The Muddy Waters of Yamit

May 4, 2004
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by Azi Feifel

I WAS TWELVE YEARS OLD when my parents decided to make aliyah. I was thirteen when we descended upon an absorption center in Be’er Sheva. I was fourteen when my father put his professional career aside and became a construction worker, building the very city that we were to inhabit. I was fifteen when we moved into our home in Yamit and twenty when I saw our home for the final time.

The once-Israeli Sinai town of Yamit was many things for my family. It was a chance for personal renewal. It was a last opportunity to build up a frontier as chalutzim, pioneers. It harbored the prospect of imbuing life with ideals and meaning. And finally, it allowed us to live in an oasis — blue skies, palm trees, and white sands. The bounty that we pursued was not material wealth. Rather, it was the pursuit of stirring beauty that would lighten our step and perpetually fill our hearts with merriment.

Yamit, from the start, was planned not to be a simple yishuv, or settlement, but a city. It was designed to become home to a wide spectrum of people — American and Russian immigrants and a cross-section of secular and religious Israelis. There were idealists, military families, and those just looking for cheaper housing. There were entrepreneurs looking to make it big, and those who were seeking a slower paced life. There were close-knit families, and families who scandalously mixed and matched. Like other towns, there were lots of children and dogs. And there was always an air of optimism. Community-wide celebrations were wonderful; we felt like part of something special.

When Yamit’s fate was sealed by the Begin government (the 1979 Egypt-Israel peace treaty included the dismantling of Yamit, which was evacuated in 1982), reactions were mixed. In time, most of the town’s residents overcame their initial emotional reactions and moved on. They took the compensation packages that were offered and relocated quietly. A few residents stoically opposed the government’s course; the vast majority of opponents were outsiders who filtered in on a mission. But most of the missionaries to our “holy city” came for legitimate reasons — to demonstrate to the government that Jewish settlements were not taken down without a fight and that parts of Eretz Yisrael can’t be torn away without a heart-wrenching cry. Others came because it was the thing to do, the place to be. Some came to take in the spectacle alongside friends who just came to be seen.

The cry was real and the pain acute. In the end, though, Yamit disappeared rather quickly. Many of us went on with our lives and rebuilt. But for others, the aftermath was ugly. We heard of divorces, bankruptcies, and even a suicide or two. In a television interview, my father astutely explained the phenomenon. Yamit, he said, was like a puddle of clear water. But when a foot comes and stirs the dirt settled at the bottom, the water remains muddy for quite some time. Yamit may have been a panacea for certain social ills, but the trauma caused by its dismantling was long felt, especially by families with weaker foundations.

Dealing with the past is very much a personal experience. I imagine that, for the lion’s share of my neighbors, Yamit remains a sweet vivid memory, somewhere in the past. I sometimes feel a shooting pang of longing for our short-lived haven. But the pain is no longer sharp or intense. It’s just a delicate tenderness in some remote area of the heart, a scar healed over.

How will this memory affect the future? In the Israeli conscience, Yamit’s place is not so prominent. There are many slogans on the right, but none beseech us to remember Yamit as Americans remember the Alamo. Every new struggle seems to take on a life of its own.

Dismantling settlements may or may not be a political reality. But either way, the gravity of any dismantling demands debate and some form of protest. Without resistance, the danger for overextended concessions is genuine. Could it be, though, that Israel’s greatest challenge is not the painful excision of settlements, but rather that so many of its citizens don’t feel that anguish; they don’t grieve over lost motherland?

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Azi Feifel, who made aliyah with his family in 1974, attended Yeshivat Hesder in Alon Shvut and served in an armored brigade in the IDF, including a four-month stint in Lebanon during the 1982 war. He currently lives with his wife and five children in Chicago. His parents, Chaim and Sarah Feifel, prominent founders of Yamit, now live in Zichron Ya’akov.

1 Comment

  1. I lived in Yamit (early) 1976 to late 1979. I would gladly live the now if it was still there. But it still lives on in my heart! Yamit chih!

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