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1967's Six-Day War Inspired American To Take Root In The West Bank


This week marks the 50th anniversary of an event that reshaped global politics. We're talking about the Six-Day War between Israel and surrounding Arab states. Israel took a quick victory and today still control some areas that it captured, including the West Bank. NPR's Daniel Estrin brings us the story of an American who moved to Israel after that war and ended up helping maintain Israel's hold on the disputed land.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Fifty years ago this week, Ephraim Bluth was standing in front of the bathroom mirror shaving and listening to the news that Israel was at war. He was a 19-year-old college student in New York and a devout Jew. And to him, it felt like Israel was the biblical David up against many, many Goliaths.

EPHRAIM BLUTH: The sense at that moment for those of us who lived the moment was that Israel was standing at the edge of a precipice. Israel was at risk, and then, thank the Lord, six days later everything was different.

ESTRIN: Israel had won, tripling the amount of land under its control, including the West Bank of the river Jordan, land featured in the Bible. Bluth saw Israel's capture of the land as a biblical promise fulfilled.

BLUTH: Someone once said to me you can transplant a tree anywhere, but it grows best in its natural environment, and for us as Jews, Israel is the place we need to be. Israel is the place we want to be.

ESTRIN: He and his wife moved to Jerusalem, became Israeli citizens, had eight children. Bluth worked for an organization that encouraged other Jews around the world to move to Israel. Then in 1988, they made another move to Neve Tzuf, a young Jewish settlement in the West Bank. They liked the rural lifestyle and wanted to help grow the Jewish presence in the captured territory.

BLUTH: It was a pioneering community. I prefer the word community to settlement. Unfortunately, the word settlement has been given the negative connotation.

ESTRIN: Because in the eyes of most of the world, Israel's settlements are part of the problem. Since the 1967 war, 600,000 settlers have spread out in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, land Palestinians want for their own state. It's nearly international consensus that settlements are gobbling up the very land that is supposed to be negotiated in peace talks. Even Israelis have been divided on settlements.

But today, settlers are part of the Israeli elite holding top jobs in the government and the military. Bluth's daughter served in the army, and his seven sons all served as combat soldiers some in elite units.

BLUTH: They have shown an ability to lead with courage and distinction, and I don't think it's an accident.

ESTRIN: He thinks a pioneering life as settlers gave their children a sense of patriotism, but it's come at a price. One of his sons was severely injured when a Palestinian attacked a religious school he attended in the Gaza Strip, another area Israel captured in 1967. He eventually recovered, but I asked Bluth whether he ever thought twice about bringing his children to the heart of a conflict. He said no.

BLUTH: Because these are the risks we need to take if we want to establish our independence. You need to fight for your independence.

ESTRIN: For Bluth, Israel is still fighting to keep the West Bank. And he thinks there will only be peace once Palestinians accept his presence there. A few days ago, I drove with Bluth from Central Israel to the West Bank which he calls by the Biblical name Judea and Samaria. We drive past an Israeli checkpoint and at first the scenery looks the same.

BLUTH: You'll notice in many cases the hilltops are barren.

ESTRIN: And I want to point out over here we just passed a couple signs advertising new homes, right?

BLUTH: Absolutely. There is a tremendous amount of building, a tremendous amount of construction.

ESTRIN: We drive past a Palestinian village. We enter a hilly area carpeted in olive trees then pass an Israeli army encampment.

BLUTH: We're passing a bus stop where an Arab taxi is picking up two young Arab men, a very normal instance. The road is open to both Arab and Jew, and this is normalcy.

ESTRIN: It was interesting you mention that normalcy because for so many people when they hear about this area, the military has such a strong presence here that maybe this is the opposite of normal.

BLUTH: Israel is at war, and we need to maintain an ability to respond to every action taken against soldiers and against civilians. Unfortunately, that's Israel's normalcy.

ESTRIN: For Palestinians, Israel's presence in the West Bank is abnormal. They see soldiers not as their protectors, but as troops who can sweep them up in the middle of the night. They see Bluth's settlement is sitting on stolen land and when some settler youth fixed up a nearby spring, it was seen as a takeover and led to protests. And then there was the fire.

BLUTH: You see - you can still see the remains of two houses there.

ESTRIN: Late last year, Israeli authorities say some Palestinians threw a firebomb starting a forest fire that destroyed Bluth's neighbors' homes and damaged his. It also burned nearly all 28 trees he and his late wife had planted for their 28 grandchildren. Now the garden is filled with new saplings. Each one has a small plaque bearing the name of a grandchild.

BLUTH: Happily they've all been replanted as in the case of all the families who lost their homes are rebuilding not just homes. We're rebuilding futures.

ESTRIN: Fifty years after his 19-year-old self was inspired to go to Israel, Efraim Bluth is firmly rooted in the West Bank. He's 69 years old now, and he's renovating his home to make room for more grandchildren. Daniel Estrin, NPR News, the West Bank. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.