The ongoing headlines over the Alamo-like stance at Homesh in face of the threat to destroy the yeshiva still standing there, and the continuing protests demanding a national inquiry into the killing last year of the sixteen-year old Ahuvia Sandak, have once again brought the “hilltop youth” into daily headlines in Israel.
The political Left condemns them harshly. Israel’s Assistant Minister of Agricultural, Yair Golan, recently dubbed them “subhumans.” The general media portrays them as tribal savages with long side-locks and rifles. Even leaders of the settler establishment have spoken against them.
In reality, who are they? What do they want? Are they a bunch of unruly troublemakers, or passionate lovers of the Land of Israel in the tradition of early Zionist pioneers?
To remind the reader, on the 21st of December, 2020, the Israel Police received a call informing them that young Jewish settlers in a car were hurling stones at Arab vehicles traveling along the Kochav HaShachar road. Detectives from the Police Investigation Division of Judea and Samaria were dispatched to the scene and a car chase ensued. According to attorneys for the Honenu Legal Defense Organization, near the Mikmash Junction, the speeding police vehicle intentionally rammed into the rear of the car filled with 5 young Jews, known as members of the “hilltop youth movement.” Four were injured and sixteen-year old Ahuvia Sandak was killed as their car overturned and tumbled off the road.
Immediately, the area was closed to settler representatives, Zaka emergency teams, and reporters. Police held the four surviving passengers of the car in custody for three days, interrogating them on suspicion of manslaughter over the death of their friend. An eruption of spontaneous anger and protest spread through the Yesha community leading to demonstrations all over the country.
The cry for justice continues today with weekly protests demanding a national inquiry into the killing. More often than not, the demonstrations have been forcefully quelled by the police, which to date has prohibited any formal investigation into the case. Recent reports say the case is to be closed.
When pogrom-like Arab riots broke out in May of last year during the IDF Gaza operation, the 'hilltop youth' came to guard and protect the civilian Jewish residents of Lod and other places under attack.
More recently, last month’s terrorist murder of Yehuda Dimentman, a 25-year-old yeshiva student of the “illegal” Homesh community, sparked a huge wave of protest amongst the settler community. While the outrage was rampant throughout the general Israeli right-wing, the young people from the “hilltop youth” movement constituted the main core of demonstrators who marched again and again to the isolated Shomron “outpost” of Homesh which, according to the 2005 Disengagement Law, is off-limits to Jews, even though it remained under Israeli military control after its destruction and the evacuation of Gush Katif.
Since then, a core of young people have lived there in shacks and tents, relying on generators for electricity, studying Torah in the makeshift yeshiva building which the Israeli authorities have bulldozed time and again, after the diehards of Homesh refused to abandon the area.
In an article published in Hebrew in the Machon Meir Yeshiva weekly Shabbat bulletin, “Judaism with Ahava,” HaRav Shlomo Aviner, head of the Ateret Yerushalayim Yeshiva in the Old City of Jerusalem, clarified some of the misconceptions surrounding the so-called “hilltop youth.”
“People think the ‘hilltop youth’ are all problematic teenagers with all of the complications inherent in the ‘rebellious years.’ This isn’t true. There are young adults among the group. Many are married with children. Many are yeshiva students.
"Secondly, sometimes they are portrayed as ‘hippie types’ with no regard for the rules of modesty. This too is false. They hold to a high standard of purity and are very strict regarding the separation between men and women.
"Thirdly, the accusation that they are unruly and refuse to accept any kind of established framework is unfounded. While they balk at formal schooling and living at home with their parents, they cherish freedom. Of course, everything depends upon how a person uses his or her freedom. There is a difference between unbridled and anarchistic freedom and the longing for open landscapes and horizons. The ‘hilltop youth’ are against certain establishment frameworks, but they honor frameworks of prayer, Torah study, farming and cultivation of the land, all from their own free will.
“Terming them ‘rebels’ is also unjustified. To a certain degree all young people are rebellious. So are adults. Once again, it depends to what direction the rebellion is taken. While drunkenness, drug use, and hanging out on the street are forms of negative behavior, the idealism manifested in the love of Eretz Yisrael and the love of Torah for its own sake is a trait to be applauded.
"Calling them ‘spoiled infants’ is also inaccurate. They live in the most Spartan fashion, without any modern comforts or conveniences, with hardly any running water or electricity and no refrigerators. Far from being babies, they are not afraid of terrorists, while terrorists are afraid of them. They suffer repeated eviction and the destruction of their living quarters and equipment, but bravely return to rebuild. When they cry, they don’t weep over their own misfortune, but rather over the mistaken ways of those who wield power in the nation.
“One also hears accusations that they are lazy loafers who idly waste their days. Untrue. The average ‘hilltop youth’ busies himself with agriculture and raising sheep. With self-sacrifice, he builds dwellings with his own two hands, often again and again. He builds fences, pens for farm animals, and sophisticated stalls with roofing. Free time is a rarity.
“Some critics cry out, ‘They live without hygiene!’ Indeed the ‘hilltop youth’ live without readily available water, and this creates a difficult situation. However, they shower in nearby settlements.
“Ohh, but he throws stones at soldiers! Not true. Only a very small minority does this. Needless to say, such behavior is a terrible crime and sin which has no atonement, but we mustn’t stigmatize the great majority with false generalizations. Unfortunately, the violent behavior sometimes originates with the other side, as in the case of Ahuvia Sandak, of blessed memory. But this too is infrequent.
"All in all, our army and police guards over the ‘hilltop youth’ day and night with great diligence, even if this isn’t acknowledged. Certainly it is important to increase Ahavat Yisrael amongst all Jews.
“There is also the claim that the ‘hilltop youth’ throw stones at Arabs. Again not true. Here too we must consider the majority of cases. Once in a while, a fringe element may throw stones. The majority should not be libeled for this.
"In addition, some people maintain that the ‘hilltop youth’ squander their efforts on unimportant goals in isolated corners of Yesha, rather than dedicating their time to the main issue of strengthening established settlement communities. False. The commandment to settle the Land of Israel is not a mitzvah of small significance. Rather it is the source of all of our national strength and vigor. The Book, “Sefer Hasidim,” explains that there are mitzvot similar to the precept of burying the dead when there is no one to attend to the burial. In this situation, one is bidden to give the mitzvah priority.
"It is a national disgrace that there still exist vast portions of Eretz Yisrael which have not been settled. It must also be remembered that the initial settlement of Yesha began in a similar fashion, in isolated and faraway outposts – and today the communities there boast a population of nearly 500,000 Israelis.
“In summary, voices insist that the ‘hilltop youth’ movement is a negative phenomenon. Not true. On the whole, they are a positive development. We call upon the media to cease from disparaging and vilifying them and from presenting them as enemies of the State and as ‘obstacles to peace.’
Like in every place, there are positive factors and negative ones, but the majority is good. We follow after the majority. In his ‘Laws of T’shuva,’ the Rambam writes that a person who possesses a majority of evil deeds is evil. If the majority of deeds are good, he is a Tzaddik.’ Therefore, the ‘hilltop youth’ are Tzaddikim. The Nation of Israel is blessed to have them in our midst.
Tzvi Fishman was awarded the Israel Ministry of Education Prize for Jewish Culture and Creativity. Before making Aliyah to Israel in 1984, he was a successful Hollywood screenwriter. He has co-authored 4 books with Rabbi David Samson, based on the teachings of Rabbis A. Y. Kook and T. Y. Kook. His other books include: "The Kuzari For Young Readers" and "Tuvia in the Promised Land". His books are available on Amazon. Recently, he directed the movie, "Stories of Rebbe Nachman."