enjoy the practice. They would much rather choose the security and comfort of a bus over the possibility of a ride with an unknown individual. Secondly, the ability to freely travel through the Land of Israel has religious significance to people who risk and sacrifice so much to live in Judea and Samaria. For some of these people refraining from hitchhiking because of the danger simply does not feel right.

Finally, Jewish hitchhikers, and hitchhiking stations, as the horrors of this past weekend have reminded us, are and will continue to be targets for terrorist groups. As people hitchhike they juggle these three concerns of pragmatism, religious significance, and risk. 

I once hitched a ride with a young lady and her two small children from Yitzhar, south to the Tapuach Junction. It was an extremely hot afternoon and not many cars were passing by. I needed to get to Jerusalem (and I was hoping a car would stop that was going straight there), but Tapuach would just have to do. Our way took us through the congested main road of the Palestinian Authority area of Huwarra. As our vehicle exited the area and approached the Tapuach Junction, I turned to my driver and asked her if she was ever fearful for her safety. She responded quite thoughtfully, 

"I could give you a very ideological answer and say, 'this is our land and we have to settle it, even risking our lives.' But, yes, absolutely it is scary. But you know what? It’s a calculated risk. This is a regular road [she took one hand off the wheel and pointed], lots of people drive on it, and the army drives on it all the time. And I’ll tell you, you’re only afraid of things you’re not used to. If you never come to this area, this road is a little nerve wracking, but if you live here it’s different. I’m from Ofra [in Samaria - ed.], and I have a friend who lives in Tel Aviv who absolutely refuses to visit me. She says it’s too dangerous. Now, you know Ofra [we both share a knowing chuckle]. But she’s just not used to it."

What this woman seemed to be communicating was that (for her anyway) there was a difference between ‘danger’ and ‘fear’. Not everything that is ‘fearful’ is actually dangerous. How people interpret this difference between the two has a lot to do with what it means for them to fully live within the Land of Israel. 

Every day Jews who travel the roads of Judea and Samaria find themselves balancing this equation between necessity, ideology, and risk. I once saw a young pregnant woman hitchhiking at the Gilo Tunnels Junction in southern Jerusalem. She was trying to make her way to the community of Efrat for medical tests. She had arrived all the way from Tsfat in the north, and apparently had never hitchhiked to Gush Etzion before. While she was waiting she was asking people around if what she was doing was ‘safe’, do lots of people hitchhike, who generally stops for hitchhikers? Her fellow hitchhikers were trying to relax her, telling her it was so safe that even elderly people hitchhike from that location. At the end of the day both the woman and I got into the same car, and she arrived safe and sound at the medical facility. This woman asked a very simple question “is this dangerous”? The answer to her question though was quite complicated, with no definitive answer. It depends on who you ask, and the meaning they put to daily life in Israel. 

The Gush Etzion bloc however has generally been considered to be one of the ‘safest’ of areas in Judea and Samaria. The area where the three boys were kidnapped is ringed with Jewish communities, army bases, military positions, and security cameras. The fact that the kidnappings took place where they did, disrupts our senses of security, safety, and danger. My guess though, is that people will continue to hitchhike, both for ideological, religious, and pragmatic reasons. In the meantime we fervently pray for the safe return of the three youngsters, and for the well-being of the security personal that are tirelessly searching round the clock. 

Ben Bresky is the host of the Israel Beat podcast and producer at Israel National Radio. For podcast archives click here.

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